Sinclair Lewis and the Pulitzer Prize

One last thought on Arrowsmith: I never really commented on the fact that Sinclair Lewis refused to accept the Pulitzer for this book—the only novelist in the history of the award to refuse the honor.  Apparently he was so offended that previous novels of his (particularly Main Street) had been snubbed that he’d planned for years to write a scathing public letter refusing it (for these details I rely, as I have before, on W. J. Stuckey’s The Pulitzer Prize Novels).  He told his publisher that he intended to produce “a polite but firm letter which I shall let the press have, and which ought to make it impossible for anyone ever to accept the novel prize…thereafter without acknowledging themselves as willing to sell out.”  A bold move—he wrote such a letter, and sent it to dozens of publications, and to a list of about a hundred authors he considered sufficiently important (among them Willa Cather, Carl Sandburg, Sherwood Anderson, etc.).  It’s not hard to understand Lewis’s disdain for the taste of the Pulitzer board, though I have to say, to suggest that only sellouts would accept such a prize is a bit egocentric, given that some of his generation’s most celebrated writers (Edith Wharton, Booth Tarkington, Willa Cather) had accepted it graciously.

And, frankly, I’d thought it an admirably honest and principled move when I initially read about it, before I’d read the novel.  But it’s hard not to see it as a bit absurd, in retrospect.  Denouncing a prize over sour grapes for having been denied in the past is a bit too much, especially as his anger stems primarily from the decision in 1921 not to award the prize to Main Street.  Who won instead?  Edith Wharton for The Age of Innocence.  I’ll admit, I haven’t read Main Street.  But to suggest that picking Wharton’s novel is a travesty of such grand proportions that it justifies not just refusing the prize, but refusing it as publicly as possible, with letters sent pointedly to authors (at least one of them a previous recipient of the prize) suggesting they should join in the boycott, is an act of tremendous egotism.

The really ironic thing about all this, of course, is that Lewis proudly rejects the 1926 Pulitzer Prize….which recognizes the best novel published in 1925.  Arrowsmith wasn’t the only novel published that year, of course—another writer also tells a story of a Midwesterner who came to New York following a personal dream, and found something unexpected.  That writer, F. Scott Fitzgerald, may have written the best American novel of the 20th Century, The Great Gatsby.  So Lewis’s proud refusal, in retrospect, feels a bit like Adam Sandler rejecting a Best Actor Oscar as “an award unworthy of his talent” while Laurence Olivier sits in the audience wishing he’d been nominated.  But maybe that’s just me.

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4 comments on “Sinclair Lewis and the Pulitzer Prize

  1. SilverSeason says:

    I reread Main Street recently and found it disappointing. Many of the same observations you make about Arrowsmith also apply to Main Street: a naive central character who keeps repeating the same mistakes, recycling the same situations, authorial contempt for almost all the characters. Babbitt was better because of the humor, but Main Street seems self consciously trying to be the great American novel with Lewis constantly poking at his characters and their setting to show how shallow they are.

    • jwrosenzweig says:

      I think I mentioned this somewhere—maybe in a post on the Pulitzer process in the 1920s?—but one author I read said that Lewis had not aged as well as some of the other authors of his era. I can only judge by Arrowsmith, but it certainly didn’t impress me as much as I’d hoped. I’ve always meant to read Babbitt, and perhaps I still will one day, but there’s a sourness to Lewis’s sense of humor that I just can’t get into. Thanks for sharing your experience with his stuff: it’s nice to know my impressions are not unusual. :-)

  2. Jeff Mead says:

    Please don’t write or comment on Sinclair Lewis and his writing and unless you have actually read the novels you are commenting on.

    • jwrosenzweig says:

      Jeff, I wish you’d approached this differently. As you can see above, I have read Arrowsmith, which is really the novel under consideration. And even though I haven’t read Main Street, that’s not the point, is it? I mean, maybe I wasn’t very clear. The point I was making is that Sinclair Lewis is being weirdly sour here — he’s outraged for being “overlooked” in a Pulitzer year where he loses to one of the best American novelists of the century, and for that reason he proudly refuses the prize in a year where arguably the greatest American novel of the century is, itself, overlooked. I’m not criticizing Main Street when I say that it’s foolishly egotistical for him to do so, and I acknowledged that I hadn’t read it simply because I didn’t want anyone to think I was bashing its quality. I’m saying that even if Main Street was the best novel I’ve ever read, it wouldn’t justify this.

      But, more to the point, you could have approached this much more productively. You could tell me what it is about Main Street that would clarify all this for me. You could raise points about Arrowsmith that you think I’m missing. You could draw from other books like Babbitt to argue that, if I was more familiar with Lewis’s whole bibliography, I’d understand why he felt neglected by the Pulitzer. But instead you basically tell me to shut up. That’s your right, I suppose — or at least it’s a right I’m willing to extend to you, here on my blog, for now. But it doesn’t move the conversation forward or make me more inclined to revisit my impressions of Lewis or think of him in a new way. It just makes me feel like you’re being kind of rude to me, and that maybe Sinclair Lewis’s rudeness is less offensive to you than it is to me. And that’s not a nice thing for me to think—I wish I could be more positive about you and your comment. That’s why I wish you had approached this differently. If you come back and comment again, I hope you’ll try sharing with me some of your passion for literature, as I try to share mine here, rather than ask me not to talk. Thanks.

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