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The Novelist Who Saw Middle America as It Really Was

Is Babbitt a comic character? A tragic character? Merely a stock character from what Lewis’s friend and mentor H.L. Mencken labeled “the booboisie”? The triumph of “Babbitt” is that we can’t confidently answer that question. The name Babbitt entered the language — a “Babbitt” was a ridiculous conformist living in a ridiculously small-minded world. Yet Lewis’s Babbitt is, finally, a man we care about — a character rather than a caricature — one of a small group of American fictional creations who, in the early years of the 20th century, stand in their very different ways as landmarks in the story of the social evolution of our country: Dreiser’s Sister Carrie, Wharton’s Lily Bart, Booth Tarkington’s Alice Adams, with Gatsby on the horizon.

Sinclair Lewis was born in 1885. His father was a prominent doctor in Sauk Centre, a town of about 2,800 — read all about it in “Main Street.” Fred, the oldest of the doctor’s three sons, became a miller and was never of much consequence within the ambitious Lewis clan. Claude, next oldest, was of considerable consequence: He became a distinguished surgeon, admired and sought after well beyond the city of St. Cloud, where he spent his adult life. When Lewis was 62, he acknowledged that “for 60 years I have tried to impress my brother Claude.”

Sinclair Lewis was never really known as “Sinclair,” his middle name. He was Harry, later Hal, eventually “Red” to everyone who knew him. He was not a physically prepossessing young fellow. “He was nearly six feet tall before he was 16,” his magisterial biographer Mark Schorer writes, “with a short torso set on very long and spindly legs, and weighed only 120 pounds; lank and lean, but with a puffy, acne-ridden face (‘pimples,’ they said), big feet and hands, badly coordinated in his movements, everything about his body hanging and dangling and swinging and lunging and stumbling, and ice-blue eyes (astigmatic) rather protruding, all of this thatched with a carrot-colored wig.”

Nor did he have the happy normal outdoorsy boyhood — skating, swimming, duck-hunting — he later claimed to have had; Schorer makes that clear. “He was a queer boy with only one real friend in a town full of boys, laughed at by girls.” Sports? No. Dances? “As I cannot dance I just went along with Ma to look on.” But a lot of culture passed through town: military bands; the Ski-U-Mah Quartette; the Maharas Minstrels; the Schubert Symphony Club; the Casgrove Company performing with musical glasses, sleigh bells, mandolins and banjos; and itinerant 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 acquiring books on his own. (His favorite writers as a boy were Dickens, Scott and Kipling, and he went on reading them throughout his life.) For years he was a rotten student, until late in high school he began to shine. He was a notorious cutup, a mimic and the proud author of “class yells”: “Cooma laca, booma laca,/Bow wow wow —/Chingalaca, chingalaca,/Chow, Chow, Chow.” He had crushes on one girl after another — sometimes two at the same time. He did domestic chores, he had summer jobs. And he submitted flowery poems to various magazines, all, of course, rejected. But he was also getting ready for college, having decided to try for Yale, and after spending some time at Oberlin to sharpen his skills, he was admitted there.

His career in New Haven was checkered. His only distinction was being published regularly in the Yale Literary Magazine, “The Lit” — romantic stories, more flowery poems. Girls? Gauche attempts. Friends? A few. Intimacies? Hardly. The esteemed educator William Lyon Phelps said of him, “He was not disliked in college, but was regarded with amiable tolerance as a freak.” His emotional state? As always, loneliness. Yet he was adventurous: one summer, work as a cattle feeder on a cattle steamer to England; one fall, steerage passage to Panama, in search of work there.

Then a few wander years — a well-known artists’ community in Carmel, a short stretch on a San Francisco newspaper, Upton Sinclair’s utopian colony in New Jersey. Finally, New York, where he lived in Greenwich Village and found sympathetic companions like Edna Ferber and Frances Perkins, who would go on to become F.D.R.’s famous secretary of labor. He was earning a few dollars by selling scraps of things to junky magazines and newspapers, and he was selling plots for stories to established writers: Jack London, for one, who in one transaction paid him $70 for 14 story ideas, and Albert Payson Terhune (“Lad: A Dog”) for another. And he had begun work on his first novel, “Our Mr. Wrenn.”

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