Small-town Minnesota's most subversive native son
It's not often that a novelist's characterizations are so sharp and well defined that new words are added to the dictionary because of them. But Sinclair Lewis was no ordinary novelist—he was a social critic who saw himself as a rebel against the constraints of American institutions and prejudice.
Lewis was born in Sauk Centre, Minnesota, in 1885. He attended Yale University, earning a bachelor's degree in 1908, and held several jobs with publishing companies and magazines. A prolific writer, he could complete a novel in a month and tried to publish at least one every year. He became famous when Main Street, a satirical account of a small town modeled on Sauk Centre, was published in 1920 and soon became a best seller. It was followed by Babbitt in 1922 and a number of other widely popular novels, including Arrowsmith (1925), which won a Pulitzer Prize that Lewis declined, Elmer Gantry (1927), and Dodsworth (1929).
Sinclair Lewis became the first American to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, in 1930. As the story goes, Lewis answered the telephone the morning the news broke, and heard an excited man with an accent announcing that the prize was his. The caller was a Swedish newspaper correspondent, but Lewis thought it was one of his friends making a crank call. He mocked the caller, who finally hung up and asked an American friend to call Lewis instead. Once the news sunk in, Lewis was overwhelmed. Breathing heavily and somewhat dazed, he called his wife, who thought he was ill and asked him what was wrong. "Dorothy, I've got the Nobel Prize," he shouted. "Oh, have you? How nice for you," answered his skeptical wife. "Well, I have the Order of the Garter!"
"Sinclair Lewis's 1920 breakaway novel [Main Street], initially criticized for taking aim at the small-town status quo, is perhaps one of modern American literature's rarest gems. I say this without hesitation, especially because of the frankness and freshness with which Lewis paints a picture of small-town America's reluctance to accept change, especially coming from outsiders from the big city."
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Sinclair Lewis childhood home