The babbitt booster

Sinclair Lewis changed a nation with his ferocious satire

Happy only at his typewriter, seeking and shunning friendship, Sinclair Lewis helped chart America's literary and political path for more than three decades. In this biography of the sophisticated hick from Sauk Centre, Minn., Richard Lingeman succeeds at two tasks. He reinterprets the mass of materials assembled by Lewis's 1961 biographer, Mark Schorer, and he details Lewis's achievements as the era's leading prober of bourgeois values.

Fascinated since his college days by the tormented social commentator who added "Babbitt," "booster," and "The Tired Businessman" to our vocabulary, Lingeman uses Schorer's encyclopedic research to create a Lewis of his own. His is a fully engaged professional who churned out popular stories to support serious novels, stayed true to socialist causes, and helped puncture the American fascist movement.

Ugly and charming, impulsive and calculating, generous and distrustful, expansive and dismissive - Lewis was a lifelong paradox. Kind to others' children, he kept his own two sons at a distance. He relied on his first wife, Grace Hegger, for editorial insight (which Lingeman excels at detailing) and his second, the journalist Dorothy Thompson, for inspiring his prescient antifascist novel "It Can't Happen Here" (1935).

Still, he couldn't endure them - or anyone - sharing his spotlight. Bumptious, sometimes by design but often not, he conducted famous literary feuds, but still offered important early praise to Fitzgerald, Dreiser, and Hemingway, and mentored such younger writers as Barnaby Conrad, Richard Wright, and John Hersey.

While preparing this book, Lingeman commented that a biography must oppose some prevailing view. So, he argues that Schorer's dislike for Lewis's persona and prose style led him to underrate his achievements and to give people an excuse not to read him.

In fact, Lingeman, a senior editor of The Nation and author of the definitive biography of Theodore Dreiser, creates something of a straw man to battle. "Main Street," a dissection of small-town smugness, "Babbitt," an acid portrait of provincial complacency, "Arrowsmith," an attack on scientific pettiness, "Elmer Gantry," an exposure of religious hypocrisy, and "Dodsworth," a poignant study of a businessman who quests after more than commercial success, have never gone out of fashion.

Further, Schorer paid as close attention as does Lingeman to Lewis's meticulous research and work habits, acute ear for vernacular speech, and manic productivity. And Lingeman uses scores of his predecessor's anecdotes about Lewis's alternating charm and boorishness, his laments that he could never please his demanding father, and his dogged search for and defiant rejection of affection.

But what Schorer tends to throw in chunks at the reader, Lingeman smoothly puts in context - most particularly in outlining Lewis's lifelong and commercially risky commitment to socialism, and his compulsive womanizing. He demonstrates exhaustively that Lewis knew the difference between serious writing and hackwork, something for which Schorer doesn't give him credit. And Lingeman turns many sprightly phrases, including the description of poet Edna St. Vincent Millay as a "bruised gardenia."

Lingeman also argues convincingly for more favorable reappraisals of Lewis's earliest and latest novels. He calls "The Job" (1917), a pioneering study of women entering the workplace. He refutes Schorer's conclusion that Lewis never emerged from his post-Nobel Prize decline, with incisive looks at several of his later works, including "Kingsblood Royal," a 1947 exploration of country-club-set racism that anticipates civil rights struggles.

Banging out 3,000 words a day with two bandaged fingers, losing a lifelong fight with alcohol, deflating pretension wherever he found it, Lewis was, Lingeman concludes, the country's premier satirist. He sees his voice echoed in Kurt Vonnegut and John Updike, and notes that Tom Wolfe calls "Elmer Gantry" the 20th century's greatest American novel.

The title of Lewis's last novel, "World So Wide," comes from the Kipling poem he quoted in "Our Mr. Wrenn," his first adult novel - a 1914 homage to H.G. Wells that describes a timid clerk who dreams of exotic lands. In "World So Wide," the guilt-ridden hero roams Europe "desolatingly free."

Restlessly roaming America and Europe, the clumsy, canny Lewis had come full circle. To a critic chiding him for eternal faultfinding, he once replied: "It's my mission in life. I must carp and scold until everyone despises me. That's what I was put here for."

Bill Kirtz is a professor of journalism at Northeastern University.

Sinclair Lewis: Rebel from Main Street

By Richard Lingeman

Random House 659 pp., $35

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