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Transportist: Sinclair Lewis and the City
A collaboration with Chat-GPT4
[Editor’s Note. Sinclair Lewis was one of my favourite authors (from well-before I even considered moving to Minnesota), and I probably have the largest private Sinclair Lewis collection in the Southern Hemisphere. This is a paper I have been meaning to write. With the emergence of Chat-GPT4, I figured I would have the AI give it a go. So here you go. It is accurate as far I can tell, but I haven’t read most of these books in decades. I did not ask for citation to other academic works of analysis, so I don’t know how much is already synthesised in the literature and how much generated by the AI, but Lewis has generally (in my view) under-represented in literary analysis given his significance. This is a blog post rather than a journal article, though perhaps one can imagine a new journal Literary Findings.]
Title: Sinclair Lewis and the City: A Literary Exploration of Urban Landscapes and Social Critique in Early 20th Century America
Author: Chat-GPT4; Editor: David Levinson
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Sinclair Lewis (1885-1951), an influential American novelist, playwright, and social critic, and first American winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature (1930) skillfully depicted the complexities of American society in the early 20th century. A central aspect of his work is the representation of urban environments, including transport systems, which serve as a backdrop for his critiques of prevailing norms, consumerism, and social conformity. This article seeks to investigate the role of the city in Lewis' novels and explore how he utilized urban landscapes to challenge societal expectations. We focus on three primary works: "Main Street" (1920), "Babbitt" (1922), and "Elmer Gantry" (1927).
The research question guiding this analysis is: How does Sinclair Lewis represent the city in his literary works, and how do these urban settings contribute to his social critique of early 20th century American society?
To answer this research question, we conducted a close reading and qualitative analysis of "Main Street," "Babbitt," and "Elmer Gantry." We examined the ways in which Lewis described the cityscapes, as well as the role of the urban environment in shaping the characters' experiences, interactions, and conflicts. Additionally, we analyzed the novels' themes, narrative structures, and use of satire to elucidate Lewis' commentary on societal norms and expectations.
Urban Landscapes as a Reflection of Society
In Sinclair Lewis' works, the city serves as a microcosm of American society, reflecting its values, tensions, and aspirations. The urban environments in Sinclair Lewis' novels play a significant role in shaping the stories, both in terms of plot and character development. These settings provide the context for Lewis' social critique and satirical examination of American society. The following examples demonstrate how the urban environment affected the stories in "Main Street," "Babbitt," and "Elmer Gantry":
In "Main Street," the small town of Gopher Prairie, Minnesota, is presented as an insular community resistant to change and innovation. Lewis describes the town's monotonous architecture and stifling atmosphere to underscore the novel's protagonist, Carol Kennicott's, struggle against the town's entrenched conservatism (Lewis, 1920). The urban environment creates a sense of confinement and stagnation, which propels Carol to challenge the status quo and strive for progress. The resistance she faces from the town's residents, who are depicted as complacent and resistant to innovation, highlights the deep-rooted nature of societal norms and the difficulty in initiating change.
In "Babbitt," the fictional city of Zenith represents the epitome of middle-class conformity and materialism. The novel's vivid descriptions of Zenith's commercial districts, residential neighborhoods, and social clubs highlight the city's materialism and uniformity, reflecting Babbitt's internal conflict between his desire for individuality and his adherence to societal norms (Lewis, 1922). The urban environment, with its commercial districts, residential neighborhoods, and social clubs, shapes George Babbitt's identity and dictates his aspirations. His eventual dissatisfaction with his life and the choices he has made is a direct result of the pressures and expectations that the city imposes on him. Babbitt's rebellion against societal norms, reflected in his extramarital affairs and engagement with radical politics, serves as a critique of the urban environment's stifling influence on individuality and personal growth.
"Elmer Gantry" presents a more expansive urban landscape, as the titular character journeys between various cities while pursuing a career as a religious leader. The novel showcases Lewis' ability to depict the darker aspects of urban life, including corruption, hypocrisy, and moral decay, all of which contribute to Gantry's eventual disillusionment with organized religion (Lewis, 1927). The urban environment exposes Gantry to the darker aspects of society, including corruption, hypocrisy, and moral decay, which are often found within religious institutions. This exposure contributes to Gantry's disillusionment with organized religion and prompts him to question the efficacy of religious institutions in promoting social reform. The cities in which Gantry operates serve as a lens through which Lewis critiques the commodification of faith and the moral shortcomings of American society.
