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Big Noise from Sauk Centre
"I've already done my best work ... Babbitt will probably be rated my best book."
—SINCLAIR LEWIS, 1925, AGE 41
On becoming the first American writer to win the Nobel Prize (1930):
"This is the end of me ... fatal ... I cannot live up to it."
Sinclair Lewis may have been a little too broad and social for the narrow-gauge, introspective fifties and the "Wow!—Now!" existentialist sixties that turned their backs on him. But he blew a lot of fresh air into the musty corners of Victorianism that were still waiting for a thorough vacuum cleaning in the days of Harding and Coolidge. Lewis was fresh in every way, really a fresh guy in the best no-nonsense American style. This was my opinion of his best work, the half dozen books that built his monument from 1920 to 1930, and when I met him under rather odd circumstances in the middle thirties I found him to be much of a piece with his work.
Some forty-five years ago, when Lewis published It Can't Happen Here, I was at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, editor of our daily paper and, naturally, bristling with antifascism. Lewis had endeared himself to our fathers with Main Street, Babbitt, Arrowsmith, Elmer Gantry, and Dodsirorth, but now in 1935, the year of Mussolini and Hitler abroad, of Huey Long and Father Coughlin at home, the literary terror from Sauk Centre was reestablishing himself with our embattled Depression Generation. It Can't Happen Here was the high sign we had been waiting for: Lewis was one of ours. Almost half a century later the totalitarian horrors, American style, that Lewis projected for us in the Huey-like form of Senator Windrip may seem at best a little provincial, at worst a manic-panic burlesque. Today even the right-wing banquet-circuit wit and wisdom of Jesse Helms suggests that when and if the dreaded It lowers its nose cone over us, it will have to be packaged and sweetened to popular taste. But in those days of Coughlin's "Social Justice," Pelley's Silver Shirts, the Brown Shirts of Fritz Kuhn and the Black Shirts of Detroit, Senator Windrip seemed all too real. Having already shaken the middle-class conscience of our parents, the creator of a home-grown American dictator knew exactly how to find and squeeze the nerve of political indignation in a new generation of readers who had begun to refer to themselves, with graveyard humor, as Veterans of Future Wars.
My own enthusiasm for Lewis, and for his welcome commitment to the antifascist cause, was brewed to the boiling point when the avant-garde poet and Proust scholar, Professor Ramon Guthrie, a close friend of Lewis's in those Paris Left Bank days ten years earlier, asked me if I realized that "Red," as he called him, was living just over the mountain, near Woodstock, Vermont, an easy hour's drive. Practically a neighbor!
The following weekend I decided to combine the pleasure of a day-off excursion with some editorial business by driving over to call on Sinclair Lewis and interviewing him for the school paper. Most of my English professors, along with a pride of sophomore lions, put it down as a foolhardy mission. Lewis had become virtually a recluse. His ill temper was notorious. I would find a small army of servants, secretaries, bodyguards, and castle dragons to run me off. "So what's the worst that can happen to me?" the boy in me countered. "After all, he can't eat me!"
"On the contrary," said an aging bachelor professor of English who specialized in obscure modern poetry and acidic notes on our earnest literary efforts, "I am under the distinct impression that roasted undergraduate is one of the favorite dishes on his menu. I'm not joking, Schulberg. I wouldn't risk it."
Nevertheless, that Friday afternoon I found my way across the White River and into the trees protecting a large white clapboard estate house a few miles beyond Woodstock. I took a deep breath and knocked on the door. I had to knock several times before anyone answered. Then the door swung open and a tall, skinny man with long arms and legs and one of the ugliest faces I had ever seen looked out and barked at me, "Well? What d'ya want?"
A small voice that sounded stuck in its throat hesitatingly identified me as the editor of the Dartmouth College daily and a friend of Professor Guthrie's.
"What the hell are you stammering for?" he barked again.
"I'm stammering because ... I stammer," I stammered. "Makes me sound more frightened than I—I really am."
"Huh. All right. Come in."
The house was warm and inviting and lonely and empty. There was a wonderful, long living room lined with books and looking out through a wall of glass onto a seemingly endless terrace that dropped down in a series of broad, grassy steps. I kept looking around, surprised to find no one else in sight. No servants, no secretaries, no wife. "Mrs. Lewis"—that was the well-known Dorothy Thompson—"is off on a lecture tour," he answered my silent question. "Wanna drink?"
I followed Mr. Lewis into the kitchen to help get the ice and the mixings. On the way back I paused to look at the shelves of European editions of Lewis novels. I felt a sense of awe and youthful envy. Then we went out on the veranda overlooking those grass terraces, and started drinking together. It was easy talking because we shared, from opposite ends of the telescope of age, an enthusiasm for Ramon Guthrie. "I'm crazy about Ramon," Lewis said in a voice rather loud for an audience of one. "He c'n do 'em all—paint, fly, write novels, poetry.... The only thing I thought he couldn't do is hold down a job in a conservative New England college like Dartmouth. You know, I got 'im the job. Never thought he'd hold it more'n a year or two. Good old Ramon! Of that whole nutty crowd over in Paris he was one of the few who had genius. Only trouble was, he was a genius in so many different directions. If he ever settles down to one, he'll take it all."
