Dawn Reader

Dawn Reader
from Open Door Coffee Co.; Hudson, OH; Oct. 26, 2016

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Sinclair Lewis, a.k.a. "Red"--Today's Birthday Boy

It's the birthday of Sinclair Lewis (1885-1951), the novelist best known for Main Street, Babbitt, Arrowsmith (which, home with the mumps, I read in high school; coincidentally, it's about a doctor), and Elmer Gantry (my parents agonized, then yielded, and let me see the film about a philandering preacher--can you imagine?!?--when it came to the Hiram College Cinema in 1960, my junior year in high school).

A few years ago, a former Kent State professor of mine, Dr. Sanford Marovitz, told me about a sort of dystopian novel Lewis had written, It Can't Happen Here, 1935, a cautionary tale about a fascist takeover in America--from within.  It's eerie--and some of it reads as if it were cut-and-pasted from today's news.

I never taught a Lewis novel--though my colleague at WRA, Peter Fry, taught Babbitt but was not pleased with the experience.

A coincidence that I will write about another time: Lewis grew up in the same town as Wilfred Hetzel, who used to travel around to schools (he came to Hiram High when I was there) doing exhibitions of basketball-shooting--bouncing balls in, drop-kicking from mid-court, etc.

Hemingway has a vicious caricature of Lewis in Across the River and into the Trees, his novel of WW II.  Lewis had problems with his complexion, and Hemingway lets this Lewis-like guy have it: The scene is in a bar in Italy--"They looked at the man at the third table.  He had a strange face like an over-enlarged, disappointed weasel or ferret.  It looked as pock-marked and as blemished as the mountains of the moon seen through a cheap telescope and, the Colonel thought, it looked like Goebbels' face, if Herr Goebbels had ever been in a plane that burned, and not been able to bail out before the fire reached him.  ... The man looked as though he had been scalped and then the hair replaced" (87).  Nice, eh?

Below is a little account of a visit to Lewis' hometown, Sauk Centre, MN.  It's part of my teaching memoir--not yet published ...

1 July 2006.

            Joyce and I have driven west to Sauk Centre, Minnesota, boyhood home of Sinclair Lewis.  On the way, we stopped in and near Chicago to see some sites related to F. Scott Fitzgerald.  (One of his early loves, Ginevra King, lived on Ridge Road in Lake Forest; her house is still there.)  I’ve just finished Richard Lingeman’s recent biography of Lewis, and for reference I’ve brought along Mark Schorer’s massive 1961 volume about “Red,” as Lewis’ friends called him.  I’m planning to read Lewis’ major novels.  On the recommendation of one of my former Kent State professors, Sanford Marovitz, I’ve already read Lewis’ uneven but powerful It Can’t Happen Here (1935), a novel about a fascist takeover of America—from within.   I read Arrowsmith for the hell of it in high school; I read Main Street and Babbitt years ago.  I’m once again very interested in him.  I want to read and see everything.

            Just off I-94 at the Sauk Centre exit is the “Sinclair Lewis Interpretive Center,” a small museum with some remarkable Lewis artifacts—like the urn used to transport his ashes back from Rome, where he died in 1951.  We find it staffed by a bored young woman equipped with an iPod and an attitude.  After we tour the place and take some pictures, I ask the attendant if she attended the local high school.  Well, yes, she just graduated.  And did she read any Sinclair Lewis there?  No, none at all.  She leans toward us.  Lowers her voice.  Some people think he’s a big deal, she confides, but lots of people around here don’t really like him.

            At the museum, we see a photograph of the old stone arch that supported the railroad that once ran through town.  Young Lewis carved his initials under that arch.  I want to find them.  We ask around in town, and at Jitters Java CafĂ© the owner calls someone at the historical society who says, yes, the stone arch is still there.  Tells us that the old railroad is now a bike-and-hike trail—the Lake Wobegone Trail!—though the portion we must use, west of town, is not yet paved.  Just walk west on the trail, we’re told.  You’ll find the stone arch.

            It’s a hot, humid day; it’s been a very wet spring and early summer.  We walk on a right-of-way that winds through the woods.  The grass is high; the bugs are attentive and hungry.  We see no stone arch, though we can glimpse, here and there through the dense woods and undergrowth, a stream.  We walk past the point where we know the arch must be, then turn to walk back to the car.  We’ve not found it.

            But on the return I notice that the stream switches sides.  I see it on the right, then on the left.  The stone arch must be beneath us!  (DUH!)  The area is completely overgrown, damp, muddy.  But I grab branches and saplings and lower myself down to the water.  And there the arch is, right below us.  But I cannot go under it, not unless I swim.  The creek is high.  We should have come in late July, early August, when there is no more than a trickle.  I take a few photos to show students.
            Joyce, who reaches for my hand, pulls me toward her.  My joy in this moment is pure.

No comments:

Post a Comment