As my regular readers know, I write a lot about Sinclair Lewis. For example, there’s the anecdote about him drinking with Gov. Floyd B. Olson, his advice on writing, and how those overseas understood his work. I also write about poetry, and recently I published here translations of Norwegian-American poet Julius B. Baumann. Well, here’s where the two worlds meet.
In 2013 I started the Sinclair Lewis Poetry Project to collect together, in one volume, the unpublished poetry of the United States’ first literary Nobel Laureate. To do this I went through several archives culling together more than 50 pieces of published and unpublished works, dating from Lewis’ undergraduate years to the last year of his life. Some poems, as one can imagine, are better than others.
While doing this research, two poems in particular caught my eye. Both were published while Lewis was a student at Yale, writing for the student magazine the Courant. Though he published a handful of poems at this time, these two stood out because they are the only examples of Lewis writing in a language that isn’t English — in this case, German.
So, with a little help I started “Translating Lewis into English” and published them in the Sinclair Lewis Society Newsletter (Fall 2014). You can read the accompanying article (and the translations) here.
From the introduction:
Growing up on the prairies of western Minnesota, Lewis devoured the books of his father’s library. Reveling in the works of Dickens, Scott, and Irving, he dreamed of Ivanhoe and imagined himself a knight in medieval lands. These were a far cry from the physician’s work expected by his father, and it was this imagination that alienated the young Lewis from his peers. With literature pointing like a telescope to foreign lands, Lewis traded the barns for English towers and, in his own childish verse, soon mastered what Richard Lingeman has termed “Minnesota-Tennyson” (20).
Attending Yale, Lewis wrote for The Courant and Yale Literary Magazine where his verse sang of saints and viziers, Prince Hal and, most well-known, “Launcelot.” As a student he published three poems in the Lit, fourteen in The Courant, and thirty-six in several national publications such as The Outer’s Book and Woman’s Home Companion. In addition, he published seven French and German translations for Transatlantic Tales, including one by Sully Prudhomme, the first Nobel Laureate in Literature. All of these Lewis later disavowed as “banal and imitative verse, all about troubadours and castles as sagely viewed from the eminence of a Minnesota prairie” (Lewis 2005 11). This retrospective, though, forgets at least two trips he made to that other fantastic and mystical place: the German pub. […]