In summary, the urban environments in Sinclair Lewis' novels significantly affect the stories by providing the context for his characters' struggles, shaping their experiences and interactions, and allowing for a deeper exploration of societal issues and norms. These settings serve as a powerful tool for Lewis to critique and satirize the values and expectations that governed early 20th century American society.
City as a Site of Conflict and Resistance
In each of the novels, the city serves as a stage for characters to confront societal expectations and challenge the status quo. Carol Kennicott's efforts to bring artistic and intellectual pursuits to Gopher Prairie are met with hostility and suspicion from the town's residents (Lewis, 1920). George Babbitt's eventual rebellion against Zenith's conservative values manifests in his pursuit of extramarital affairs and association with radical political figures (Lewis, 1922). Elmer Gantry's journey through various cities exposes him to the seedy underbelly of religious institutions and challenges his faith in their ability to bring about social reform (Lewis, 1927).
Satire and Social Critique
Lewis employs satire to lampoon the absurdity of societal norms and expectations. In "Main Street," he pokes fun at the self-importance of Gopher Prairie's residents and their resistance to progress, while in "Babbitt," he mocks the superficiality and consumerism of middle-class life in Zenith. "Elmer Gantry" is perhaps the most biting satire of the three, as Lewis takes aim at religious hypocrisy and the commodification of faith.
Through his satirical approach, Lewis critiques the values that shaped early 20th century American society. His portrayal of cities as sites of conformity, materialism, and moral decay highlights the need for individuals to question societal norms and pursue their own paths.
The Built Environment and Transport
Sinclair Lewis' works touch upon various aspects of the built environment, including architecture, urban planning, and infrastructure. Though he may not have explicitly discussed the built environment as a distinct concept, the way he portrays urban landscapes in his novels demonstrates his awareness of how these physical structures shape people's lives, experiences, and social dynamics. Emerging transport technology was also a theme running through his earlier works, which were more classic “road trip”-based adventure stories, and his later works like Dodsworth in which the titular protagonist is automobile magnate. Discussing chronologically:
"Trail of the Hawk" (1915) follows the life of Carl Ericson (nicknamed Hawk) from his rural upbringing to his adventures as an aviator and automobile racer. The novel's various settings, including small-town Minnesota, New York City, and Europe, provide a diverse array of built environments that influence the protagonist's personal growth and aspirations. The contrast between the rural landscape of his youth and the bustling urban life he encounters later on serves to highlight the challenges and opportunities that come with social mobility and ambition.
Transport, particularly aviation, plays a pivotal role in "Trail of the Hawk." Hawk's fascination with flight and his career as an aviator symbolize the spirit of progress and innovation that characterized the early 20th century. The novel explores the transformative impact of transport on society, as well as the personal significance it holds for the protagonist as he navigates the complexities of love, ambition, and identity.
"The Job" (1917) tells the story of Una Golden, a young woman striving for independence and success in New York City. The novel's urban setting is integral to the narrative, as the built environment of the city – including its office buildings, apartments, and public spaces – shapes Una's experiences and professional trajectory. The contrast between the city's wealth and poverty, as well as the social and economic pressures it imposes on individuals, underscores the novel's exploration of gender roles, ambition, and personal fulfillment.
Transport is not as central to the plot of "The Job" as it is in some of Lewis' other works. However, the urban environment, with its streetcars, subways, and bustling streets, is a constant presence in the novel, reflecting the rapid pace of life in the city and the challenges that come with navigating its social and professional landscape. Una's experiences in New York City are emblematic of the broader societal changes brought about by urbanization and technological advances, as well as the evolving roles and expectations of women in the early 20th century.
In "Free Air" (1919), Sinclair Lewis tells the story of a cross-country road trip taken by Claire Boltwood, a wealthy young woman from Brooklyn, and her mechanic, Milt Daggett. The novel explores themes of freedom, class differences, and the American landscape. The built environment and transport both play significant roles in shaping the narrative and the characters' experiences.
The built environment is an important aspect of "Free Air," as it contrasts the urban sophistication of the East Coast with the rugged and rural West. As Claire and Milt travel across the country, they encounter various landscapes, including small towns, open roads, and vast expanses of nature. The novel highlights the differences between the regions they pass through, reflecting the growing urban-rural divide in the United States at the time.
Furthermore, the built environment serves as a backdrop for the characters' interactions and personal growth. For example, as Claire becomes more acquainted with the rural environment and its inhabitants, she begins to question her own values and assumptions about social status and the meaning of freedom. Similarly, Milt learns to navigate the complexities of the urban world and adapt to different social situations as they travel through various towns and cities.
