Richard Lingeman, when did you very -- for the very first time get interested in Sinclair Lewis? Do you remember?
Well, I think it was when I read "Main Street." And I come from a small town in Indiana, and so I -- it kind of -- it was a liberating experience because it was about like my own home town.
What was "Main Street"? When did it -- when was it published?
"Main Street" came out in 1920. It was a sensation. And it was a novel about a village called Gopher Prairie in the state of Minnesota.
Where are you from in Indiana?
I'm from Crawfordsville Indiana, which is a much larger town. But still, it had some of the aspects of a small town, the provincialism and the conformity.
When did Sinclair Lewis live?
He was born in 1885 and died in 1951.
How many times was he married?
And he was married twice, to -- once to a New York woman named Grace and the second time to a famous columnist named Dorothy Thompson.
How many children did he have?
He had two -- two boys, one by his first wife, died in World War II, and the second one became an actor, and he died young of a form of cancer.
How many books did he write?
He wrote 22 novels. He was very prolific.
Did he make a lot of money?
He was an exceedingly successful writer. In the '20s, he was a best-seller, and even in his lowest period, in the '30s, he would sell 50,000 copies. So he made a good living.
And if you were to define him as an individual, what would you say?
I would say he was a man with a fierce sense of injustice and a sense of -- of -- of what was wrong with America and a desire to change it, to reform it. He was also -- he could be a rude man. He had -- he was very quick-witted. He had little patience with clich‚s. And also, he liked to -- at least in his earlier years, he liked to do monologues at parties. So he would be constantly doing a monologue, an impression of somebody. It would often be a character in his next novel. He was witty, and he was also truculent, and he was a bundle of paradoxes.
Where did he live in his life?
Oh, he was -- he had no fixed address, you might say. That's exaggerating, but he -- he moved around a lot from -- from boyhood, and then New York for a while, when he worked. When he quit his job, became a full-time writer, and so he moved around. He lived in the Twin Cities and then he -- he lived in Washington to write "Main Street," and he came back to Washington. After "Main Street" was a big success, he went to Europe, and he went all over Europe. And he lived in Minnesota again. Then he lived in Massachusetts. He never really settled down.
Sauk Centre Minnesota -- where is it?
Well, that's in the southwest part of the state. It's in sort of the flat part of the state. It's wheat country, or used to be wheat country. I think they put different crops in now. But it was a typical Minnesota town, with the Swedish farmers and the German farmers and the -- and the Yankees, who ran the town.
How long did he live there?
He lived there really just his first 17 years, and then he -- he went away to prep school to prepare for college and -- at Oberlin Prep, and then he went to Yale. And then after Yale, he never -- well, he returned briefly, and then he -- he started wandering and he went off.
In your opening pages of the pictures here -- his father, Dr. E.J. Lewis, is up at the top. What was he like, and what did he do?
Well, he was a typical country doctor. He was a very meticulous man and a very punctual man that people said they could set their watches by every day when he walked to the office at the same time. And he was a rather stern man, but I think he -- and he could never quite make -- make out what -- what -- Harry, that was what Sinclair Lewis' boyhood name was. His full name was Harry Sinclair Lewis. And he kept telling Harry, "Why can't you be a normal boy, like all -- every other boy?" And -- but Harry was different, and he couldn't. But I think he was, on the whole, a good father.
His birth mother died when he was 6. I think that was a kind of a traumatic event in his life. And he didn't remember her very well, and -- but I think that was a loss of tenderness and maternal affection. And it was a shock to him, and he became withdrawn afterwards. But his father, who was known as Dr. E.J., married another woman, Isabel Warner and -- and she was a good woman. And she lavished her maternal instincts on Harry and his -- he had two older brothers, but they were much older. And they were -- one was 7 years and one was 15 years older. And so she concentrated on him and I think drew him out of his shell. And she was, in many ways, a good woman. And she -- she did a lot for the town -- you know, all these public services and -- and you see some of her in the female character, the heroine of "Main Street," Carol Kennicott who tries similar projects.
What was the impact of "Main Street"? And what was it about?
Well, it was a sensation. It was compared to "Uncle Tom's Cabin" in the way it -- it provoked a nationwide controversy. It was -- it was a little slower in building, but it, you know, started in New York and -- and spread west because there wasn't the media that there is today. But it did build up, and it had the -- you know, people discussing that was this -- was this a true picture of America? I mean, we're -- because Lewis claims in the foreword this stands for America. This Main Street runs right through all America, and this town of Gopher Prairie sets the standards for all America. And so people discussed, you know, "Are we provincial? And are we hostile to culture? And are we conformist?" And then a lot of people who read it were small-town people who had moved to the cities, and they read it and they wanted to be -- it soon became a term, "Main Streeter." If you were a Main Streeter, you were kind of a hick, a provincial. And so they wanted to read it so they wouldn't be a Main Streeter.
