Saturday, May 11, 2013

Mark Schorer's "Sinclair Lewis: An American Life": Book Review

I used to see a used copy of this at the UCLA Library's secondhand sale room. Once, I picked it up, leafed idly through, and wondered what author merited such heft. I put it back on the shelf. Over 860 pages, it sat there my whole grad school stint.

Coming back, after only reading "Babbitt" sometime in those formative years of my literary tastes (probably bought in that same room; I enjoyed it), hearing "It Can't Happen Here" on audiotape and then "Main Street," I have decided to move forward through Lewis' major novels, with audiobooks of "Babbitt," and "Elmer Gantry" to come  {well, finished by the time I put up these reviews on the blog--all 4 reviewed recently}.

While "It Can't" boosted Lewis in 1935 with its clever alternative history-in-advance of a fascist-populist takeover in 1936-39 of America, it was his last success. I admit it's more of a tasty potboiler however than brain food when it comes to cultural critique. It's imaginative and feisty, but it nods into sentiment and betrays a lack of decisiveness even if its self-effacing but quietly defiant, principled if wavering narrator knows his shortcomings, perpetuated by the unresolved narrative itself, filtered through Lewis' witty. sly, sharp but sometimes grating, mimic, and ranting talents.

Some say Sinclair Lewis' talent declined with every major work of his in the '20s. Certainly, Schorer's 1961 biography, a decade after Lewis' death, promoted this argument. It helped diminish the already fading legacy of this chronicler of Americana. Like John Dos Passos' "contemporary chronicles," Lewis heard the post-WWI era and transcribed it vividly, full of detail, but so much that it threatened to overwhelm its message, as the medium dominated by its massive, rapid, chattering, and certainly frenetic pace. Both outlived early success. Lewis seems nearly as ignored by many today as "Dos."

As for me, I like this sociological strain in lit despite its flaws. Schorer locates in Lewis' first novel (1914) his characteristic contribution: romantic as it looked backwards, a "coy sentimentality" that crept into the naturalism and realism that he pursued archly but with an underlying unease. Melodrama played off unsparingly imitated American speech, pop culture contending with idealism.

By thirty-five, before "Main Street" sent him skyrocketing, this prolific plot spinner's stories betrayed contrivance and fixation: "The audience he was addressing demanded the explicit, the demonstrated, the heavily documented, the overdrawn and the broad. The style, like the man, was made." (241)

It made him a millionaire many times over. Philandering, scoffing, a bore, a scold, he defied his critics and proclaimed his genius to all. He continued to live out of hotels or with friends, but he kept moving as he promoted himself for a Pulitzer (and after "Babbitt" was passed over, he wished to get it for "Arrowsmith" so he could then turn it down) or Nobel. He continued to pile up floor plans, indices, jargon, consultants, and collaborators to assist him with his busy dramatizations of realtors, bacteriologists, preachers, and manufacturers. Schorer post-"Arrowsmith" sums up Lewis, monocled and spat-wearing, at his '20s peak: "Attacking materialism, he doubled his bank account." (415)

Even with that third novelistic success, Lewis knew the run wouldn't last. He confided that "Babbitt" was what he'd be best known by and that "Arrowsmith" remained his favorite. "Elmer Gantry" gave another title to the demotic, but the predictable immersion in research, Schorer avers, resulted only in another static plot: the trap of detail that confirmed only what Lewis wished it to. By "Dodsworth," its European setting shared Lewis' own aspirations to a parody of his rambling, part-poetic, part-satirical, yet mechanical and imperfectly plotted evocations of success. A success he, as "The Nation" summed up in 1927, craved as "proletarian plutocrat, bourgeois gypsy, patriotic expatriate, unmannerly critic of manners, and loud-speaking champion of the subdued voice." (qtd. 483)

With the Nobel Prize won in 1930, Lewis felt the long slide down. His drinking, the failure of two marriages due to his peripatetic infidelity, his inability to settle down and leave behind his cruel gifts of unedited imitation and louche garrulousness, his derision, his self-lacerating moments: it wore him down, and wears us down. Schorer shows how Lewis struggled to capture the downside, the fate of labor in the Depression, a topic that predated it and that he'd longed to write about, but he failed. Did "It Can't Happen" channeled some of his heartfelt passion for common folks into his last bestseller?

