Sinclair Lewis

oldyale_lewissinclair_430x540_0_18_315SINCLAIR LEWIS, the first American to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, was born in Sauk Centre, Minnesota, in 1885. Although he was proud of his Midwestern roots, he traveled widely and was interested in many different aspects of American society, from business and medicine to religion and small town life. His concern with issues involving women, race, and the powerless in society make his work still vital and pertinent today. As Sheldon Norman Grebstein wrote, Lewis “was the conscience of his generation and he could well serve as the conscience of our own. His analysis of the America of the 1920s holds true for the America of today. His prophecies have become our truths and his fears our most crucial problems.” Sinclair Lewis was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for Main Street and Babbitt, and won the award for Arrowsmith (although he turned it down). He was a member of the National Institute of Arts and Letters and the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He died in Rome in 1951. His cremated remains are buried in Sauk Centre, Minnesota.




Sinclair Lewis On Writing

  • “Fortune has dealt with me rather too well. I have known little struggle, not much poverty, many generosities. Now and then I have, for my books or myself, been somewhat warmly denounced — there was one good pastor in California who upon reading my Elmer Gantry desired to lead a mob and lynch me, while another holy man in the state of Maine wondered if there was no respectable and righteous way of putting me in jail.”
  • “Every compulsion is put upon writers to become safe, polite, obedient, and sterile. In protest, I declined election to the National Institute of Arts and Letters some years ago, and now I must decline the Pulitzer Prize.”

Sinclair Lewis About Sauk Centre

  • To me, forever, ten miles will not be a distance in the mathematical tables, but slightly more than the distance from Sauk Centre to Melrose. To me, forever though I should live to be ninety, the division west will have nothing in particular to do with California or the Rockies; it will be that direction which is to the left-towards Hoboken Hill, if you face the house of Dr. E. J. Lewis.
  • If I seem to have criticized prairie villages, I have certainly criticized them no more than I have New York, or Paris, or the great universities. I am quite certain that I could have been born and reared in no place in the world where I would have had more friendliness. Indeed, as I look at these sons of rich men in New England with their motor cars and their travel, it seems to me that they are not having one-tenth the fun which I had as a kid, swimming and fishing in Sauk Lake, or cruising its perilous depths on a raft (probably made of stolen logs) tramping out to Fairy Lake for a picnic, tramping then miles on end, with a shotgun, in October, sliding on Hoboken  Hill, stealing melons, listening to the wonders of an elocutionist at the G.A.R. Hall. It was a good time, a good place, and a good preparation for life.

About Sinclair Lewis

  • “What was once Sinclair Lewis is buried in no ground. Even in life he was fully alive only in his writing. He lives in public libraries from Maine to California, in worn copies in the bookshelves of women from small towns who, in their girlhood, imagined themselves as Carol Kennicotts, and of medical men who, as youths, were inspired by Martin Arrowsmith.” – Dorothy Thompson
  • “His central characters are the pioneer, the doctor, the scientist, the businessman, and the feminist. The appeal of his best fiction lies in the opposition between his idealistic protagonists and an array of fools, charlatans, and scoundrels – evangelists, editorialists, pseudo-artists, cultists, and boosters.” – Martin Light

Book Quotes

Hike & The Aeroplane (1912)

  • “War is a horrible thing, to be prevented as far as possible”
  • “He remembered a friend of his father’s, a brave high-ranking officer and a good commander, who had often said that war was a crime, which the Army ought to prevent, instead of trying to bring it on”
  • “Oh, youse guys just wait. There’ll be a million and a half reporters here, right away. Associated Press and United Press and all the Washington Paper and all the guys wot writes up what they t’ink Congress oughta be doin’, for the Kalamazoo Avalanch and the South Sauk Centre Hoop-la”

Our Mr. Wrenn (1914)

  •  “Minnesota’s some kind of shire”
  • “Her laugh had an October tang of bitterness in it.”
  • “You’re exactly as tall as I am. Mouse dear, you ought to be taller”
  • “Why, I wouldn’t take this fool country for a gift” (England) “No, sir! Me for God’s country – Sleepy Eye, Brown County, Minnesota. You bet!”
  • “But I am going to make you go to church. You’ll be a socialist or something like that if you get to be too much of a poet.”

The Trail of The Hawk (1915)

  • “Don’t forget this, son: nothing outside of you can ever hurt you. It can chew up your toes, but it can’t reach you. Nobody but you can hurt you.”
  • “Carl was drawn… into a dance regarding which he was sure only that it was either a waltz, a two step, or something else.”
  •  “No one could possibly have looked more like a person closing a door without actually closing one.”
  • “He was given to being worried and advisory and to sitting up till midnight in his unventilated library, grinding at the task of putting new wrong meanings into perfectly obvious statements in the Bible.”
  •  “That’s a swell line of baggage, all right – one toothbrush, a change of socks, and ninety-seven thousand books”.
  • “that drawing room had the soul of a banker with side-whiskers”
  • “I live in this house and am Episcopalian – no so much High Church as highly infrequent church.”
  •  “You can’t be an idealist and make money. You make the money and then you can have all the ideals you want to, and give away some hospitals and libraries”.
  • “Any two people who have spent more than two days together already have the material for a life-long feud, in traits which at first were amusing or admirable.”

