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By Grant Overton

With a Portrait by Bertrand Zadig

HAT must I do to be saved, was

but not quite the form in which Sinclair Lewis asked it of himself for so many years. Rather, what must I do in order not to be damned and he was practically alone among the younger men in showing any preoccupation, still less the least anxiety, on the score. Others younger and with more at stake than he were infinitely careless; F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ben Hecht and a whole crew did not care whether they were damned or not; they rather expected to be and they looked about for the devil, to tell him to take the foremost and not the hindmost. But Red Lewis, as Eugene O'Neill would say, was Diff'rent.

Not, you understand, O'Neillishly different. It is true that he was outwardly a somewhat unusual figure with his reddish hair, thin face and slender figure, nervously moving hands and somewhat eruptive manner. His aim seemed to be to have no habits, so much so that it became a habit of his to have no habits, not to be ordered or fixed, to be impulsive and spontaneous and irregular and excessive and rather wild.

He was so sincere that it hurt. His several talents were not kept in a napkin, and yet somehow he seemed not to make anything of them. He could mimic most remarkably, but he was not a rival of Elsie Janis on the stage. He was without the repose of Will Rogers; given a rope, he would probably merely have hanged some

body or himself. He was feverish, rude and rapid. Within him generosity was constantly pouring on fiery indignations so that he seemed to hiss.

And yet he was cool, calculating, and cynical besides.

He was incorrigible in making the mistake, fortunately so rare, of being honest with himself.

Oh, how he longed for salvation! but most of the conventional paths were barred to him forever. He was not a proper subject for a psychic, an emotional, or a religious experience. He was married, the father of a child, and the driver of a car. He was a successful writer of marketable short and long fiction and the author of four published novels, none of which had sold particularly well. He moved once a year or oftener, living in New York, Minneapolis, California, Florida, etc., but "without sacrificing bathtubs which are, of course, æsthetically and economically the symbols of civilization". Obviously, you cannot go about the salvation of a fellow like that by any of the ordinary methods.

And yet, as I say, he felt that life was beautiful and damned. He was so much this side of Paradise that he had relinquished any real hope of attaining it. But he was past thirty; he was becoming old; and he was determined not to sink without a trace nor to live happily ever after without one last deliberate struggle.

With his latest novel, the cheerful "Free Air", which had run serially in

"The Saturday Evening Post", he was meagrely equipped for his truly fateful enterprise. Moreover, Alfred Harcourt had set up a publishing business and was not averse from the idea of a few novels. So Lewis settled down and finished "Main Street".

We are told that it was no sudden inspiration. "Fifteen years before it was actually written," says Charles C. Baldwin in the third and revised edition of "The Men Who Make Our Novels", "the same notion had taken a hold on Lewis, to be roughly sketched with a small town lawyer as the central figure, and titled "The Village Virus'. During the intervening years Lewis started to write the final draft three different times, once actually getting as many as 30,000 words down on paper. But though he always put it aside he always returned to it. He felt that it would not sell, could not sell, yet he had to write it." And then they say that salvation is free. . .

"It was his book, his scorn and rage and rebellion, accumulated through all his youth and middle years", Mr. Baldwin explains. This would seem to be transparent. If that were all, it would not be enough. It is, of course, not half. The success of "Main Street" has naturally led to a reaction. It is now easier to find a list of the novel's faults than a summary of its virtues. But those virtues are conspicuous. They range

all the way from the figure of Carol Kennicott to the "emergency dessert of oranges and grated cocoanut" which she served one afternoon early in the book.

"Main Street" has force, direction, and character. It has the acute realism of Defoe and a sort of artistic savagery found only in Hogarth and the news camera. You need not call it a novel, if you prefer not; call it a


notebook, a panorama, an encyclopædia if that pleases you better. Overlong, formless, overwritten, without climaxes, its significance escaped nobody. Like Boswell or Pepys, a small slice was as good as the whole; but like them the texture and quality was uniform throughout. A little leaven - hydrocyanic acid leavened the whole lump. The historical value of "Main Street" is extraordinary. Think of its being read a hundred years hence. How impossible, then, for the pleasant myth with which (no doubt) elders will want to inspire the youth of that time. Think of the value to us of a "Main Street" contemporaneous with Tom Jefferson and Jimmy Madison as an offset to the guileless Washington Irving and the prestidigitation of Mr. Hergesheimer.

The only drawback is that since "Main Street" is a classic, it will join the Great Unread.

Concerning the immediate fate of "Main Street", all has been told. It has also been told how Sinclair Lewis was excited thereby. It has been said and written that he got a swelled head. This was a perfectly natural, because slightly malicious, misconception. Since he had always been eccentric, abrupt, rude, sincere, outspoken, etc., etc., his deviations from normalcy of behavior were familiar to all his friends. But they remained his friends. His inferiority complex was no greater than theirs; it was a relatively small one for an American and an author, anyway. Of course, the success of "Main Street" made him conspicuous. Where once a friend or two had contemplated him with equanimity and liking, thousands of persons contrived to take him in, "meet" him, shake his hand, note his gestures and put their own interpretation, not a skilled one, on every abrupt word or

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twist of his mouth or flicker of his eyelids. Lewis was not fooled, and when, as he sometimes did, he spoke harsh words indicating that he was not really taken in, his arrogance was commented on and his personal downfall calculated with as much care as the sun's eclipse.