And -- but it did -- this was at a time in America of transition after World War I, and America was assuming a new role because it had come through the war and helped -- helped win the -- World War I. And it was suddenly more on the world stage than it ever was before, and it was very strong economically, while Europe was devastated. And so people abroad, too, were interested in what was America like? And so Lewis' books, starting with "Main Street," were much read abroad and -- but it did cause a great furor and debate in the country. And it was a healthy debate in some -- I mean, people were seriously discussing, you know, "Should we educate ourselves more and travel more?" And then the younger generation, who were rebelling against the old ways, took Gopher Prairie as a symbol of what they were rebelling against, the old -- the old America, the old-time America.
Was Gopher Prairie Sauk Centre, his home town?
Yeah, pretty much so. He -- he would always say it was a composite of small towns, and he did -- before he wrote it -- he was a great researcher. He traveled over -- all the way west, driving in a car with his wife -- first wife, Grace -- and visiting small towns and -- but I think it was Sauk Centre that was basically the same. And that was imprinted on his consciousness, Sauk Centre. And he had -- he had visualized this novel when he had come home from college, from Yale, in his sophomore year, and he was sitting around, and as often happens in a small town, you're bored and you feel hemmed in and thwarted and -- and he invented this idea of the "village virus," this -- something that gets into you and dulls your mind and makes you stop thinking and go to seed and all. So he -- so he thought he'd write a novel about this, and so that was back in 1903, I believe. And he kept it in his mind all those years. And so certainly, Sauk Centre was the irritant that -- that yielded this pearl, if you will.
You say he was 35 in 1920, when this book was published?
And he wrote it right downtown here, near the Mayflower Hotel.
Why was he here?
Well, he -- he had been wandering, and he had gone -- they had gone out to the Twin Cities and lived in St. Paul and Minneapolis and -- he and his wife. And they -- they finally got sort of bored, and then they -- or their leases ran out, and they -- they were having a little trouble with fitting in socially with the people there. And then they went to Mankato, a small town in southern Minnesota. And that became the model for the town that Carol comes from. And... (CROSSTALK)
... the character in the book... (CROSSTALK)
... Kennicott, yeah. And she comes from there, and that's sort of her ideal town. It's a very pleasant, New England-style town. And so -- but their lease ran out, and then they came east and were gypsies, they said. "Where are we going to live?" And they thought New York. Then New York was too expensive. And they thought Washington had a more relaxed, low-key atmosphere, if you can believe that that was the Washington of those days, you know. It was a quiet Southern town.
On the back of your book, Studs Terkel, the Chicagoan, has a note. He says, "As a sequel to his magisterial biography of Theodore Dreiser, Richard Lingeman has put forth, at long last, the definitive life of Sinclair Lewis, the other genius curmudgeon of our literature. It's a touch of fate, I think, that Lingeman, out of the Midwest provincial Crawfordsville is just the boy to celebrate the scourges of our sacrosanct, who came from equally endowed American towns Terre Haute and Sauk Centre." When did you write the book on Theodore Dreiser?
Well, that came out in -- it came out in two volumes, 1976 and 19 -- I'm sorry -- 1986 and 1990.
When did Theodore Dreiser live and write?
And he was -- he was born in 1871, and he died in 1945.
There's a moment in your book where Dreiser and Lewis have a falling out. Over what?
Yeah, well, they -- they didn't know each other well, but Lewis always praised Dreiser as a great pioneer, a great pathfinder. He was an older writer, to Lewis. And then -- but they -- Dreiser had written a book about Russia, and he had visited during the 20th anniversary of the revolution -- or the 10th anniversary -- sorry. And then Dorothy Thompson, whom Lewis was just falling in love with -- this is in 1928. She had gone there. She was a foreign correspondent. And then she later wrote a book. And then this New York columnist, F. P. Adams noticed similarities in their two books, and he accused -- or he made it clear that he thought Dreiser had lifted passages from Dorothy's book. And Lewis was infuriated, and he dragged Dorothy up to his lawyer and said, "We're going to sue Dreiser." And then Dreiser -- oh, it got very messy, and Dreiser was saying that he had -- implying he had been intimate with Dorothy while she was -- she was really engaged to Lewis at the time, and that she had given him his -- her notes for him to use and -- anyway, they didn't sue, which was probably fortunate.
