To recount my life for the Nobel Foundation, I would like to present it as possessing some romantic quality, some unique character, like Kipling‘s early adventures in India, or Bernard Shaw‘s leadership in the criticism of British arts and economics. But my life, aside from such youthful pranks as sailing on cattleships from America to England during university vacations, trying to find work in Panama during the building of the Canal, and serving for two months as janitor of Upton Sinclair’s abortive co-operative colony, Helicon Hall, has been a rather humdrum chronicle of much reading, constant writing, undistinguished travel à la tripper, and several years of comfortable servitude as an editor.
I was born in a prairie village in that most Scandinavian part of America, Minnesota, the son of a country doctor, in 1885. Until I went East to Yale University I attended the ordinary public school, along with many Madsens, Olesons, Nelsons, Hedins, Larsons. Doubtless it was because of this that I made the hero of my second book, The Trail of the Hawk, a Norwegian, and Gustaf Sondelius, of Arrowsmith, a Swede – and to me, Dr. Sondelius is the favorite among all my characters.
Of Carl Ericson of The Trail of the Hawk, I wrote -back in 1914, when I was working all day as editor for the George H. Doran Publishing Company, and all evening trying to write novels – as follows:
«His carpenter father had come from Norway, by way of steerage and a farm in Wisconsin, changing his name (to Americanize it) from Ericsen… Carl was second-generation Norwegian; American-born, American in speech, American in appearance, save for his flaxen hair and china-blue eyes… When he was born the ‹typical Americans› of earlier stocks had moved to city palaces or were marooned on run-down farms. It was Carl Ericson, not a Trowbridge or a Stuyvesant or a Lee or a Grant, who was the ‹typical American› of his period. It was for him to carry on the American destiny of extending the Western horizon; his to restore the wintry Pilgrim virtues and the exuberant October, partridge-drumming days of Daniel Boone; then to add, in his own or another generation, new American aspirations for beauty.»
My university days at Yale were undistinguished save for contributions to the Yale Literary Magazine. It may be interesting to say that these contributions were most of them reeking with a banal romanticism; that an author who was later to try to present ordinary pavements trod by real boots should through university days have written nearly always of Guinevere and Lancelot – of weary bitterns among sad Irish reeds – of story-book castles with troubadours vastly indulging in wine, a commodity of which the author was singularly ignorant. What the moral is, I do not know. Whether imaginary castles at nineteen lead always to the sidewalks of Main Street at thirty-five, and whether the process might be reversed, and whether either of them is desirable, I leave to psychologists.
I drifted for two years after college as a journalist, as a newspaper reporter in Iowa and in San Francisco, as – incredibly – a junior editor on a magazine for teachers of the deaf, in Washington, D.C. The magazine was supported by Alexander Graham Bell, inventor of the telephone. What I did not know about teaching the deaf would have included the entire subject, but that did not vastly matter, as my position was so insignificant that it included typing hundreds of letters every week begging for funds for the magazine and, on days when the Negro janitress did not appear, sweeping out the office.
Doubtless this shows the advantages of a university education, and it was further shown when at the age of twenty-five I managed to get a position in a New York publishing house at all of fifteen dollars a week. This was my authentic value on the labor market, and I have always uncomfortably suspected that it would never have been much higher had I not, accidentally, possessed the gift of writing books which so acutely annoyed American smugness that some thousands of my fellow citizens felt they must read these scandalous documents, whether they liked them or not.
From that New York position till the time five years later when I was selling enough short stories to the magazines to be able to live by free-lancing, I had a series of typical white-collar, unromantic, office literary jobs with two publishing houses, a magazine (Adventure), and a newspaper syndicate, reading manuscripts, writing book advertising, writing catalogues, writing uninspired book reviews – all the carpentry and plumbing of the city of letters. Nor did my first five novels rouse the slightest whispers: Our Mr. Wrenn, The Trail of the Hawk, The Job, The Innocents, and Free Air they were called, published between 1914 and 1919, and all of them dead before the ink was dry. I lacked sense enough to see that, after five failures, I was foolish to continue writing.
Main Street, published late in 1920, was my first novel to rouse the embattled peasantry and, as I have already hinted, it had really a success of scandal. One of the most treasured American myths had been that all American villages were peculiarly noble and happy, and here an American attacked that myth. Scandalous. Some hundreds of thousands read the book with the same masochistic pleasure that one has in sucking an aching tooth.
Since Main Street, the novels have been Babbitt (1922); Arrowsmith (1925); Mantrap (1926); Elmer Gantry (1927); The Man Who Knew Coolidge (1928); and Dodsworth (1929). The next novel, yet unnamed, will concern idealism in America through three generations, from 1818 till 1930-an idealism which the outlanders who call Americans «dollar-chasers» do not understand. It will presumably be published in the autumn of 1932, and the author’s chief difficulty in composing it is that, after having received the Nobel Prize, he longs to write better than he can.
I was married, in England, in 1928, to Dorothy Thompson, an American who had been the Central European correspondent and chef de bureau of the New York Evening Post. My first marriage, to Grace Hegger, in New York, in 1914, had been dissolved.
During these years of novelwriting since 1915, I have lived a quite unromantic and unstirring life. I have travelled much; on the surface it would seem that one who during these fifteen years had been in forty states of the United States, in Canada, Mexico, England, Scotland, France, Italy, Sweden, Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia, Jugoslavia, Greece, Switzerland, Spain, the West Indies, Venezuela, Colombia, Panama, Poland, and Russia must have been adventurous. That, however, would be a typical error of biography. The fact is that my foreign travelling has been a quite uninspired recreation, a flight from reality. My real travelling has been sitting in Pullman smoking cars, in a Minnesota village, on a Vermont farm, in a hotel in Kansas City or Savannah, listening to the normal daily drone of what are to me the most fascinating and exotic people in the world – the Average Citizens of the United States, with their friendliness to strangers and their rough teasing, their passion for material advancement and their shy idealism, their interest in all the world and their boastful provincialism – the intricate complexities which an American novelist is privileged to portray.
And nowadays, at forty-six, with my first authentic home – a farm in the pastoral state of Vermont – and a baby born in June 1930, I am settled down to what I hope to be the beginning of a novelist’s career. I hope the awkward apprenticeship with all its errors is nearly done.
Biographical note on Sinclair Lewis
Sinclair Lewis (1885-1951) continued to be a prolific writer, but none of his later writings equalled the success or stature of his chiefworks of the twenties. After his divorce from his second wife in 1942, Sinclair Lewis lived chiefly in Europe. His later novels include Ann Vickers (I933), It Can’t Happen Here (1935), The Prodigal Parents (1938), Gideon Planish (1943), Cass Timberlane (1945), Kingsblood Royal ( 1947), The God-Seeker (1949), and World So Wide (1951). From Main Street to Stockholm: Letters of Sinclair Lewis 1919-1930 was published in 1952, one year after his death in Rome.
This autobiography/biography was written at the time of the award and first published in the book series Les Prix Nobel. It was later edited and republished in Nobel Lectures. To cite this document, always state the source as shown above.
Sinclair Lewis died on January 10, 1951.
Watch the live stream of the announcements.