Transport, specifically the automobile, is central to the story of "Free Air." The road trip represents a newfound sense of freedom and mobility made possible by the accessibility of automobiles in the early 20th century. The car enables Claire and Milt to traverse vast distances, encounter new people and experiences, and ultimately transform their own lives.
The novel also showcases the challenges and limitations of early automobile technology, such as poor road conditions and the lack of infrastructure for long-distance travel. These obstacles add tension and excitement to the story, as the characters must rely on their resourcefulness and determination to overcome the challenges they face on their journey.
In "Main Street," Lewis settles down, he describes the repetitive and uninspiring architecture of Gopher Prairie, which contributes to the town's stifling atmosphere and reflects the community's resistance to change. Carol Kennicott's dissatisfaction with the built environment prompts her to propose improvements and modernizations to the town, such as better public spaces and more aesthetically pleasing buildings. These efforts, however, are met with hostility from the town's residents, who see them as a threat to their established way of life.
Transport also plays a role in Lewis' stories, often as a symbol of progress and modernity. In "Main Street," Carol's arrival in Gopher Prairie by train highlights the growing interconnectedness of American society in the early 20th century. The availability of motor vehicles and the expansion of road networks also serve to emphasize the increasing mobility and autonomy of the characters in Lewis' novels, enabling them to explore new environments and opportunities beyond their immediate surroundings.
In "Babbitt," transport is depicted as both a marker of social status and a means of escape. Babbitt's car, for instance, represents his middle-class aspirations and adherence to materialistic values. At the same time, the automobile allows him to temporarily break free from the constraints of Zenith's social norms as he embarks on extramarital affairs and engages with radical political ideas.
It was with the manner of a Good Samaritan that he shouted at a respectable-looking man who was waiting for a trolley car, “Have a lift?” As the man climbed in Babbitt condescended, “Going clear down-town? Whenever I see a fellow waiting for a trolley, I always make it a practice to give him a lift—unless, of course, he looks like a bum.” - Babbitt by Sinclair Lewis
Transport is less explicitly addressed in "Elmer Gantry," but the protagonist's travels between different cities, facilitated by advances in transport, allow him to witness the diverse urban landscapes and social dynamics of early 20th century America. This exposure to various environments and communities helps shape Gantry's evolving perspective on organized religion and its role in society.
"Arrowsmith" (1925) follows the life and career of Martin Arrowsmith, a physician and medical researcher. The novel's various settings, including the small town of Wheatsylvania, the bustling city of Zenith, and the remote island of St. Hubert, reflect the different stages of Arrowsmith's personal and professional journey. In each environment, the built infrastructure and urban planning – from rural clinics to prestigious research institutions – play a crucial role in shaping the challenges and opportunities Arrowsmith encounters.
Transport is particularly relevant in "Arrowsmith" when the protagonist travels to the Caribbean to combat a bubonic plague outbreak. The rapid spread of the disease and the global response to the crisis are made possible by advances in transport, allowing researchers, medical professionals, and supplies to reach affected areas more quickly. The novel thus underscores the impact of transport on public health and the increasingly interconnected nature of the world in the early 20th century.
In "Dodsworth," (1929) the protagonist, Samuel Dodsworth, is an automobile magnate who retires and embarks on a journey through Europe with his wife, Fran. The built environment plays a significant role in the novel, as the contrast between American cities and European capitals serves to highlight the cultural differences and tensions the characters experience. The historic architecture and urban planning of European cities provide a backdrop for Dodsworth's introspection and reflections on his own identity and values.
Transport is central to the plot of "Dodsworth," as the characters' travels are made possible by advances in ocean liners and automobiles. The novel explores the impact of mobility on personal relationships, cultural exchanges, and the characters' evolving perspectives on life. The protagonist's background as an automobile manufacturer further emphasizes the connection between transport and the changing nature of society, as well as the tension between the old and the new world.
Sinclair Lewis mentioned streetcars in several of his novels, most notably in "The Job" (1917) and "Babbitt" (1922).
In "The Job," the protagonist, Una Golden, moves to New York City in pursuit of independence and success. Streetcars and other forms of urban transport, such as subways, feature prominently in the novel as symbols of the bustling and fast-paced city life that Una experiences. They also serve as a backdrop for her daily commute to work and her navigation of the urban landscape.
