Sinclair Lewis was the high poet of squandered redemption, of that impulse to do better that slowly runs itself aground on the shoals of inertia and self-delusion. As a satirical chronicler of America’s spiritual and intellectual shortcomings, he was the successor of Mark Twain, and in many ways we are still searching for his heir.
A hundred years ago, in 1914, Lewis published his first novel, Our Mr. Wrenn, to profound public indifference. Within two decades, he had won and rejected the Pulitzer Prize, for Arrowsmith, and won and accepted America’s first Nobel Prize for Literature for Main Street. His impact upon the twentieth century, and particularly on the development of American freethought, was profound. But with the rising of a new generation with very different ideas about what humanism is and ought to be, his intellectual legacy has never been more tenuous. Is Sinclair Lewis destined to be ultimately cast aside as a bitter white male secularist of purely destructive intent, or is there, in the depth of his art, something even for the new generation, with its rapidly changing set of priorities and concerns? Clearly, I think there is. One of the problems with accurately assessing Lewis’s legacy, however, is the sheer seductive ease of his narrative voice. Because he could so perfectly crawl inside the mind and idiomatic structures of the ad man, the professional booster, and the anti-vice campaigner and produce with electric precision the tick and blur of a 1920s that would slow down for no man or idea, it’s easy to fall into the notion that he was merely a gifted mimic well suited to his time, a dialect comedian during an age of transition.