Monday, May 13, 2013

Richard Lingeman's "Sinclair Lewis: Rebel from Main Street": Book Review

After reading Mark Schorer's 800-page 1961 biography, this 2002 one at two-thirds the length flew by. Following Lingeman's study of Lewis' rival for fame and acclaim as a scourge of Midwestern mores, Theodore Dreiser, Lewis appears as similarly driven to castigate and satirize his fellow Americans, if with a soft touch. That might have been subtle, for as he opined later in life, "I love America, but I don't like it." (547) Still, as Lingeman regards his subject more than the famously severe Schorer, Lewis cared.

I agree. Some reviewers found Lingeman too forgiving, but compared to the relentlessly meticulous archival and firsthand research applied by Schorer, less archeology and more of a guided tour meets the needs of contemporaries visiting what's now the work of a once-renowned writer whose best work from the 1920s now may be nearly as little read as Dreiser's and those who took on, before modernism, the campaign to convince by caricature.

For the prolific Lewis, it was a career. Schorer makes much of his irritating mimicry and his cursed gift for endless monologues before party guests in the guise of his characters, but like it or not, Lewis had talent. As Richard Lingeman concludes: "Yet who else depicted his country's faults with such coruscatingly funny, ambivantly loving satire?" He hated the war machine, the mass commodification, even the environmental degradation he saw as undermining whatever good lurked in his pioneer neighbors and small-town mentors. While he escaped the Minnesota prairie burg as soon as he could, to attain a Yale education and when he could afford it, London tailoring, he harbored a love-hate relationship similar to that of his first heroine, Carol Kennicott.

He begged the patrician, British-born Grace Hegger, his first wife, to intervene, to pray for him to turn more mannerly, more quiet, more patient. Early on, churning out hack work to make it, he could not express his conflict between radical sympathies and WWI censorship. He recognized his idealism, yet he had to support a family. He knew his faults, but these enabled him to succeed, for a stretch, once Main Street topped the bestseller list. Lingeman parallels Carol's ambitions with those of her creator. "He shows modern marriage as the struggle between a wife seeking autonomy and a husband enforcing patriarchal authority." (162) Carol opposes Gopher Prairie's conservatism and philistine mindset, but "the brain-dead conformity" overwhelms her, in Lingeman's estimation, and she succumbs to being Mrs. W.J. Kennicott, the doctor's wife and the mother of their children. She fought the good fight.

The biographer shows how carefully Lewis planned this, and Babbitt--maps drawn, research plumbed, professionals interviewed. This sociological pattern, and the trajectory of his success, continued with the medical figure as Arrowsmith, inspired in part by Lewis's own father. "Dr. E.J. could never know how his son had internalized his own values even as he rejected them, creating a personality that was an unstable mix of love and fear, conformity and rebellion, realism and romanticism. The son inherited the doctor's professionalism, his disciplined work habits, but he melded them to an undisciplined personal life. He also took the ability from his father to observe life with the cold, impassive eye of a country doctor surveying a German farmer's gangrenous leg."(287)

Already, his drinking by mid-decade increased; the Nobel Prize in 1930 after Elmer Gantry and Dodsworth already appeared to date him as a chronicler of a giddy era that the Depression, political unrest, and radical upheaval threatened to erase. While It Can't Happen Here represented a later return to provocative and timely (melo-)drama, it like even his work post-Babbitt showed signs of weakness, with perhaps his drinking and his emotional condition undermining his writerly devotion. Lingeman locates, in his Nobel address, the fleeting moment: "He had achieved the validation he craved, but even the honor of the whole world could never appease the hurt-hunger of the boy inside. Fame is too vast and thin to be any love at all. Nor could it quell Lewis's inner doubts or banish the knowledge that he was being honored for work already fast receding into the past." (359)

He descended, with fame, into what he deemed "fictional vaudeville." He covered up with raillery his bitterness, but as with "moisture dripping from the walls of a cave," in his critic's elegant metaphor, he mourned if with no tears in public when his eldest son Wells was killed in action during WWII. He roamed wide, settling in Duluth for a time after the collapse of his troubled second marriage to journalist and firebrand Dorothy Thompson, and in the wake of his predictably difficult relationship, begun when he was fifty-four, with an eighteen-year-old theatrical ingenue, Marcella Powers. There, he failed to write the great labor novel he tried to make for years, but he did expose racism however awkwardly, and he explored feminism and religious intolerance, in his lesser-known later fiction.

Easily bored when not maniacally writing, needing friends but alienating them as too-diligent a host, he settled then in Williamstown, MA before ending up not quite intending exile in postwar Florence. He turned off many of those he courted, as they feared--as with the professors at Williams College--to appear distorted and ridiculed in his next novel. His end came after years of exertion and the bottle.

"Fear and terror, experienced in the unknown, broke his heart." (543) So Lingeman cites the existential autopsy by a German doctor looking at his corpse. Lingeman adds that Lewis rounded on a man who denigrated him for only seeing the shady side of Main Street. "Don't you understand it's my mission in life to be the despised critic, the eternal faultfinder? I must carp and scold until everyone despises me. That's what I was put here for." (546) Lewis could be his own best critic--now and then.

Lingeman provides what a reader today needs to understand Lewis. I remain unsure that newer revelations have improved upon Schorer's massive undertaking forty years before this appeared. Lingeman, however, offers a shorter, and less compulsively thorough narrative of where Lewis went and who he met. Therefore, I recommend it for a reader wishing to read only one life, even if it is less comprehensive, more anodyne and forgiving in places, compared to Schorer's prickly attitude.

It flows smoothly and the sympathy of the biographer although more generously bestowed than by Schorer is not without severity when merited. Not many may share my interest but not a duty to learn about Lewis enough to read both this and Schorer, but this recent biography matches the former in providing a necessary study of why Lewis matters, then and now. (Amazon US 11-11-12)

No comments: