Documents of American History II

1930s: Sinclair Lewis's Speech Accepting the Nobel Prize, 1930

Sinclair Lewis's ''American Fear of Literature'' Speech, 1930

(Sinclair Lewis's Speech Accepting the Nobel Prize)

I wish in this address to consider certain trends, certain dangers, certain high and exciting promises in present day American literature. To discuss this with complete unguarded frankness—and I should not insult you by being otherwise than completely honest—it will be necessary for me to be a little impolite regarding certain institutions and persons in my greatly beloved land.

But I beg you to believe that I in no case am gratifying a grudge. Fortune has dealt with me rather too well. I have known little struggle, not much poverty and many generosities.

I have for myself no conceivable complaint to make, yet for American literature in general and its standard in a country where industrialism, finance and science flourish, and the only art that is vital and respected is architecture, I have a considerable complaint. . . .

No Longer ''Backwoods Clan''

I should have supposed that to a man so learned as to become a doctor of divinity, a doctor of letters, and I do not know how many other imposing magnificences, the matter would have seemed different. I should have supposed he would have reasoned:

''Although I personally dislike this man's book, nevertheless the Swedish Academy has in choosing him honored an American by assuming the Americans no longer appear as a backwoods clan so inferior that they are afraid of criticism, but instead a nation which has come of age and is able to consider calmly and maturely the dissection of their land.''

I would even have supposed so international a scholar would have assumed that Scandinavia, accustomed to the works of Strindberg, Ibsen and Pontoppidan, would not have been peculiarly shocked by a writer whose most anarchistic assertions have been that America with all her wealth and power has not yet produced a civilization good enough to satisfy the deeper cries of human creatures. I believe Strindberg rarely sang ''The Star Spangled Banner,'' or addressed rotary clubs, yet Sweden seems to have survived him.

I have at such length discussed this criticism, not because it has any conceivable importance in itself, but because it does illustrate the fact that in America most of us, not the readers alone, but even the writers, are still afraid of any literature which is not a glorification of everything American, a glorification of our faults as well as our virtues.

Our Formula for Fiction

To be really popular and beloved in America, a novel should assert that all American men are still handsome, rich and honest, and powerful at golf; that all the country towns are filled with neighbors who do nothing from day to day except go about being kind to one another; that although American girls may be wild, they change always into perfect wives and mothers, and that geographically America is composed solely of New York, which is inhabited only by millionaires; of the West, which retains unchanged all the boisterous heroism of 1870, and of the South, where every one lives on a plantation perpetually glossy with moonlight and scented with magnolias.

It is not today vastly more true than it was twenty years ago that such novelists of ours as you have read in Sweden—novelists like Theodore Dreiser and Willa Cather—are authentically popular and influential in America. As was revealed by the venerable academician and authority on fishing whom I quoted, we still mostly revere writers for the popular magazines who in a hearty and edifying chorus chant that the America of 120 million population is still as simple and pastoral as it was when it had but 40 million; that in an industrial plant with 10,000 employs the relationship between the workers and manager still is an neighborly and uncomplex as in a factory of 1840 with five employs; that the relationships between father and son and between husband and wife are precisely the same in an apartment in a 30-story palace today, with three motor cars awaiting the family below, five books on the library shelves and a divorce imminent in the family next week, as were those relationships in the rose-veiled 5- room cottage of 1880; that, in fine, America has gone through a revolutionary change from a rustic colony to a world empire without having in the least changed the bucolic, puritanic simplicity of Uncle Sam.

Not a Popular Award

I am sure you know by now that the award to me of the Nobel prize was by no means altogether popular in America, doubtless an experience not altogether new to you.

Suppose you had taken Theodore Dreiser. Now to me, as to many other American writers, Dreiser, more than any other man, is marching alone. Usually unappreciated, often hounded, he has cleared the trail from Victorian Howellsian timidity and gentility in American fiction to honesty, boldness and passion of life. Without his pioneering I doubt if any of us could, unless we liked to be sent to jail, seek to express life, beauty and terror.

Yet had you given the prize to Dreiser you would have heard groans from America. Certainly some respectable scholar would complain that in Dreiser's world men and women often were sinful, tragic and despairing instead of being forever sunny, full of song and virtue as befits authentic Americans.

