Sunday, November 20, 2011

Sinclair Lewis, Progressives and the Gospel of Contempt

Sinclair Lewis wrote very important novels in the last century. They are important, because the novels have been used to mark the Hegelian line in the sand separating Americans. He is a Nobel laureate. Here are some of the words he slung at his acceptance speech -

Whether imaginary castles at nineteen lead always to the sidewalks of Main Street at thirty-five, and whether the process might be reversed, and whether either of them is desirable, I leave to psychologists. . . .

I drifted for two years after college as a journalist, as a newspaper reporter in Iowa and in San Francisco, as - incredibly - a junior editor on a magazine for teachers of the deaf, in Washington, D.C. The magazine was supported by Alexander Graham Bell, inventor of the telephone. What I did not know about teaching the deaf would have included the entire subject, but that did not vastly matter, as my position was so insignificant that it included typing hundreds of letters every week begging for funds for the magazine and, on days when the Negro janitress did not appear, sweeping out the office.

Doubtless this shows the advantages of a university education, and it was further shown when at the age of twenty-five I managed to get a position in a New York publishing house at all of fifteen dollars a week. This was my authentic value on the labor market, and I have always uncomfortably suspected that it would never have been much higher had I not, accidentally, possessed the gift of writing books which so acutely annoyed American smugness that some thousands of my fellow citizens felt they must read these scandalous documents, whether they liked them or not.

Main Street, published late in 1920, was my first novel to rouse the embattled peasantry and, as I have already hinted, it had really a success of scandal. One of the most treasured American myths had been that all American villages were peculiarly noble and happy, and here an American attacked that myth. Scandalous. Some hundreds of thousands read the book with the same masochistic pleasure that one has in sucking an aching tooth.

Since Main Street, the novels have been Babbitt (1922); Arrowsmith (1925); Mantrap (1926); Elmer Gantry (1927); The Man Who Knew Coolidge (1928); and Dodsworth (1929). The next novel, yet unnamed, will concern idealism in America through three generations, from 1818 till 1930-an idealism which the outlanders who call Americans «dollar-chasers» do not understand. It will presumably be published in the autumn of 1932, and the author's chief difficulty in composing it is that, after having received the Nobel Prize, he longs to write better than he can.

Lewis had contempt for the subject of all his body of work - people who were not unhappy.

There are the Babbits and the Progressives and all the poor, ignorant, and helpless masses who follow their directions in American Life. Opposing them are everyone else - the Middle Class and those much more financially fortunate.

The Babbits are those who see living a good, useful and comfortable life as a good thing - bills paid, kids fed, family housed by dint of hard work, personal economics, and faith.

The Babbits reflect the life lived by George Babbit, a fictional Midwestern Middle Class, Middle Western pater familias, who stood for everything that Sinclair Lewis was not and would not become - dull.

The 1922 satire Babbit was all the rage and the antithesis of the wild bohemianism that accompanied America's first victory as World Power, the prohibition of alcohol universal within the States, the disposable income that followed the post-War economic boom, and the challenge to values.

WWI was objected to by the new Hegelians, not so much out of love for humanity, as it was an interruption in Progressive Socialism. The Wobblies ( International Workers of the World) had moved beyond organizing labor to radical revolutionary goals. Planned Parenthood and Roger Baldwin's ACLU sprouted up with the success of American Labor, which took the path most taken - to the Middle Class. Workers wanted their children to eat, go to school, avoid the mines and mills, and scratch out a better life in America. They were not much interested in a Classless Society.

The Wobblies were co-opted into the American Communist Party and largely disappeared as irrelevant. Planned Parenthood, ACLU and the Progressive Left became the Movement. Workers do not tend to follow Worker Mandarins who could not identify the working end of a broom. Academics do that. So do young people ignorant of history and the values attached to hard work.

Sinclair Lewis became the voice of the voiceless Left of the Post WWI Era. He smartly delineated the Us and the Thems in very witty and attractive prose. Two years before the publication of Babbit, Lewis produced Main Street - the Progressive icon for American Middle Class hypocrisy, vacuity, bigotry, Bible/Gun Clinging, boosterism, and hate. Lewis voiced what the ACLU brings to court -Contempt for Middle Class values, faith, and quality of life, much more powerfully than Babbit.

When we read Main Street, Lewis pushes our noses in the THEY that Progressives want eliminated

“They were staggered to learn that a real tangible person, living in Minnesota, and married to their own flesh-and-blood relation, could apparently believe that divorce may not always be immoral; that illegitimate children do not bear any special and guaranteed form of curse; that there are ethical authorities outside of the Hebrew Bible; that men have drunk wine yet not died in the gutter; that the capitalistic system of distribution and the Baptist wedding-ceremony were not known in the Garden of Eden; that mushrooms are as edible as corn-beef hash; that the word "dude" is no longer frequently used; that there are Ministers of the Gospel who accept evolution; that some persons of apparent intelligence and business ability do not always vote the Republican ticket straight; that it is not a universal custom to wear scratchy flannels next the skin in winter; that a violin is not inherently more immoral than a chapel organ; that some poets do not have long hair; and that Jews are not always peddlers or pants-makers.

"Where does she get all them the'ries?" marveled Uncle Whittier Smail; while Aunt Bessie inquired, "Do you suppose there's many folks got notions like hers? My! If there are," and her tone settled the fact that there were not, "I just don't know what the world's coming to!”
― Sinclair Lewis, Main Street

You can hear that voice coming over the air-waves of NPR anytime of the day. We don;t want to be Uncle Smail, much less Aunt Bessie.

Progressives understand that the Rock of Ages will wash away from the beating the tides of WILL and Time.

“I think perhaps we want a more conscious life. We're tired of drudging and sleeping and dying. We're tired of seeing just a few people able to be individualists. We're tired of always deferring hope till the next generation. We're tired of hearing politicians and priests and cautious reformers... coax us, 'Be calm! Be patient! Wait! We have the plans for a Utopia already made; just wiser than you.' For ten thousand years they've said that. We want our Utopia now — and we're going to try our hands at it.”
― Sinclair Lewis, Main Street

We are the Aware the Progressive. They are patient.

Occupy Wall Street is the Triumph of Progressivism and the Triumph of Contempt.

Sinclair Lewis was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1930. He wrote It Can't Happen Here a really crappy novel, but a great icon of the intellectual Left and nine more unremarkable works. He died of alcoholism a year before I was born at Englewood Hospital to parents who lived in the back apartment above the alley at 76th & Union; moved to a large two bedroom apartment near Sherman Park on 55th Street and finally a Two Story Georgian at 75th & Wood in Gresham where my brother and sister were born. My Dad worked two-three jobs a week and sometimes a day. My Mom stayed home with us. We lived in a house we owned from 1952 -1974 and I went to teach in Kankakee, Illinois. A beautiful town built on a river with factories and opportunities. Sinclair Lewis hated towns like Kankakee and people who lived their - Kiwanis, Rotarians, Elks, Moose and most of all Knights of Columbus.


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