But then at a literary dinner for a Russian writer, they came in and -- Lewis came in. He was a bit four sheets to the wind. And he -- he got up, and other people were expressing their respects for Dreiser, and he said, "I will not give my respects to a man who stole 3,000 words from my wife's book." And then Lewis -- Dreiser said after the dinner -- they met and he said, "Take that back, Lewis" -- no, he said, "Say that again, Lewis." And Lewis said it again. And he said, "OK, I'm going to slap you." And he slapped him. "Now -- now are you going to apologize?" And Lewis said, "No, I'm not going to take it back. Hit me again." So Lewis -- Dreiser slapped him again. And then a friend of Dreiser's pinioned Lewis, and Dreiser walked away. So this was a literary fight between two literary gents, and it was headline news all over the country. And the...
By the way, you can't go but a couple pages without you writing something about his drinking.
Either he was drunk on occasion or he was at a period of sobriety.
How much alcohol did he consume in his life? I don't mean by the gallon, but I mean -- explain that.
Well, I'd say he was an alcoholic. He -- you know, it got very bad, where he was -- he would go on binges, wherever he would go, drinking for weeks on end. Sometimes he'd go on the wagon. But it broke up the marriage with his first wife. They separated because he said she's -- "You're always lecturing me. You're always ordering me around because of my drinking. And -- and so I can't stand it. You're making me drink more." And so he split up with her. And then -- and then the second wife, the same things, the drinking. And they would -- he would fight. I don't think he would get violent, but his -- his tongue was very violent, and they would have these awful quarrels. Those were symptoms of it. And he would go on binges, as I said. And finally, it reached a point where the doctors told him, "You're going to die if you keep drinking like that." And that was in the -- about 1938. So he did quit for a while.
He was married to his first wife, Grace, for how many years?
That was about 10 years.
And their only son's name was?
He was named Wells after H.G. Wells.
Did he know H.G. Wells?
Yes. He was -- Wells -- H.G. Wells was one of the big influences on his early writing career. And he finally did meet him in the '20s, and they became rather friendly.
How long was he married to Dorothy Thompson?
And he married her in '29, and they divorced in '40 -- about 11 years.
They had one son, Michael?
Yes, they had Michael.
You say he died an alcoholic?
Well, no. He -- he did have trouble with drinking, and he -- it was sad because he felt it was his heredity. And he told his daughter that having two famous parents had really suppressed his, you know, sense of himself, sense of self-worth. And he would say -- he would read about his father and say, "Oh, I -- I'll do just like my father. I can do anything I want. I can drink all I want." And it was sad and -- but he -- I think he curbed it, and he actually died of Hodgkins lymphoma. And so I don't think he died of the drink, but he died in his early 50s, I believe.
The rest of what Studs Terkel said about you is, "No New Yorker could possibly have written these books. Lingeman's biography of Lewis, as well as the other" -- Theodore Dreiser -- "has that unique tribute, the feeling tone." Now, you said you're from Crawfordsville, Indiana. Theodore Dreiser was from Terre Haute.
Another figure in the book is Eugene Debs...
... home in Terre Haute. What was Debs' relationship to Sinclair Lewis?
Well, it was -- he was one of Lewis' idols, and when Lewis first moved to Greenwich Village around 1910, he became a member of the Socialist Party, and he was quite a radical young man. And I believe he met Debs there and -- and -- but he admired him greatly, and he gradually built him up as a kind of a Christ figure in his mind, which Debs was, kind of, to the labor movement. And...
How many times did Debs run for president?
Well, let's see. He started in '04, I believe, in the -- he ran through -- the last time was '28.
So five or six times.
Yeah. Yeah. And he -- I guess in 1912, he got about a million votes. And he was quite a powerful speaker and a power figure in American politics and for the -- for the working people. And Lewis admired him a lot, and then Debs went to prison because he opposed World War I and made a speech, and there were very strong laws against sedition and -- he got out, and Lewis wanted to write a novel about labor, and he thought he would model the character of Debs. And Debs had just got out of prison. He was -- he was oppressed by all the battles going on within the labor movement and the rise of the Communist Party and the -- the Socialist Party was splitting up. And at any rate, Lewis went out to Chicago, where Debs was staying at a sanitarium to recoup his health, and -- and he talked to him, and he -- and Debs was willing to cooperate and -- you know, he said he would change him so it wasn't really like Debs, but he would base it on his life and -- but he -- he just couldn't -- couldn't make it go, he said. And then he met some doctors out there, and he decided to do a novel about a doctor, "Arrowsmith," instead. But he continued to dream of his novel about Debs all through the rest of his writing career.
