Sinclair Lewis, First American to Win Nobel Prize for Literature

Biography of the Rebel From Main Street USA

Sinclair Lewis
Keystone / Getty Images

Harry Sinclair Lewis was born on February 7, 1885, in Sauk Centre, Minnesota, the youngest of three boys. Sauk Centre, a bucolic prairie town of 2,800, was home to mainly Scandinavian families, and Lewis said he “attended the ordinary public school, along with many Madsens, Olesons, Nelsons, Hedins, Larsons,” many of whom would become the models for characters in his novels.

Fast Facts: Sinclair Lewis

  • Full Name: Harry Sinclair Lewis
  • Occupation: Novelist
  • Born: February 7, 1885 in Sauk Centre, Minnesota
  • Died: January 10, 1951 in Rome, Italy
  • Education: Yale University
  • Key Accomplishments: Noble Prize in Literature (1930). Lewis was also awarded the Pulitzer Prize (1926), but he declined it.
  • Spouses: Grace Hegger (m. 1914-1925) and Dorothy Thompson (m. 1928-1942)
  • Children: Wells (with Hegger) and Michael (with Thompson)
  • Notable Quote: “It has not yet been recorded that any human being has gained a very large or permanent contentment from meditation upon the fact that he is better off than others.”

Early Career

Lewis enrolled at Yale Univesity in 1903 and soon became involved in literary life on campus, writing for the literary review and the university newspaper, as well as working as a part-time reporter the Associated Press and the local newspaper. He didn’t graduate until 1908, having taken some time off to live in Upton Sinclair’s collaborative Helicon Home Colony in New Jersey and traveled to Panama.

For some years after Yale, he drifted from coast to coast and from job to job, working as a reporter and editor while also working on short stories. By 1914, he was consistently seeing his short fiction in popular magazines like the Saturday Evening Post, and began working on novels.

Between 1914 and 1919, he published five novels: Our Mr. Wrenn, The Trail of the Hawk, The Job, The Innocents, and Free Air. “All of them dead before the ink was dry,” he later said.

Main Street

With his sixth novel, Main Street (1920), Lewis finally found commercial and critical success. Recreating the Sauk Centre of his youth as Gopher Prairie, his searing satire of the narrow-minded insularity of small-town life was a hit with readers, selling 180,000 copies in its first year alone.

Lewis reveled in the controversy surrounding the book. “One of the most treasured American myths had been that all American villages were peculiarly noble and happy, and here an American attacked that myth,” he wrote in 1930. “Scandalous.”

Main Street was initially chosen for the 1921 Pulitzer Prize in fiction, but the Board of Trustees overruled the judges because the novel didn’t “present the wholesome atmosphere of American life” dictated by the rules. Lewis didn’t forgive the slight, and when he was awarded the Pulitzer in 1926 for Arrowsmith, he declined it.

Nobel Prize

Lewis followed up Main Street with novels like Babbitt (1922), Arrowsmith (1925), Mantrap (1926), Elmer Gantry (1927), The Man Who Knew Coolidge (1928), and Dodsworth (1929). In 1930, he became the first American awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature "for his vigorous and graphic art of description and his ability to create, with wit and humor, new types of characters.”

In his autobiographical statement to the Nobel committee, Lewis noted he had traveled the world, but “my real travelling [sic] has been sitting in Pullman smoking cars, in a Minnesota village, on a Vermont farm, in a hotel in Kansas City or Savannah, listening to the normal daily drone of what are to me the most fascinating and exotic people in the world—the Average Citizens of the United States, with their friendliness to strangers and their rough teasing, their passion for material advancement and their shy idealism, their interest in all the world and their boastful provincialism—the intricate complexities which an American novelist is privileged to portray.”

Personal Life

Lewis married twice, first to Vogue editor Grace Hegger (from 1914-1925) and then to journalist Dorothy Thompson (from 1928 to 1942). Each marriage resulted in one son, Wells (born 1917) and Michael (born 1930). Wells Lewis was killed in combat in October 1944, at the height of World War II.

Final Years

As an author, Lewis was extremely prolific, penning 23 novels between 1914 and his death in 1951. He also authored over 70 short stories, a handful of plays, and at least one screenplay. Twenty of his novels were adapted into movies.

By the late 1930s, years of alcoholism and depression were eroding both the quality of his work and his personal relationships. His marriage to Dorothy Thompson failed in part because he felt her professional success made him look small by comparison, and he was increasingly jealous that other writers were becoming literary legends while his body of work was falling into relative obscurity.

His heart weakened by heavy drinking, Lewis died in Rome on January 10, 1951. His cremated remains were returned to Sauk Centre, where he was buried in the family plot.

In the days after his death, Dorothy Thompson wrote a nationally-syndicated eulogy for her former husband. “He hurt a great many people very much,” she observed. “For there were great hurts in himself, which he sometimes took out on others. Yet, in the 24 hours since his death, I have seen some of those he hurt most dissolved in tears. Something has gone—something prodigal, ribald, great, and high. The landscape is duller.”  

Sources

  • Hutchisson, J. M. (1997). The rise of Sinclair Lewis, 1920-1930. University Park, Pa: Pennsylvania State University Press.
  • Lingeman, R. R. (2005). Sinclair Lewis: Rebel from Main Street. St. Paul, Minn: Borealis Books
  • Schorer, M. (1961). Sinclair Lewis: An American life. New York: McGraw-Hill.