The Job (1917)

  • “His entire system of theology was comprised in the Bible, which he never read, and the Methodist Church, which he rarely attended.”
  •  “Fine, large, meaningless, general terms like romance and business can always be related. They take the place of thinking, and are highly useful to optimists and lecturers.”
  •  “The reason for it all, nobody who is actually engaged in it can tell you, except the bosses, who believe that these sacred rites of composing dull letters and solemnly filing them away are observed in order that they may buy the large automobiles in which they do not have time to take the air.”
  •  “Mr. Wilkins came back and hemmed and hawed a good deal; he praised the work she hadn’t considered well done, and pointed out faults in what she considered particularly clever achievements.”
  •  “This age, which should adjudge happiness to be as valuable as soap or munitions, would never come so long as the workers accepted the testimony of paid spokesmen… to the effect that they were contented and happy, rather than the evidence of their own wincing nerves to the effect that they live in a polite version of hell.”

The Innocents (1917)

  •  “… in his youth (Seth) had promised to become manager of the shoe-store, and gave the same promise today”
  • “She forgot for a moment that she was Mrs. Hartwig, now, and had the best phonograph in Saserkopee.”
  • “When America becomes a military autocracy, she will be Lady Carter or the Countess of Grimsby”

Main Street (1920)

  • “She was not a Respectable Married Woman but fully a human being.”
  • “There had to be one man in town independent enough to sass the banker!”
  • “The outhouse was so overmodestly masked with vines and lattice that it was not concealed at all. The greatest mystery about a human being is not his reaction to sex or praise, but the manner in which he contrives to put in twenty-four hours a day. It is this which puzzles the longshoreman about the clerk, the Londoner about the bushman.”
  • “It has not yet been recorded that any human being has gained a very large or permanent contentment from meditation upon the fact that he is better off than others.”
  • “There are two insults which no human being will endure: The assertion that he hasn’t a sense of humor, and the doubly impertinent assertion that he has never known trouble.”

Babbitt (1922)

  • “He had enormous and poetic admiration, though very little understanding, of all mechanical devices. They were his symbols of truth and beauty. Regarding each new intricate mechanism — metal lathe, two-jet carburetor, machine gun, oxyacetylene welder — he learned one good realistic-sounding phrase, and used it over and over, with a delightful feeling of being technical and initiated”
  • “Being a man given to oratory and high principles, he enjoyed the sound of his own vocabulary and the warmth of his own virtue.”
  • “Rev. Mr. Monday, the Prophet of Punch, has shown that he is the world’s greatest salesman of salvation, and that by efficient organization the overhead of spiritual regeneration may be kept down to an unprecedented rock-bottom basis. He has converted over two hundred thousand lost and priceless souls at an average cost of less than ten dollars a head.”
  •  “I hate your city. It has standardized all the beauty out of life. It is one big railroad station — with all the people taking tickets for the best cemeteries.”
  • “What I fight in Zenith is the standardization of thought, and, of course, the traditions of competition. The real villains of the piece are the clean, kind, industrious Family Men who use every known brand of trickery and cruelty to insure the prosperity of their cubs. The worst thing about these fellows is that they’re so good and, in their work at least, so intelligent. You can’t hate them properly, and yet their standardized minds are the enemy.”
  • “It came to him merely to run away was folly, because he could never run away from himself.”
  • “He heard them whispering — whispering… The independence seeped out of him and he walked the streets alone, afraid of men’s cynical eyes and the incessant hiss of whispering.”
  • “All of them perceived that American Democracy did not imply any equality of wealth, but did demand a wholesome sameness of thought, dress, painting, morals, and vocabulary.”
  • He was worried lest during his late discontent he had imperiled his salvation. He was not quite sure there was a Heaven to be attained, but Dr. John Jennison said there was, and Babbitt was not going to take a chance.”

Arrowsmith (1925)

  • “He was permitted, without restriction, to speak of himself as immoral, agnostic and socialistic, so long as it was universally known that he remained pure, Presbyterian, and Republican.”
  • “There was much conversation, most of which sounded like the rest of it.”
  • “Like all ardent agnostics, Martin was a religious man.”
  • “It is one of the major tragedies that nothing is more discomforting than the hearty affection of the Old Friends who never were friends.”
  • “He still had a fragment of his boyhood belief that congressmen were persons of intelligence and importance.”
  • “I must say I’m not very fond of oratory that’s so full of energy it hasn’t any room for facts.”
  • “He is the only real revolutionary, the authentic scientist, because he alone knows how liddle he knows. He must be heartless. He lives in a cold, clear light. Yet dis is a funny t’ing: really, in private, he is not cold nor heartless — so much less cold than the Professional Optimists.”

