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“During the 1920s, at the height of his fame and literary power, Sinclair Lewis (1885-1951) was more than a bestselling author. He was a troublemaker, a disturber of the peace whose novels were hotly discussed as social criticism more than literature.”
                                    
Morris Dickstein 

Writers are curious folks. They explore the side roads of life physically, mentally and spiritually. Maybe no more than other people at the start, but after they’ve turned over a rock they tend to ponder what they find longer than most and then write down what they see. And what they write often makes the rest of us take a second look at what they’ve observed. 

And if the writer has done their job well it makes us curious as what inspired the writer in the first place. Over the years I’ve found myself in little corners of the country trying to get a glimpse what may have inspired people who have inspired me; Hemingway’s house in Key West, Marjorie Kinnan Rawling’s house in rural Cross Creek, Florida and Walden Pond where Thoreau lived for a spell.

Apparently John Steinbeck did the same thing. He writes in Travels with Charley about going to Sauk Centre, Minnesota which is now the proud birthplace Nobel-Prize winning novelist Sinclair Lewis. Though they weren’t always proud of their native son who brought an x-ray to the town with his writings and examined the lives they were living. Steinbeck who became friends with Lewis observed how Sauk Centre embraced Lewis after he died;

I had read Main St. when I was in high school, and I remember the violent hatred it aroused in the countryside of his nativity.
     Did he go back?
    Just went through now and again. The only good writer was a dead writer. Then he couldn’t surprise anyone any more, couldn’t hurt anyone any more. And the last time I saw him he seemed to have shriveled even more. He said, “I’m cold. I seem to be always cold. I’m going to Italy.”
     And he did, and he died there, and I don’t know whether or not it’s true but I’ve heard he died alone. And now he’s good for the town. Brings in some tourists. He’s a good writer now.

Main Street was made into a movie in 1923 and in total there have been more than 30 of Lewis’ stories that have become movies or TV programs. The most lasting of his stories made into movies seems to be Elmer Gantry. (The book was published in 1927 and caused quite a stir and was even banned in certain parts of the country.) But the 1960 film about a phony preacher would be a cliche if written today. 

Certainly fallen Catholic and Protestant leaders haven’t helped their cause in the last 20 years, but when’s the last time there was a positive portrayal of a minister, pastor, or priest in a major Hollywood movie? Maybe On the Waterfront in 1954? 

Related post: Screenwriting Quote of the Day #18 (Sinclair Lewis)

 

Scott W. Smith 

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On this day in 1859 the local paper where I live was established. As The Courier turns 150 today I want to look at its most famous reporter, Sinclair Lewis. Yes, the novelist, playwright, short story writer Sinclair Lewis worked for a brief time in Waterloo, Iowa before going on to publish over 20 books and in 1930 becoming the first American to win the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Lewis was born in Sauk Centre, Minnesota. He attended Yale but did not graduate and traveled around doing various job and along the way lived in a writers colony in California and a Utopia community New Jersey. He had his first book published in 1912 and found his first big success with the 1920 publication of Main Street. The book would eventually sell millions of copies and made Lewis a wealthy man.

He followed his success writing Babbitt, Arrowsmith and Elmer Gantry among others. More than two dozen of his novels and stories were made into movies and TV shows including Elmer Gantry which starred Burt Lancaster as a phony preacher. The movie won three Oscar awards. And it was also controversial subject matter for the day especially in light of the Hays Code being in effect which said what content was morally acceptable for films.  

One of the restrictions was “The ridicule of religion was forbidden, and ministers of religion were not to be represented as comic characters or villains.” My guess is Elmer Gantry got around this by being a phony preacher or maybe the code wasn’t enforced in its later years. Regardless, Lewis was not one to shy away from expressing his views of the hypocrisy he saw.

The seeds of Elmer Gantry may have come from right here from Waterloo, Iowa where he wrote an editorial about a fraudulent evangelist. Then again since his book came out history has shown that that subject matter has proven to be rather ubiquitous even to the point of cliche.

Every year the headlines tell of not just fraudulent evangelists but of fallen ministers, priests, pastors and ministers who have often been respected leaders. Steve Brown, an author, radio host and ordained pastor may touch on part of the problem; “The church is the only place that gives a pastor a microphone, a spotlight, and puts him in front of thousands of people and tells him to be humble.”

But that’s not our quote of the day. It comes from the Lewis who never seemed to eager to back down from using his words to make a point.; “Every compulsion is put upon writers to become safe, polite, obedient, and sterile.”

May you be bold in your writing.

And while you’re at it, beware of the cult of personality. 

 

Scott W. Smith

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