| Sinclair Lewis in 1914|
Harry Sinclair Lewis (February 7, 1885 – January 10, 1951) was an American novelist, short-story writer, and playwright. In 1930, he became the first writer from the United States to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, "for his vigorous and graphic art of description and his ability to create, with wit and humor, new types of characters." His works are known for their insightful] and critical views of American society and capitalist values, as well as for their strong characterizations of modern working women.
Upon moving to Washington, D.C., Lewis devoted himself to writing. As early as 1916, he began taking notes for a realistic novel about small-town life. Work on that novel continued through mid-1920, when he completed Main Street, which was published on October 23, 1920. As his biographer Mark Schorer wrote, the phenomenal success of Main Street "was the most sensational event in twentieth-century American publishing history." Based on sales of his prior books, Lewis's most optimistic projection was a sale of 25,000 copies. In the first six months of 1921, Main Street sold 180,000 copies, and within a few years, sales were estimated at two million. According to Richard Lingeman,
Lewis followed up this first great success with Babbitt (1922), a novel that satirized the American commercial culture and boosterism. The story was set in the fictional Midwestern town of Zenith, Winnemac, a setting to which Lewis would return in future novels, including Gideon Planish and Dodsworth.
Lewis continued his success in the 1920s with Arrowsmith (1925), a novel about the challenges faced by an idealistic doctor. It was awarded the Pulitzer Prize (which Lewis refused). Adapted as a 1931 Hollywood film directed by John Ford and starring Ronald Colman, it was nominated for four Academy Awards.
Next Lewis published Elmer Gantry (1927), which depicted an evangelical minister as deeply hypocritical. The novel was denounced by many religious leaders and banned in some U.S. cities. Adapted for the screen more than a generation later, the novel was the basis of the 1960 movie starring Burt Lancaster, who earned a Best Actor Oscar for his performance.
Lewis closed out the decade with Dodsworth (1929), a novel about the most affluent and successful members of American society. He portrayed them as leading essentially pointless lives in spite of great wealth and advantages. The book was adapted for the Broadway stage in 1934 by Sidney Howard, who also wrote the screenplay for the 1936 film version. Directed by William Wyler and a great success at the time, the film is still highly regarded. In 1990, it was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry, and in 2005 Time magazine named it one of the "100 Best Movies" of the past 80 years.
After an alcoholic binge in 1937, Lewis checked into the Austen Riggs Center, a psychiatric hospital in Stockbridge, Massachusetts for treatment. His doctors gave Lewis a blunt assessment that he needed to decide "whether he was going to live without alcohol or die by it, one or the other." Lewis checked out after 10 days, lacking, one of his physicians wrote to a colleague, any "fundamental understanding of his problem."
Lewis died in Rome on January 10, 1951, aged 65, from advanced alcoholism. His cremated remains were buried in Sauk Centre. A final novel, World So Wide (1951), was published posthumously.