Friday, March 22, 2013

Sinclair Lewis: "One of the most curiously uneven writers I have ever known".

 "I, being a revolutionist, know exactly what I want -- and what I want now is a drink.”
- Sinclair Lewis, Babbitt

Red Headed Step Child? He Didn't Think So.


Harry Sinclair Lewis was born in Sauk Centre, Minnesota to a country doctor. His biological mother passed when he was 6, and his father remarried the woman he would consider his mother. His small town upbringing in Sauk Centre would later be his inspiration for his novel Main Street.

Tales From the Cryptkeeper?

As a child, young Lewis was teased by his classmates. His bright red hair and his bad skin made his scholastic life miserable and isolated him from many of his peers. At the age of 13 the teasing became so unbearable  that he even attempted to escape and join the Army as a drummer in the Spanish-American War, but his father caught him and brought him back home.  Unfortunately, it seems that this appearance followed him into adulthood.

The resemblance is uncanny!

Lewis took refuge in reading and writing, however. As a young boy he engrossed himself in his father's medical books, which would later assist him in his novel Arrowsmith. Additionally, he kept a diary where he produced mostly romantic poetry.

I'm So Sad and Lonely, Nobody Cares for Me...

At the ago of 17 Lewis moved to Yale University to write for the Yale Literary Magazine. Despite being published in the Yale Literary Journal he was still very far removed from his peers at Yale. After summer vacations spent in England he left Yale his senior year and worked in fellow writer and journalist Upton Sinclair's commune as a janitor and also attempted to work building the panama canal. Both attempts were fruitless. Soon, he returned to Yale and graduated in 1908.

On the Road Again

From 1908-1915 Sinclair traveled from to California in search of work. Oftentimes, he would sell his story plots to other writers. During this time he met Jack London, and sold him the plot for what would later become The Assasination Bureau, Ltd. which wouldn't be completed until 1963. During this time Lewis also had his story Our Mr. Wrenn as well as five other novels published under a psuedonym, had a short story published in the Saturday Evening Post and married Grace Heggar, an editor for Vogue.

I Want to Be a Millionaire So... Bad

After settling down in Long Island with his wife, Lewis had the knock of fortune that led him to notoriety - Main Street. After the publication of Main Street in 1920 Lewis never had to worry about finances again. The success of Main Street led Lewis to become a full time writer, creating a new "hit" every few years.
Lewis was known for his social criticism and satirical style in his novels. His views on American society were often critical, and many of his books contained strong female characters.


Main Street (1920)- The study of hypocrisy and rigidity of small town life, Lewis wanted to portray the negative side of many towns in America. Based on his hometown, many Americans felt they could identify and that the novel exposed many of the problems American society was facing at the time.  
 Babbitt (1922) - Dealt with conformity and the materialism consuming the middle class. Lewis called Babbitt "everything he hated about the middle class society".
 Arrowsmith (1925) - Was one of the first novels to deal with science and the ethics involved in medicine.
Elmer Gantry (1927) - Perhaps the most controversial novel Lewis authored, Elmer Gantry told the story of a hypocritical, power hungry evangelical preacher. It reflected many of the fears and beliefs of the American society concerning the evangelical movement of the time.

I've Smoked All of My Friends Down to the Filter

During his most successful years, Lewis was traveling and writing. In 1925 Lewis divorced Grace Heggar and married a newspaper correspondent named Dorothy Thompson.  At this time Lewis was dinking heavily and had managed to alienate nearly all of his friends. * In 1930 Lewis and Thompson traveled to Stockholm to accept the Nobel Peace Prize. He was awarded the prize not for a single novel, but for his body of work. Lewis was the first American to be honored. His controversial acceptance speech has been reprinted many times since.

Big mistake, brother.

*results not typical

My Words Are Like A Dagger With A Jagged Edge

Excerpt from his acceptance speech titled "The American Fear of Literature":

"I have for myself no conceivable complaint to make, and yet for American literature in general, and its standing in a country where industrialism and finance and science flourish and the only arts that are vital and respected are architecture and the film, I have a considerable complaint. [...] [I]n America most of us - not readers alone but even writers - are still afraid of any literature which is not a glorification of everything American, a glorification of our faults as well as our virtues. To be not only a best seller in America but to be really beloved, a novelist must assert that all American men are tall, handsome, rich, honest, and powerful at golf; that all country towns are filled with neighbors who do nothing from day to day save go about being kind to one another; that although American girls may be wild, they change always into perfect wives and mothers; and that, geographically, America is composed solely of New York, which is inhabited entirely by millionaires; of the West, which keeps unchanged all the boisterous heroism of 1870; and of the South, where everyone lives on a plantation perpetually glossy with moonlight and scented with magnolias." (

