The novelist who saw Central America as it really was
Is Babbitt a comic character? A tragic character? Just a running figure of what Lewis’ friend and mentor HL Mencken called “boobish”? The triumph of “Babbitt” is that we cannot confidently answer this question. The name Babbitt entered the language – a “Babbitt” was a ridiculous conformist living in a ridiculously small world. Yet Lewis’s Babbitt is, finally, a man close to our hearts – a character rather than a caricature – one of a small group of American fictional creations that, in the early years of the 20th century, presented themselves to them. very different ways as landmarks in the history of our country’s social evolution: Sister Carrie of Dreiser, Lily Bart of Wharton, Alice Adams of Booth Tarkington, with Gatsby on the horizon.
Is Babbitt a comic character? A tragic character? The triumph of “Babbitt” is that we cannot confidently answer this question.
Sinclair Lewis was born in 1885. His father was a prominent physician in Sauk Center, a town of about 2,800 people. Read all about it in “Main Street”. Fred, the eldest of the Doctor’s three sons, became a miller and never had much importance in the ambitious Lewis clan. Claude, the next eldest, was of considerable importance: he became a distinguished surgeon, admired and sought after far beyond the town of Saint-Cloud, where he spent his adult life. When Lewis was 62, he admitted that “for 60 years I tried to impress my brother Claude”.
Sinclair Lewis was never really known as “Sinclair”, his middle name. He was Harry, later Hal, ultimately “Red” to everyone who knew him. He was not a physically attractive young man. “He was nearly six feet tall before he was 16,” writes his masterful biographer Mark Schorer, “with a short torso resting on very long, slender legs, and weighed only 120 pounds; lean and thin, but with a puffy, acne-prone face (“pimples” they said), big feet and big hands, poorly coordinated in his movements, everything in his body was hanging and hanging and swaying and rushing and stumbling , and ice-blue eyes (astigmatic) rather protruding, all covered in thatch with a carrot-colored wig.
He also didn’t have the normal happy childhood of the outdoors – skating, swimming, duck hunting – which he later claimed to have; Schorer makes it clear. “He was a queer boy with one true friend in a town full of boys the girls laughed at.” Sports? No. Dances? “Since I can’t dance, I just went with Ma to watch.” But a lot of culture passed through the city: military bands; the Ski-U-Mah Quartet; the Maharas Minstrels; the Schubert Symphony Club; the Casgrove Company playing with musical glasses, bells, mandolins and banjos; and touring theatrical events, from “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” to the Jolly Della Pringle Company.
Most important – crucial – there were books. His father had a modest library and young Harry began to acquire books on his own. (His favorite writers as a boy were Dickens, Scott, and Kipling, and he continued to read them all his life.) For years he was a rotten student, until he graduated high school he started to shine. He was a notorious cutup, imitator and the proud author of “class cries”: “Cooma laca, booma laca, / Bow wow wow – / Chingalaca, chingalaca, / Chow, Chow, Chow”. He had a crush on one girl after another, sometimes two at the same time. He did household chores, he had summer jobs. And he submitted flowery poems to various magazines, all of them, of course, rejected. But he was also preparing for college, having decided to try Yale, and after spending time in Oberlin honing his skills, he was admitted there.
His career in New Haven has been eventful. His only distinction was being published regularly in Yale Literary Magazine, “The Lit” – romantic stories, more flowery poems. Girls? attempts by the Left. Friends? Some. Privacy? Barely. Prominent educator William Lyon Phelps said of him: “He was not hated in college, but was regarded with kind tolerance as a freak.” His emotional state? As always, loneliness. Yet he was adventurous: one summer he worked as a fattener on a steamboat bound for England; a fall, steerage crossing in Panama, looking for work there.
Then a few years of wandering – a well-known artist community in Carmel, a short stint on a newspaper in San Francisco, the utopian colony of Upton Sinclair in New Jersey. Finally, New York, where he lived in Greenwich Village and found sympathetic companions like Edna Ferber and Frances Perkins, who would become FDR’s famous labor secretary. He made a few dollars selling scraps of stuff to drugged magazines and newspapers, and he sold plots for stories to established writers: Jack London, for one, who in one deal paid him $ 70 for 14 ideas for stories. ‘stories, and Albert Payson Terhune (“Lad: A Dog”) for another. And he had started working on his first novel, “Our Mr. Wrenn”.