A sympathetic, often moving biographical reappraisal of America’s first Nobel Prize winner for literature, by a writer who did the same for Theodore Dreiser (An American Journey, 1990; At the Gates of the City, 1986).
Lewis’s critical reputation, in decline near the end of his life (1885–1951), was nearly entombed by Mark Schorer’s censorious1961 biography. While never losing sight of the novelist’s faults as writer and person, Lingeman, a senior editor at The Nation, offers a corrective reminder of his creative heights and legacy. Influenced by Dickens and H.G. Wells, Lewis wrote apprentice novels and Saturday Evening Post stories before hitting his stride in 1920 with Main Street, a satire of small-town provincialism. Here, he employed the artillery he would use to devastating effect throughout the rest of the decade in Babbitt, Arrowsmith, Elmer Gantry, and Dodsworth: uncanny mimicry of slang, in-depth research into professions and communities, and iconoclastic treatment of business, science, fundamentalism, and marriage. Shrewdly, Lingeman demonstrates that the lack of identity that enabled Lewis to immerse himself in characters unmoored him from friends and family (including his second wife, celebrated journalist Dorothy Thompson) who might have provided love. Although often charming, generous, and kind, Lewis suffered from unbearable loneliness and insecurity (bred in no small part by repeated treatments for skin cancer) that he could alleviate only through drinking. Propelled by ferocious self-discipline, he produced a string of mediocre novels and plays in the 1930s and ’40s, with only the occasional work salvaged by his old outrage (e.g., Kingsblood Royal, a prophetic 1947 treatment of America’s civil-rights crisis). Yet even in creative decline, Lingeman notes, Lewis tackled taboo subjects such as lesbianism and abortion with unprecedented candor, and his best, spot-on depictions of American life have inspired such writers as Kurt Vonnegut, Tom Wolfe, and John Updike.
Meticulous and understanding, sparking our admiration and pity for a satirist whose art was fueled—and life doomed—by an ineradicable alienation.