skip navigation
Based on Sinclair Lewis
Remind Me

Sinclair Lewis Profile

On Sinclair Lewis' grave stone at Greenwood Cemetery in Sauk Center, Minnesota, is engraved the year of his birth, the year of his death and the simple words, "Author of Main Street." No mention of the Nobel Prize he accepted or the Pulitzer he refused or the millions of books he sold. In the 1920s and 30s he was one of the most successful novelists in the world. When he died in 1951, Time magazine wrote in his obituary that his works had "become period pieces. But in his prime, Lewis had no peer as a knocker of "homo Americanibus."

Harry Sinclair Lewis was born in Sauk Center on February 7, 1885 to Dr. Edwin J. Lewis and his wife, Emma Kermott. Emma would die of tuberculosis in 1891 and Edwin remarried a year later to Isabel Warner. "I was born in a prairie village in that most Scandinavian part of America, Minnesota, the son of a country doctor, in 1885. Until I went East to Yale University I attended the ordinary public school, along with many Madsens, Olesons, Nelsons, Hedins, Larsons. Doubtless it was because of this that I made the hero of my second book, The Trail of the Hawk, a Norwegian, and Gustaf Sondelius, of Arrowsmith, a Swede - and to me, Dr. Sondelius is the favorite among all my characters."

Sinclair Lewis (known as "Hal" or "Red", due to his flaming red hair) began writing early. In 1903, he went to Yale University, where he was the editor of the Yale Literary Magazine. "My university days at Yale were undistinguished save for contributions to the Yale Literary Magazine. It may be interesting to say that these contributions were most of them reeking with a banal romanticism; that an author who was later to try to present ordinary pavements trod by real boots should through university days have written nearly always of Guinevere and Lancelot - of weary bitterns among sad Irish reeds - of story-book castles with troubadours vastly indulging in wine, a commodity of which the author was singularly ignorant. What the moral is, I do not know. Whether imaginary castles at nineteen lead always to the sidewalks of Main Street at thirty-five, and whether the process might be reversed, and whether either of them is desirable, I leave to psychologists."

After graduating from Yale in 1908, he went to work. "At the age of twenty-five I managed to get a position in a New York publishing house at all of fifteen dollars a week. This was my authentic value on the labor market, and I have always uncomfortably suspected that it would never have been much higher had I not, accidentally, possessed the gift of writing books which so acutely annoyed American smugness that some thousands of my fellow citizens felt they must read these scandalous documents, whether they liked them or not." Using the pseudonym Tom Graham, he published Hike and Aeroplane in 1912, before switching to his given name. His first big hit (and the only credit to adorn his grave) was Main Street, published in 1920; a searing look at his favorite subject: hypocrisy and small-mindedness in small-town America. Lewis called it "my first novel to rouse the embattled peasantry and, as I have already hinted, it had really a success of scandal. One of the most treasured American myths had been that all American villages were peculiarly noble and happy, and here an American attacked that myth. Scandalous. Some hundreds of thousands read the book with the same masochistic pleasure that one has in sucking an aching tooth." The description of "Gopher Prairie" was so close to Lewis' own hometown of Sauk Center, Minnesota that the nearby town of Alexandria, banned the book. However, the local high school teams called themselves "The Main Streeters" as early as 1925-26. The Sauk Center High School team still bears the name in tribute to Lewis. The book eventually sold over two million copies, which seemed to dismay critics like H.L. Mencken and George Jean Nathan. "At a Manhattan party one night, "Red" Lewis drunkenly embraced Mencken and Nathan and yelled: "So you guys are critics, are you? Well, let me tell you something. I'm the best goddamn writer in this here goddamn country ..." Next day, after reading the proofs of Main Street, Mencken wrote to Nathan: "Grab hold of the bar-rail, steady yourself, and prepare for a terrible shock ... That lump ... by God, he has done the job . . . There is no justice in the world.'" There was no justice for Main Street either. The novel was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1921 but the Board of Trustees overrode the decision and gave it to Edith Wharton for The Age of Innocence instead.

