Sinclair Lewis in Sauk Centre

February 7: On this day in 1885, Sinclair Lewis was born in Sauk Centre, Minnesota. The argument which Lewis enjoyed with his hometown is a celebrated one—not least in the hometown, where Lewis's status has evolved from cuss-word to cultural attraction. With Lewis a Nobel-winner, Sauk Centre and its most famous son had patched things up long before his death in 1951, of course. Still, given that his Main Street mocks such boosterism, few could have predicted the town's annual "Sinclair Lewis Days," or that the local high school sports teams, upon which Lewis never dreamed of playing, would be cheered on as the "MainStreeters."

 

Lewis could not wait to get away from home, but he did not leave as Joyce left Dublin, or stay as far away as Hemingway did from Oak Park, Illinois. One return visit is amusingly described in With Love from Gracie, a memoir by his first wife, Grace Hegger Lewis. She was a big-city girl who had worked at Vogue, and her new husband had forewarned her about Doctor Lewis of Sauk Centre; still, it was a shock:

The first night home Hal closed the door of the rear bedroom where we were to sleep. Next morning the Doctor complained that by doing so we had shut off the current of air needed on these warm spring nights. "Golly, I'd forgotten about that. There used to be a big green book that Dad used as a doorstop - and here it still is!" So we stuck "Bible Readings for the Home Circle" in the door every night thereby sacrificing our only chance at privacy....

Lewis and his wife ended their first visit to Sauk Centre by driving out of town in a Model T Ford, heading back to New York via California. Lewis designed a canvas and wooden pole contraption, turning the car into a homemade camper for the prairie nights. The canvas was assembled "on the sewing machine of a friendly shoemaker in full sight of Main Street," giving an additional touch to those famous, first-page sentences in the novel: "Main Street is the climax of civilization. That this Ford car might stand in front of the Bon Ton Store, Hannibal invaded Rome and Erasmus wrote in Oxford cloisters...."


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.

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