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Sinclair Lewis, the first American to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, applied subversive satire and razor wit in his portrayals of American life. Born and raised in Sauk Centre, Minnesota, he was one of the earliest writers to attack the myth of the noble, happy, American small town. Main Street, which he described as his "first novel to rouse the embattled peasantry," was praised and reviled—and immensely popular. This initial success was followed by such accomplished books as Babbitt, Arrowsmith, Elmer ...
Sinclair Lewis, the first American to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, applied subversive satire and razor wit in his portrayals of American life. Born and raised in Sauk Centre, Minnesota, he was one of the earliest writers to attack the myth of the noble, happy, American small town. Main Street, which he described as his "first novel to rouse the embattled peasantry," was praised and reviled—and immensely popular. This initial success was followed by such accomplished books as Babbitt, Arrowsmith, Elmer Gantry, and Dodsworth, classics that today hold a prominent place in the American canon. Among the best of Lewis's works were short stories that he wrote for the popular magazines of the day. The Minnesota Stories of Sinclair Lewis collects the finest of these stories, acerbic tales set in Minnesota that reflect his favorite themes: local boosterism, the plight of strong women, native fascism, the grip of materialism. Lewis inserts himself as a character in two tales: he travels to Main Street's Gopher Prairie, where he talks to Dr. Will Kennicott, and to Babbitt's Zenith, where George Babbitt gives him a piece of his mind. Two of these stories have never been published, and six have not been reprinted since they first appeared. Wickedly funny and surprisingly fresh, these stories offer a unique look at one of the most important American writers of the twentieth century.
ON MAY 9, 1922, Mr. Henry Lorenz of Pleasantdale, Saskatchewan, milked the cows and fed the horses and received the calls of his next farm neighbors. Obviously he was still young and lively, though it did happen that on May 9 he was one hundred and seventeen years old. When St. Paul, Mendota, and Marine, the first towns in Minnesota, were established, Henry was a man in his mid-thirties-yes, and President Eliot was seven and Uncle Joe Cannon was five. As for Minneapolis, now a city of four hundred thousand people, seventy-five years ago it consisted of one cabin. Before 1837, there were less than three hundred whites and mixed breeds in all this Minnesotan domain of eighty thousand square miles-the size of England and Scotland put together.
It is so incredibly new; it has grown so dizzyingly. Here is a village which during the Civil War was merely a stockade with two or three log stores and a company of infantry, a refuge for the settlers when the Sioux came raiding. During a raid in 1863, a settler was scalped within sight of the stockade.
Now, on the spot where the settler was scalped, is a bungalow farmhouse, with leaded casement windows, with radio and phonograph, and electric lights in house and garage and barns. A hundred blooded cows are milked there by machinery. The farmer goes into town for Kiwanis Club meetings, and last year he drove his Buick to Los Angeles. He is, or was, too prosperous to belong to the Nonpartisan League or to vote the Farmer-Labor ticket.
Minnesota is unknown to the Average Easterner, say to a Hartford insurance man or to a New York garment-worker, not so much because it is new as because it is neither Western and violent, nor Eastern and crystallized. Factories and shore hotels are inevitably associated with New Jersey, cowpunchers and buttes with Montana; California is apparent, and Florida and Maine. But Minnesota is unplaced. I have heard a Yale junior speculate: "Now you take those Minnesota cities-say take Milwaukee, for instance. Why, it must have a couple of hundred thousand population, hasn't it?" (Nor is this fiction. He really said it.)
This would be a composite Eastern impression of Minnesota: a vastness of wind-beaten prairie, flat as a parade ground, wholly given up to wheat-growing save for a fringe of pines at the north and a few market-towns at the south; these steppes inhabited by a few splendid Yankees-one's own sort of people-and by Swedes who always begin sentences with "Vell, Aye tank," who are farmhands, kitchen-maids, and icemen, and who are invariably humorous.