While you're speaking about "Arrowsmith," one of the 22 novels -- the Pulitzer Prize. He turned it down for that novel. Why?
Well, he -- you can -- there was some sense of revenge in it, perhaps, but I think it was a high-minded sense, in that "Main Street" was chosen by the judges on the 1920 Pulitzer and -- but then the trustees of the prize had the final say. They overruled it and gave it to...
Trustees of Columbia.
Right. Yeah, who administer the Pulitzer Trust. And -- and they overturned it and awarded it to Edith Wharton's "The Age of Innocence." So Lewis felt that -- that they -- it was these old -- the old guardists of literature, the conservatives of literature, and -- who thought that he was too critical of America. And terms of the prize said something about that this should represent the highest aspects of the American character, or some words that implied that it should be an uncritical look at America. And he thought this would thwart writers, that they would -- that this prize would become so central that it would set standards for American literature. And so when "Arrowsmith" won the award, he turned it down. And he wrote a long letter giving his reasons, and -- but mainly, it was a protest against this -- he thought the prize was stultifying and it -- it set too conservative standards for American novel writing and American novelists should be free and they shouldn't be herded into a certain kind of writing and -- for right or wrong. And -- but I think it was a principled stand he took. A lot of people thought he was a publicity hound.
What was Sinclair Lewis' relationship to "The Nation" magazine.
Well, he was a regular contributor in the '20s, and he was a friend of the editor, Oswald Garrison Villard . And I think the politics of "The Nation" then dovetailed very comfortably with Lewis'. The supported -- "The Nation" supported Senator LaFollette who ran on the Progressive Party ticket in '24 against Coolidge, and -- and Lewis wrote some articles for them, doing mock interviews with the "Main Street" people, and asking them who they supported and -- and he'd ask Carol Kennicott, and her husband, Dr. Will Kennicott, and some of the other characters. And also Babbitt. He asked Babbitt. And anyway, he -- he -- because he was sort of a conservative radical, I guess you'd say, or he was a radical in a good suit, he always clung to a vision of socialism, but he didn't have anything -- a clear program. But he -- he certainly based his criticisms of America on that, and "The Nation" was very sympathetic. Villard was very sympathetic to him, and he liked Villard.
What's your relationship to "The Nation" magazine?
Well, my relationship is that I've worked there about 20 years, and -- and I was executive editor there. Now I'm a senior editor there. And so I've had a very close relationship and -- and I appreciate the tradition. I -- in fact, I wasn't quite aware that Lewis had written that much or that there was this correspondence between him and Villard and -- and Villard wanted him to cover the -- the party conventions, and then Lewis changed -- said he would, and then he changed his mind. And Villard had already advertised that Lewis would be writing. And then so that got a lot of subscriptions. And so he was -- he was really stuck there. He thought he'd have to refund the money, but then Lewis agreed to write these other interviews for him, but...
You told us early in this that you're from Crawfordsville Indiana.
He was from Sauk Centre Minnesota.
He worked for "The Nation" magazine. You work for "The Nation" magazine.
And Theodore Dreiser was your first -- was that your first book?
No, I wrote a couple of others, one on World War II, the home front during World War II, and one called "Small Town America."
And then, of course, we talked about Eugene Debs. How much of your own life, is what I'm getting at, is in Sinclair Lewis' life?
Well, I think it was -- again, it was.. you’re talking about when I first read that I -- I think it was actually when I was away at college, and going -- I went east to college, and -- and I identified with him, who went east to college. And coming from a small town, I -- in the Midwest, you have a certain inferiority feeling -- even though I didn't go to Yale. I went to Haverford College, which was a small college. But still, it seemed all these Eastern prep school graduates there who were -- seemed somehow -- it -- to my naive eye, to be suaver and more cultured. And -- but anyway, the -- I think that sense of identity it gave me, coming from a small town of -- that it had made an impression on me. And for my senior year, I wrote a paper on Sinclair Lewis and -- and a sort of biographical study of him. And there were -- and little did I know that I would become involved more deeply with him. But I always liked him, and I always liked his satire and his Babbitt . I can think of Babbitts in my home town that I knew. And so I guess he was -- he just awakened me to aspects of America and -- and confirmed some of my own experiences as a boy.
Haverford is located where?
Now, he went to Oberlin for a while. What happened to him in the Ohio school, Oberlin?