Yesterday, All My Troubles Seemed So Far Away

The 1920s was the most successful period for Lewis. Beyond the 1920s, although he continued writing, he never reached the success levels of his previous novels. He spent a considerable amount of time working on plays, lesser celebrated novels and short stories. Occasionally, he even acted in some of his plays. The income he received from his books allowed him to continue to live the way he had before, traveling, the finest hotels and many luxuries. Unfortunately, his alcoholism continued to take it's toll.

I Drink, I Smoke, I'm Supposed to Quit, But I Won't

In 1937 Lewis checked in to a sanitarium to be treated for alcoholism. The doctors explained to him that he was going to "live without alcohol or die by it". Lewis decided to check out after 10 days. His doctor documented that he had "no understanding of his problem" (
Lewis spent the 1940s in Hollywood. He was contracted by MGM to work on a script for a western called Storm in the West. Initially, Lewis was excited but later became disenfranchised with the filmmaking process due to censorship and restriction placed on him by the film industry. Lewis stated, "What really bothers me is not the fact that, say, a couple gunmen couldn't say anything so vile as 'damn', but that all really stirring issues, political, racial, biological, must be sidestepped or not even approached" (
In 1942 he divorced his wife, Dorothy Thompson.
In 1944 his son with Grace Heggar, Wells Lewis (named for H.G Wells), was killed in World War II in combat in France.

Homeward Bound

Lewis spent the remainder of his life in Europe. He began to feel the effects of his advanced alcoholism that worsened his skin condition and shortened his temper. Consequently, his lack of friends, also said to be an effect of his alcoholism, reduced him to hiring secretaries to play chess with him. He died in Rome on January 10th, 1951. The official cause was paralysis of the heart, said to be related to his extremely advanced alcoholism.

Other Facts:

  • After hearing that Lewis had won the Nobel Prize, Hemmingway said that it should have gone to James Joyce or Ezra Pound.
  • While neighboring towns of Sauk Centre banned Main Street, Sauk Centre supported him, and even today the high school teams are known as the MainStreeters.
  • In 1930, Lewis and Dorothy Thompson had a child, Michael. He became an actor, was also an alcoholic, and died of Hodgkin's Lymphoma.
  •  Fitzgerald initially praised Arrowsmith extensively, but later stated that he felt that The Great Gatsby was a superior novel.
  • He was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Arrowsmith, but declined it.
  • While studying for Elmer Gantry, Lewis went to the pulpit and for fifteen minutes challenged God to strike him down to prove His existence.


Jayhawker: A Play in Three Acts, pr. 1934 (with Lloyd Lewis)
Long Fiction
Our Mr. Wrenn: The Romantic Adventures of a Gentle Man, 1914
The Trail of the Hawk: A Comedy of the Seriousness of Life, 1915
The Innocents: A Story for Lovers, 1917
The Job: An American Novel, 1917
Free Air, 1919
Main Street: The Story of Carol Kennicott, 1920
Babbitt, 1922
Arrowsmith, 1925
Mantrap, 1926
Elmer Gantry, 1927
The Man Who Knew Coolidge: Being the Soul of Lowell Schmaltz, Constructive and Nordic Citizen, 1928
Dodsworth, 1929
Ann Vickers, 1933
Work of Art, 1934
It Can’t Happen Here, 1935
The Prodigal Parents, 1938
Bethel Merriday, 1940
Gideon Planish, 1943
Cass Timberlane: A Novel of Husbands and Wives, 1945
Kingsblood Royal, 1947
The God-Seeker, 1949
World So Wide, 1951
From Main Street to Stockholm: Letters of Sinclair Lewis, 1919-1930, 1952 (Harrison Smith, editor)
The Man from Main Street: Selected Essays and Other Writings, 1904-1950, 1953 (Harry E. Maule and Melville H. Crane, editors)
Minnesota Diary, 1942-1946, 2000 (George Killough, editor)
Short Fiction
Selected Short Stories of Sinclair Lewis, 1935
If I Were Boss: The Early Business Stories of Sinclair Lewis, 1997 (Anthony Di Renzo, editor)
Go East, Young Man: Sinclair Lewis on Class in America, 2005 (Sally E. Parry, editor)
The Minnesota Stories of Sinclair Lewis, 2005 (Parry, editor)
The Short Stories of Sinclair Lewis, 1904-1949, 2007 (7 volumes; Samuel J. Rogal, editor)

All Good Things

The obituary written and published in Time said,  "He was not a great writer, nor even a very good one; but he hit the U.S. hard in its solar plexus, immortalized a national character, and added several household words to the American language. [...] His great merit was that he gave the U.S. and the world a sense of the enduring strength (ugly or not) of Main Street; and that he made Americans on all main streets, including Babbitt, stop hustling long enough to wonder uneasily where they were going."


