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Sinclair Lewis by James Lundquist
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Sinclair Lewis was an immensely popular novelist in the 1920s throgh the 1940s, and the first US writer to win the Nobel Prize for Literature (in 1930). His best work is known for its accurate and critical portrayal of life in small midwestern towns and cities of that time period. Critics commonly have called him a satirist, although he regarded himself as a romantic. That ambiguity only begins to touch on the uncertain reputation his work now endures, for Lewis' work has been castigated strongly by the self - appointed literary critics. For example, in his "definitive" biography, Mark Schorer labelled Lewis as "one of our worst writers", and in 813 pages, did his best to convince the reader of that judgement.

This concise book by James Lundquist describes and analyzes Sinclair Lewis' body of work, by putting it into the perspective of his life and times. In the process, it helps the reader appreciate Lewis' considerable literary output and to recognize both the merits and flaws of his writing.

Much of the focus is on his six best novels: Main Street, Babbitt, Arrowsmith, Elmer Gantry, Dodsworth, and Kingsblood Royal.. However, while recognizing the inconsistent nature of Lewis' literary contributions, Lundquist finds merit in even the minor works; in fact, his book has convinced me to try some of Lewis' less - known works for a fuller picture of his talents.

Lundquist reminds us that Lewis was not a Fitzgerald or a Hemingway because he was writing of and for the prevous generation. This was a generation that had grown up with the pre-War liberalism of Upton Sinclair, and was already middle-aged by the early 1920s. Lundquist sees Lewis as a moralist, someone "ultimately concerned with... how to live in American culture in the 1920s". He notes that "Lewis never lost his belief that the United States could become civilized through an awakening of the social conscience of the middle class.". That's why it is that a Babbitt or Dodsworth can be presented with all his inadequacies, yet with a gentleness that seeks the reader's sympathetic understanding. A heavy - handed satirist could easily have turned such characters into objects of ridicule and contempt; but when writing at his best, Lewis' goals are more complex, and his perspective more nuanced.

Lundquist's Sinclair Lewis has given me a deeper understanding of a historically important writer whose work risks falling into obscurity. Gore Vidal authored an extended and sympathetic reappraisal in the New York Review of Books (reprinted in some of his collected works), one that recognized Sinclair Lewis as an integral part of the Americana he portrayed. Lewis' novels offer an unparalleled and entertaining portrayal of American life in 1920s, as seen through the eyes of a critical but sympathetic observer. Any reader who samples Lewis' work might do well to keep a copy of Lundquist's analysis at hand for reference. ( )
6 vote danielx | Jun 20, 2009 |
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