Harry Sinclair Lewis (February 7, 1885 - January 10, 1951) was an American novelist, short story writer and playwright. In 1930, Lewis became the first American writer to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. Lewis's work is recognized for its distinct satirical tone on American culture and small-town life.
"I can imagine you at a typewriter "grinding out your stuff," as noospaper [sic] men would say, puffing at a cigarette or gazing at the ceiling between times to get inspiration, and then hammering vigorously at the keys before the idea vanishes."
-Author William Salisbury in an open letter to Sinclair Lewis "To Our Nobel Prize Winner", 1931
The success and controversy of Babbitt was instrumental with Lewis winning the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1930 by the Swedish Academy. Novelist and critic Ludwig Lewisohn writes of Babbitt: "What gives Babbitt its artistic value is Mr. Lewis's profound recognition that these noisy lives are lived by fear and without desire".
The novel's satirical depiction of the social pressures and conformity of the middle-class and the enterprising American businessman are juxtaposed against the backdrop of the fictional Midwestern town of Zenith. Its protagonist, George F. Babbitt, a middle-class, middle-aged realtor and his ongoing concern of his family's social status inevitably leads to his dissolution in the American Dream.
New York, September 1934
Dedication page, inscribed to Beatrice Maude by Sinclair Lewis. Accompanied by a publicity photograph from a play adaptation of Dodsworth, United Artists, 1936. Pictured Walter Huston (Dodsworth) and Ruth Chatterton (Fran) having tea.
Dodsworth was first published by Harcourt, Brace & Company in 1929.
In 1930, Lewis won the Nobel Prize in Literature. Nominated by Henrik Schück, member of the Swedish Academy, Lewis was the first writer from the Unites States to win the award. After accepting the Nobel Prize, Lewis went on to have continued success as a writer and wrote eleven more novels, ten of which were published in the author's lifetime.
Lewis enjoyed great critical and financial success with such works as Main Street and Babbitt in the 1920's and his work continued to be favorably received though the mid-1930's, however after the publication of The Prodigal Parents in 1938, Lewis's reputation slipped into critical decline. Lewis's personal life did not fare so well either. His struggles with alcoholism by the late 1930's most likely contributed to the dissolution of his second marriage to Dorothy Thompson, which ended in divorce in 1942.
Sinclair Lewis died in Rome, Italy in 1951 at the age of 65. The Wrenn house where Lewis once lived with his first wife Grace, is no longer standing at 20 Vanderventer Ave. Grace was active in the Village Welfare Society, a local charitable organization. Stories are told of Lewis making speeches on behalf of women's rights, although these accounts remain unsubstantiated.
Curator: Vanessa Nastro - Archivist and Special Collections Librarian, Local History Center
Content contributor: Janet West, Head of Reference