December 17, 2017
Sinclair Lewis in Sauk CentreOn this day in 1885 Sinclair Lewis was born in Sauk Centre, Minnesota. The argument which Lewis enjoyed with his hometown is a celebrated one -- not least in the hometown, where Lewis's status has evolved from cuss-word to cultural attraction. With Main Street a best-seller and Lewis a Nobel-winner, Sauk Centre and its most famous son had patched things up long before Lewis's death in 1951, of course. Still, given that his novel mocks such boosterism, few could have predicted the town's annual "Sinclair Lewis Days," or that the local high school sports teams, upon which Lewis never dreamed of playing, would be cheered on as the "MainStreeters."
Lewis could see both sides to the small-town American Dream. He could not wait to get away from home, but he did not leave as Joyce left Dublin, or stay as far away as Hemingway stayed from Oak Park, Illinois. One return visit is amusingly described in With Love from Gracie, a forgotten, out-of-print memoir by his first wife, Grace Hegger Lewis. She was a big-city girl who had worked at Vogue, and her new husband had forewarned her about Doctor Lewis of Sauk Centre; still, it was a shock:
"Now watch him," he whispered.
When the Doctor returned to his desk his fingers immediately sought the displaced objects and pushed them neatly over the unfaded spots.
The last sentence of the memoir begins, "Dear, dear Minnesota Tumbleweed, driven by the winds of your own blowing...." Lewis and his wife ended their first visit to Sauk Centre by driving out of town in a Model T Ford, heading back to New York via California. Lewis designed a canvas and wooden pole contraption, turning the car into a homemade camper for the prairie nights. The canvas was assembled "on the sewing machine of a friendly shoemaker in full sight of Main Street," giving an additional touch to those famous, first-page sentences in the novel: "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...." Grace ends her chapter on the Sauk Centre visit by recalling an early, climactic test drive of the Model T:
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