Sinclair Lewis refuses his Pulitzer Prize for “Arrowsmith” (1926)

Sinclair Lewis

05 May 2018 | Various Sources| Hawkins Bay Dispatch

Advertising is a valuable economic factor because it is the cheapest way of selling goods, particularly if the goods are worthless. Sinclair Lewis

Harry Sinclair Lewis (February 7, 1885 – January 10, 1951) was an American novelistshort-story writer, and playwright.

In 1930, he became the first writer from the United States to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature, which was awarded “for his vigorous and graphic art of description and his ability to create, with wit and humor, new types of characters.”

His works are known for their insightful and critical views of American capitalism and materialism between the wars.

He is also respected for his strong characterizations of modern working women. H. L. Mencken wrote of him, “[If] there was ever a novelist among us with an authentic call to the trade … it is this red-haired tornado from the Minnesota wilds.”[2] He has been honored by the U.S. Postal Service with a postage stamp in the Great Americans series. [Wikipedia]

Sinclair Lewis, ‘the Main Street burglary’ and a rejection notice

Columbia University Secretary Frank D. Fackenthal wrote to Sinclair Lewis a few days before the 1926 Pulitzer Prizes were to be announced to congratulate him on winning the Novel prize for Arrowsmith. On May 6, three days after the announcement, Lewis refused the prize and told the world why. (His rejection letter is below.)

Lewis was born in 1885 in Sauk Centre, Minn. After college he spent several years as a newspaper reporter and editor. He published four unsuccessful novels before achieving wide recognition with his fifth, Main Street. This 1920 work was about a gifted young girl married to a dull village doctor. She tries to bring culture and imagination to her dreary small town.

The 1921 Novel jury recommended Main Street for the prize, but the Columbia University trustees decided the book failed the “wholesome” requirement in the Pulitzer Plan of Awards and gave the prize to The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton.

Lewis’s next novel, Babbitt in 1922, lampooned rampant materialism in middle-class America and became a bestseller. The Pulitzer Novel jury knew better than to select an unwholesome Sinclair Lewis novel. Writing that it understood that the trustees wanted a prize awarded each year, the jurors recommended, “without enthusiasm,” One of Ours by Willa Cather. The book won.

Willa Cather


Arrowsmith was thus the third Lewis novel considered for a Pulitzer. It told the story of Martin Arrowsmith, a young man interested in science and recent reforms in medicine who makes his way from a small town in the Midwest to medical school and then wins acclaim in the scientific community. The 1926 Pulitzer jury unanimously favored Arrowsmith.

Fackenthal informed Lewis and his publisher, Harcourt Brace & Co., that the award was coming. Lewis told Harcourt he intended to turn it down because of “the Main Street burglary.”

Lewis’s letter of refusal made headlines around the country. A May 6 front-page headline in The New York Times read: “LEWIS REFUSES PULITZER PRIZE: Author, in Declining $1,000, Declares Such Awards Are Objectionable, Dangerous: ASSAILS MORAL STANDARD: Says Terms Are Misrepresented and They Really Demand a Compliance With ‘Good Form.’“

Richard Burton, chair of the Novel jury, contacted Fackenthal to offer either The Smiths by Janet Ayer Fairbank or Porgy by DuBose Heyward in lieu of Arrowswith. But Fackenthal decided Arrowsmith “was nominated by the publishers and as the award goes to the book, it will stand. If the author does not desire to accept the money which goes to the author of the successful book, why of course he is at liberty to return it, but the award itself will stand.”

Arrowsmith is still considered the 1926 Pulitzer Prize Novel winner.

In 1930, Lewis accepted the Nobel Prize and its $46,350 prize. He titled his Nobel lecture “The American Fear of Literature.” While airing no complaints about his own life in America, he said: “For American literature in general, and its standing in a country where industrialism and finance and science flourish and the only arts that are vital and respected are architecture and the film, I have a considerable complaint.”

He did not mention his rejection of the Pulitzer Prize, but he did say: “I believe that Strindberg rarely sang the ‘Star-Spangled Banner’ or addressed Rotary Clubs, yet Sweden seems to have survived him.”

In ensuing years the requirement that the Novel prize be given to a book “which shall best present the wholesome atmosphere of American life” quietly disappeared from the Pulitzer Plan of Award.

Here is Lewis’s letter to the Pulitzer Prize Committee:

Sirs: –

I wish to acknowledge your choice of my novel “Arrowsmith” for the Pulitzer Prize. That prize I must refuse, and my refusal would be meaningless unless I explained the reasons.

All prizes, like all titles, are dangerous. The seekers for prizes tend to labor not for inherent excellence but for alien rewards: they tend to write this, or timorously to avoid writing that, in order to tickle the prejudices of a haphazard committee. And the Pulitzer Prize for novels is peculiarly objectionable because the terms of it have been constantly and grievously misrepresented.

Those terms are that the prize shall be given “for the American novel published during the year which shall best present the wholesome atmosphere of American life, and the highest standard of American manners and manhood.” This phrase, if it means anything whatever, would appear to mean that the appraisal of the novels shall be made not according to their actual literary merit but in obedience to whatever code of Good Form may chance to be popular at the moment.