Lewis dismissed this chart-topper, even if he kept writing. Two years later, he met a seventeen-year old amateur actress, and he fell in love. Even if Marcella Powers' hold over him did not keep him from letting her arrange liaisons with men closer to her age than the fifty-something celebrity, he managed to find contentment for a while, and with her mother as a companion-housekeeper now and then. He courted conventionality even as he, like so many American observers, found eventually a vantage point abroad. The second postwar era could not compete with the mores, the slang, the patter he captured of the first. He died after Florentine lassitude in a hospital on the Roman outskirts, of paralysis of the heart.

Schorer places him within the tradition of those who examined social class, the final follower of Thoreau, Whitman, and the early Twain to find a wide audience. Like them, he championed the individual's attempt to break out of routine; the system, society, it seemed, hammered the rebel down. While the "worst writer" in modern American literature, in his biographer's memorable conclusion, Lewis nevertheless sought to remind us of the forces of our nation, and he shaped its literary culture.

The book that looks at Lewis delves into intricate detail, from schoolboy marginalia to often awful poetry, from garrulous letters to colleagues' catty reminiscences. Many call Schorer's biography, nine years in the making, a hatchet job, with a marked distaste for its yammering, bumptious, yearning subject. Certainly, the relentless, obsessive nature of Schorer's quest to know Lewis from his every scribble shows a determination, beyond even scholarly precision, to peer into Lewis' hidden strife.

However, I find sympathy: Schorer as a near native neighbor--from Sauk City WN to match Lewis' Gopher Prairie neé Sauk Centre MN--went to Harvard; Lewis to Yale. His diligent biographer after a Wisconsin Ph.D. then taught at Dartmouth and Harvard before he chaired Berkeley's English Department in the first half of the '60s. This context allows Schorer to enter into Lewis' Ivy League dissidence, his Carmel-by-the-Sea "Hobohemia," New Thought flirtations and "New Masses" rejections after Yale, and their contrasts with a Main Street-oriented outlook looking to the frontier, but pulled East as his American, if indelibly Midwestern no matter where he roamed, predicament. Schorer's correct: early readers of "Main Street" weren't sure if Lewis meant to caricature Carol Kennicott or to praise her, but the novel captures her stasis as much as Doc Will's: both made Lewis.

While Lewis knew every nook of his hometown, he "had never possessed it, nor it him: the result was that he could never really leave it." (10) Mocked as a "Moon-Calf," embodying the gawky, red-headed jape, Lewis represented the lanky literary lumpish farmboy braying in New Haven or Greenwich. In college diaries, he limited his revelations of despair. He scattered seven lean years before his first novel, of cattle-ship voyages, off-on magazine yarns, grunt-level journalism, virginal swooning, gauche flirtation, mooching (Californian bohemians and sponsors, dad), and earnest patronage. Lewis' self-censorship, for Schorer, portends "perhaps the kind of novelist he would become: one who could never be able to project in art the forms of his suffering, one who would never wish to allow--if he could--his writing to confront his subjectivity--if it was there." (56-57)

The nature of that claim, in the dashed qualifiers, shows its hesitancy. I limn more self-awareness in his conflicted characters than Schorer, however exacting his scrutiny of every scrap from Lewis he tracks down, slots, and interprets. His biographer hears "a life of noisy desperation" in this admirer of Thoreau; Clifton Fadiman called Lewis a "Mercutio of the prairies," exhausting in his rhetorical excess. So far, if from more limited reading and that gleaned from some of his most prominent novels' protagonists, I sense sympathy within the satire; Lewis cocked his ear closely, even if he couldn't hear himself as much. (To Amazon US without the first three paragraphs, 9-17-12; compare my review of the 2002 Richard Lingeman biography of Lewis here.)

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