Elmer Gantry (1927)

  • “Elmer Gantry was drunk. He was eloquently drunk, lovingly and pugnaciously drunk.”
  • “He was born to be a senator. He never said anything important, and he always said it sonorously.”
  • “He had, in fact, got everything from the church and Sunday School, except, perhaps, any longing whatever for decency and kindness and reason.”
  • “The grateful savants had accepted, and they were spending the rest of their lives reading fifteenth-hand opinions, taking pleasant naps, and drooling out to yawning students the anemic and wordy bookishness which they called learning.”
  • “Even if some details of dogma aren’t true — or even all of ’em — think what a consolation religion and the church are to weak humanity!”
  • “To one who had never made more than five thousand a year himself, it was inspiring to explain before dozens of popeyed and admiring morons how they could make ten thousand — fifty thousand — a million a year, and all this by the Wonder Power of Suggestion, by Aggressive Personality, by the Divine Rhythm, in fact by merely releasing the Inner Self-shine.”
  • “What is Love — the divine Love of which the—the great singer teaches us in Proverbs? It is the rainbow that comes after the dark cloud. It is the morning star and it is also the evening star, those being, as you all so well know, the brightest stars we know. It shines upon the cradle of the little one and when life has, alas, departed, to come no more, you find it still around the quiet tomb. What is it inspires all great men—be they preachers or patriots or great business men? What is it, my brethren, but Love? Ah, it fills the world with melody, with such sacred melodies as we have just indulged in together, for what is music? What, my friends, is music? Ah, what indeed is music but the voice of Love!” – Elmer Gantry’s famous speech
  • “He was still not at all certain that he was doing any good, aside from providing the drug of religious hope to timorous folk frightened of hell-fire and afraid to walk alone.”
  • “I was brought up to believe that the Christian God wasn’t a scared and compromising public servant, but the creator of the whole merciless truth, and I reckon that training spoiled me — I actually took my teachers seriously!”
  • “A proper school should teach nothing but bookkeeping, agriculture, geometry, dead languages made deader by leaving out all the amusing literature, and the Hebrew Bible as interpreted by men superbly trained to ignore contradictions, men technically called “Fundamentalists”.”

It Can’t Happen Here (1935)

  • “Under a tyranny, most friends are a liability. One quarter of them turn “reasonable” and become your enemies, one quarter are afraid to speak, and one quarter are killed and you die with them. But the blessed are the final quarter keep you alive.”
  • “So debated Doremus, like some hundreds of thousands of other craftsmen, teachers, lawyers, what-not, in some dozens of countries under a dictatorship, who were aware enough to resent the tyranny, conscientious enough not to take its bribes cynically, yet not so abnormally courageous as to go willingly to exile or dungeon or chopping-block — particularly when they ‘had wives and families to support.'”

The God-Seeker (1949)

  • “Aaron was uncomfortable and a little afraid. This, he thought, is how God might pray to his God.”
  • “Aaron had learned … from Mr. Fairlow’s two-hour sermons on “The Jealousy of an Angry Jehovah Who Hath Weighed Sinners in the Balance and Found Them Wanting“,…that God was a torturer who punished small boys for sins they might commit later.”
  • “Good sense from a child was not necessarily contemptible beside foolishness from a grown-up.”
  • “When you think that most of us are doomed by divine grace to roast in hell, to say nothing of mortgages and hail and bad crops and extravagant womenfolks, ’tain’t any laughing matter!”
  • “It might be the doing of Satan, in whom Aaron anxiously believed with all of his being except, perhaps, his mind.”
  • “Hours then of blasphemy and fury and debate, all in the theological terms that seem shocking to the literate citizens today, who believe in God but just don’t care to mention him or any of the other lowly friends they knew before they went to Yale.”
  • “Now we got a lawyer, we got civilization, which I understand to mean that a man has a chance to get rich without working.”
  • “He prayed, ‘Lord God, let us be the kind of Christians that you would be if you were a Christian’.”
  • “I don’t believe in fear of divine vengeance, and I do believe in justice and equality…”
  • “I have faith in Faith, I have reverence for all true Reverence.”




1 thought on “Sinclair Lewis

  1. Christopher Stack, Md 16 Oct 2019 — 9:35 pm

    In ARROWSMITH, the old doc told Martin, doctors needed only three books: Gray’s Anatomy, the Bible , and the complete works of Shakespeare.
    So much truth there!

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