On this day in 1920 Sinclair Lewis’s Main Street was published. This was the first of his string of hit novels over the next decade, most of which poked and scolded at the puritan terrors of small town life — knee-jerk conformity, boosterism, “a range of grotesque vulgarity,” says one critic, “which but for him would have left no record.” Lewis said that he expected his satires would spark trouble in home-state Minnesota and throughout Middle America, where they could only be read “with the same masochistic pleasure that one has in sucking an aching tooth.” What Lewis could not have predicted is the novel’s role in the larger laugh which Middle America had at his expense at the decade’s end when Lewis won the Nobel Prize.
A three-man panel unanimously recommended Main Street for the 1921 Pulitzer, but the trustees balked, instead awarding the prize to Edith Wharton for The Age of Innocence. Lewis interpreted this rejection as his novel’s vindication, a judgment not so much about as from Main Street: “I’m quite sure I never shall get the Pulitzer — my books are too critical to please polite committees…. Personally, I don’t give a hang.” When Lewis was indeed offered the Pulitzer for Arrowsmith several years later, he refused it. Although his letters indicate that his refusal was his return snub for “the Main Street burglary,” Lewis took the high road in public. The Pulitzer and all such awards, said Lewis, rewarded “safe, polite, obedient, and sterile” writing; he wanted no part of them, and he urged other authors to follow his example.
Some applauded this stance as principled, and about time. Others saw it as grandstanding, although for publicity rather than revenge. One Kansas City businessman — a type that Lewis liked to target in his books — saw an opportunity. When the story of his Pulitzer rejection broke on front-pages across America, Lewis was in Kansas City doing research for Elmer Gantry. This coincided with Kansas City’s Straw Hat Day. After the parade, a truck delivered a giant straw hat to Lewis’s hotel with a note hoping that the author would find it “an adequate roof” for his swelled head. Then in 1930, when Lewis accepted the Nobel Prize with enthusiasm, many wondered what had happened to his Pulitzer principles. Lewis explained that the Nobel was international and had no strings attached; thinking of what was attached, and smelling a home-state rat, the Minneapolis Tribune explained it differently: “It is a good deal easier to reconcile one’s artistic conscience to a $46,350 prize than it is to one which happens to be, under the terms of the Pulitzer award, exactly $45,350 less.”
Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.