This popular outline bears examination as well as most popular beliefs; quite as well as the concept that Negroes born in Chicago are less courteous than those born in Alabama. Minnesota is not flat. It is far less flat than the province of Quebec. Most of it is prairie, but the prairie rolls and dips and curves; it lures the motorist like the English roads of Broad Highway fiction. Along the skyline the cumulus clouds forever belly and, with our dry air, nothing is more spectacular than the crimson chaos of our sunsets. But our most obvious beauty is the lakes. There are thousands of them-nine or ten thousand-brilliant among suave grain fields or masked by cool birch and maples. On the dozen mile-wide lakes of the north are summer cottages of the prosperous from Missouri, Illinois, even Texas.
Leagues of the prairie are utterly treeless, except for artificial windbreaks of willows and cottonwoods encircling the farm-houses. Here the German Catholic spire can be seen a dozen miles off, and the smoke of the Soo Line freight two stations away. But from this plains country you come into a northern pine wilderness, "the Big Woods," a land of lumber camps and reservation Indians and lonely tote-roads, kingdom of Paul Bunyan, the mythical hero of the lumberjacks.
The second error is to suppose that Minnesota is entirely a wheat State. It was, at one time, and the Minneapolis flour mills are still the largest in the world. Not even Castoria is hymned by more billboards than is Minneapolis flour. But today it is Montana and Saskatchewan and the Dakotas which produce most of the wheat for our mills, while the Minnesota farmers, building tall red silos which adorn their barns like the turrets of Picardy, turn increasingly to dairying. We ship beef to London, butter to Philadelphia. The iron from our Mesaba mines is in Alaskan rails and South African bridges, and as to manufacturing, our refrigerators and heat-regulators comfort Park Avenue apartment houses, while our chief underwear factory would satisfy a Massachusetts Brahmin or even a Chicago advertising man.
Greatest error of all is to believe that Minnesota is entirely Yankee and Scandinavian, and that the Swedes are helots and somehow ludicrous.
A school principal in New Duluth analyzed his three hundred and thirty children as Slovene, 49; Italian, 47; Serbian, 39; American, 37; Polish, 30; Austrian and Swedish, 22 each; Croatian, 20; colored, 9 (it is instructive to note that he did not include them among the "Americans"); Finnish, 7; Scotch, 6; Slav unspecified, 5; German, French, Bohemian, and Jewish, 4 each; Rumanian, Norwegian, and Canadian, 3 each; Scandinavian, unspecified, 8; Lithuanian, Irish, Ukrainian, and Greek, 2 each; Russian and English, 1 each-60 per cent of them from Southern and Eastern Europe!
Such a Slavification would, of course, be true only of an industrial or mining community, but it does indicate that the whole Mid-Western population may alter as much as has the East. In most of the State there is a predomination of Yankees, Germans, Irish, and all branches of Scandinavians, Icelanders and Danes as well as Swedes and Norwegians. And among all racial misconceptions none is more vigorously absurd than the belief that the Minnesota Scandinavians are, no matter how long they remain here, like the characters of that estimable old stock-company play "Yon Yonson"-a tribe humorous, inferior, and unassimilable. To generalize, any popular generalization about Scandinavians in America is completely and ingeniously and always wrong.
In Minnesota itself one does not hear (from the superior Yankees whom one questions about that sort of thing) that the Scandinavians are a comic people, but rather that they are surly, that they are Socialistic, that they "won't Americanize." Manufacturers and employing lumbermen speak of their Swedish employees precisely as wealthy Seattleites speak of the Japs, Bostonians of the Irish, Southwesterners of the Mexicans, New Yorkers of the Jews, marine officers of the Haitians, and Mr. Rudyard Kipling of nationalist Hindus-or nationalist Americans. Unconsciously, all of them give away the Inferior Race Theory, which is this: An inferior race is one whose members work for me. They are treacherous, ungrateful, ignorant, lazy, and agitator-ridden, because they ask for higher wages and thus seek to rob me of the dollars which I desire for my wife's frocks and for the charities which glorify me. This inferiority is inherent. Never can they become Good Americans (or English Gentlemen, or High-wellborn Prussians). I know that this is so, because all my university classmates and bridge-partners agree with me.
