Early Fiction of Sinclair Lewis Still Resonates Today


Edited by Anthony Di Renzo

Southern Illinois U Press

363 pp., $39.95 cloth, $19.95 paper

It's Nobel laureate season again, and next week Southern Illinois University Press will release an anthology of short stories by America's first Nobel Prize-winner in Literature, Sinclair Lewis. In "If I Were Boss: The Early Business Stories of Sinclair Lewis," editor Anthony Di Renzo culled 15 stories of Lewis's more than 60 short stories not republished since their first appearance from 1915 to 1921 in magazines of the day - The Saturday Evening Post, Metropolitan, and Harper's among them.

Far from being quaint little relics of a bygone era, Lewis's early stories speak directly to today. They reflect a clever humor and a shrewd satiric style, and range from wistful and poignant in "Bronze Bars," to wickedly cutting in four Lancelot Todd stories. Secular parables, actually, these stories speak our language - they talk like us!

It's healthy, though, to look into this surprising mirror of the corporate workplace. Lewis's close-to-the-bone early satire "graphically depicts the seductive power of the American sales pitch, its poetry, pervasiveness, and perversity," writes Di Renzo in his introduction. He continues, "it traces the madness of the American workplace ... back to a regimen of perpetual, self-defeating salesmanship."

Men like Lancelot Todd are scoundrels. Lewis designs his stories so that a moral Providence exposes Todd for what he is - a shameless shyster. He may be clever, work hard, have inspired notions about how to sway the public, but he is inevitably undone in the end. When the dishonest man gets his "come-uppence," readers cheer, although Lewis is skillful enough to make you wince at the same time. It is evident just how the anti-hero feels when the trap closes around him. Therein is the poignancy as well as the humor of these morality tales - especially the four that reveal the true nature of Todd, that genius of false advertising.

Readers, particularly women, must prepare themselves to forgive outmoded opinions and attitudes, expressed by Lewis's working folk, about the roles of men and women in the workplace.

Today's professional woman, however, will find her natural ancestor in Nancy Arroford, the unskilled but savvy young widow-become-top executive, whom Lewis depicts with uncanny insight and genuine empathy in "A Story With a Happy Ending."

With this piece, Lewis acknowledged the emerging aspirations of women. Other slurs and biases, "politically incorrect" today, turn up in these stories. Di Renzo, as editor, has obviously opted for fidelity to Lewis's original versions.

All the stories are easy to read, to the point, and quintessentially Midwestern. Their situations are eerily familiar. Examples of Lewis's mastery of the small-town dialects of his native Midwest, and of the techniques of promotional writing, abound.

Literary critics through the years have been divided about the quality of his overall output, which includes 23 novels, of which "Babbitt" (1922), "Arrowsmith" (1925), and "Elmer Gantry" (1927) may be among the finest and most deservedly famous. "Arrowsmith" won Lewis a Pulitzer Prize in 1926, which he declined, and his novels from the 1920s made him a Nobel Prize-winner in 1930.

As the first major satirist and social critic of the effects on ordinary middle-class men and women of the modern corporation, however, Lewis's place is surely secure. The stories in "If I Were Boss" deserve their contemporary revival.

* Linda Laird Giedl is a freelance writer living in Boston.

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