And had you chosen Eugene O'Neill, who has done nothing much in the American drama save to transform it utterly in ten or twelve years from a false world of neat and competent trickery to a world of splendor, fear and greatness, you would have been reminded that he had done something far worse than scoffing, that he had seen life as something not to be neatly arranged in a study, but as terrifying, magnificent, and often quite horrible, a thing akin to a tornado, an earthquake or a devastating fire.

My Wicked Colleagues''

And on the other hand you would have been told that James Branch Cabell was too fantastically malicious; that Willa Cather, for all the homey virtue of her novels concerning the peasants of Nebraska, has in ''A Lost Lady'' been so untrue to America's patent, perpetual and possibly tedious virtuousness as a picture of an abandoned woman who remains nevertheless uncannily charming even to the virtuous in a story without any moral; that Henry Mencken is the worst of all scoffers; that Sherwood Anderson viciously errs in esteeming sex as important a force in life as fishing; that Upton Sinclair, being a Socialist, sins against the perfectness of American capitalistic mass production; that Joseph Hergesheimer is un-American in considering beauty of surface as of some importance in the endurance of daily life, and that Ernest Hemingway is not only too young, but, far worse; uses language which should be unknown to gentlemen, acknowledges drunkenness as one of man's eternal ways to happiness, and asserts that a soldier may find love more significant than the hearty slaughter of men in battle.

Yes, they are all very wicked, these colleagues of mine. You would have done almost as evilly to have chosen them as to have chosen me. And as a chauvinistic American—only, mind you, an American of 1930 and not of 1880—I rejoice that they are my countrymen and countrywomen and that I may speak of them with pride, even in the Europe of Thomas Mann, Shaw, Wells, Galsworthy, Arnold Bennett, Feuchtwanger, Selma Lagerlof, Sigrid Undset, Werner von Heidenstam, d'Annunzio and Romain Rolland.

The Successful Author

He is a failure who cannot have a butler and a motor and a villa at Palm Beach, where he is often permitted to mingle almost in equality with the barons of banking. But he is oppressed ever by something worse than poverty, by a feeling that what he creates does not matter; that he is expected by his readers to be only a decorator or a clown, or that he is good-naturedly accepted as a scoffer whose bark is probably worse than his bite and who probably is a good fellow at heart; that he does not count in a land that produces 80-story buildings, motors by the million and wheat by the billions of bushels.

And he has no institution, no group, to which he can turn for inspiration, whose criticism he can accept whose praise may be precious to him.

The American Academy of Acts and Letters does contain, with several excellent painters, architects and statesmen, such a really distinguished university president as Nicholas Murray Butler, so admirable and courageous a scholar as Wilbur Cross, and several first rate writers and poets, Edward Arlington Robinson, Robert Frost, the fee-minded publicist, James Truslow Adams, and the novelists, Hamlin Garland, Owen Wister, Brand Whitlock, Edith Wharton and Booth Tarkington.

Conspicuous by Absence

But it does not include Theodore Dreiser; Henry Mencken, our most vivid critic; George Jean Nathan, who though still young is certainly the dean of our dramatic critics; Eugene O'Neill, incomparably the best dramatist; the really original and vital poets, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Robinson Jeffers, Carl Sandburg, Vachel Lindsay or Edgar Lee Masters, whose ''Spoon River Anthology,'' so utterly different from any other poetry ever published, so fresh and authoritative, came like a revelation and created a new school of native American poetry.

It does not include the novelists, Willa Cather, Joseph Hergesheimer, Sherwood Anderson, Ernest Hemingway, Louis Bromfield, Fanny Hurst, Mary Austin, James Branch Cabell nor Upton Sinclair.

I should not expect any academy to be so fortunate as to contain all these writers, but one which fails to contain any of them, which thus cuts itself off from what is living, vigorous and original in American letters, can have no relationship whatever to our life and aspirations. It does not represent literary America today; it represents only Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

It might be answered that, after all, an academy limited to fifty members naturally cannot include every one of merit. But the fact is that, while most of our giants are excluded, the academy does, however, include three extraordinarily bad poets, two very melodramatic and insignificant playwrights, two gentlemen who are known only because they are university presidents, and one who was thirty years ago known as a rather clever and humorous draughtsman, and several gentlemen of whom, I sadly confess my ignorance, I never heard.

Divorced from Reality

I am merely reluctantly considering the academy because it is so perfect an example of the divorce in America of intellectual life from all our standards of importance and reality.

