Sinclair Lewis [1885 – 1951]
An American writer, satirist, who bitterly criticized the American way of life, its standartization of cultural values, its money-worship. In 1930 Lewis was awarded the Nobel Prize for the novel “Babbitt” (1922). Its main character (of the same name) personifies the typical American businessman. Some of Lewis’s better-known novels are: “Main Street” (1920), “Arrowsmith” (1925), “It Can’t Happen Here” (1935), “Kingsblood Royal” (1947).
Lewis was an unsurpassed master of portraying characters that represent different types of contemporary Americans. His Babbitt, for instance, has become a byword of everything that is ignorant and boastful, self-satisfied and money-mad. Lewis’ satirical method is largely based upon a grotesque, on a revealing detail, overstatement, understatement, paradox and irony.
Mr. Vernon Eglantine is thin and rather tall and as respectable looking as an English muffin. He resembles a professor in a five-elm college, and that is what he was until that slight misconception of his interest in a girl student, when the college president is said to have him chased down the steps of Old Main and halfway to the library. Since then, he has prepared house organs for large and robust Cleveland farms, written verse for greeting cards, and translated scandalous novels from languages he does not quite understand into English, which you’d better not understand. And for thirty years he has been a veteran of American artistic colonies in Europe, along with his latest wife, Mitzi, who is jolly and has large amounts of black hair, not often washed. Verny and Mitzi are usually shaky from ten a.m., when they rise, till ten-ten, when they have their first cognac.
They were insiders in the good old days of the Left Bank in Paris. Ten thousand Americans lived in Paris then and had their own bars and restaurants and newspapers. There Verny added to his literary art and the art of sponging. His speciality was getting the names of rich new American arrivals from the local papers, calling on these innocents to ask, with all his skinny and storklike solemnity, about a hypothetical uncle back home, and gratefully inviting the tenderfoot of the boulevards out to a fat lunch. Good old Mitzi always just happened to drop in at the restraunt and she got invited too.
Sometimes, with Verny’s bright conversation and hints of how to see in Paris what could not be seen, the lunch was good for a hundred-dollar touch, so thankful was the cultural sucker at having this new friend to show him the soft and dusky underside of Paris. Sometimes it was only twenty-five — and a dollar and a half accepted cheerfully. Anyway, it was always a lunch — enough sordid solid sustenance to last the Eglantines for two days, so that they could reserve their cash for the more necessary provender of grappa and brandy.
When the magnificent luncheon bill was reverently borne in, on silver, Verny as host would look at it yawningly, and do a skilled and professional fumble. Oh! He had left his purse at home! Never mind; they knew and loved him here in this brocaded restaurant, they’d take his check. And he would actually, with the slow art of the old master, bring out a real check book, but what do you think? All the checks had been used up.
Sometimes the Eglantines had a quarter of an hour of warm pleasure in watching the downfall of the sucker, who ten days before had been a canny banker or salesman back home. Sometimes it was only five sly, exquisite minutes. But always, finally, the sucker paid for the lunch. Except that the Eglantines made it a principle that if he had «lent» them, as it was called, over seventy-five dollars, they themselves would pay, out of the fistful of paper francs which Mitzi carried in her greasy black and gold handbag.
They felt that they were spiritually soiled by having thus to associate with American businessmen, but they made up for it in their wonderful permanent friends of the Latin Quarter cafes: women with faces like athletic young men, young men with faces, like petulant girls, and all the geniuses who for ten years now had been writing a non-objective free-verse play about Edgar Allan Poe. (After 1946, this play, all the hundred lines of it so far written, would be turned into an existentialist drama with Lord Haw Haw as the hero.)
When War II came to make such annoying inconvenience to gentle people like the Eglantines, Verny and Mitzi escaped to England, where she washed her hair (early in 1941 it was) and he took to shaving and was employed by the government as an expert on American culture. Much later, they found that they should have returned to America, for their old friend Hank Hiller, who in Paris had never rated much higher than Anatole France, had gone to California and founded an academy of geniuses who stupefied America with admiration by spelling all the five-letter words with four letters, so that, reading them, young ladies in Bennington College became able to shock their ex-prospector grandfathers.
The Eglantines frolicked back to Paris in ’47, but all the glories of their particular France, so nicely rotting like a decaying pear, were gone, and it was cold. They decided to take their combination of American enterprise and French culture to Italy, early in 1948.
Naturally they first tried Capri, that lovely rock island of the sirens, which ever since the Emperor Tiberius has been a refuge for slightly frowsy genius. But they discovered there much better hobohemians and cadgers than themselves, Russians and Hungarians and Peruvians and Javanese, and they all spoke real spoken Italian. Verny did not speak it, no, not enough to call an Italian pussy-cat. He merely translated from it and wrote articles on the young Italian poets. And Capri was so small, with so few boats, that nasty shopkeepers could get to you about that little matter of the five thousand lire for wine and cheese.
They moved to the neighbouring island of Ischia, in the Bay of Naples, where the damp brethren were gathering but all of these ingrates were inclined to keep their lire for themselves. Indignantly, they went on to Florence. They did find, in the Camillo and Sostenza, in Florence, such small, cheap, excellent restaurants jammed with American art students and Russian mystics and Italian pianists, as in Paris had always meant pickings, but in disgust they also found that even the most arty-looking Anglo-Americans went regularly to church; that some of the English rather liked England, and some of the Americans still hankered after ice-cream soda and Grant Wood’s paintings.
They were broke. Mitzi had to do baby-sitting for the wife of an American vice-consul, and Verny had to go to work and finish up his book on Romanesque Art: A Handbook for Normal Schools. He went so far as to walk nine whole blocks to look at the Tuscan Gothic Church of Santa Maria Novella, which was the most intensive laboratory work he had ever done on the subject, and it took him seven cognacs to recover.
Then the good rumors came in. On the Ligurian coast, below Genoa, in a ‘bus-stop village where Ezra Pound had once lived, robed in purple petulance, the Boys and Girls were beginning to flutter in, and the beautiful realm of art freed from morals and oatmeal porridge would soon be established again.
To this village fled Verny and Milzi, and the first person they saw walking down the tiny Corso was a rich and languorous American gent in Basque trousers and sash and rope sandals, and with him were a young lady in severe riding breeches and starched while shirt, and another young lady in a smock so artistic and modern and novel that it might have been worn by her grandmother, who used to be the shock of the more advanced artistic circles in West Virginia.
The strangers and the Eglantines all looked at one another knowlingly.
«Have a strega?» murmured the American gent.
Verny and Mitzi sighed and smiled and felt good – like a Hemingway hero after the seventh beer, and they knew that in Europe there would never be a time when Americans too sensitive to cope with high schools and tarpon fishing and gum and air-conditioning will not be able to find somewhere an asylum where the less-hairy Whitmans will sit together from half past ten to two o’clock in the morning and tell one another how superior they are to all the Babbitts in Iowa and Ireland and Oslo and South Uruguay.
The Eglantines are still at that village on the Italian Riviera and every day they still say to each other, after borrowing lunch money, «I do hope this place won’t be ruined by all these dreadful American tourists.»