American literature in the 1920s did not belong to F. Scott Fitzgerald's glitterati, or to Ernest Hemingway's expatriates, but to Sinclair Lewis and SmallTown USA. Lewis dominated the decade, first with Main Street in 1920, and then at a two-year pace, Babbitt, Arrowsmith, Elmer Gantry, and Dodsworth. These five books, and the little game Lewis played with the Pulitzer and Nobel Prizes he received for them, would become the most famous chapter in his noisy and controversial career.
"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...."
So begins Main Street, and so began middle-America's love-hate relationship with Sinclair Lewis. His journalistic novels poke and scold at the puritan terrors of village 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." Certainly all of America, those who thought 'It's a Wonderful Life' and those who didn't, read the book -- though some, as Lewis put it, did so "with the same masochistic pleasure that one has in sucking an aching tooth."
For the trustees of Columbia University who awarded the Pulitzer Prize, the ache 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."
That was 1923; this is Lewis in 1926, to his publisher, after widespread speculation that he would now get the Pulitzer for Arrowsmith: "...you know, don't you, that ever since the Main Street burglary, I have planned that if they ever did award it to me, I would refuse it, with a polite but firm letter which I shall let the press have, and which ought to make it impossible for any one ever to accept [it] thereafter without acknowledging themselves as willing to sell out." Lewis was hoping for a chance to play not only payback, but ambush: "I'll be ready for them," his letter ends.
Lewis got the award, and his rejection letter of May 5th, 1926 covered up the revenge motive with lofty polish. He portrayed as censorship the Pulitzer mandate to select the novel "which shall best present the wholesome atmosphere of American life, and the highest standard of American manners and manhood." He challenged all writers to emancipate themselves from such compulsions of "safe, polite, obedient, and sterile" behaviour.
Some applauded this stance as principled, and about time. Others saw it as grandstanding, although for publicity rather than revenge. One, a businessman from Kansas City -- the type that Lewis's books liked to make fun of -- saw it as an opportunity for some payback of his own. When the story 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. Two truck drivers rolled the hat into his room, and handed him a note: "Since recent developments indicate that the brain-children, Dr. Kennicott, Babbitt, Arrowsmith and Elmer Gantry may occupy enlarged quarters, here is an adequate roof for the superstructure. From a Reader."
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. Shortly afterwards, when Lewis telephoned his wife, he was so excited she thought he was ill:
"What's the matter?"
"Dorothy, I've got the Nobel Prize!"
"Oh, have you," she said briskly, "How nice for you! Well, I have the Order of the Garter!"
After having seen Lewis take the high road on the Pulitzer, the public was confused at his enthusiasm for the Nobel. The critics and the more literary writers regarded both the selection and the acceptance as a joke. Hemingway quipped that the only good thing about Lewis getting the Nobel was that Theodore Drieser didn't. Then again, Hemingway, too, enjoyed a large hat.