Main Street: Biography: Sinclair Lewis

Born into a prominent, well-to-do family in 1885, Sinclair Lewis grew up in Sauke Centre, MN. As a youth in that small, prairie town, Lewis discovered that hiking and reading were excellent means of escaping the ridicule caused by his awkwardness and gangly appearance. At age seventeen he went east to attend Yale. During his years at that prestigious university, Lewis made two excursions by cattle boat to England and crossed Mexico in a series of long hikes. He also spent time in Panama and New York. Before graduating in 1908 he also worked briefly as a janitor at Helicon Hall — Upton Sinclairs experimental artists commune in Englewood Cliffs, NJ. Ever the traveler, Lewis worked in Iowa, California, Washington and New York as a reporter and supplementing his income by doing book reviews and selling story plots for $5 each. While living in the bohemian colony in Carmel, California Lewis met Jack London. In 1914 he married Grace Livingston Hegger and the couple moved to Long Island where Lewis worked for a publishing company and wrote two novels for young boys. It was not until Lewis returned to his native Midwest, however, that his writing solidified and gained momentum. The young writer kept copious notebooks and approached his region as a sociologist, listing places, names, jargon and statistics. Drawing upon the emptiness and aspirations of “middletown” America, Lewis wrote five novels and many stories. The first of these to be published, Main Street (1920) caused an immediate sensation and sold more than 250,000 copies in its first year of publication alone. Many Americans recognized in Lewis cynical portrayal of the fictional town of Gopher Prairie something of their own life and the novel brought Lewis immediate fame and notoriety as well as vilification from those who felt it betrayed the core values of the nation. Other novels, including the masterful Babbitt (1922) and Arrowsmith (1925) drew upon similar themes and achieved great success. In 1926 turned down a Pulitzer Prize for Arrowsmith on the grounds that he did not believe that the novel represented the “wholesome” standards of the selection committee.He did accept, however, a Nobel Prize for Literature in 1930 and became the first American to win that prestigious award. He divorced Grace in 1927 and married the famous journalist, Dorothy Thompson in 1928. They divorced in 1942. He spent most of the 1930s and 1940s traveling between Europe and America. Lewis was never able to recapture the momentum of his earlier writing and he died, suffering from alcoholism and ill-health, of a heart attack in Rome in 1952. He is buried in Minnesota.