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Picture of twentieth century American novelist Sinclair Lewis, author of Main Street and Babbitt

October 23, 1920
Sinclair Lewis   (1885 - 1951)
Life on Main Street
by Steve King

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On this day in 1920 Sinclair Lewis's Main Street was published. This was the first of a string of hit novels over the next decade, most of which poked and scolded at the puritan terrors of small town life -- conformity, boosterism, "a range of grotesque vulgarity," says one critic, "which but for him would have left no record." "He was one of the worst writers in modern American literature," says another, "but without his writing one cannot imagine modern American literature." Bad or not, Main Street was certainly medicine, and Lewis envisioned Middle America reading it "with the same masochistic pleasure that one has in sucking an aching tooth":
    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....
For the trustees of Columbia University who awarded the Pulitzer Prize, the pain of such passages must have beat out the pleasure: they rejected their three-man panel's unanimous recommendation of Main Street, and gave the Pulitzer to Edith Wharton for The Age of Innocence. Lewis interpreted this rejection as his novel's vindication, a judgment not so much about, as from, Main Street: "I'm quite sure I never shall get the Pulitzer -- my books are too critical to please polite committees.... Personally, I don't give a hang."

When Lewis was given the Pulitzer for Arrowsmith several years later, he refused it. His letters indicate that his refusal was payback for "the Main Street burglary," though in public he took the high road. The Pulitzer's official mandate was to honor books which portrayed "the wholesome atmosphere of American life, and the highest standard of American manners and manhood"; such awards, said Lewis, rewarded "safe, polite, obedient, and sterile" writing, and he wanted no part of them.

Some applauded this stance as principled, and about time. Others saw it as grandstanding, although for publicity rather than revenge. One businessman from Kansas City -- the Main Street type that Lewis's books made fun of -- saw it as an opportunity for some payback of his own. When the story of his Pulitzer rejection broke on front-pages across America, Lewis was in Kansas City doing research for Elmer Gantry. On May 14th, Kansas City celebrated Straw Hat Day. After the parade, a truck delivered a giant straw hat to Lewis's hotel with a note which hoped that it would prove "an adequate roof" for the swelled head.

All this may have left Lewis joke-shy. Several years later, when a Swedish reporter telephoned to tell him that he had been given the Nobel Prize, Lewis thought it was 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...'You haf de Nobel Brize....'" Lewis went on with this until the exasperated Swede passed the phone to someone else. When Lewis accepted the Nobel with enthusiasm, many wondered what had happened to his Pulitzer principles.

Lewis explained that the Nobel was international and had no strings attached; thinking of what was attached, and smelling a home-state rat, the Minneapolis Tribune explained it differently: "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."

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Related authors:  Ernest Hemingway, Jack London, John Dos Passos
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