Well, he went there -- Oberlin at that time was a very religious place, and it was -- they were trying to, you know, turn out missionaries. And he went there for a prep school course, so that he could pass the Yale exams. But he became very religious there, and he -- he was going to become a missionary. And he gave -- you know, he made a whatever you call it, a decision for Christ. And he said, "I'm going to go out and become a missionary." And he underlines this in his -- this diary he kept, which is -- and so he was caught up in religion, and he was -- and which is kind of ironic for the man who wrote "Elmer Gantry," but not really, because he later became disillusioned and he swung the opposite way. And -- but Oberlin -- this sense of faith and of Christianity -- this inspired him and this disillusioned him. And that had an impact on his life. And so when he wrote about the small Middlewestern colleges, they were based on Oberlin.
And when he wrote against religion, I think he was writing out of disillusionment, his own disillusionment, his loss of faith, that -- in a way, that he had had and that -- he said to Upton Sinclair once that, "Oh, religion draws in idealistic young men, and what a waste, when they could be out working to improve the world." And he didn't think religion, organized religion, was doing anything to help the world. And that's -- he became a socialist and an agnostic or atheist and -- so that experience in -- is kind of comical. He was just so religious, and he was -- he was going to -- he would -- he would go teach a Sunday school class, and they would go in one of these old railroad handcars, you know, which you pumped up and down. And that happens in "Elmer Gantry," too. And they go to this little village and -- he and the other students, and they would teach Sunday school.
And he would -- he -- when his father told him one of the local boys in Sauk Centre was taking up cigarettes and drinking whiskey, and he said, "Well, send him out to me. I'll take care of him and I'll set him straight." So he became quite fanatic for a while, but the -- he quickly cooled. And then at Yale, he became a socialist, so -- that's the story of his Oberlin career, and -- but he -- he made much use of Oberlin as a setting for the small colleges in several of his novels.
The book, "Babbitt" -- when was that written, and what was it about?
Well, that was written after "Main Street," in 1921. He had wanted -- it came from, basically, two ideas, I think, or his two obsessions. One was with a kind of -- he wanted a hero who was a salesman and who was selling just for the sake of selling and making people buy things that they might not want to buy. And he wanted to write a book set in a medium-sized city, population 200,000 to 500,000. He said "This -- this place hasn't been written about in American literature, not really," a place like Seattle or Minneapolis or -- or Hartford or places like that. And so his first conception that he told his publisher was that -- that Babbitt is all of us at age 46, a man who's -- who's wondering is just buying a new car and buying a better house enough? I mean, isn't there something more in life?, some romance or -- or something else, you know? I guess we'd say he's a man in a mid-life crisis. And -- but he -- and I think he wanted to satirize businessmen.
So he -- he started planning it, and he started -- he went out to the Midwest. He was on a kind of a speaking tour, but he would do research for his book. He would talk to people, talk to businessmen and listen to the -- and note down the way they talked. And he would read the society pages and he would read trade magazines, and he would go visit real estate offices. Babbitt's a real estate man. And so that -- that started the research. Then he -- he went through a -- he was developing a system for writing novels, and he -- so he -- after he did the research, he filled this notebook full of stuff. And then he'd add biographies of all the characters, and he would -- he'd have to get the names for the characters. And the name was very important to him. His publisher, Alfred Harcourt, said, "You write to a name." And he said "The -- a character doesn't come alive till I know the name."
And -- and so with Babbitt, he originally called Pumfrey and he decided that wasn't right. It was just too English and too effete. And he thought of Fitch and he thought of some other names, and he wanted a common name, sort of -- but not as common as Smith or Jones, but -- so finally, "Babbitt" came out. And there are different theories for the origin of it. But anyway, Babbitt -- George F. -- "F" for Follensby -- Babbitt. And that seemed to be the -- the right name. And it was. And so he went on down the list of all these other characters in there. He was great on names, like T. Chumley Frick who was the advertising man poet Chum Frick. Or Oppo Emerson Mudge who was the new thought guru. And Virgil Gunch who was the very conservative guy who catches Babbitt out when he's dallying with this beautiful widow named Tunnis Judique and so on.
But anyway, he'd draw up all the names of the characters, and he'd write biographies of them. And then, when he was in England, he -- at Cornwall, in a hotel, he -- he was preparing it and talking with his wife about it, and he made maps. He drew up maps of -- and 17 maps of the -- well, it was the state of -- in which Babbitt is -- that's one of them, a state in which Babbitt -- in which Zenith Babbitt's home town, is located. And he drew maps of Zenith. And then he drew maps of Babbitt's neighborhood, which that one is. And then he drew maps of Babbitt's office and Babbitt's house, both floors and every room in the house. And they're incredibly detailed.
Now, the -- Cincinnati plays a part in this, doesn't it?
