Sinclair Lewis (1885-1951)

Sinclair Lewis is not a name most younger readers recognize anymore. If, indeed, there are many young readers. But in the 1920’s Sinclair Lewis was probably the most popular of all American novelists. In fact, he was the first American writer to receive the Nobel Prize. Today he is overshadowed by his slightly younger contemporaries like Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Faulkner.
Lewis was a master of satire and his depiction of American life at that time was considered to be a shrewd and realistic observation which didn’t shy away from exposing the uglier aspects of the national character.
His novel “Main Street” sold over 180,000 copies in the first six months of it’s publication which was a phenomenal success and remains his most famous work.
His other “great” books are “Babbitt”, “Arrowsmith”, “Dodsworth” and “Elmer Gantry.”
I have read many of his books including his lesser known works like “Mantrap”, “Work of Art” and “Gideon Planish.” Ironically, the one book I have not read is “Main Street.”
I first came to know of Sinclair Lewis when I was very young. My aunt and uncle and cousins lived in his hometown of Sauk Centre, Minnesota and we visited the town often each summer. The Lewis house and museum are landmarks and this early exposure sparked my initial interest. Besides, he was a fellow Minnesotan.
As of late Sinclair Lewis is back in the news as references have been recently made to his 1935 book “It Can’t Happen Here.” Several observers of the current political scene see some parallels.
“It Can’t Happen Here” is the semi-satirical story of Berzelius “Buzz” Windrip, a populist senator who is elected to the presidency after promising drastic reforms in order to return America to patriotism and traditional values. After he wins the office he imposes plutocratic/totalitarian rule in the manner of the Italian and German fascists of the time.
I have often thought the work of Sinclair Lewis deserves a reassessment. It is too bad it has to be under these circumstances. In my opinion, he created indelible portraits (like Babbitt and Elmer Gantry) that rival the characters Dickens created.

H. L. Mencken (1880-1956)

Mencken was called the “Sage of Baltimore.” He was a noted satirist and writer from the early 20th century. He is widely considered one of the premier prose stylists this country has ever produced. He admired Nietzsche and was a fierce critic of religion and populism.

We are currently undergoing another wave of populist politics, empty promises of redemption and fear mongering so I think it is fitting to quote Mencken. His wit is more applicable now than ever.

“On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last, and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.” H. L. Mencken

“The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.” H. L. Mencken

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