The truth is that the Scandinavians Americanize only too quickly. They Americanize much more quickly than Americans. For generation after generation there is a remnant of stubborn American abolitionist stock which either supports forlorn causes and in jail sings low ballads in a Harvard accent, or else upholds, like Lodge, an Adams tradition which is as poisonous as Communism to a joy in brotherly boosting. So thorough are the Scandinavians about it that in 1963 we shall be hearing Norwegian Trygavasons and Icelandic Gislasons saying of the Montenegrins and Letts: "They're reg'lar hogs about wages, but the worst is, they simply won't Americanize. They won't vote either the Rotary or the Ku Klux ticket. They keep hollering about wanting some kind of a doggone Third Party."
Scandinavians take to American commerce and schooling and journalism as do Scotsmen or Cockneys. Particularly they take to American politics, the good old politics of Harrison and McKinley and Charley Murphy. Usually, they bring nothing new from their own experimental countries. They permit their traditions to be snatched away. True, many of them have labored for the Nonpartisan League, for woman suffrage, for co-operative societies. The late Governor John Johnson of Minnesota seems to have been a man of destiny; had he lived he would probably have been President, and possibly a President of power and originality. But again-there was Senator Knute Nelson, who made McCumber look like a left-wing syndicalist and Judge Gary like François Villon. There is Congressman Steenerson of Minnesota, chairman of the House postal committee. Mr. Steenerson once produced, out of a rich talent matured by a quarter of a century in the House, an immortal sentence. He had been complaining at lunch that the Nonpartisan League had introduced the obscene writings of "this Russian woman, Ellen Key," into the innocent public schools. Someone hinted to the Scandinavian Mr. Steenerson, "But I thought she was a Swede."
He answered: "No, the Key woman comes from Finland and the rest of Red Russia, where they nationalize the women."
Naturally it is the two new Senators, Hendrik Shipstead and Magnus Johnson, who now represent to the world the Scandinavian element in Minnesota. How much they may bring to the cautious respectability of the Senate cannot be predicted but certainly, like John Johnson, they vigorously represent everything that is pioneer, democratic, realistic, American in our history.
Good and bad, the Scandinavians monopolize Minnesota politics. Of the last nine governors of the State including Senatorial-Candidate Preus, six have been Scandinavians. So is Harold Knutson, Republican whip of the House. Scandinavians make up a large proportion of the Minnesota State Legislature, and while in Santa Fé the Mexican legislators speak Spanish, while in Quebec the representatives still debate in French, though for generations they have been citizens of a British dominion, in Minnesota the politicians who were born abroad are zealous to speak nothing but Americanese. Thus it is in business and the home. Though a man may not have left Scandinavia till he was twenty, his sons will use the same English, good and bad, as the sons of settlers from Maine, and his daughters will go into music clubs or into cocktail sets, into college or into factories, with the same prejudices and ideals and intonations as girls named Smith and Brewster.
The curious newness of Minnesota has been suggested, but the really astonishing thing is not the newness-it is the oldness, the solid, traditionalized, cotton-wrapped oldness. A study of it would be damaging to the Free and Fluid Young America theory. While parts of the State are still so raw that the villages among the furrows or the dusty pines are but frontier camps, in the cities and in a few of the towns there is as firm a financial oligarchy and almost as definite a social system as London, and this power is behind all Sound Politics, in direct or indirect control of all business. It has its Old Families, who tend to marry only within their set. Anywhere in the world, an Old Family is one which has had wealth for at least thirty years longer than average families of the same neighborhood. In England, it takes (at most) five generations to absorb "parvenus" and "profiteers" into the gentry, whether they were steel profiteers in the Great War or yet untitled land profiteers under William the Conqueror. In New York it takes three generations-often. In the Middle West it takes one and a half.
