Henry Sinclair Lewis was born in Sauk Center, Minnesota, the son and grandson of physicians. He was the youngest of three brothers. Lewis was a solitary boy who spent most of his time reading and writing in his diary. He attended Oberlin Academy and then, in 1903, entered Yale. His earliest published works appeared in Yale's literary magazine, and Lewis became one of its editors. After graduation Lewis moved around the country, settling for a time in California, where he wrote for newspapers and began turning out stories for popular magazines. He also sold plotlines to Jack London.
After publishing one pulp novel, Hike and the Aeroplane (1912), under the pseudonym Tom Graham, Lewis published his first serious novel, Our Mr. Wrenn (1914). Over the next six years Lewis wrote several novels that were largely ignored. Then, in 1920, Lewis published his first great novel, Main Street. The novel is set in Gopher Prairie, an ugly small town in Minnesota. It is generally recognized as being a stand-in for Lewis's own home town, Sauk Center. A newly married woman, Carol Kennicott, relocates from Saint Paul to Gopher Prairie and is appalled at the small-mindedness, hypocrisy, and intellectual lethargy she finds there. She does her best to invigorate the town by introducing progressive ideas, but the conservative powers that be defend the status quo and Carol makes no headway. She eventually leaves her husband and Gopher Prairie but later returns and becomes a quiet, stubborn presence.
Main Street was an enormous success, selling hundreds of thousands of copies and making Lewis a rich man. The novel was slated to receive the Pulitzer Prize for 1921, but a board of trustees overturned the decision at the last minute. Five years later when the Pulitzer Committee tried to award the prize to Lewis for Arrowsmith, he refused it. Lewis's follow-up to Main Street was Babbitt (1922), a less realistic, more satirical novel. George Babbitt is a real estate agent, narrow-minded and conservative even as he decries these traits in others, including his parents.
In the context of the new, more consumer-oriented culture of the 1920s, Lewis focuses in on idealism in conflict with the selfish motivations of most of the American population. Arrowsmith, for example, is the story of the struggles of an idealistic doctor with a gift for research who comes into conflict with greedy elements within the medical establishment. Elmer Gantry (1927) is the story of a football player who cynically follows a path of least resistance through the gullibility of others to become a charismatic and unscrupulous evangelist. Its depiction of religious hypocrisy is so convincing that it was banned in some U.S. cities for a time. Dodsworth (1929) is a novel about the shallowness of the lives of the affluent Americans. Samuel Dodsworth is the former head of a successful automobile company. When he is bought out, he becomes wealthy enough that he never has to work again. At loose ends, he and his wife travel to Europe, where they are only condescendingly accepted by the aristocrats there. When they return home, Dodsworth finds his old friends to be provincial and dull. He is left suspended unhappily between worlds.
In his later years Lewis moved restlessly around Europe, never wanting for money as several of his early novels were made into films and the books continued to sell. When Lewis suffered a heart attack he was told to stop drinking. He refused and died in Rome at age 65.
William C. Bamberger
See also: Cather, Willa (1873–1947) ; Evangelicalism and Populism ; Garland, Hamlin (1860–1940) ; Progressivism ; Scopes Trial (1925)
Hutchinson, James M. The Rise of Sinclair Lewis, 1920–1930. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2001.
Lingeman, Richard. Sinclair Lewis: Rebel from Main Street. Nepean, ON: Borealis, 2005.