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First Interview with Richard Lingeman

Sally Parry conducted the first interview with Richard Lingeman for the Spring 1995 issue of the Sinclair Lewis Society Newsletter, and it is interesting to compare these answers with the answers given in the interview published after he completed his biography of Lewis.

1. What first drew you to the idea of writing a biography of Sinclair Lewis?

The immediate impetus to my undertaking a biography of Sinclair Lewis came from Professor James L. W.  West III, who had been very helpful with my biography of Dreiser. In the throes of trying to conceive a new book project, I asked him for suggestions. He said (I paraphrase): "Why not do a biography of Sinclair Lewis? He's been neglected, Schorer's biography was unsympathetic, etc., etc." As I've painfully learned in this earthly travail, the best advice one can give another person is that which he or she wanted to do all along but didn't know it. It happened that I had loved Lewis's books in college, especially Main Street and Babbitt -- the former, probably, because I'm from a Middle Western small town myself and had gone off to an Eastern School, and the latter because I have some innate predilection toward satire -- a satire bone, if you will, which Lewis tickled. I went on to write a senior paper on Lewis at Haverford College and defended it at a seminar in the English department (I had made some half-baked claims about the sociology of literature). Lewis and I go back.

2. Mark Schorer's 1961 Sinclair Lewis: An American Life seems to have influenced an entire generation of readers and scholars about Lewis. Do you think there are areas in which Schorer's biography is deficient? If so, how will your biography address these areas?

Because of the aforesaid interest, I eagerly read Mark Schorer's biography when it came out. It rather depressed me -- fallen idols and all that, but however I squirmed, Schorer's impressive accretion of detail overwhelmed my demurrers and, after all, hadn't this work been hailed as "definitive"? This, roughly, was the prevailing opinion among readers and scholars at the time, I suppose. But after rereading the book recently, talking to people in the field, perusing articles from back issues of this very Newsletter, I began to think that perhaps Schorer's book wasn't the last word after all. It was very much of its times -- the 1950s, the heyday of New Criticism, conformity, and anti-communism. As I discovered in writing a biography of Dreiser, there are new things (one hopes) to be discovered, or at least to be teased out of extant material with a fresh eye; and new perspectives, critical and social, and one's own experiences and times and sensibility, to bring to bear. And so I began to believe a new book was possible. I think Schorer showed a failure of sympathy, at times a simmering hostility, to both the man and his works, that now seems excessive. What the explanation is I don't know (though I've read some plausible speculations), and I have no desire to wrestle with the ghost of Schorer, whose research was awesome (indeed, the very massiveness of the detail sometimes serves to overpower his attempts to be fair minded, though they're often pro forma). One must write a biography "against" some prevailing view, and that is what I set out to do vis a vis Schorer, in terms of questioning his evidence and conclusions, not an intellectual vendetta. I believe that Schorer did not fully interpret Lewis's personal relations with his wives and friends, particularly Dorothy Thompson; nor did he adequately place him in the context of his times; nor fully appreciate him as a satirist and political and social critic. Lastly, though, God knows, Lewis's life was often sad and self-destructive; he was a funny man, as well as a trenchant critic of American flaws, which he knew as well as a rejected lover knows his mistress's body.

3. Although your attitude about Lewis as both a person and an author may change as you continue to do research, how would you describe your current impressions of him?

He was a consummate professional, a man containing a boy inside who could never find his (first) mother or please his father -- a lonely boy but, in a way characteristic of so many incipient writers, not pathologically but productively so. As a social critic, he was not kidding; he bore scars from his own lash coming back at him. (There is the larger question of a chronically misunderstood satirist in a literal-minded society in which the provocateur's methods -- exaggeration, put-on, hoax -- are taken with deadly solemnity e.g., challenging God to strike him dead.) Feeding into this backlash sensibility was a deep-seated sense of unworthiness and a desire to punish himself. In women he wooed the departed mother; there was something of the little boy lost (or abandoned) in his petitions. Then he fled from too much intimacy. He married his illusions of his two wives, and later rebelled against the disappointing reality.... I have other such theories, impressions, half-thoughts still working beneath the threshold of articulation -- all subject to revision or cancellation without notice.

4. Most of the critical attention that has been paid to Lewis are for the big five novels, Main Street, Babbitt, Arrowsmith, Elmer Gantry, and Dodsworth. Are there any novels pre- or post-1920s to which you think more critical attention ought to be paid?

Pre- 1920s: The Job as a work of social realism, which is now being rediscovered by feminist scholars, and some of the short stories. And Our Mr. Wrenn when read in conjunction with H.G. Wells and the progressive social thought of the day. Post- 1920s: I am quite interested in It Can't Happen Here and Kingsblood Royal, which offer visions of America that were true then and are true today in a prophetic sense.

5. What is your favorite Lewis novel and why?

Main Street for its indelible pictures of small town life; Babbitt for its satirical vision. I agree that Arrowsmith is Lewis's most fully realized novel, but what if it had been more of a satire?

6. Could you describe the research agenda you are pursuing in preparing to write the biography?

I am shortly going on leave from my job at the Nation and plan to put in sustained time at the Lewis Collection at Yale, as well as other collections around the country, and to revisit Sauk Centre and environs and to talk with as many survivors who knew Lewis as I can find.

7. What sort of information about Lewis are you looking for (maybe Newsletter readers might be able to help or provide you with leads).

Just in general, I would appreciate any articles, tearsheets, primary materials, letters, leads, observations, advice, anecdotes not only about the man but about the current assessment of his books, critical and popular, in academe and among general readers; and examples of his influence on later writers. Of course, I would be overjoyed to hear about hertofore untapped sources, letters, diaries, etc.