Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Gore Vidal on Sinclair Lewis, with a side glance at Edith Wharton

From the archives of the New York Review of Books (October 8, 1992): Gore Vidal on Sinclair Lewis, with a side glance at Edith Wharton:

In youth Lewis wrote yards of romantic verse, much of it jocose; yet he had heard Yeats at Yale and was much impressed by the poetry of the early Yeats. Like most born writers, he read everything: Dickens, Scott, Kipling were his first influences. But it was H.G. Wells’s The History of Mr. Polly that became for him a paradigm for his own first novel. Like most writers, again, he later claimed all sorts of grand literary progenitors, among them Thoreau, but it would appear that he mostly read the popular writers of his time and on the great divide that Philip Rahv was to note—Paleface versus Redskin—Lewis was firmly Redskin; yet, paradoxically, he deeply admired and even tried to imitate those Edith Wharton stories that were being published when he was coming of age, not to mention The Custom of the Country, whose Undine Spragg could have easily served time in a Lewis novel.
. . . 
The first five novels established Sinclair Lewis as a serious if not particularly brilliant novelist; but one with, as they say at Billboard, a bullet. As a careerist, Lewis was an Attila. In his pursuit of blurbs, he took no prisoners. He cultivated famous writers. Main Street is dedicated to James Branch Cabell and Joseph Hergesheimer, the two classiest novelists of the day. Babbitt is dedicated to Edith Wharton, who took it all in her magnificent, ruthless stride.
. . . 
When Lewis’s sometime model Edith Wharton won the Pulitzer Prize for The Age of Innocence, Lewis wrote to congratulate her. As for this uncharacteristic lapse on the part of a committee designed to execute, with stern impartiality, Gresham’s Law, Mrs. Wharton responded with her usual finely wrought irony: “When I discovered that I was being rewarded by one of our leading Universities—for uplifting American morals, I confess I did despair.” She praises Lewis vaguely; later, she is to prove to be his shrewdest critic.
. . . 
At a Minneapolis party, Carol meets Dr. Will Kennicutt, a doctor in the small town of Gopher Prairie. He is agreeable, and manly, and adores her. In a short time: “He had grown from a sketched-in stranger to a friend.” Will is “sincere” (a favorite word of Carol’s is “insincere”). Carol meanwhile (as a result of Mrs. Wharton on interior decoration and Italian Gardens?) has dreamed that “what I’ll do after college [is] get my hands on one of those prairie towns and make it beautiful.

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