We went in and refilled our glasses and I paid my courteous and sincere obeisance to the Lewis novels that I had enjoyed. They were books, I tried to say, that had made me laugh uncomfortably at the cultural wasteland of Middle America. "Oh, George Babbitt isn't such a bad guy," Lewis said. "Actually I kinda like him." He seemed pleased, but not particularly anxious to talk about the old ones. The only book alive for him at that moment was It Can't Happen Here. I addressed a self-conscious, or, rather, socially conscious, tribute to the book: how important it was that an author of Lewis's stature—our first and at the time our only Noble Prize winner—had taken so firm and uncompromising an antifascist position. That was the way we talked in those unalienated days. "We've just formed a campus chapter of the League Against War and Fascism-Ramon is one of our faculty advisers—and It Can't Happen Here has given us some valuable ammunition, Mr. Lewis," I said. Eased by the highballs and his informality, I was hardly stammering any more. "Oh hell, call me Red," he said. And then completely ignoring my mouthful of social significance, he said, "That Charlie Coughlin, he's really something, isn't he? Christ, but he gives me a kick!" Just thinking about it made him laugh, raucously, and for a moment or two I actually did not realize that he was referring to our Father Coughlin. For us at the college, particularly in our left-liberal League Against War and Fascism, the mention of Father Coughlin and his "Christian Front" was an automatic starter setting off violent vibrations of political hatred and militant anger. His name stood for demagogic panaceas, anti-Semitism, a virulent cloth-protected fascism spreading out from Detroit in all directions. To my surprise, and rather to my dismay, Lewis was unable to take him that seriously. To his quizzical eyes, Coughlin was just another funny Charlie, like Charlie Chan and Charlie Chase.
Taking stage in the middle of the living room, Lewis delivered an impersonation of Father Coughlin and his radio rabble-rousing that reduced it, or elevated it, to first-rate vaudeville. I had known some novelists before, mostly those who had come to Hollywood to mend their fortunes, but I had never encountered one who could act out and mime his material this way. The way he took off "Charlie" Coughlin reminded me of once having seen Charlie Chaplin do an impromptu Schickelgruber routine at a party, years before his classic charade as The Great Dictator. Looking back it may seem odd to compare the comédie talents of Sinclair Lewis with those of Charlie Chaplin, but on our third highball, as he racked up Coughlin and moved on to Huey Long, William Dudley Pelley, Fritz Kuhn, and our other American would-be Fuhrers, it struck me as an inspired, satirical performance. We made an oddly assorted pair that afternoon. I had been sternly and perhaps immaturely incapable of taking our homegrown Gauleiters lightly, while Red Lewis seemed congenitally incapable of taking them any other way.
Although I had come with a headful of questions, somewhere during the interview—which grew inadvertently into a visit—my host became the more aggressive questioner. The marble workers were on strike in the nearby Rutland-Proctor area, and Lewis—by this time at his insistence I was tentatively calling him "Red"—wanted to know all about it. I had gone over to Proctor to cover the strike for my paper and the series of articles that resulted had, to put it lightly, become something of a succès de scandale. The Proctors were an illustrious Dartmouth family known for their generosity to the College. But my report of wives and children of their marble workers freezing and starving had brought to our editorial office halls a surprising overflow of clothing and food parcels from sympathetic faculty members and students. This largesse we dispatched to Proctor by the truckload. But after the first few deliveries, which had caught them by surprise, State troopers—brazenly on the side of the quarry owners—had turned back our convoy. I had been flagged down by deputy sheriffs, local bully boys sworn in for this emergency, and warned to stay the hell out of Proctor and the other embattled quarry towns. In fact, any representative of our school paper was promptly labeled a "Commie" and ordered by the authorities to "get your asses out of Proctor and back across the State line to Dartmouth where you belong!" Only a few miles from where Red was living, I told him, were company towns, feudal in structure and fascist in effect, where indigenous storm troopers were terrorizing foreign-born quarry workers with shotguns, clubs, and patriotic threats. It Can't Happen Here, I warned my host with undergraduate zeal, was not only a prophetic book but its dire prophecy was already happening, and practically on the doorstep of this luxurious farmhouse.
