Novelist, Playwright, Short Story Writer
Lifetime: 1885 - 1951 Passed: ≈ 71 years ago
Harry Sinclair Lewis was an American writer and playwright. In 1930, he became the first writer from the United States (and the first from the Americas) to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature, which was awarded "for his vigorous and graphic art of description and his ability to create, with wit and humour, new types of characters." His works are known for their critical views of American capitalism and materialism between the wars. He is also respected for his strong characterizations of modern working women. H. L. Mencken wrote of him, "[If] there was ever a novelist among us with an authentic call to the trade ... it is this red-haired tornado from the Minnesota wilds."
Born February 7, 1885, in the village of Sauk Centre, Minnesota, Lewis began reading books at a young age and kept a diary. In late 1902, Lewis left home for a year at Oberlin Academy (the then-preparatory department of Oberlin College) to qualify for acceptance at Yale University. While at Oberlin, he developed a religious enthusiasm that waxed and waned for much of his remaining teenage years. He entered Yale in 1903, but did not receive his bachelor's degree until 1908, having taken time off to work at Helicon Home Colony, Upton Sinclair's cooperative-living colony in Englewood, New Jersey, and to travel to Panama.
Lewis's first published book was Hike and the Aeroplane, a Tom Swift-style potboiler that appeared in 1912 under the pseudonym Tom Graham.
In 1914 Lewis married Grace Livingston Hegger, an editor at Vogue magazine.
In 1930 Lewis won the Nobel Prize in Literature, the first writer from the United States to receive the award, after he had been nominated by Henrik Schück, member of the Swedish Academy. In the Academy's presentation speech, special attention was paid to Babbitt. In his Nobel Lecture, Lewis praised Theodore Dreiser, Willa Cather, Ernest Hemingway, and other contemporaries, but also lamented that "in America most of us—not readers alone, but even writers—are still afraid of any literature which is not a glorification of everything American, a glorification of our faults as well as our virtues," and that America is "the most contradictory, the most depressing, the most stirring, of any land in the world today." He also offered a profound criticism of the American literary establishment: "Our American professors like their literature clear and cold and pure and very dead."
Lewis died in Rome from advanced alcoholism on January 10, 1951, aged 65. His body was cremated and his remains were buried at Greenwood Cemetery in Sauk Centre, Minnesota. His final novel World So Wide (1951) was published posthumously.
William Shirer, a friend and admirer of Lewis, disputes accounts that Lewis died of alcoholism. He reported that Lewis had a heart attack and that his doctors advised him to stop drinking if he wanted to live. Lewis did not stop, and perhaps could not; he died when his heart stopped.
In summarizing Lewis's career, Shirer concludes:
It has become rather commonplace for so-called literary critics to write off Sinclair Lewis as a novelist. Compared to...Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Dos Passos, and Faulkner...Lewis lacked style. Yet his impact on modern American life...was greater than all of the other four writers together.
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