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By Sinclair Lewis (1922) (pdf)


QUITE recently there has been a lively correspondence in the Press as to whether American books are read in England, and if not why not ? Mr. Sinclair Lewis himself was the first to stir the dust by his vigorous denunciation of our English patronage and indifference.

We are, I think, in England indifferent to the Arts. We are, at any rate, quite sure that Life is of more importance than Art, and what we demand of Art is that it should be an assistance to our enjoyment of Life rather than a beautiful thing in itself.

It follows from this that we are not, in the main, interested in the Art of other countries, and when an atmosphere seems to us ugly and alien from our own atmosphere we do not wish to hear about it. Now I do think that it has been the fault of some of the newer American writers that, clever though they are, they have presented modern American life to us in so ugly a fashion—ugly in speech, in background, in thought. Joseph Hergersheimer, James Cabell and Willa Cather alone of the newer American novelists have not done this.

Main Street, the book with which Mr. Lewis won fame in the United States, seemed to many English readers an ugly book dealing with ugly people. Personally I think that they were wrong and that both the heroine of that book and her husband were beautiful characters most tenderly revealed.

But I do agree that very much of Mr. Lewis' detail was difficult for an English reader to penetrate, and that it did to some extent obscure the reader’s view of the book’s essentials.

At first sight it might seem as though Babbitt is guilty of the same crime. Let us admit at once that the English reader will find the first fifty pages difficult, the dialogue strange, the American business atmosphere obscure and complicated.

Let him persevere. Soon he is sitting with Babbitt himself in his office, finding in his soul a strange and affectionate comradeship with this stout middle-aged man and (if he is she) an urgent maternal desire to comfort him and straighten his perplexities.

For it is Mr. Lewis’ triumph in this book that he has made his Babbitt own brother to our Mr. Polly, Uncle Ponderovo, Denry of the Five Towns, the Forsyth family and even Mr. George Moore. He has brought him on to the very hearth of our own familiar friends and has introduced him there because, without extenuating one of his follies, his sentimentalities, his snobbishness, his lies and his meannesses, he has made him of common clay with ourselves.

Babbitt is a triumph, and behind him the indictment of modem American business life is a triumph also.

We over here in England cannot say whether or no it is a true indictment, but because we believe in Babbitt we believe also in his life and the life of the town behind him. We see Babbitt in relation to the Whole Duty of Man—Business, Domestic, Religious, Stomachic, Sensual, Civic, Communal, Spiritual. Mr. Lewis has omitted nothing, and always the central figure is true to himself. Simply Mr. Lewis turns the figure round and allows us to view it from every possible angle.

English readers will be making a very serious mistake if they miss this book. As a work of art it is fine, true, complete, and understanding. As a piece of life it is yet finer, revealing to ourselves not only Babbitt but also—some one much nearer home. “ There but for the grace of God goes----”

And so when the book is closed we are wiser not only about Babbitt and his companions but about ourselves and our own hypocrisies. But not only is Babbitt a warning, he is also a friend.

And, through him, the country of which he is citizen.

August 25, 1922. Hugh Walpole.

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