An eager listener as well as a great talker, Lewis responded with the sharp, staccato questions of a crack reporter, pressing me for details, not theories. He had a passion for the former, and a loathing for the latter. Now I found myself taking his place, taking stage and pacing up and down that spacious living room as I went on with my story of the boy journalist aiming his sling shot at the all-powerful Goliath of Vermont:
When the Rutland Herald prematurely headlined the ending of the strike, a delegation of marble workers had come to our newspaper office to deny it, and we had counterheadlined the strikers' angry attack on the Herald story as a company ruse. The marble strikers had hailed ours as the only paper in Vermont or New Hampshire reporting their strike truthfully; conversely, the Proctor Marble Company, the American Legion, the Rutland Herald and the Hanover Gazette, convinced that dear old Dartmouth was harboring a Communist conspiracy, were crying for our scalps. The president of Dartmouth, Ernest Martin Hopkins, was being flooded with letters from irate alumni, the kindest suggesting that I be "immediately separated from the College," but some preferring that I be strung up for high treason. I had been invited to describe our involvement with the strike on other campuses, had been denounced in the New Hampshire Legislature, and had been politely ordered to come to the State capital to defend myself. At issue, it seemed, was a question then in its infancy: the right of student opinion to involve itself in (rather than merely study) social, economic, and national crises. The novelty of the thing, and perhaps the comedy of a Hollywood producer's son breaking through the Ivy curtain and running the gantlet of company thugs to bring help to the struggling proletariat, was such an odd little footnote to the class struggle that it came to national attention.
It all sounded like the plot of one of those righteous Depression novels then coming into fashion, and Red's reaction was a characteristic amalgam of serious interest and vast amusement. He plied me with good questions and good Scotch and I warmed to my subject, describing the native humor of the quarry miners that I was trying to work into a college play. Management had warned the workers that if they did not give up their protracted strike, the Proctors would shut down the quarries and move their business to the South, where unionism, civil rights, and other intrusions were simply not tolerated. To which the leader of the marble workers had responded, "Go ahead 'n' move. That's somethin' we been waitin' t' see—you Proctors movin' yer goddamn marble y'selves!"
Red's laugh was like the bark of a seal. He warmed to the idea that the strikers didn't take themselves too seriously. One of the things he despised about fascist movements was their lack of humor. He thought Hitler and Goebbels and the Brown Shirts were able to take over Germany because "the goddamned krauts never had a sense of humor." In spite of the doomsday novel he had just written, he really didn't believe that Americans would fall for the applesauce of a Hitler or a Mussolini. The reason "Hooey" Long had gone as far as he had was that he had never lost touch with the earthy humor of the Louisiana rednecks who took to his slogan, "Every man a king." Red saw the assassination of Long as a sign that tyrants might find the going harder here in American than in Europe, since we were freer of ritual and dogma in a land where the independent, inquiring spirit still survived. He saw hope in the cussed independence of the Vermonter, despite the moneyed hierarchy and its hired troopers that I had come up against in Rutland. When I told him about Archibald MacLeish's efforts to rally fellow writers to the strikers' cause, Red said he wouldn't go anywhere to please Archie MacLeish because he had no use for poets who wrote about Democracy with a capital D. Instead, he wanted to hear more from me about the facts of the case: how much the marble workers earned an hour, how much the marble was sold for, and what kind of profit the Proctors enjoyed?
Sharp questions. And full answers. Another hour passed. It had begun to grow dark. We moved inside and when I saw what the hour was, I told Red I was afraid I had overstayed my welcome. On the contrary, he assured me, he had begun to wonder about this new left-wing "Farrell and Steinbeck" generation and I was the first on-the-hoof example of "whatever the hell this new thing is" that he had a chance to know. I thanked him and said I'd like to drive over again some afternoon. Any time, he said, but if I had no plans for dinner, why not stay on and take potluck with him?
So we drank and talked on. Swapping stories and political notions. Disagreeing now and then, but congenially. Neither one of us was pie-eyed, as we used to say then, but the mood was mellow. He told anecdotes of his now-forgotten early fling with socialism, his adolescent attachment to Upton Sinclair's communal farm and his prewar season of idealism when he was a due-spaying member of the Socialist Party. He scoffed at the young believer he had been when he was twenty-one, a quarter of a century earlier—gently mocking my own condition. He talked of his fascination with hotels, whiskey, people—especially Americans. Like H. L. Mencken, his fellow member in the league against boredom and "boobocracy," Lewis had a big love-hate thing going for Americans: "If you wanna write, stay put, stay near what you know best, don't let yourself get trapped over there with the Ritz Bar oh-boy-are-we-having-fun-and-ain't-we-artistic! set. I say 'Write America First.'"
The telephone rang and since he picked it up in the hallway off the living room where we had been sitting and made no effort to lower his characteristically boisterous Midwestern voice, I could eavesdrop unashamedly. I wish I could play it back word for word, as I was able to with some of his literary pronouncements. Alas, John O'Haras come one to a lifetime. But it went something like this:
"Oh, hello dear, where are you now, Philadelphia?" I realized it was his indefatigable lecturer-wife Dorothy Thompson. "Oh fine, I'm awfully glad the talk went so well, yes, I called the plumber and he's coming to fix that leak tomorrow, no, I won't forget to tell him about the powder room too, yes, the painter was here this morning to put on the second coat and the garage looks swell, I think you'll be pleased. Where do you talk tomorrow night? Oh, that's right, Baltimore, fine, dear, fine ..."
Excerpted from Writers in America by Budd Schulberg. Copyright © 1983 Budd Schulberg. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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