On 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:
The first night home Hal closed the door of the rear bedroom where we were to sleep. Next morning the Doctor complained that by doing so we had shut off the current of air needed on these warm spring nights. "Golly, I'd forgotten about that. There used to be a big green book that Dad used as a doorstop - and here it still is!" So we stuck "Bible Readings for the Home Circle" in the door every night thereby sacrificing our only chance at privacy....
Lewis's father continued to take his Saturday night, bucket-and-sponge bath decades after he had installed a new-fangled tub in his house. Grace found that meals were available at the appointed hour only, and on one visit to the Doctor's office she discovered that even the objects on his desk -- one was a lump of sulphur from Yellowstone Park, where Old Faithful spouted "every hour and exactly to the minute" -- were immovable:
Mischievously, when the doctor left his desk, Hal moved the bottle of ink and the sulphur, revealing the unfaded spots on the felt.
"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 book that Lewis was mulling over at this time was provisionally titled "The Village Virus," a phrase eventually defined in Main Street as the germ which "infects ambitious people who stay too long in the provinces." Whatever his ambivalence, it seems unlikely that Lewis could ever have caught this ailment. His determination to be a writer, and to become famous, granted immunity -- and invited other troubles. The biographies document Lewis's lifelong restlessness, his ever-shifting relationships, his book-a-year pace, his alcoholism, his lonely death. Though the memoir of just a dozen early years, With Love from Gracie is full of such shadows.
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:
There were to be many thrilling occasions in the life of Sinclair Lewis -- seeing an entire bookseller's window on Fifth Avenue devoted to Main Street, receiving the Nobel Prize from a king -- but it's a safe guess to make that neither topped that moment when he stopped the Ford neatly in front of the old stone carriage step and called out to his father and mother and me sitting on the porch after supper: "How about a little ride?"