Our universities and colleges exhibit the same unfortunate divorce. I can think of four of them—Rollins college in Florida, Middlebury college in Vermont, the University of Michigan and the University of Chicago—which have shown interest in contemporary creative literature. But the universities, colleges, musical emporiums and schools for teaching theology and public sign painting are as thick in America as motor traffic.

Whenever you see a public building with Gothic fenestration on a sturdy background of Indiana concrete you may be certain it is another university with anywhere from 200 to 20,000 students equally ardent about avoiding the disadvantage of becoming learned and about gaining that social prestige connected with the possession of a B. A. degree.

To the true-blue professor of literature in an American university literature is not something that the plain human being living today painfully sits down to produce. It is not something real; it is something magically produced by superhuman beings who must, if they are regarded as artists at all, have died 100 years before this diabolical invention of the typewriter.

Our American professors like their literature clear, cold, pure and very lead.

Howells's Bad Standard

The great Cambridge-Concord school of the middle of the nineteenth century, Emerson, Longfellow, Lowell, Holmes and the Alcotts, were sentimental reflections of Europe and left no school and no influence. Whitman, Thoreau, Poe and, to some degree, Hawthorne, were outcasts, men alone, despised and berated by the new humanists of their generation. It was with the emergence of William Dean Howells that we first began to have something like standard, and a very bad standard it was.

Mr. Howells was one of the gentlest, sweetest and most honest of men, and had the code of a pious old maid whose greatest delight is to have tea at the vicarage. He abhorred not only profanity and obscenity, but all of what Wells called the jolly coarseness of life. In his fantastic vision of life, farmers, seamen and factory hands may exist, but the farmer must never be covered with muck, the seaman must never roll out bawdy chanties, and all of them must long for an opportunity to visit Florence and smile gently at the quaintness of the beggars.

So strongly did Howells feel this genteel, new humanistic philosophy that he was able vastly to influence his contemporaries, down even to 1914 and the turmoil of the great war. He actually was able to take Mark Twain, perhaps the greatest of our writers, and put that fiery old savage into an intellectual frock coat and top hat.

Hamlin Garland's Influence

His influence is not altogether gone today. He is still worshipped by Hamlin Garland, an author who should have been in every way greater than Howells, but who, under Howells's influence, changed from a harsh and magnificent realist into a genial, insignificant lecturer. Mr. Garland is, so far as we have one, the dean of American letters today, and as our dean is alarmed by all the younger writers who are so lacking in taste as to suggest that men and women do not always love in accordance with the prayer book, and that the common people sometimes use language which would be inappropriate at the Women's Literary Club on Main street.

Yet the same Hamlin Garland, as a young man, wrote two of the most valiant and revelatory works of realism, ''Main Traveled Roads'' and ''Rose of Dutcher's Coolly.'

I read them as a boy in a prairie village in Minnesota, in just such an environment as was described in Garland's tales. They were vastly exciting to me. I had realized, on reading Balzac and Dickens, that it was possible to describe the French and English common people as one actually saw them. But it had never occurred to me that one might, without indecency, write of the people of Sauk Center, Minn., as one felt about them.

Our fictional tradition, you see, was that all of us in midwestern villages were altogether noble and happy. But in Garland's ''Main Traveled Roads'' I discovered there was one man who believed midwestern peasants sometimes were bewildered, hungry and vile. And, given this vision, I was released to write of life as living life.

Made ''Main Street'' Possible

I am afraid Mr. Garland will not be pleased, but accurately annoyed, to know that he made it possible for me to write of America as I see it and not as Mr. William Dean Howells so sunnily saw it. And it is a completely revelatory American tragedy that in our land of freedom men like Garland, who first blast the roads to freedom, become themselves the most bound.

I have, for the future of American literature, every hope and every eager belief. We are coming out, I believe, of the stuffiness of safe and sane incredibility and dull provincialism. There are young Americans doing such passionate and authentic work that it makes me sick to see I am a little too old to be one of them.

(Here Mr. Lewis pays tribute to Hemingway, Thomas Wolfe, author of one novel, ''Look Homeward, Angel,'' Thornton Wilder, Dos Passos, the poet Stephen Benet and others.)

I salute them all with joy as being not yet too far removed from their unconquerable determination to give to the America that has mountains and endless prairies, enormous cities and lost farm cabins, billions of money and tons of faith, the America that is as strange as Russia and as complex as China, a literature worthy of her vastness.

Last update: April 9th, 2002.