Yes. He was -- I think -- he started out in Cincinnati. That was his base for his research, and he stayed at, I believe, the Athletic Club there or Queen City Club, I believe it was called. And he talked to a lot of people there, and he -- and there's some society notes that he lifted and put into "Babbitt." He parodied the society reporter.
"Main Street" in 1920, "Babbitt" in 1922. What was the political impact of "Babbitt"? Any?
Well, it -- at first, it was -- the people it was satirizing, such as the -- the real estate people and the -- also the -- what we call the service club members -- the Rotary Club, the Kiwanis Club -- they sort of took it in stride, saying, "Oh, yeah. We all know Babbitts in our profession." But then -- I don't know. It seemed that, gradually, they became aware that it was kind of a subversive book. It was anti-business, and this was, you know, during the '20s, which was a conservative time. And so it was -- began attacking it and defending Babbitt by saying "Babbitt's not a bad guy. He's a good guy. He's -- and he -- he's the kind of American we approve of." And of course, Lewis, was always ambivalent. He -- he always said, "I love Babbitt." You know, "I think Babbitt's a great guy, but he just" -- you know, "He -- he's -- he should read more and -- and understand more and -- and pay more attention to politics and don't believe the canned opinions he gets in the newspaper," and things like that. So -- but it did -- there was sort of a backlash against "Babbitt," but a delayed one. It was a sensation when it came out.
On page 212, you have a couple of quotes here from Gracie to a friend, Stella Wood . And you quote the letters from Gracie to Stella Wood all through the book. Who was Stella Wood?
Well, she was a -- a pioneering teacher at -- they met in St. Paul, and she started kindergarten there. And she was -- she worked with very young children. And Grace had become quite impressed with her and -- and learned from her about taking care of children.
The reason I mention it, because I want to read a little bit what you write relating to what you just said about "Babbitt." "Gracie expressed Hal's view to Stella Wood" -- Hal being Sinclair Lewis.
... "who had raised the popular objection" -- quote -- this is what Gracie wrote -- "Hal is not a medicine man. He has no remedies to offer. Who would take them if he did?" And you write, "He believed that Americans would get more out of life, quote, `if we would only try to see'" -- and "see" is in big letters -- "So he tries to force our eyes open," unquote, she said. And then "Awareness was Lewis' program," you write.
It's true. I think -- yeah, Gracie was -- was very insightful, and I think she sort of expressed his views, but -- because he always said -- I mean, I -- I could backtrack a little and say that when he first wrote a draft of "Main Street," he had all kinds of suggestions for what to do about small towns that were, you know, ugly and badly designed, like Gopher Prairie. But he took them out of the book because he -- a person who had read it, another novelist, James Branch Campbell said, well, it detracts from the story. And in his notes for "Babbitt," you can see his suggestions of Babbitt's. You know, if they would just do this and that. But he felt that didn't have a place in his novel. He wasn't there to offer programs and -- but it was very important to him, I think, this idea of awareness. And I'm glad you mentioned it because he felt the people of Gopher Prairie were sort of mentally dead, that they -- they just lived lives of habit and they -- and they thought in clichés and -- and he thought the same thing of Babbitt, that Babbitt went through these ritualized social encounters with the -- with the roughnecks, the table at the Athletic Club and -- and -- and he would go out and sort of tell lies to sell houses. And he was in a whole ritualized life and -- but he wasn't thinking for himself.
"Main Street" 1920, "Babbitt" 1922, based -- "Main Street" on Sauk Centre, Minnesota, called Gopher Prairie. The town of Zenith for "Babbitt" -- that's Cincinnati.
Pretty much, yeah. And others.
And then Martin Arrowsmith -- or "Arrowsmith," the book, was centered in what location?
Well, it was -- it was set in this -- some of it, anyway, the early parts were set in this mythical state of Winnemack where he -- Martin grows up. And he studies -- he gets his medical -- M.D. degree at the University of Winnemack, the state university.
And that's kind of where in the United States?
And that's -- well, he said it -- the northern border was Michigan, and western Illinois, and the southern was Indiana, and the eastern was Ohio. So it's sort of in Lake Michigan.
And that was 1925. And then in 1927, "Elmer Gantry." And that was located where?
Well, that was -- also started out in -- a lot of it was in the state of Winnemack, yeah, much of it. And then -- and Gantry ends up in Zenith and -- well, he doesn't end up there. He goes through Zenith for a while. Then he's called to New York.
And Elmer Gantry was what? What would he -- what'd he do?