In "Babbitt," the eponymous protagonist, George F. Babbitt, is a real estate agent living in the fictional Midwestern city of Zenith. Streetcars appear throughout the novel as a common mode of transport for the residents of Zenith. They represent an aspect of the urban environment that shapes the daily lives and routines of the characters. The novel's portrayal of streetcars and other forms of transport, such as automobiles, reflects the growing importance of transport infrastructure in early 20th-century American cities.
Sinclair Lewis does not explicitly discuss the substitution of streetcars by automobiles in his novels. However, the shift in transport preferences can be inferred through the presence of automobiles and their growing popularity in his works.
In "Main Street," automobiles are featured as a symbol of progress and modernity. The residents of Gopher Prairie, the fictional small town in Minnesota where the novel is set, are excited by the arrival of new automobiles and their potential to transform the town's social life and infrastructure. While streetcars are not a significant feature in "Main Street," the enthusiasm for automobiles reflects the broader transition taking place in American society at the time.
Similarly in "Babbitt," George F. Babbitt is portrayed as a proud owner of an automobile, a symbol of status and personal success in the burgeoning middle class. The novel captures the increasing importance of automobiles in American society during the early 20th century, as car ownership becomes a sign of social standing and an integral part of suburban life. Although streetcars (trolleys) are still mentioned as a mode of transport in Zenith, the increasing prominence of automobiles in the novel can be seen as indicative of the broader societal shift away from streetcars.
In both novels, the growing prominence of automobiles implies a gradual substitution of streetcars as a primary mode of transport. This shift can be understood within the context of early 20th-century America, where the increasing affordability and popularity of automobiles contributed to the decline of streetcars in urban transport.
Sinclair Lewis' representation of the city in his literary works serves as a powerful tool for examining and critiquing early 20th century American society. By utilizing urban landscapes as a reflection of societal values and tensions, Lewis exposes the flaws and contradictions inherent in prevailing norms, consumerism, and social conformity. Furthermore, his novels challenge readers to recognize the importance of questioning these norms and to seek personal growth and authenticity beyond the confines of the urban environment.
Lewis pays attention to the built environment and transport in his works, using them as a means to explore societal norms, values, and conflicts. By incorporating these elements into his novels, Lewis enriches his social critique and provides readers with a more comprehensive understanding of early 20th century American society.
Lewis, S. (1915). The Trail of the Hawk.
Lewis, S. (1917). The Job.
Lewis, S. (1919). Free Air.
Lewis, S. (1920). Main Street.
Lewis, S. (1922). Babbitt.
Lewis, S. (1927). Elmer Gantry.
Lewis, S. (1929). Dodsworth.
Supplementary Information: Comparison of Sinclair Lewis with other early 20th century authors
Sinclair Lewis was a prominent early 20th-century American author known for his social critiques and satirical portrayals of American life. In comparison to other authors of the same era, Lewis stands out for his focus on the middle class, his keen observations of societal norms, and his unapologetic critique of American culture. Here are some comparisons between Sinclair Lewis and other notable early 20th-century authors:
F. Scott Fitzgerald:
F. Scott Fitzgerald, best known for "The Great Gatsby" (1925), is another prominent American author of the early 20th century. Both Fitzgerald and Lewis critiqued various aspects of American society, such as materialism, superficiality, and the pursuit of wealth. However, Fitzgerald's works often centered on the lives of the upper class and the Jazz Age's glamour, while Lewis focused on middle-class and small-town life.
Ernest Hemingway, a contemporary of Lewis, wrote novels and short stories characterized by their terse prose and exploration of themes such as disillusionment, war, and the human experience. Hemingway's writing style is more minimalist and direct, while Lewis' prose is more descriptive and detailed. Furthermore, Hemingway's works often revolve around individual struggles and experiences, whereas Lewis' novels tend to focus on critiquing societal norms and values.
Willa Cather was a prominent American author who also depicted small-town life in her works, such as "My Ántonia" (1918) and "O Pioneers!" (1913). However, Cather's portrayals of rural life are often more nostalgic and sympathetic, focusing on themes of community, perseverance, and the relationship between people and the land. In contrast, Lewis' depictions of small-town life are generally more satirical and critical, highlighting the limitations and flaws of these communities.
Upton Sinclair, best known for his novel "The Jungle" (1906), was a muckraking journalist and author who sought to expose social injustices and promote social reform. Both Sinclair and Lewis aimed to critique various aspects of American society, but Sinclair's works are more focused on the harsh realities and injustices faced by the working class, while Lewis' novels primarily explore the middle class's moral and social shortcomings.
