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December 10, 2017

Sinclair Lewis's Nobel No Joke

On this day in 1930, Sinclair Lewis received notice that he had won the Nobel Prize. Lewis had written five major novels over the previous decade -- Main Street, Babbitt, Arrowsmith, Elmer Gantry and Dodsworth -- but many peers and critics went on record with their preference for Pound or Joyce, or if it was America's turn, Willa Cather, Eugene O'Neill or Theodore Dreiser. Hemingway, ever diplomatic, said the only good thing about Lewis getting the Nobel was that it meant Dreiser didn't. Lewis's acceptance of the prize caused even more publicity, from those who remembered his lofty refusal of the 1926 Pulitzer, and now wondered what had changed. Lewis explained that the Pulitzer came with strings attached -- of patriotism, of conventionality -- whereas the Nobel was international and unencumbered.

Among those unconvinced by this was the Minneapolis Tribune. Lewis was born in Sauk Center, Minnesota, and had made his reputation by satirizing small-town America, as here in the preamble to Main Street:
    Main Street is the climax of civilization. That this Ford car might stand in front of the Bon Ton Store, Hannibal invaded Rome and Erasmus wrote in Oxford cloisters. What Ole Jenson the grocer says to Ezra Stowbody the banker is the new law for London, Prague, and the unprofitable isles of the sea; whatsoever Ezra does not know and sanction, that thing is heresy, worthless for knowing and wicked to consider. . . .
The Tribune smelled a home-state rat in the acceptance of the Nobel, and saw an opportunity: "It is a good deal easier to reconcile one's artistic conscience to a $46,350 prize than it is to one which happens to be, under the terms of the Pulitzer award, exactly $45,350 less."

The joking over Lewis's Nobel began from the very moment of its announcement. The phone call from Sweden caught Lewis so off guard that his first response was to treat it as a prank: "Oh yeah? You don't say! Listen...I can say that better than you, your Swedish accent's no good. I'll repeat it to you -- 'Ahyou haf de Nobel Brize. . . .'" Lewis kept this up until the exasperated Swede had to pass the phone to someone else. And then shortly afterwards, when Lewis got the news straight and telephoned his wife -- the journalist Dorothy Thompson -- he was so excited that she first thought he was ill, and then a good target for her own joke:

"What's the matter?"
"Dorothy, I've got the Nobel Prize!"
"Oh, have you.... How nice for you! Well, I have the Order of the Garter!"

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