It was two weeks before the end of my junior year of high school when the bomb dropped. There I was, looking forward to my third summer working for E. F. Hutton in their backroom on Broad Street when my English teacher informed our class that he was giving us a summer project which we needed to complete by the first day of our senior year.
Each of us had a week to select an American author who would become the subject of a paper (at least fifty pages long – double spaced). We would be required to read at least five works by that author as well as a biography of our subject. I immediately thought of Nathaniel West who suffered an untimely death in an automobile accident and had only written four books, one of which, Miss Lonelyhearts I had already read. But I hadn’t really enjoyed that experience and was uncertain that I wanted to subject myself to further literary abuse by that author.
After a great deal of mental mulling I settled on Harry Sinclair Lewis – a far more prolific author and an individual with whose works I was familiar only by name – specifically Main Street and Elmer Gantry. Somewhere I had heard that he was also the subject of some controversy which only piqued my curiosity about what he had to say. I remembered reading a review of a biography of Lewis that had been written by Mark Schorer a few years earlier – still the definitive work on his life.
My English teacher approved my choice and after school I headed down to my local bookstore to see which of Lewis’ works were available in paperback. As good luck would have it, on the close out table was a copy of the Schorer biography. Three dollars for a nearly thousand page hardback. As my Jewish classmates would say, “Such a deal.” I grabbed a copy together with paperback editions of Main Street and Babbitt and asked the owner to hold them for me until the next day when I would return to pay for them, which she gladly agreed to do. Conducting business with merchants was so much more civilized and pleasant back in the ’60’s.
As there were three days of school remaining, our final exams in the rear view mirror and nothing much to do other than plan on attending the commencement program, I dove into the Schorer biography to gain a few days on the project even before we were on summer vacation. I decided that having a bit of history on the author might help me appreciate his work more. I finished the book early the next week – and if there was one quote I took away from it, it was that Lewis had earned the sobriquet, “The most hated man in America.” As I began reading his novels, I quickly understand why.
Lewis’ writing was succinct, compelling and fatally cynical. He described life in small American towns and the people who inhabited them. To him, they were little more than plastic figures engaged in mundane activities in the pursuit of mediocrity. Having himself come from just such an environment in Sauk Centre, MN it was hard not to feel that Lewis was implying that he had risen from that bourgeois existence and had achieved a higher plane of understanding, a greater appreciation of aesthetics and, of course, a moral superiority.
When he died suddenly of heart failure in Rome in 1951 the literary world took note of his passing. After all, he had been awarded the Pulitzer Prize for his 1925 novel, Arrowsmith, an honor that he refused to accept. One literary critic headlined his column on Lewis’ demise with the acerbic introduction, “Sinclair Lewis Dead – At Last.”
For sixty-five years there have been few who have challenged Lewis’ title of “The most hated man in America.” But one might argue that there is finally a new contender for the title, that being one Donald J. Trump, the soon to be 45th President of the United States.
Remarkably, President-Elect Trump’s campaign motto, “Make America Great Again” is in direct contrast to Lewis’ view that America, or at least it’s people, have never been great at all, a view heartily endorsed by the many cacophonous, caterwauling Trump critics. These same naysayers also assume a Lewis-like sense of moral superiority perhaps stemming from their profound adherence to atheism, a religion to which Lewis subscribed. It is they and they alone who have an understanding of true righteousness, appropriate behavior and the correct manner of thinking, speaking and acting.
I wish I were here sixty-five years from now to see whether Trump’s optimistic view of what America can achieve will prevail. Or whether those who view themselves as victimized members of the mindless mob will have their way. But perhaps it will not take that long to see which side has the upper hand.
Irrespective of the facts, the word is that Trump’s opponents are already assembling to hold a regalia in which they will transfer the title from Lewis to our next president. As I don’t have anything sufficiently festive to wear, should I receive an invitation to attend, I guess I will be forced to decline that honor.