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Dodsworth by Sinclair Lewis

Dodsworth (1929)

by Sinclair Lewis

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477830,975 (3.83)55
  1. 00
    The Chateau by William Maxwell (bluepiano)
    bluepiano: I dote on Dodsworth but nonetheless it is to The Chateau as a made-for-TV movie is to whatever respectable literary work it might have been based upon.

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» See also 55 mentions

Showing 1-5 of 8 (next | show all)
Dodsworth is generally viewed as focussing on differences between American and European culture, intellect, manners, and morals. But it depicts the long, slow collapse of a seemingly solid marriage between two accomplished and loving individuals.

The surface story is straightforward. Sam Dodsworth has sold his auto manufacturing business to a larger rival. He daughter has married, his son is settled in at Yale. His wife pursuades him to take her on a long, unhurried tour of Europe. And it'll be all about her, even if he doesn't immediately grasp that. In fact, he suppresses any such notion. After all, she's his wife, and she adores him.

Sam is treated more like an indulgent father than an adored husband. It's his money that pays for the two-bedroom hotel suites Fran requires, the lavish shopping excursions she goes on, the meals and entertainments for the two of them plus the friends she makes. Though most of her 41 years have been spent in Zenith, she is convinced she understands European manners and mores. And Sam is, well, something of an embarrassment. He's a lovely man and means well, but he's uncultured and just doesn't, you know, get it.

Fairly early on, Fran's ceaseless flirting elicits a pass from an Englishman, which traumatizes her and prompts the Dodsworths to flee to Paris. There she repeats her behavior. While Sam wants to see sights and meet with active, productive, inventive people, Fran wants to be indulged by shallow, frivolous society. She needs to be the center of attention.

Her complete lack of self-awareness is revealed again and again. She insults and belittles her husband. When he returns to America for his college reunion, she sends him letters revealing—without any sense that revealing is what she's doing--that she's having an affair. And Sam suppresses his own sensibilities, remaining true, loyal, loving, indulgent, virtually to the end. ( )
1 vote weird_O | May 21, 2015 |
(Reprinted from the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography [cclapcenter.com]. I am the original author of this review, as well as the owner of CCLaP; it is not being reprinted illegally.)

(CCLaP's rare-book service [cclapcenter.com/rarebooks] recently auctioned off a first edition, first printing copy of Sinclair Lewis' 1929 Dodsworth. Below is the write-up I did for the book's description.)

Poor Sinclair Lewis! Once one of the most celebrated writers on the planet, for an unprecedented string of commercial hits in the 1920s making vicious fun of the bored, corrupt, empty-headed middle class of the American Midwest, all of them turned into bestsellers precisely by the self-hating middle-classers he was making fun of, Lewis' career went quickly sour upon the start of the Great Depression, when these suddenly broke middle-classers found themselves being punished enough by life in general, and no longer needed his finger-wagging to produce the painless punishment that was assuaging their guilt throughout the "Roaring Twenties." But now that we're about to approach the centennial celebrations of these early hits, it's time that a new cultural assessment of Lewis be made, and that he be acknowledged as a sharp futurist who has a lot to say about our own times; because in reality you can strongly argue that he was the Jonathan Franzen of his times, a critically adored author (the first American writer in history to win the Nobel Prize, for example) who nonetheless heavily employed the pop culture and slang of his day in order to create devastating indictments against the consumerism, celebrity worship and herd mentality surrounding him, eaten up in the millions by the very people most guilty of the behavior, because they're able to recognize in these indictments every single person they know besides themselves, the problem that led to the Great Depression just as surely as it did in our own times to the 2008 Economic Meltdown.

Dodsworth was the last of these great hits, released just a few months before the stock market crash of 1929, and in a nutshell can be called "Lewis meets Henry James;" centered around Sam Dodsworth, the fifty-something founder of the hugely successful car manufacturer in Zenith* who has just sold the entire thing to a thinly disguised General Motors, now that he's "retired" his forty-something wife convinces him to go on an old-fashioned Grand Tour of Europe, just like rich Americans have been doing since the Victorian Age if they want to consider themselves truly cultured. (And note, by the way, that this would be the last period in history that this would be true, one of the many elements that makes this almost more important now as a historical document than as a piece of popular fiction; after the destruction of Europe and the ascendency of America at the end of World War Two, the global headquarters of culture quickly shifted to the US and specifically New York, and it suddenly became passe among rich Americans to take European grand tours anymore.) The simple plot, then, follows the same structure as so many of Lewis' novels from the '20s; our narrator starts as the living embodiment of whatever Lewis is trying to criticize (in this case, the business-focused, proudly ignorant American, forced on an unending parade of interchangeable cathedral visits and appalled by the lack of modern creature comforts now taken for granted in nearly every large American city), but after being exposed to the good things from that new environment (including, as always, the potential love of an enticingly independent modern woman) he slowly becomes a convert, just to be shunned by his former peers as pressure to "return to the fold."