Well, he was -- Elmer Gantry was -- he went out and became a -- went to divinity school and became a minister, and then -- but he was kind of bored with that, and he becomes -- he gets in trouble first with drinking and wenching, shall we say, and so he loses his -- his pulpit and -- but then he joins up with this evangelist, woman evangelist named Sharon Falconer . And so he -- he becomes an evangelist, a traveling evangelist. And you know, in those days, they had these -- the tent show evangelists and the -- and they had -- they literally spread the sawdust on the -- on the ground. And you'd -- and they'd call for you to -- to decide for Christ, and you'd march up the sawdust trail and -- and so anyway, he's very successful, but then her career is destroyed. She dies in a fire. So he -- he goes on and -- becoming the evangelist, but eventually returns to the organized church and rises in that and becomes a respectable figure, but is more dangerous, in a way, in the end.
Who is William -- the Reverend William -- is it Stidger?
Stidger, yeah. He was -- he was a minister in Kansas City, and he had met Lewis and -- in Terre Haute, when Lewis was there visiting Debs. And they had talked. And Stidger criticized him for the minister he created in "Babbitt," called Dr. John Jennison Drew and -- but Lewis had taken some of Dr. Drew's ideas for pepping up the church from Stidger's ideas, which were, you know, how to increase the collection plate and how to make the church pay, he said. And you know, it was just ways to raise money, and it just -- run the church more like a business, he said, and...
You quote Stidger's daughter, Betty . Is she still alive?
No. His -- I got that from his grandson, I believe. Yeah.
He may be still alive. I don't know. But his grandson...
Did you talk to him?
Yeah. And he -- he's writing a biography of Stidger, and he gave me that material.
I just want to read what his -- Stidger's daughter, Betty, said about Sinclair Lewis.
"Betty later recalled the famous house guest" -- and Sinclair Lewis was a house guest at Stidger's home?
"He was very considerate, but not too conscientious," she writes. "He had the florist deliver huge baskets of flowers to his charming hostess, my mother, and then charged them to dad. He raved at our Jessie's cooking, and then Jessie would forego the vacuuming to consort" -- I'm sorry -- `'to concoct some special dish for supper. And likely as not, Red" -- that was his nickname, Red Lewis...
... "would just eat at the Athletic Club that night. He slept till noon, used innumerable bath towels, wiped his razor blade on Mother's linen face towels, refused to send his shirts to the laundry because Jessie was such a nice ironer, brought a veritable host of friends home late at night and expected sustenance and gaiety." Why'd you put that in there?
Well, that gave partly a picture of this tumultuous time he spent in Kansas City. And he had -- Stidger thought he was going to base the character of Elmer Gantry or -- who was then unnamed. He went out there. He was going to write a novel about a preacher. So he went out to research it in Kansas City, and Stidger introduced him around and -- and helped him. But Lewis thought Stidger was too mainstream, and he needed somebody who was more critical of the church, and he found another minister named Leon Burkett. So he still based some of Elmer Gantry on Stidger. Stidger was known as "Big Bill," and he was an ex-athlete and -- and you know, sort of a strong, manly kind of guy. And he got some of Elmer Gantry's talk from Stidger, I think, and -- but Stidger was kind of disillusioned because -- when he saw the portrait of Elmer Gantry. He had gone around Kansas City saying, "Lewis is going to use me in his novel" And I think he thought that it would be a novel like "Arrowsmith," about an idealistic young minister, who's -- you know, he said, "make the minister a human being and with his flaws and everything."
But Lewis was -- wanted a -- had a more radical criticism of the church, and so he -- he based the character on a lot of ministers, actually, and -- according to Mrs. Burkett. And well, Stidger, to continue with him -- he was miffed when the book came out, and later he preached a sermon saying that Lewis had been drunk when he wrote it, all the time he was writing it, which was only partially true, a very small extent true. But anyway, and Lewis was angered by that and -- and he accused -- and then later, Stidger apologized, and Lewis said he would not accept the apology because Stidger had already gotten enough publicity out of him, or something like that.
A couple of little things. He was a janitor for Upton Sinclair?
Yes. That's -- he dropped out of Yale in his junior year, with a friend, a fellow poet and radical named Uptigraf . And Sinclair, with the money he had made from "The Jungle," he -- you know, that was a best-seller. And he bought this estate along the Hudson, called Hellicon Hall . And he was going to set up a cooperative commonwealth there. He got a group of mostly literary people and -- or academic people, and they would live there cooperatively, and each one would do certain tasks. And they had children -- their children would be raised in a common nursery, a day care, like a day care center. And so the women who were writers could be -- who were moms could be free to work. And so Lewis and Uptigraf went there, and they thought they would be writers, but they were assigned to be janitors, and they spent most of their time being janitors and trying to cope with this enormous furnace for this mansion.