Now a major American writer, Lewis continued to churn out a novel every few years. In 1922, he published Babbitt. George Babbitt, Time wrote, was (with the exception of "his one real hero" Dr. Martin Arrowsmith in Arrowsmith), his stock character, repeated several times under various names in other works like Dodsworth. "Sinclair Lewis wrote mainly about one man, George Follansbee Babbitt, of Zenith, the Zip town. George Babbitt was a helpless materialist whose one standard was money, a quavering conformist whose only security was found in the back-slapping approval of his fellow Rotarians. He lived in physical comfort greater than kings enjoyed in the past, but he rarely stopped to enjoy it, for he was a Hustler. He was ashamed of his secret dreams. He was an adolescent who had never grown up, a semi-civilized barbarian." Babbitt (who would appear again in Elmer Gantry) was everything that Lewis hated about middle-class life. Babbitt has been filmed twice; a 1924 silent film and the 1934 version with Guy Kibbee.

Arrowsmith , the story of a small-town doctor who rises to prominence in the field of research, but is appalled by the jealousy and greed in the medical profession, followed in 1925 and would be made into a film by John Ford, starring Ronald Colman in 1930. The film adaptation was nominated for four Academy Awards. This time, Lewis won the Pulitzer Prize, but refused it. In his letter explaining his decision to the committee, he wrote, "All prizes, like all titles, are dangerous. The seekers for prizes tend to labor not for inherent excellence but for alien rewards; they tend to write this, or timorously to avoid writing that, in order to tickle the prejudices of a haphazard committee. And the Pulitzer Prize for Novels is peculiarly objectionable because the terms of it have been constantly and grievously misrepresented. Those terms are that the prize shall be given 'for the American novel published during the year which shall best present the wholesome atmosphere of American life, and the highest standard of American manners and manhood.' This phrase, if it means anything whatsoever, would appear to mean that the appraisal of the novels shall be made not according to their actual literary merit but in obedience to whatever code of Good Form may chance to be popular at the moment. [...] Every compulsion is put upon writers to become safe, polite, obedient, and sterile. In protest, I declined election to the National Institute of Arts and Letters some years ago, and now I must decline the Pulitzer Prize."

During his research for his next novel, Elmer Gantry (a sharp criticism of evangelicalism) Lewis would visit various churches in Kansas City each Sunday. At one service, the atheist Lewis challenged God from a fundamentalist pulpit to strike him down within ten minutes if He existed. The quote made the newspapers and Lewis remained safe from lightning but not the fury of the religious community. Elmer Gantry was published in 1927 and immediately banned in Boston. "There was one good pastor in California who upon reading my Elmer Gantry desired to lead a mob and lynch me, while another holy man in the state of Maine wondered if there was no respectable and righteous way of putting me in jail. " The novel was the bestseller of 1927, according to Publishers Weekly, but would not be made into a film until 1960, starring Burt Lancaster in the title role.

In 1929, Lewis published Dodsworth, the story of another Babbitt-like character, Sam Dodsworth, an automobile manufacturer who sells his company and retires. While on a European trip with his wife, it becomes painfully obvious that their lives have gone in two different directions. Supposedly based on the disintegration of Lewis' first marriage, the novel was made into a play in 1934 by Sidney Howard. The film version was directed in 1936 by William Wyler and starred Walter Huston (who reprised his stage role). In 1990, the film was selected by the National Film Registry to be preserved by the Library of Congress. In 2005, it was named one of the "best 100 movies of the last 80 years" by Time.

The Nobel Committee in Sweden awarded Lewis the Nobel Prize in 1930, making him the first American to be so honored. This prize Lewis accepted because it was for a body of work, rather than just one novel (and, critics claimed, because the prize money was considerably more). Lewis traveled to Stockholm with his second wife, journalist Dorothy Thompson, for the occasion and delivered his acceptance speech, "The American Fear of Literature", in which he criticized the standards of modern literature in the United States. "I have for myself no conceivable complaint to make, and yet for American literature in general, and its standing in a country where industrialism and finance and science flourish and the only arts that are vital and respected are architecture and the film, I have a considerable complaint. [...] [I]n America most of us - not readers alone but even writers - are still afraid of any literature which is not a glorification of everything American, a glorification of our faults as well as our virtues. To be not only a best seller in America but to be really beloved, a novelist must assert that all American men are tall, handsome, rich, honest, and powerful at golf; that all country towns are filled with neighbors who do nothing from day to day save go about being kind to one another; that although American girls may be wild, they change always into perfect wives and mothers; and that, geographically, America is composed solely of New York, which is inhabited entirely by millionaires; of the West, which keeps unchanged all the boisterous heroism of 1870; and of the South, where everyone lives on a plantation perpetually glossy with moonlight and scented with magnolias." The speech was widely reprinted and created a great deal of controversy.