We're In It To Win It

Works Cited

Books and Writers
Katona, Anne, Sinclair Lewis
Sinclair Lewis Society
Turner Classic Movies

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Ev'ry morning, ev'ry evening/Ain't we got fun?

Out with the Gibson Girl, In with the Flapper Girl!

With the end of the World War I, brought a new age for women. After gaining the right to vote in 1920, a more modern girl was on the rise. Out with the Gibson Girl and in with the Flapper Girl!

Charles Dana Gibson was an illustrator who became known for his “Gibson Girls” which represented the “The American Girl to all the world.” ("Charles Dana Gibson and the Gibson Girls") But with the end of the war, and the women gaining the right to vote in 1920s, emerged a new era of new women. The Flapper Girl! Gibson was out and John Held Jr. was in with his illustrations representing the flapper lifestyle. John Held Jr. helped epitomize the “jazz age” through his lively illustrations. He also helped describe the generation gap between mothers and daughters by showing some humor in the situation. 

In magazines like Vanity Fair, Harper’s Bazaar, and Redbook, images were shown to parents who wanted to see humor in the situations. The skirts were never quite this short but they wanted to believe that they were and Held’s images reassured their delusions. (Vadeboncoeur)

Rise of The Flapper

The 1920s paved the way for the "new" or "modern" woman. The flapper women stopped wearing corsets, bobbed their hair, stopped wearing layers and layers of clothing to be able to move with more ease. They wore make-up, smoked cigarettes, created the concept of dating a became a sexual person.  (Rosenberg) They were the generation that grew up during World War I and the youth claimed "We have been forced to live in an atmosphere of 'to-morrow we die', and so, naturally we drank and we were merry…" ("Becoming Modern: America in the 1920's" 1)

F. Scott Fitzgerald described the ideal flapper as "lovely, expensive, and about nineteen"

But the flappers weren't the only version of the "modern" or "new" woman. “In the 1920s, feminist Lorine Pruette divided them into three generational groups: the old pioneers, who had borne the brunt of the fight and never lost their bitterness toward men; the middle generation who were less bitter because they had borne less of the battle; and the third, younger group who were “frankly amazed at all the feminist pother and likely to be bored when the subject comes up.”(Brown 32-33) “In the October 1927 issue of Harper’s, Dorothy Bromley made a further distinction between “Feminist—New Style” and the feminist old-style. The latter wore flat heels, disliked men, and, accepting that women could not have both a career and marriage opted for the career. The new-style feminist was a “good dresser” and a “pal” to men, and fully expected to have marriage, children, and a career, too. She expected, in brief, to have it all. All these generations of feminists co-existed in the twenties. All joined, as one of the middle generation expressed it, in “consciously experimenting…to find out how women can best live.”(Brown 32-33)

Notable Flappers

Olive Thomas

In 1920, the silent film "The Flapper" premiered as really the first film that portrayed the flapper lifestyle. Olive Thomas starred as a young flapper girl but the film did not become quite mainstream yet.
Unfortunately, Thomas came to an untimely death in 1920 by supposedly accidentally drinking mercury bichloride that had been prescribed to her husband. Her death was the first publicized Hollywood scandal. (Brown)
"I was the spark that lit up Flaming Youth, Colleen Moore was the torch. What little things we are to have caused all that trouble” - F. Scott Fitzgerald

Colleen Moore 

Colleen Moore was said to have single handedly kick off the flapper craze in 1923 with her silent film "Flaming Youth". This film helped bring the flapper lifestyle into the mainstream vocabulary. While she did an excellent job of portraying the flapper lifestyle in films, in real life Colleen Moore was said to be "quiet and subdued, perhaps even boring…preferring a self-described "plain" lifestyle. (Boland) However, despite her real-life personality, Moore may not have been the first woman to bob her hair but she did popularize it and was a superstar of the silver screen during her career. 

