When I was in my middle teens I read all or most of Sinclair Lewis’s work.  It seems impossible, but it is a fact nevertheless that Main Street will be a century old next year, and Babbitt in 2022.  I took my copy of the latter from the shelf the other day (Signet Classic edition, price 75¢) and began re-rereading it from the beginning.  When I was 15 or 16 I must have had the text by heart, and wrote several novels of my own in the Lewis style over the summers.

Today Lewis is unread, and virtually forgotten.  Indeed most of his books are (and were) not worth reading—Ann Vickers, etc.—but three, I should say, stand the test of time very well, for the reason that they are really very excellent novels: Main Street, Babbitt, and Dodsworth, while the fourth—Elmer Gantry—has some good things in it and is in places very funny.  As for the second of these, it is remarkable how well the book has aged—another way of saying that the mid-sized middle-class Middle American city survives in the second decade of the 21st century, easily recognizable in tone and feel and in many ways socially intact despite the opioid epidemic, which mainly affects the classes beneath it.  From the Zenith (Lewis’s model for the place was Cincinnati) of 1920 to the Cheyenne of 2019 seems hardly more than a step in time, despite the relatively recent intrusion of the digital age.  The 20th-century American middle class, it begins to seem, may actually be a timeless thing.

Sinclair Lewis at his worst was only a mediocre journalist, while at his best he was certainly never a stylist.  But you needn’t be a stylist to write effectively and well, and Lewis was not without his poetic flashes; while no one ever captured the Amurrican language as she is spoke more exactly and convincingly than he did.  (The two qualities are not the same, as so many nonfiction writers armed with recording devices have proved.)  And though even his principal characters grew increasingly cartoonish and unconvincing as his career advanced, in the earlier books they were fully realized flesh-and-blood people: Carol and Will Kennicott, Sam and Fran Dods worth, George Follansbee Babbitt.  What makes them perfectly human is their basic human fragility, the profound vulnerability that, more than any other quality, characterized their unhappy alcoholic creator.  Babbitt, finally, is a tragic hero, very far from the swashbuckling man of commerce he pretends to be while suspecting all the while that he is something much more pathetic.  He is a first-rate literary creation, if a minor one, and as such he deserves to live in literature—and will live.