Having for the first time some money, he went abroad and played around. Many English authors and their familiars were stung by the extreme informality of his approach; but be not deceived, some of the best liked him. (By "best" I do not necessarily refer to anything but personal qualities.) "I was with Sinclair Lewis the other day and liked him better than ever", writes Frank Swinnerton. "We had a jolly lunch."

A small band of Amherst alumni were chiefly instrumental in the political advancement of Calvin Coolidge. Possibly it was a mistake for Sinclair Lewis to go to Yale, but probably not, for he was to become too articulate, anyway.

The "swelled head" did not prevent him from writing "Babbitt", and all the best critical opinion is unanimous that "Babbitt" is a great advance upon "Main Street". It is, in many ways. It is better satire because more on the hour and minute and because more kindly. It is a better novel, having a beginning, a middle, and an end. Between "Main Street" and "Babbitt" there is no real comparison in readability. "Main Street" is hard sledding; "Babbitt" can hardly be let alone after one has got past the first page or two. The only technical objection to the portrait of the man from Zenith is its utter compositeness. We have all known fifty men of whom the things Lewis assigns to George F. Babbitt were true; but to have them all wrapped up in a single package tends

to produce, after a time, occasional moments of incredulous unreality.

But this, after all, is Lewis's peculiar faculty, the ability to sum up everything at once a power of generalization perhaps without a parallel in the history of fiction. In some sense, I suppose this generalizing faculty is anti-fictional; it is so, without doubt, in so far as fiction consists of the study of individual lives. There is a strain in Sinclair Lewis which allies him to the statistician and the census taker. And this tendency is constantly asserting itself, wherever it exists, in the direction of ideas and away from persons. We shall come to it presently in Lewis's new novel, “Arrowsmith”.

I have no intention of writing a treatise on this tendency. For one thing, I don't know enough about it. It will perhaps help in the identification of it if I suggest some American writers in whose work it constantly asserts itself: Samuel Hopkins Adams, Arthur Bullard, Winston Churchill, Floyd Dell, Thomas Dixon, Will Irwin, Owen Johnson, Charles G. Norris, Upton Sinclair (nth degree), Stewart Edward White (in "The Glory Hole"), Brand Whitlock, Helen R. Martin, Dorothy Canfield, Honoré Willsie Morrow. These examples are enough to show that the tendency is emotional as well as intellectual it is a love of an idea, of an attitude toward life, of sufficient intensity to color the writer's work. It is a sort of polarity as opposed to a kind of detachment. greatest danger is the fact that it can be expressed abstractly, with beautiful clearness, as an idea. Its effect is too often to rob the personages of a story of rich and rugged characterization; they appear thin, deficient in vitality; they either become anæmic or remain attenuated because the author's idea or


attitude is all-important and he has neither the patience nor, indeed, the active imagination to present his characters with human detail and in their human texture.

Now Sinclair Lewis has this trait in as great a degree as any of his contemporaries, American or others, but in him it is met, mingled with, and tempered by a truly enormous capacity for the assimilation of individuals as such. The idea-tendency or attitude-tendency is plain throughout "Main Street", but this does not for one moment prevent the complete and acute characterization of Doc Kennicott, Carol, Guy Pollock, Sam Clark, Mrs. Bogart, Fern Mullins, Vida Sherman, and you-can't-rememberhow-many others. Mr. Lewis's nearest parallel in this respect is H. G. Wells, who also writes with the ideatendency and the attitude and who similarly teems with lifelike portraits. In both cases it is the amazing fertility of Charles Dickens combined with something Dickens had not. Or rather, I should say that Dickens never ranged beyond a specific indignation against English boarding schools, the chancery courts, and so on.

It has been remarked that Mr. Lewis's first novel, "Our Mr. Wrenn", obviously owes its character to such work of H. G. Wells as "Mr. Polly"; but Mr. Lewis owes much more to Wells, in the way of inspiration and example, than his first book. The same incurable restlessness belongs to both men; the same superb discontent with everything as it is; the same passionate warmth and width of human interest. Wells showed Lewis how to combine the idea-tendency or attitude with the mental notebook which never missed jotting down the quirks of human appearance, speech, and behavior. But Lewis has something

that Wells hasn't something that was either born in him (as I think) or else was learned from Balzac a determination to get everything in. Now it may or may not be true that art consists in selection, in elimination; I do not pretend to know, although I am suspicious of anything so easy to say. But if that is art, then Balzac and Sinclair Lewis are not artists. Both are masters of the cheek-by-jowl.

"Arrowsmith" is about as long as "Main Street" and is much more akin to "Main Street" than to "Babbitt". The circumstances under which it was written should be pretty well known by this time. In the summer of 1922, Mr. Lewis met Paul H. de Kruif, a bacteriologist who had been with the Rockefeller Institute. "Babbitt" was out of the way. A prolonged dis

cussion of medical education in the United States led Lewis to the determination to write a novel about "a doctor who, starting out as a competent general practitioner, emerges as a real scientist, despising ordinary success". We are told that "then, with Kruif, he wandered for three months from Barbadoes to Panama to Europe. They saw leper asylums and hospitals and small dispensaries among the Barbadoes canefields. They spent hours in laboratories in Panama, in London, in Paris. And with all their wandering they managed five or six hours of intense work every day, finally rounding out a complete plan for the book in some 60,000 words. To produce the actual novel required a year, Lewis working by himself in London and in the country near Fontainebleau.

Kruif has given a good picture of Lewis in the preliminary stage:

A passenger ship is plowing along through the smooth, mysteriously weedy waters of the Sargasso Sea in mid-Atlantic.

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