Lewis continued to write novels, short stories, and plays throughout the 1930s, including Ann Vickers (published in 1933, the same year as the release of the film, starring Irene Dunne), and It Can't Happen Here (1935). Lewis even turned to acting in his own plays before taking a brief teaching job at the University of Wisconsin. In 1937, Lewis entered a sanitarium for the treatment of alcoholism with little success. During his stay, he was told that he had to decide "whether he was going to live without alcohol or die by it, one or the other." Lewis left the hospital after only ten days with what his doctor later described as a total lack of "understanding of his problem."

Lewis spent time in Hollywood during the 1940s but was not impressed. Asked by MGM in 1943 to work on a script called Storm in the West, a western which was really an allegory about Hitler and Mussolini among others, he was paid $2,500 a week. At first, he was delighted, calling himself a "little golden slave", but eventually became disenchanted with the censorship problems inherent in filmmaking. "What really bothers me is not the fact that, say, a couple gunmen couldn't say anything so vile as 'damn', but that all really stirring issues, political, racial, biological, must be sidestepped or not even approached." Lewis finished his script in three weeks. He later said that a Hollywood writer "learns from the veteran servants to do as little work as possible, so that presently he ceases to be self-respecting. [I'm like] a butler who feels himself a fool if he doesn't dip into the brandy bottle [when] the Gentry fail to lock the booze cupboard."

Two more books were published, Kingsblood Royal in 1947 and The God Seeker in 1949. Lewis' health was in definite decline and he moved to Europe, where he died of heart disease and alcoholism in a nursing home in Rome on January 10, 1951. The Catholic sisters of the hospital in which he died later reported that Lewis repeatedly told them, "I am happy. God bless you." Sinclair Lewis had asked that there be no funeral ceremony when he died. He only wanted the song Hail, Hail, the Gang's All Here to be sung. Unfortunately, the Sauk Center town committee did not find this appropriate for its most famous son and presumably Lewis was buried in a manner in which they found fitting. He now lies in the cemetery of a small American town, the kind he had often satirized and criticized.

In its obituary, Time wrote, "He was not a great writer, nor even a very good one; but he hit the U.S. hard in its solar plexus, immortalized a national character, and added several household words to the American language. [...] His great merit was that he gave the U.S. and the world a sense of the enduring strength (ugly or not) of Main Street; and that he made Americans on all main streets, including Babbitt, stop hustling long enough to wonder uneasily where they were going.

by Lorraine LoBianco

Lewis, Sinclair "The American Fear of Literature" Nobel Lecture, December 12, 1930
Lingeman, Richard R. Sinclair Lewis: Rebel from Main Street
Liukkonen, Petri "(Harry) Sinclair Lewis 1885-1951" Pegasos
"The Hemisphere: Sinclair Lewis 1885-1951" Time 22 Jan 51
The Internet Movie Database

Also Playing on TCM

Also playing
Guest Programmer: William Daniels - 4/17
3 Movies

The distinguished stage, movie and television actor co-hosts an evening of his favorite films, including Dodsworth (1936) and two...more

TCM Shopping
  • Ann Vickers
  • From Nobel and Pulitzer Prize-winner Sinclair... more info
  • $14.55
  • Regularly $21.99
  • Add to cart
  • Arrowsmith
  • Based on the classic Sinclair Lewis novel,... more info
  • $12.95
  • Regularly $19.99
  • Add to cart
  • Cass Timberlane
  • When middle-aged judge Cass Timberlane and... more info
  • $12.05
  • Regularly $19.99
  • Add to cart