Photographers Unknown, A Collection: Ten Portraits of the Self
“They decided now, talking it over in their tight little two-and-quarter room flat, that most people who call themselves ‘truth seekers’ – persons who scurry about chattering of Truth as though it were a tangible separable thing, like houses or salt or bread – did not so much desire to find Truth as to cure their mental itch. In novels, these truth-seekers quested the ‘secret of life’ in laboratories which did not seem to be provided with Bunsen flames or reagents; or they went, at great expense and much discomfort from hot trains and undesirable snakes, to Himalayan monasteries, to learn from antiseptic sages that the Mind can do all sorts of edifying things if one will but spend thirty or forty years in eating rice and gazing on one’s navel.
To these high matters Martin responded, ‘Rot!’ He insisted that there is no Truth but only many truths; that Truth is not a colored bird to be chased among the rocks and captured by its tail, but a skeptical attitude toward life.”
—Sinclair Lewis, Arrowsmith
Born in February of 1885 in the village of Sauk Centre, Minnesota, Sinclair Lewis was a writer and playwright, the first writer from the United States to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature. In late 1902, he studied for a year at Oberlin Academy, a preparatory school, to qualify for acceptance at Yale University. Lewis entered Yale in 1903, but received his Bachelor’s Degree in 1908; he had taken personal time to work at Upton Sinclair’s Helicon Home Colony, a cooperative-living colony in New Jersey, and to spend time in Panama.
Lewis’s earliest published work, short sketches and poetry, appeared in the two Yale publications, the Yale Courant and the Yale Literary Magazine, of which he was editor. After graduation, he took employment at various newspapers and publishing houses, where he wrote short popular stories for the public. Lewis’s first published book was a 1912 juvenile adventure story, written under the name Tom Graham, entitled “Hike and the Aeroplane”.
Sinclair Lewis’s first serious novel, “Our Mr Wrenn: The Romantic Adventures of a Gentile Man”, a whimsical story that sold nine thousand copies, was published in 1914. This novel was followed by the 1915 “The Trail of the Hawk” and, in 1917, “The Job”, a novel whose story discussed the rights of working women. Lewis published in 1917 and 1919 two redeveloped serial stories for the public, “The Innocents: A Story for Lovers” and “Free Air”, which was adapted as a silent film in 1922.
As early as 1916, Lewis had begun making notes for a novel about small town life. After moving to Washington DC, he completed writing the novel in the middle of 1920. His “Main Street”, published in October of 1920, achieved phenomenal success, eventually selling two million copies in a few years. Lewis followed this success with the 1922 “Babbit”, a satirical novel about commercial culture and civic promotion in the United States.
Sinclair Lewis’s 1925 “Arrowsmith”, a novel written with preparatory assistance by science writer Paul de Kruif, contained social commentary on the state and prospects of medicine in 1920s United States. Lewis describes many aspects of medical training, medical practice, scientific research, scientific fraud, medical ethics, public health, and the personal and professional conflicts that are still relevant today. Professional jealousy, institutional pressures, greed, stupidity, and negligence are all satirically depicted. But, throughout the story, Lewis also discusses tireless dedication, intellectual honesty, and respect for the scientific method. Read by generations of pre-medical and medical students, the novel won the 1926 Pulitzer Prize for Literature.
Lewis published “Elmer Gantry” in 1927, a novel denounced by many religious leaders for depicting a hypocritical evangelical minister, and “Dodsworth”, a satirical novel depicting the differences between US and European intellect, manners and morals, in 1929. “Dodsworth” was adapted for stage in 1934 and became a film in 1936, one highly regarded by the critics and now preserved in the National Film Registry. “Elmer Gantry” was adapted as a drama film in 1960 by director Richard Brooks and, in the following year, won three Academy Awards.
In 1930, Sinclair Lewis won the Nobel Prize in Literature, the first writer from the United States to receive the award. After winning the Nobel Prize, he wrote eleven more novels, ten of which were published in his lifetime. Of these, the most known is his 1935 “It Can’t Happen Here”, a novel about the election of a fascist to the American presidency. In 1937, Lewis, a long-time drinker, was checked in for treatment at the Austen Riggs Center, a psychiatric hospital in Massachusetts. After ten days, he checked himself out with no understanding of his drinking problem.
During the 1940s, Sinclair Lewis appeared frequently with author Lewis Browne, discussing a wide range of topics, on popular lecture tours throughout the United States. He also worked on his novel “Kingsblood Royal”, an early contribution to the civil rights movement completed and published in 1947, which dealt with the denial of oppurtunity for Afro-Americans to purchase homes in white communities.
By 1948, after first renting and later purchasing rural property in Massachusetts, Sinclair Lewis had created a 720 acre gentleman’s farm of agricultural and forest land. His intention to make this homestead a permanent residence, however, was denied to him by his declining health due to serious medical issues.. Three years later, Sinclair Lewis died in Rome from advanced alcoholism on January 10, 1951, at the age of sixty-five. His body was cremated and the ashes buried at Greenwood Cemetery in his hometown of Sauk Centre.
Top Insert Image: Artist Unknown, “Sinclari Lewis”, 1925, Halftone Photo Print
Bottom Insert Image: Jack Coughlin, “Sinclair Lewis”, Date Unknown, Etching, 15.9 x 13.3 cm,
Note: The text for the autobiography written by Sinclair Lewis for his 1930 Nobel Prize for Literature can be found at the Nobel Prize Organization’s site: https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/literature/1930/lewis/biographical/