Overlooking Minnesota’s Big Pelican Lake is a lodge, a large one, renowned for the visitors it’s attracted in its long history. Everyone from actors to governors have stayed there, planting themselves on Breezy Point Resort’s long, lumber decks overlooking the lake. It’s some of the state’s best fishing and also the spot where the author Sinclair Lewis met future-governor Floyd B. Olson for the first, and only, time.
It was 1926 and, spending the first half of the year in Kansas City gathering material for his next book, in June Lewis headed to Breezy Point to write. His choice of the northern woods was twofold as it “offered a sophisticated inn where he could get a good meal and drink with Minneapolis’ business elite, as well as rustic isolation” (Lingeman 282). When he wasn’t writing, Lewis could be found in the lodge doing impressions (as he was known for) or leading guests “in hymn singing around the piano” (Lingeman 285). Many of these he knew by heart since childhood but some came from his time shadowing ministers for what would become Elmer Gantry.
It was during this same period that Lewis’ alcoholism consumed him, worrying his wife and publisher that the famed author of Main Street, Babbitt, and Arrowsmith would quite writing all together. His alcoholism was such a problem, in fact, that when the Breezy Point bar closed an employee was assigned to take him home. Still, Lewis persevered and by the time he left in August to attend his father’s funeral half of the manuscript for Elmer Gantry was finished.
While Lewis stayed in Breezy Point, one of the Minneapolis elite he met was a young Hennepin County Attorney named Floyd B. Olson. Having lost his first bid for governor two years before, in his head were plans for another campaign that within four years would make him the state’s first Farmer-Labor Governor. Regarded as a organizational mastermind for his capacity to build coalitions of competing (and opposing) parties, his success came as much from his natural political genius as his charisma. Yet, according to his biographer, in Olson were “strands of energy and sloth, ambition and carefree gaiety, … woven together to create a complex, contradictory personality” (Mayer 5). To illustrate this complexity his biographer cites a 1926 trip to Breezy Point.
Riding with his friend George Leonard to a meeting of the Minnesota State Bar Association in Duluth, Olson suggested that since the two had left a day early they could afford a detour west. As Breezy Point was one of Olson’s favorite relaxation spots, Leonard, who was an officer in the association, acquiesced. While there
he and Leonard encountered a noisy crowd centering around Sinclair Lewis, then at the height of his fame. Leonard’s weak protests failed to dissuade Olson from introducing himself and joining the party. Eventually it moved to Sinclair Lewis’ cabin, where Olson exchanged yarns with the novelist for some hours. Lewis was working on Elmer Gantry at the time, and the convivial evening ended with the singing of hymns (Mayer 6).
Planning to leave for Duluth the next morning to make the first sessions of the meeting, Olson further convinced his friend “that the opening sessions at conventions [are] always dull” and suggested one more detour. The next day this happened again while Leonard was “slowly driv[en] to the realization [Olson] had never intended to reach Duluth” (Mayer 7). They didn’t.
Yet not all of Lewis’ evenings were so jovial. As Lewis’ biographer records, on one occasion
A man from a nearby small town began drunkenly hectoring Lewis, accusing him of having a swelled head. Lewis ignored him. Finally, in frustration, the man yelled he was as good as Lewis and unleashed a left hook that sent Lewis sprawling. Lewis quickly sprang up and went at the man with flying fists (Lingeman 285).
It is unknown whether Lewis remembered this early encounter with Olson, but he was surely aware of Olson’s stature in American politics when in his novel It Can’t Happen Here the Minnesota governor makes an appearance. In it, after the demagogue Senator Buzz Windrip (a stand-in for Huey Long) takes the 1936 Democratic Party nomination away from FDR, several radical politicians join Roosevelt’s Jeffersonian Party including Olson. Unfortunately, this hypothetical party was destined for failure as “it represented integrity and reason in a year when the electorate hungered for frisky emotions … all the primitive sensations which they thought they found in the screaming Buzz Windrip” (Lewis 85).
Lewis, Sinclair. It Can’t Happen Here. New York: Signet Classics, 2005.
Lingeman, Richard. Sinclair Lewis: Rebel From Main Street. New York: Random House, 2002.
Mayer, George H. The Political Career of Floyd B. Olson. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1987.