Lois "Lipstick" Long aka "Miss Jazz Age" 

Lois Long was the "embodiment of the flapper girl, with her dark bobbed hair, her cigarettes, her whiskey, her flapper dress and her brash attitude. She said what she meant and pulled no punches to save peoples' feelings."(Boland) As well as living the flapper lifestyle, Lois Long was really the epitome of a modern women. She controlled her own finances, had a long and fruitful career at the New Yorker Magazine and still managed to live her own lifestyle of drinking, dancing and sleeping with whomever she pleased. She was "was famous for returning to the New Yorker offices in the wee hours of the morning, drenched in booze and sweat, after a long night of drinking and dancing--stripping down into her slip, and hammering out her column that was due." (Boland)

Clara Bow

Clara Bow was considered the first "It Girl" of the 1920s. At the young age of 16, Bow caught the attention of Hollywood after winning a beauty pageant and went on to being a star on the Silver Screen. In 1927, she starred in the movie "It". The expression "It Girl" reached global attention with the debut of this film. Clara Bow was considered to be one of the first sex symbols of Hollywood as she flaunted her sexuality at an age that was still shocking for such behavior. was perhaps one of the first silver screen sex sirens, flaunting her sexuality in an age when such behaviour was still shocking. ("Clara Bow Biography")

 Clara Bow's hit movie "It" from 1927.

Zelda Fitzgerald

Zelda Fitzgerald, as the inspiration for a lot of the women in Scott's novels and short stories, she was considered the flapper of the Roaring Twenties in America's eyes. She was famous for not only being Scott's wife, but also for their notorious lifestyle. She often struggled to find her own identity outside of him but long before she met him she had a reputation for rebelliousness in Montgomery, Alabama. She encompassed what it meant to be a flapper with the bobbed hair, rouged cheeks, and short skirts, she "symbolized the revolution in manners, morals and values of the post-war era. "Her lifestyle made her a celebrity outside the literary world, and her husband called her "the first American Flapper." The two were notorious for public partying, and their drunken antics were a staple of society headlines in the 1920s." (Rikard)

Coco Chanel

In 1920, Coco Chanel introduced the look called "garconne" meaning "little boy". She introduced her simple, short, and loose dress which allowed the flappers to have more freedom to move about as they please and dance all night. Today we know this as the "little black dress". To look more like a little boy, women would tightly wind their chest with strips of cloth to flatten them and achieve this look. Coco Chanel is credited with being one of the first women designers to embrace the masculine look of the period by rejecting the rigid corsetry of the past and celebrating the eras interest in boyish figures. This was the first time in centuries that designers had a different silhouette to work with and Chanel embraced it. (Jurousek)

The Party's Over

By the end of the 1920s, the stock market had crashed and the world was plunged into the Great Depression bringing the end to the decade long party. While this brought the end of the frivolity and carelessness and partying, this also brought a new era for women. The Flapper created an emotional and sexual culture for women and a new foundation for dating. Not only did she shake the social norms and break out of the traditional female role, but she helped create a new youth identity.

Work Cited

Boland, Jesse. "4 Famous Flappers of the 1920s."Flappers of the 1920s. N.p., n.d. Web. 19 Mar 2013. <>.

Brown, Shane. "Jack Pickford: The Man Who Had Everything." Silent and Classic Movies. WordPress, n. d. Web. Web. 19 Mar. 2013. <>.

Brown, Dorothy. Setting a Course. Boston: G. K. Hall & Co., 1987. 32-33. Print.

"Clara Bow Biography." Clara Bow - Biography on Bio.. Bio.. Web. 19 Mar 2013. <>.

"Charles Dana Gibson and the Gibson Girls." Gibson Girl. N.p.. Web. 20 Mar 2013. <>.

Jurousek, Charlotte. "Art, Design, and Visual Thinking."Historic Dress: Early Art Deco (1911-1929). N.p.. Web. 19 Mar 2013. <>.

Rikard, Marlene. "Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald and the Jazz Age." Alabama Moments in American History. N.p.. Web. 20 Mar 2013. <>.

Rosenberg, Jennifer. "Flappers in the Roaring Twenties."Flappers in the Roaring Twenties. Web. 20 Mar 2013. <>.

"The Twenties in Contemporary Commentary."Becoming Modern: America in the 1920's. (2012): 1. Print. <>.

Vadeboncoeur, Jim. "John Jeld, Jr.." Illustrators. JVJ Publishing, n.d. Web. 20 Mar 2013. <>.