No fable is more bracing, or more absurd, than that all the sons and grandsons of the pioneers, in Minnesota or in California, in Arizona or Nebraska, are racy and breezy, unmannerly but intoxicatingly free. The grandchildren of men who in 1862 fought the Minnesota Indians, who dogtrotted a hundred miles over swamp-blurred trails to bear the alarm to the nearest troops-some of them are still clearing the land, but some of them are complaining of the un-English quality of the Orange Pekoe in dainty painty city tea-rooms which stand where three generations ago the Red River fur-carts rested; their chauffeurs await them in Pierce-Arrow limousines (special bodies by Kimball, silver fittings from Tiffany); they present Schnitzler and St. John Ervine at their Little Theaters; between rehearsals they chatter of meeting James Joyce in Paris; and always in high-pitched Mayfair laughter they ridicule the Scandinavians and Finns who are trying to shoulder into their sacred, ancient Yankee caste. A good many of their names are German.
Naturally, beneath this Junker class there is a useful, sophisticated, and growing company of doctors, teachers, newspapermen, liberal lawyers, musicians who have given up Munich and Milan for the interest of developing orchestras in the new land. There is a scientific body of farmers. The agricultural school of the huge University of Minnesota is sound and creative. And still more naturally, between Labor and Aristocracy there is an army of the peppy, poker-playing, sales hustling He-men who are our most characteristic Americans. But even the He-men are not so obvious as they seem. What their future is, no man knows-and no woman dares believe. It is conceivable that, instead of being a menace in their naïve boosting and their fear of the unusual, they may pass only too soon; it is possible that their standardized bath-rooms and Overlands will change to an equally standardized and formula-bound culture-yearning Culture, arty Art. We have been hurled from tobacco-chewing to tea-drinking with gasping speed; we may as quickly dash from boosting to a beautiful and languorous death. If it is necessary to be Fabian in politics, to keep the reformers (left wing or rigid right) from making us perfect too rapidly, it is yet more necessary to be a little doubtful about the ardent souls who would sell Culture; and if the Tired Business Man is unlovely and a little dull, at least he is real, and we shall build only on reality.
Small is the ducal set which controls these other classes. It need be but small. In our rapid accumulation of wealth we have been able to create an oligarchy with ease and efficiency, with none of the vulgar risks which sword-girt Norfolks and Percys encountered. This is one of the jests which we have perpetrated. The nimbler among our pioneering grandfathers appropriated to their private uses some thousands of square miles in northern Minnesota, and cut off-or cheerfully lost by forest fire-certain billions of feet of such lumber as will never be seen again. When the lumber was gone, the land seemed worthless. It was good for nothing but agriculture, which is an unromantic occupation, incapable of making millionaires in one generation. The owners had few of them acquired more than a million dollars, and now they could scarcely give their holdings away. Suddenly, on parts of this scraggly land, iron was discovered, iron in preposterous quantities, to be mined in the open pit, as easily as hauling out gravel. Here is the chief supply of the Gary and South Chicago mills. The owners of the land do not mine the ore. They have gracefully leased it-though we are but Westerners, we have our subsidiary of the United States Steel Company. The landowner himself has only to go abroad and sit in beauty like a flower, and every time a steam shovel dips into the ore, a quarter drops into his pocket.
So at last our iron-lumber-flour railroad aristocracy has begun to rival the beef barons of Chicago, the coal lords of Pennsylvania, and the bond princes of New York.
Excerpted from THE MINNESOTA STORIES OF SINCLAIR LEWIS
Copyright © 2005 by Minnesota Historical Society. Excerpted by permission.
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|Minnesota, the Norse State||5|
|A theory of values||19|
|He loved his country||27|
|The Tamarack lover||44|
|A woman by candlelight||77|
|A rose for little Eva||105|
|Main street's been paved!||125|
|Main street goes to war||144|
|Be brisk with Babbitt||161|
|The kidnaped memorial||223|
|A matter of business||237|
|The hack driver||258|
|All wives are angels||266|
|Nobody to write about||281|