Who was Marcella Powers?
Marcella Powers was Lewis' last love. She was -- when they met, she was 18 and he was 53, I believe. She was an actress, an aspiring actress, and apprentice in the summer stock company. And she cued him on his lines. He had gone into acting in the '30s, and this was in 1939. And -- and he fell for her, and -- and she became his girlfriend.
For how long?
Well, it -- she -- it lasted through about 1947, and then she married. She -- I think she was very fond of him, but she -- she said "I love Red, but I'm not in love with him." And -- and she had a roving eye, you might say, and she started going out with other guys, I guess. And finally, he had to make a compromise with her so that she would get her freedom to see younger men, really. And -- and in World War II, she was dating all the GIs and everything and -- but he would constantly get her -- you know, try to get her to come out and see him. He was living in Minnesota then.
You say he got her pregnant?
And it seemed to be. He refers in his letter to "Junior," and -- "our little junior, which we could have had." But I can't find any other confirmation of that, but some people thought there was no -- nothing sexual about their interest, but I think there was.
You -- we don't have much time, so I'm jumping around. Ernest Hemingway had a character in one of his books. And I want to quote what the character said. And it was -- before I read it, he's referring to Sinclair Lewis?
They spy a man in a restaurant with -- this is -- these are Ernest Hemingway's words -- "a strange face like an over-enlarged, disappointed weasel for ferret. It looked as pockmarked and as blemished as the mountains of the moon seen through a cheap telescope, and the colonel thought it looked like Goebbels's face if Herr Goebbels had ever been in a plane that burned and not been able to bail out before the fire reached him. A little spit ran out of the corner of his mouth as he spoke, peeringly with the elderly, wholesome-looking woman who was with him." Talking about Sinclair Lewis.
Yeah, that was...
Was he a strange-looking guy?
Very cruel portrait. Yeah, he had -- well, you know, he was tall and he was red-haired and -- but his complexion is -- he had skin problems. He had had acne as a kid, and then treated with X-rays. And it may have contributed. But anyway, he had a hereditary disposition to skin cancer, and that broke out in -- in the '20s. He started having these basal cell skin cancer eruptions on his face. And he would have to treat them. And they left -- seemed to leave scars, and his face would get all red and covered with scars. And H.L. Mencken, his friend, said it looked like a lizard's skin sometimes. And sometimes the treatments would clear it up, but it would come back. And so it left his skin very rough and pock-marked and -- and he was very self-conscious about it. It was very sad, but he could never quite get rid of it, but he -- he would have these treated periodically. And Hemingway had formed a distinct dislike to him and got his revenge in this very cruel way.
Voted the most eccentric out of his Yale class of 1907. You say he was the loneliest man in the world?
Yeah, that's what people said, yeah, who knew him, that he felt that.
Would you have liked him, do you think?
I think -- he could be very charming and -- and entertaining and -- and interesting. You know, he would -- he was good on politics. When he was married to Dorothy, she was, you know, the real policy work in the columnists and -- but he would sit around making common-sense, shrewd observations on politics, and I think he could be very funny on politics. And that was a problem with their marriage was that she was always more interested in politics than he was, in a way. I mean, she was always talking about "the situation." "What's the situation in Europe, the situation in Washington?" And he said, "I'm sick of hearing about the situation." And she monopolized the conversation, and she was crusading against Hitler in the '30s. And he said, "If we ever divorce, I'm going to name Hitler as a co-respondent." And so he was -- and so she invented a character called "The Grouse" and she used him in her column, and that was Red Lewis.
What year did he die?
And he died in '51 in Rome.
Where is he buried?
He's buried in Sauk Centre, next to his mother and father.
Have you been there, by the way?
Oh, yeah. Several times, to visit.
And do you ever go back to your home town of Crawfordsville?
I do. I haven't been there recently, but I've gone back for my high school reunions. And my parents are no longer alive, so I don't have as much reason to go back. I used to go back. My mother was there for a long time, and -- and so I miss going back there, in a way, but I just haven't had any particular cause to.
What's your next book?
Well, I haven't decided yet on a subject, but I hope -- some kind of biography, perhaps, though they take a long time. And I'm looking into my -- some -- possibly German-Americans, something about German-Americans, a history -- their history in this country.
And how long did it take you to write this book?
Well, that started in 1993 and took about seven or eight years. It takes a long time for these biographies, but I was working at "The Nation" part-time during this period.
Our guest is Richard Lingeman. This is the book, called "Sinclair Lewis: A Rebel From Main Street." Thank you very much.
Thank you. I enjoyed it.