And as mentioned, this is perhaps why collectors are best off thinking of this as an important historical document, rather than to focus on its admittedly only so-so quality as a novel; because given that Sam's payment for Dodsworth Motors would've likely been just a little cash but a whole lot of stock, it's fascinating to realize that in the real world, he would've been bankrupted just a few months after the events of this book take place, and that he suddenly would have a whole lot more to worry about than pompous Brits, brash expats, and how all those dirty artists in the Left Bank were always getting in his way. That's the treasure of this book in general, that it's a snapshot of a moment in history right before an unexpected period of tremendous upheaval, with none of the characters (nor even the author) even remotely aware that such upheaval is about to take place; note for example Sam's ho-hum attitude towards the pre-power Fascists he meets in Europe, or how one of the biggest sources of conflict is whether Sam is going to accept the high-powered VP position of the new conglomerate at home next year, or blow another million on staying at five-star hotels across the Continent for yet another year, a much more historically naked treat than any revisionist "winds of change" novel written after the fact. Lewis' fans in his own lifetime turned on him for this, but it's time that we restore the respect and fame he deserves for being such an astute prognosticator; and with this copy of Dodsworth being auctioned at a deliberately low starting bid to encourage an actual sale, this is a fine choice for a collector who wishes to "beat the odds" before this re-lionization of Lewis takes place next decade.

*For those who don't know, Lewis set many of his novels in the fictional Midwestern state of Winnemac, which was supposed to be sorta southish of Michigan and sorta northish of Indiana and Ohio; and Winnemac's version of Detroit or Cleveland or St. Louis was the industrial powerhouse of Zenith, where so many of his stories specifically take place. In fact, in Dodsworth Lewis makes almost a science-fiction author's amount of insider references to his now expansive alt-reality, name-dropping in casual conversations such former characters as George Babbitt and Elmer Gantry. ( )
1 vote jasonpettus | Oct 16, 2012 |
An underappreciated classic...one of the great novels of the 20th century. More so than Babbitt, which is justly recognized as such. The same is true of Arrowsmith. Babbitt is a brilliant satire of the early 20th century midwestern American bourgeois businessman (basically a portrait of a W.A.S.P.)---Dodsworth and Arrowsmith are, respectively, portraits of the American industrialist and scientist, and while they are naturalistic, "warts and all" portrayals, Lewis by and large portrays them as possessing a certain nobility, even heroism.

Dodsworth is also one of the great American fictional treatments of travel abroad, up there with those of Twain, and much better than, say, Updike's.

But mostly, Dodsworth is an examination of the disintegration of a marriage, and through the spouses that represent them, of American versus European culture. Lewis offers a lot of insight into these subjects, ranging in scope from the interpersonal to the intercontinental. I can't think of any other writers that have been able to do that better than he does here. ( )
1 vote AshRyan | Jan 23, 2012 |
I should begin by saying I love, ardently, William Wyler's 1936 film adaptation of Dodsworth. Now having read the book, I just marvel at the film more, and can't say that I'm aware of any more efficient and elegant translation of novel to screenplay, nor of a cast who has more successfully captured the spirit of their literary alter egos, without being a bit restrained by the text—very few lines straight from Lewis appear in the film.

Which isn't a pity since they couldn't play conversationally, but Lewis' command of words, words, words is often staggering. He irks, in attempting to capture dialect and slang, in insisting that people speak parenthetically (parenthetically, I'm convinced people speak exclusively in dashes), in asserting that people think in elaborate and well-constructed theses. But over and over his ability to just get it so astonishingly right has a way to cut through all manner of frills to simple, accurate, truthful human nakedness.

Strange that I should be so much more a partisan of Fran in reading the novel than watching the film (I'd expect it in the film, that is, always being a partisan of Ruth Chatterton). In the film, Sam's final choice seems both inevitable and right. Fran seems so certainly wrong. But in the novel, set beside her increasingly obvious ghastliness, there is so purely and faithfully Sam's love for her to contend with. "Have I remembered to tell you I adore you?" begins as youthful flirtation, becomes rote, becomes desperate, serves to cement their real affection despite it all, turns bitter and final... It is not banal shorthand but cuts a little deeper every time. He loves her; what else for the reader to feel but love? The ending doesn't feel so right. In fact it feels horrifyingly wrong—nothing inevitable in it but that no matter what Sam does for himself now he has lost.

But the film is fairer to Fran, or Chatterton makes her more human than Lewis cares to. I'm disappointed that her selfishness and pretentiousness and haughtiness is carried to inhuman extreme by the end—it goes beyond slowly revealing her for what she is as Sam slowly discovers it and turns her into a really unrecognizable monster, only redeemed by his baffling adoration for her—making the ending all the more troubling perhaps, but seriously damaging her credibility as a character. Besides I like Fran. I like the Fran of the first three hundred pages who acted reprehensibly but still turned and said "Have I remembered to tell you I adore you?" and you could almost positively convince yourself she means it.

It is a brilliant book—oh, I'm uninterested in the travelogues and endless debates about what it means to be European and American—but at core it is a terribly sad story about opening one's eyes to life, love, and self for the first time at fifty. It is a love tragedy about two people who love ardently without knowing one another—for I will insist upon viewing Fran that humanly, and crediting her with that much. I will be haunted, as Sam always will be, by the thought of her, a desolate wraith, flitting off to another adventure, head high, and terrified. Finding oneself feels like no great gain at all. ( )
9 vote afinpassing | Jun 24, 2009 |
I liked the narration well enough, but the plot dragged (esp the first half); as far as social commentary goes, things really haven't changed that much in almost 100 years. ( )
  Seajack | Oct 16, 2008 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Sinclair Lewisprimary authorall editionscalculated
Fadiman, CliftonForewordsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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A middle-aged American retires and he and his wife go to Europe where they find a new set of values and relationships.

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