ABSTRACT. One of the strongest voices of the disillusioned generation after World War I, Sinclair Lewis (1885–1951) came to public attention in the America of the 1920s, i.e. the America of the fervent and colourful, if troubled, “Jazz Age.” That hectic period with all its positives and negatives left on Lewis an indelible mark, his literary works bearing witness to the increasingly larger and deeper complexity of what came to be known as the modern world. Lewis’s age experienced one of the greatest, quickest, most dramatic and most pervasive transformations that mankind is known to have ever gone through in its entire known history. It is as if American literature had waited for these times, in order to come to its full fruition through the voice of a writer who attempted no less than to encapsulate in narrative garment the whole of American social life: thus, important critics see in Sinclair Lewis the first American novelist (Rourke 1931; Kazin 1962). In this sense, Lewis had many competitors, of whom, in his Nobel Prize address, he mentioned, among others, Dreiser, Anderson, Cather, Hemingway, Faulkner, Fitzgerald and Wolfe (Hutchisson 1996: 204). The latter four at that time were rising stars: with Lewis, these geniuses of narrative set the bases of the modern American novel, after its main foundations had been established in the previous century by Melville and Twain. Lewis admired especially Thomas Wolfe as the novelist of millions of words, who had the energy to create in 1929 a literary “mammoth”: Look homeward, Angel, which spoke, like Lewis’s own novels, to a whole generation of young people. Of time and the river, which in its first version, titled The October Fair, contained several thousand pages of manuscript, must have amazed Lewis, since it attempted, like his own works, to encompass all of America in one streaming overwhelming narrative. The difference lay in that Wolfe wanted to create a mythology (cf. Holman 1960), like a full-fledged romantic that he was, while Lewis, although himself a romantic (with emphasis in his early evolution as a writer and as an American disciple of H. G. Wells), was perhaps not so much interested in mythical symbolism or multidimensional symbolism (like Joyce, for instance; cf. Schorer 1961: 124), as he was interested in the romance of America as it then was (much like Wells, who was interested in the romance of England and of humanity), as well as in the failure of the American dream and the human dissolution which that failure entailed. The present paper proposes an exploration of Lewis’s works and life, with a view to reaching a panoramic view of what Lewis whished to convey as his main literary mission: namely to display the current social reality as the disenchanted universe that it then was, in which humanity lived, often unawares, as mere automata inhabiting a waste land of arbitrary and twisted conventions. Like H. G. Wells’s, Lewis’s message is relevant today as ever: human society runs the risk at any time to turn into a nightmarish “Babbittland” of glossy and polished surfaces, hiding terrible underground realities, populated by people more dead than alive, more dissolute than whole, and, as in Babbitt’s Zenith, always failing to reach real integration, even though heroes attempting such exploits always exist. Lewis’s message to his generation was clear, voiced through his most controversial novel, Elmer Gantry: “We shall yet make these United States a moral nation!” In Lewis’s philosophy, moral, spiritual integration, therefore, was treasured as the way. The paradox with Sinclair Lewis is that this way went deep through the underground. pp. 105–187

Keywords: human automaton; romantic neo-realism / realistic neo-romanticism; the underground; urban hell; automobiles; Satanic Mills; materialism; emptiness; Zenith; idealism; materialism-and-idealism

Mihai A. Stroe
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University of Bucharest

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