Main Street (1920)
With this novel, Lewis added the words "Main Street" to Americans' vocabulary to represent the closed culture and arrogant contentedness of small towns. In Main Street, Lewis portrays Gopher Prairie, Minnesota, as a typical small town in the American Middle West, "Its Main Street is the continuation of Main Streets everywhere." His keen observations and attention to detail convinced many Americans that he was writing about their towns. However, this town does not conform to the friendly, close-knit stereotype. Readers see Gopher Prairie through the eyes of Carol Kennicott, the wife of the town doctor who has moved there from St. Paul after their marriage. She wants to bring social reform, as well as art and literature to the small community, but is rejected by the townspeople who are satisfied with their lives and disapprove of any quick changes. In this novel, Lewis criticizes Americans content with provincial lives. See Main Street: The Revolt of Carol Kennicott, by Martin Bucco (1993) and The Rise of Sinclair Lewis 1920-1930 by James Hutchisson (1997) for more iinformation.
George F. Babbitt is the eponymous hero of Sinclair Lewis's Babbitt, a novel which was published in 1922 by Harcourt Brace. Babbitt is a real estate salesman who seems to be very much a product of his time and culture, interested in material possessions and practical education for his children. Much of the first half of the novel is primarily satire against various aspects of society: the church, men's clubs, high school and college education, business, etc. However, in the second half of the novel, Babbitt begins to realize the sterility of his life and experiments with radical politics, engages in an affair, and attempts to find solace in male bonding in the Maine woods. All of this fails, and at the end of the novel Babbitt is back with his family, hoping that his son will have a life different from the one he has had (although it doesn't look like it). "Babbitt" is often used to define someone who is a middle-class social conformist, although this is based primarily on the first half of the novel. Books focusing on Babbitt include Babbitt: An American Life, by Glen Love (1993) and The Rise of Sinclair Lewis 1920-1930 by James Hutchisson (1997).Arrowsmith (1925)
Martin Arrowsmith is the protagonist of this novel, a doctor who is torn between helping others and doing serious research. He moves from being a small town doctor to a public health inspector to a researcher at a famous New York City clinic. However, after a disturbing episode while fighting the plague in the Caribbean, and the death of his beloved wife Leora, he decides to leave behind civilization and set up a research outpost in the northern woods. Arrowsmith was made into a movie in the 1930s with Ronald Colman as Martin and Helen Hayes as Leora. The novel was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1926, but Lewis refused it. There have been two collections of essays focusing on Arrowsmith, Twentieth Century Interpretations of Arrowsmith: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. Robert J. Griffin (Prentice-Hall, 1968) and Sinclair Lewis's "Arrowsmith," ed. Harold Bloom (Chelsea House, 1988).Elmer Gantry (1927)
Elmer Gantry deals with the excesses of religion in American society. In creating Elmer Gantry, Lewis researched a variety of religions, spoke in the pulpits of churches, and attended Sunday School classes. In 1926, he stood in the pulpit of Burris Jenkins in Linwood Boulevard Christian (Campbellite) Church and dared God to strike him dead within fifteen minutes in order to prove His existence. This action created quite a stir and contributed to the novel becoming a bestseller. Elmer Gantry is a good natured, lecherous, and not very bright seminary student who is able to succeed in the ministry because of his wonderful speaking voice. Although almost all of his sermons seem to be variations on "love is the morning and the evening star" (a phrase he "borrows" from the noted aetheist Robert Ingersoll), he is able to be successful because he tells people what they want to hear, even though he does not believe it himself. He starts out as a Baptist minister, but is forced to leave after an affair with Lulu Baines, the deacon's daughter, is exposed. He later becomes an evangelist with Sister Sharon Falconer, an Aimee Semple McPherson type of preacher. When that affair ends in fire and calamity, he becomes a Methodist preacher with a self-conferred doctorate. The novel ends as he prays for the United States to be a "moral nation" and simultaneously admires the legs of a new choir singer. This juxtaposition of the sacred and the profane is a hallmark of this novel. Elmer Gantry was made into a movie in 1960 with Burt Lancaster as Elmer Gantry, Jean Simmons as Sharon Falconer, and Shirley Jones as Lulu Baines. Both Lancaster and Jones won Academy Awards for their roles, and Richard Brooks won for Best Adapted Screenplay.Dodsworth (1929)
In Dodsworth, the relationship between Americans and Europeans is foregrounded by the relationship between husbands and wives. Sam Dodsworth is an honest, hardworking, talented businessman with middle-class common sense. He is a fifty-year-old millionaire with strong beliefs in American values. After raising two children and helping her husband build his automobile business for twenty years, Fran Dodsworth insists that he retire so that they can go on a European tour, which Fran believes will make them more sophisticated. However, the tour results in their marriage's destruction. Fran's enthusiasm for the new and different is not portrayed positively; instead Lewis applauds Sam's American values. Ironically, Fran's desire for status leads her to flirt with minor nobility and seek a divorce from Sam. When the nobleman's mother rejects her as a wife for her son because she's past child-bearing age, a dejected Fran seeks out Sam, who has learned to enjoy the slower rhythms of Europe and the charms of a glamorous divorcee, Edith Cortright. Sam and Edith also appear as characters in Lewis's last novel World So Wide. They have become part of the community of expatriates living in Italy, belonging neither to the land in which they live nor the land in which they were born. Dodsworth was adapted into a play by Sidney Howard and later into a movie. Walter Huston played Sam Dodsworth in both versions. More recently it has been adapted into a musical.
It Can't Happen Here (1935)
Responding to fascist events in Europe, including Hitler's aggressive actions and Franco's murderous acts in Spain, Lewis warned Americans about the state of their own democracy in It Can't Happen Here. He identifies the fascism that had been growing in the United States since World War I. In the novel, he portrays a slow and believable change in American culture and government; almost without realizing it, the United States becomes a totalitarian government. Lewis plays on American rituals, history, and commonplaces as he focuses on the electoral process and its corruptions. Doremus Jessup, a sixty-year-old newspaper editor is the focus of the novel. He stands in for those vaguely liberal, well-meaning people who believe that one doesn't need to be too involved in the world. It is only after Berzelius Windrip becomes president, creates national concentration camps, and does away with democratic government, that Doremus becomes politically active. And by then it's too late. Doremus's son-in-law is killed by the government, one daughter sacrifices herself to assassinate a political leader, and the other is nearly raped by a fascist bully. Doremus is put in a concentration camp, tortured, and eventually joins the political underground, working for an American government in exile. The warning is plain. Unless citizens stay educated and involved, fascism can indeed happen here. Lewis was co-author of a play version of It Can't Happen Here for the Federal Theater Project which had over 20 companies performing the play simultaneously. MGM planned to film the novel, but bowed to political pressure and aborted the filming. Lewis went on to play Doremus in summer stock in the late 1930s.
Kingsblood Royal (1947)
Neil Kingsblood, a wounded veteran of World War II, returns to his home town of Grand Republic, Minnesota, to resume his life as a banker and husband to wife Vestal and daughter Biddy. While doing some geneological research at the suggestion of father, he discovers that his great-great-great grandfather was black. This knowledge, who he tells it to, and how he needs to rethink his identity, form the drama of the novel. Although he lives in the supposedly more enlightened North, his friends ostracize him, he loses his job, and his wife contemplates the abortion of their second child. He does come to see that the received knowledge about race is not only wrong but very destructive. As the novel ends, he, his family, and some friends of both races gather at his house which is being attacked by white society.
Visit our page of scholarly works to see a more detailed listing of criticism on the works of Sinclair Lewis.