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Second Interview with Richard Lingeman

In the Spring of 2003, Sally Parry, editor of the the Sinclair Lewis Society Newsletter, wrote up questions for Richard Lingeman about his work, Sinclair Lewis: Rebel from Main Street. Lingeman has been executive editor of the Nation since 1978 and prior to that was an editor at the New York Times Book Review. He is the author of Small Town America and Theodore Dreiser: An American Journey. Here are the questions and Lingeman's responses. We invite you to compare Lingeman's answers with those given in his first interview, conducted for the Spring 1995 issue of the newsletter.

1. Are you pleased with your biography of Lewis?

I'm pleased I've finished it, relieved, but also sorry for I miss it and the constant ruminating over why he did this or that, which kept my mind profitably and pleasurably occupied for many a day. But it was a rewarding project--for me and I hope for Lewis's reputation. I believe it was successful in the latter sense because it stirred up much discussion and reassessment by reviewers. That can be a double-edged sword, though. A few reviewers were prejudiced or said nothing cogent. And there were those essay reviews in which my book figures as a mere afterthought to the reviewer's self-indulgent flights. But the great bulk of the essays and assessments of Lewis were sincerely welcome. One of the freshest of them, by the way, was by the conservative National Review's reviewer, which you reprinted in the last issue of the Newsletter. My greatest disappointment was, naturally, the negative reviews, which can bruise one's self-esteem, however long one has been in the writing busines--particularly the one by John Updike in the New Yorker. He made a kind of condescending allusion to the SL Society -- why I'm not sure -- so I apologize for subjecting your members to guilt by association.

2. Mark Schorer's 1961 Sinclair Lewis: An American Life is the touchstone to which critics are comparing your biography. In what ways do you think your approach to Lewis and his work has differed from Schorer?

Surprisingly (to me), he found some eager defenders among the reviewers, who dismissed my attempt to take a new look at Lewis as presumptuous (after 40 years!). I must say that those reviewers -- and I include Updike -- seemed to be oblivious to the new material, new attitude, new critical perspectives I tried to inject into my book, though the fault for that may be mine. If I had it to do over, I would devote more space to spelling out what was new in my work and how, precisely, I differed from Schorer. But I figured that would become tedious, and I can't believe general readers care all that much about these matters. Some of Schorer's defenders were misleading, too. I recall, for example, Updike saying he read my notes and found no citations of new (post-Schorer) criticism. But I cited Jim Hutchisson's The Rise of Sinclair Lewis frequently, and also the collection of essays he edited -- plus other somewhat older but still post-1961 collections like Marty Bucco's, and the articles that appeared in this newsletter over the years, including those critical of Schorer! For the record, let me mention new material I used, inter alia: letters from Grace Lewis to Stella Wood, which covered the years of her marriage to Lewis; letters to a woman he had fallen in love with when he was breaking with Grace and writing Elmer Gantry; the correspondence of Lewis and George Horace Lorimer; Lewis's medical records from the Austin Riggs clinic, including interviews with psychiatrists and medical history; various memoirs such as Ida Kay Compton's and Jack Koblas's Sinclair Lewis: Home at Last, which features interviews of a lot of contemporary Minnesota folk; three biographies of Dorothy Thompson, plus all the material in her papers and diaries at Syracuse (including accounts of her lesbian affairs, which Schorer did not touch, though it might just have had a passing effect on the marriage).

3. How has your attitude about Lewis as both a person and an author changed as you've done your research on him? I remember that after Schorer finished his biography he seemed to have developed an incredible dislike for Lewis (although that never stopped him from writing on him at every given opportunity.)

Speaking of Dorothy, I have a theory that Schorer reflected her vision of Lewis and may have, in a kind of twisted gallantry, seen Lewis as a cad and avenged her honor, so to speak. As for me, my appreciation of him deepened, though I can cite the litany of his well-known faults. But I think of the good side, the generosity, the feverish brilliance, the humor, and spontaneity. As he matured (much delayed) and while he was on the wagon, he was more mellow than in his "famooser" years, a more emotionally generous human being (his letters to Wells Lewis, at the Harry Ransom Research Center with Grace's papers are touching). Marcella Powers had much to do with his improved mood (see his letters to her, from which I didn't quote enough) at this time. So it was a severe blow when she left him -- though she couldn't have done otherwise at her age. And then his life started spiraling downward without her.

4. Although most of the critical attention has been paid to Lewis's big five novels, Main Street, Babbitt, Arrowsmith, Elmer Gantry, and Dodsworth, you indicate that there are others that also have much to offer the reader and critic. Are there any novels pre- or post-1920s to which you think more critical attention ought to be paid or that ought to be back in print?

I think The Job has obvious relevance to women's lives today, though it is probably seen as a portrait of a much much older sister. Ann Vickers would appeal to the same constituency, though it doesn't hold up very well as a novel in my opinion. It Can't Happen Here has an eternal relevance to what I might call the recurring fascist tendencies in American life. Kingsblood Royal is a searing historical pamphlet, and I was very gratified to see Brent Staples praise it in the New York Times as still true today.

5. What is your favorite Lewis novel and why? (I'm curious to see if you respond differently than you did when you were at work on the biography.) Is there one that you would recommend to a first time reader of Lewis to start with?

Babbitt is still my favorite. It achieves such a deft balance between realism and satire. It is funny in places. It evokes with accuracy and hardly a whiff of didacticism, the politics and power and social anatomy of a typical American city, as well as the leading institutions, such as business and religion, and the Chamber of Commerce booming and the competitiveness, and the petty corruption and the power structure -- the real rulers who pull the strings behind the scenes. And Lewis limns a brilliant, almost tactile and surreal portrait of the central character's environment, the "thingification" of his life, the tiny gadgets, consumerism, advertising and PR oppress him. I sometimes wonder if T.S. Eliot's "The Wasteland" influenced him. Has America changed that much since 1922?

6. If you could have access to any of the people who you write about in your biography, who would you like to talk to? (Schorer had much access to Dorothy Thompson which on the one hand was a good thing but on the other hand I think colored his interpretation of Lewis's later life.)

Well you're correct about Thompson, see #2 above. I would have very much liked to have talked to Alfred Harcourt and learned more about the estrangement between him and Lewis, though I think I offered some good theories. H. L. Mencken's diaries and his memoir My Life as Author and Editor (another post-Schorer source) are pretty revealing, though handle with care, but I'd love to have interviewed him. But then I'd love to interview Mencken on general principles. Also Carl Van Doren, his oldest friend. All men I see, so I'd add Marcella Powers. (I contacted her daughter by her second husband and was ready to interview her out in New Mexico, but she suddenly refused to talk to me. Why, I don't know.) Though I should say, judging from Mark Schorer's letters at Berkeley, he found the three main women in Lewis's life quite a handful -- used to have nightmares about them! Cherchez la femme! Think of all the novels Lewis's wives inspired! He got as good as he gave.