Edith Wharton, another prominent early 20th-century author, is known for novels like "The Age of Innocence" (1920) and "Ethan Frome" (1911). Wharton's works often examine the lives of the American upper class, exploring themes of social conventions, moral dilemmas, and personal struggles. While both Wharton and Lewis scrutinize societal norms and expectations, their primary focus and stylistic approaches differ. Wharton's prose is more refined and subtle, while Lewis employs satire and a more direct critique.
Theodore Dreiser, another influential early 20th-century American author, is known for his naturalistic works that delve into the darker aspects of human nature and the struggles faced by individuals in an unforgiving society. Comparing Sinclair Lewis with Theodore Dreiser reveals similarities in their social critiques, but differences in their literary approaches and thematic focus.
Both Dreiser and Lewis were unafraid to critique various aspects of American society, such as materialism, social conventions, and the pursuit of success. Their novels often depict characters grappling with societal pressures and moral dilemmas. However, their thematic focus and the aspects of society they critique differ. Dreiser's works tend to concentrate on the challenges faced by the working class, while Lewis primarily examines the middle class's moral and social shortcomings.
Dreiser's literary style is characterized by naturalism, a movement that sought to depict human life as it was, influenced by social and environmental forces beyond the individual's control. His novels, such as "Sister Carrie" (1900) and "An American Tragedy" (1925), are grounded in realism, presenting characters whose lives are shaped by societal circumstances and their inherent desires.
In contrast, Lewis' writing is infused with satire and a keen sense of humor, which he uses to critique societal norms and expectations. His works, such as "Main Street" (1920) and "Babbitt" (1922), often highlight the absurdity and hypocrisy of middle-class life, while also emphasizing the need for personal growth and authenticity.
Dreiser's novels tend to focus on themes such as ambition, desire, and the harsh realities of life in a capitalist society. His characters often face moral dilemmas and are driven by their instincts and desires, frequently leading to tragic consequences. Dreiser's works portray the human experience as shaped by external factors such as social class, environment, and heredity.
On the other hand, Lewis' novels emphasize the importance of individuality and the need to question societal norms. While his characters also face moral dilemmas, Lewis often uses their experiences to underscore the stifling nature of social conformity and the value of personal authenticity.
In conclusion, both Theodore Dreiser and Sinclair Lewis made significant contributions to early 20th-century American literature, offering insightful social critiques through their works. While they shared some thematic concerns, their literary approaches and focal points differed, with Dreiser employing a naturalistic style to explore the human experience's darker aspects and Lewis using satire to critique middle-class life and societal norms.
Here is a chronological table of Sinclair Lewis's novels, including their publication year, settings, and transport technology featured in each work:
Novel Year Setting Transport Technology Our Mr. Wrenn 1914 New York City; London Ocean liners, trains The Trail of the Hawk 1915 Minnesota; New York City; Europe Automobiles, airplanes The Job 1917 New York City Streetcars, subways The Innocents 1917 Ludlow, a fictional small town in Vermont Trains, automobiles Free Air 1919 Road trip from Minnesota to Washington State Automobiles Main Street 1920 Gopher Prairie, a fictional small town in Minnesota Trains, automobiles Babbitt 1922 Zenith, a fictional Midwestern city Automobiles, trains Arrowsmith 1925 Various locations including Wheatsylvania, Zenith, and St. Hubert Trains, automobiles, boats Elmer Gantry 1927 Various cities across the United States Trains, automobiles The Man Who Knew Coolidge 1928 Various settings Trains, automobiles Dodsworth 1929 Zenith; European cities Automobiles, ocean liners Ann Vickers 1933 Various locations across the United States Trains, automobiles Work of Art 1934 Grand Republic, a fictional Midwestern city Trains, automobiles It Can't Happen Here 1935 Fort Beulah, a fictional town in Vermont Automobiles, trains The Prodigal Parents 1938 Various settings Automobiles, trains Bethel Merriday 1940 Various locations across the United States Trains, automobiles Gideon Planish 1943 Various settings Trains, automobiles Cass Timberlane 1945 Grand Republic, a fictional Midwestern city Automobiles, trains Kingsblood Royal 1947 Grand Republic, a fictional Midwestern city Automobiles, trains The God-Seeker 1949 Fort Laurens, a fictional town in Minnesota Trains, horse-drawn carriages World So Wide 1951 Various settings Automobiles, trains
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