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What the Swedes Read: Sinclair Lewis

by Daniel Handler
Illustration by Charles Burns

What the Swedes Read: Sinclair Lewis

Daniel Handler
14 Snaps
  • LAUREATE:  Sinclair Lewis (United States, 1930)
  • BOOK READ: Main Street

It began as the title of an Anthony Trollope novel, but it’s become a slogan for the kind of fiction I never understand: the Way We Live Now. For the life of me I cannot rustle up an interest in novels about the Way We Live Now. I am interested in the Way We Lived Then. I am interested in the Way We Might Live Some Other Time. But most of all I am interested in the Way We Don’t Live Now. It does not have to be the fiction of the impossible—in fact, I don’t read much that takes me to other planets with fanciful creatures—but I crave the startle of unfamiliarity, the strange glint in a sentence or a premise that draws the eye, so that when you finish the chapter and look around you, everything has been tilted and tinted until it—your own world—seems otherworldly. The last strange thing I read was a line by the Slovene poet Tomaž Šalamun: “The rise of the zebra hurts the zebra.” It’s a great line. I’m not even sure what he means by it, really. But the line camped out in my head for a while, and then suddenly I was reading a newspaper article about “the rise of democracy”—an ordinary enough phrase—and I thought, The rise of democracy hurts democracy. True or not, it was a strange little idea, and it was Šalamun who had screwed in the light bulb.

The strange illuminates the ordinary. But I don’t get what the ordinary is supposed to illuminate. I see these novels heralded as the Way We Live Now, and I read them—these basic stories in plain language that remind me of people I know in places I know doing things everybody does—and I think, Why did I stay in and read? I could have seen those people I know. We could have gone out to dinner and then maybe to a movie and I still would have had time to go home and read a few pages of something strange, something that eschewed the ordinary and the basic in favor of the “vigorous and graphic art of description and [the] ability to create, with wit and humor, new types of characters.”

That’s how the work of Sinclair Lewis was described by the Nobel Committee when it gave him the prize, and it’s an assessment that it took me a while to grasp. I’d read quite a bit of Sinclair Lewis in college, but tellingly, it was never for a literature class but for American Studies, in cross-genric courses called things like National Epiphany and Culture And American Art, in which novels were often assigned not for the quality of their prose but for their cultural footprint. Sinclair Lewis is in my mind part of a quasi-generational grouping of American writers who are more known about than read, blurring a little with Sherwood Anderson (although Lewis is less experimental), Frank Norris (although Lewis is less political), John Dos Passos (less ambitious), and Upton Sinclair (I mean, c’mon, they have the same name). You probably know that Lewis’s novel Elmer Gantry is about a hypocritical preacher, just as you know that Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio is a collection of small-town portraits, Norris’s The Octopus is about railroads, Dos Passos’s U.S.A. trilogy is full of wacky newsreels and Sinclair’s The Jungle makes everybody go vegan for a few weeks. But you probably haven’t read them all, at least not for pleasure. Sinclair Lewis is still respected, of course—there he is in a handsome Library of America omnibus—but his influence is such that his books are so familiar we don’t need to read them. Arrowsmith, another of Lewis’s novels, is about an ambitious young scientist who lets the trappings of genius distract him from the work at hand. You probably haven’t read it. But don’t you sort of feel like you have?

Main Street is the third of his most famous books, and the only one I hadn’t read, although it took me a few chapters to make sure this was the case, so familiar was the premise: a bright young woman, afire with a liberal arts education, dreams of bringing her progressive views to the small town that is her new, postmarital home. The first thirty pages reminded me of so many other small-town works, from Our Town to Peyton Place, that I couldn’t be certain I hadn’t been assigned it some twenty years back, and indeed Lewis wants us to know that the story he is telling is not a startling, individual one, but the Way We Live Now: “Of the love-making of Carol and Will Kennicott,” he says, when our heroine begins her courtship, “there is nothing to be told which may not be heard on every summer evening, on every shadowy block. They were biology and mystery; their speech was slang phrases and flares of poetry; their silences were contentment, or shaky crises when his arm took her shoulder. All the beauty of youth, first discovered when it is passing—and all the commonplaceness of a well-to-do unmarried man encountering a pretty girl…” and on it goes, a long account of something with which the author has assured us we are already very familiar. Of course, Main Street is nearly one hundred years old, so presumably the Way We Live Now is different enough that the novel could become less familiar over time. But for the most part it isn’t. Look at this recounting of the small-town mores that provide Carol with assorted logistical and philosophical challenges over the course of the book:

The Baptist Church (and, somewhat less, the Methodist, Congregational, and Presbyterian Churches) is the perfect, the divinely ordained standard in music, oratory, philanthropy, and ethics… The Republican Party, the Grand Old Party of Blaine and McKinley, is the agent of the Lord and of the Baptist Church in temporal affairs. All socialists ought to be hanged… Europeans are still wickeder… Virgins are not so virginal as they used to be… There would be no more trouble or discontent in the world if everybody worked as hard as Pa did when he cleared our first farm.

Switch very few words and you could win a bar bet that this was Jonathan Franzen. Like Franzen, Lewis is interested in challenging the outward cheer of American culture—“I do not admit that Main Street is as beautiful as it should be! I do not admit that Gopher Prairie is greater or more generous than Europe! I do not admit that dish-washing is enough to satisfy all women!” our heroine cries, having forsaken small-town life, at the end of the book—by documenting the disheartening, sometimes comic details of everyday life. As someone in possession of an everyday life, why I would want these details recounted is frankly beyond me, but in reading the Nobel praise of him—“The new great American literature has started with national self-criticism”—I was reminded that Lewis’s vision might be more fascinating, then and now, outside America’s borders, which is precisely why such a prize was given to begin with. After all, the Way We Don’t Live Now, my favorite category of fiction, is likely being led someplace else, as far away from here as the town of Gopher Prairie is from Stockholm.

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