With the presidential candidacy of Donald J. Trump, it shouldn't surprise anyone that there's been a renewed interest in Sinclair Lewis' novel It Can't Happen Here (1935). For those unfamiliar with it, it's about the rise-to-power of a Depression-era demagogue named Sen. "Buzz" Windrip who becomes president with a campaign based on religious zeal, patriotic fervor, and … Continue reading “American Dystopia”: Read My Review of Claire Sprague’s “It Can Happen Here.”
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 … Continue reading Translating Sinclair Lewis into English (Two Poems)
"[D]on't be such a damn fool as ever again to go to work for someone else. Start your own business," the 34-year-old Sinclair Lewis advised his friend Alfred Harcourt. "I'm going to write important books. You can publish them. Now let's go out to your house and start making plans" (p.xi). That business became the publishing house Harcourt, Brace, and Company, and the next year, in 1920, it published the book that made Lewis famous: Main Street. Thus began a decade-long partnership that lasted until Lewis became the first American to the win Nobel Prize in Literature. As the only volume of Lewis' letters, From Main Street to Stockholm was published in 1952, the year after he died, and collects together his correspondence with Harcourt's publishing house. Given their relationship the letters just as often pertain to business as they do Lewis' European travels and the politics of the literary world. While the reader may not close the book with a richer understanding of Lewis' psychology, they will have witnessed an iconoclast at work. Through these letters one follows Lewis through the "Big Five" and the public's response, from Main Street (1920) being declared the most monumental book of the century to Boston's District Attorney banning Elmer Gantry (1927) from the city.
A few years ago I corresponded with poet Robert Bly, and I asked him what advice he had for young writers. In his late-eighties and ill, I did not expect an answer, and so I was surprised (even more: nervous) when a few weeks later a familiar cream-colored envelope arrived. Opening it, he'd written, "You're wondering what … Continue reading Writing advice from Bly, Merwin, and Pound: “It’s always good to learn another language and translate”
On this day in 1885, writer Sinclair Lewis was born. Author of Main Street (1920), Babbitt (1922), and Elmer Gantry (1927), Lewis was the first American to win the Nobel Prize for Literature (1930). So to celebrate his 130th birthday, I'm sharing his writing advice from when he taught briefly at the University of Wisconsin (1940) and University of Minnesota (1942). ...
Ever since I joined the Initiative on Neuroscience and Law, I've had a growing interest in big data analysis. With so much information being digitized -- whether it's criminal records, government documents, or historical archives -- researchers can engage with old resources in new ways and ask questions on scales previously unimaginable. Though I'm not too vocal about it here (yet), right now I'm working to apply what I've learned at the Initiative to the Library of Congress' "Chronicling America" archives. This crossing of fields, for those who are curious, is called the "Digital Humanities." (If you'd like to know more, I suggest checking out the historian Dan Cohen's blog. Fred Gibbs also has a helpful introduction to historical data analysis here). I won't reveal any of my graphics here (I'm saving them for a future post), but here's an example of the Digital Humanities that everyone's familiar with: Word clouds. Technically, these were possible before the digitization of famous works, but it's the kind of work that required slave labor teaching assistants. The following I put together in a few minutes using Project Gutenberg and Wordle.
Recently I bought a copy of The Portable Dorothy Parker (Penguin Books, 1973) and am now reveling in her genius and wit. For those unfamiliar with Parker (1893-1967), she was a writer and columnist whose book reviews frequently appeared in The New Yorker (1927-1933) and Esquire (1957-1962). In the few reviews I've written, I often feel compelled to be … Continue reading On women “mother-naked before long mirrors”: Dorothy Parker’s list of literary cliches to avoid
While reading Thomas Wolfe's You Can't Go Home Again (1940) I came across something I'd like to quote here. As with most of Wolfe's work, it's autobiographical and the following comes from a chapter when he - George Webber - meets Sinclair Lewis - (fictionalized as Lloyd McHarg; link). If you've got the time, I recommend reading Webber and McHarg's whole adventure (it's pretty hilarious).
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 in 1926. Spending the first half of the year in Kansas City gathering material for his next book in June Lewis headed to Breezy Point to sit down and write. His choice of the northwoods 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.
Studying America in England While going through the University of Minnesota's online archives, I came across an article called "Studying America in England" from The Minnesota Alumni Weekly (December 12, 1931). Written by a fresh alumna named Mildred Boie (class of '27), in it she talks of her trip to Cambridge to study English literature. Specifically, she … Continue reading “I have never been there, but I have read Babbitt — and the villages are all Main Streetish, aren’t they?”