That there is such a limitation of the award is little understood. Because of the condensed manner in which the announcement is usually reported, and because certain publishers have trumpeted that any novel which has received the Pulitzer Prize has thus been established without qualification as the best novel, the public has come to believe that the prize is the highest honor which an American novelist can receive.

The Pulitzer Prize for Novels signifies, already, much more than a convenient thousand dollars to be accepted even by such writers as smile secretly at the actual wording of the terms. It is tending to become a sanctified tradition. There is a general belief that the administrators of the prize are a pontifical body with the discernment and power to grant the prize as the ultimate proof of merit. It is believed that they are always guided by a committee of responsible critics, though in the case both of this and other Pulitzer Prizes, the administrators can, and sometimes do, quite arbitrarily reject the recommendations of their supposed advisers.

If already the Pulitzer Prize is so important, it is not absurd to suggest that in another generation it may, with the actual terms of the award ignored, become the one thing for which any ambitious novelist will strive; and the administrators of the prize may become a supreme court, a college of cardinals, so rooted and so sacred that to challenge them will be to commit blasphemy. Such is the French Academy, and we have had the spectacle of even an Anatole France intriguing for election.

Only by regularly refusing the Pulitzer Prize can novelists keep such a power from being permanently set up over them.

Between the Pulitzer Prizes, the American Academy of Arts and Letters and its training-school, the National Institute of Arts and Letters, amateur boards of censorship, and the inquisition of earnest literary ladies, every compulsion is put upon writers to become safe, polite, obedient, and sterile. In protest, I declined election to the National Institute of Arts and Letters some years ago, and now I must decline the Pulitzer Prize.

I invite other writers to consider the fact that by accepting the prizes and approval of these vague institutions we are admitting their authority, publicly confirming them as the final judges of literary excellence, and I inquire whether any prize is worth that subservience.

I am, sirs,

Yours sincerely,

Sinclair Lewis

2048 (2)
The German American Bund’s 1939 rally in support of Nazism at Madison Square Garden, New York, was foretold by Lewis’s novel. Photograph: NY Daily News/Getty Images

The 1935 novel that predicted the rise of Donald Trump

09 October 2016  | Jules Stewart | The Guardian

If the US presidential campaign conveys a flavour of unreality, that may be because it is rooted in fiction. In 1935, Sinclair Lewis sat down to write a novel about political radicalisation and social upheaval in the depression-ravaged US. What emerged after four months of feverish work was It Can’t Happen Here, a runaway bestseller that quickly sold more than 300,000 copies.

Lewis was alarmed by what was taking shape in the country. The New Deal had delivered a false sense of optimism to the Federal Reserve, if not to the millions queueing at the soup kitchens. The money supply was tightened in anticipation of a sustained rally, government spending was cut and taxes were raised. As a result, the US was pushed to the cusp of a double-dip depression, with manufacturing back to its 1934 level and unemployment up by 5%.

This created fertile ground for Father Charles CoughlinHuey LongWilliam Randolph Hearst and other fanatics to spread the gospel of bigotry. It was no fleeting backlash: on the eve of the second world war, the German American Bund packed more than 20,000 militants into Madison Square Garden in New York for a pro-Hitler rally. To wild applause, their leader, Fritz Kuhn, derided the US President as Franklin D “Rosenfeld”.

Huey Long
 Controversial Louisiana senator Huey Long, who was accused of being a demagogue, was assassinated in 1935. Photograph: Alamy

Lewis’s antihero is the ignorant demagogue Berzelius “Buzz” Windrip, who wins the 1936 election with the support of millions of impoverished and angry voters. They marched carrying placards that read: “We are on relief. We want to become human beings again. We want Buzz!”

Windrip could count on a number of real-life champions who appear in the novel, such as the newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst. In 1935, the man widely regarded as responsible for goading the US into the Spanish-American war proclaimed: “Whenever you hear a prominent American called a fascist, you can usually make up your mind that the man is simply a loyal citizen who stands up for Americanism.”

Lewis’s hero, the New England journalist Doremus Jessup, attends a Windrip rally in Madison Square Garden. Jessup reports that Windrip’s rhetoric was irresistible to his thousands of downtrodden admirers.

He later can’t remember a word Windrip said. But it doesn’t matter: if Windrip contradicts himself, backtracks on policy or simply spews out a torrent of lies, he tells them what they want to hear. Every American will be guaranteed a minimum income of $5,000 ($88,000 in today’s money), US-hating Mexico will be severely dealt with and Jewish bankers will be punished for landing the country in this mess.

Windrip unveils his 15-point manifesto, which includes “prison or the death penalty” for anyone advocating communism and the recognition of Jews as “fully Americanised”, so long as they continue to support “our ideals”. Substitute “Muslim” for “communist” and “Hispanic” for “Jew” and there emerges an uncomfortable picture of what is taking place in the US today.

Windrip wins the election. He orders the invasion of Mexico, after which his victorious militia returns singing When Johnny Comes Marching Home. Political opponents are herded into concentration camps, while a flood of refugees flee across the border to Canada.

In the end, though, it is only a work of fiction – and millions of Americans cling to the belief that it will remain so. Fingers crossed on 8 November.

The Romance of Sinclair Lewis

Main Street and Babbitt

by Sinclair Lewis, edited by John Hersey
Library of America, 898 pp., $35.00
Sinclair Lewis
Sinclair Lewis; drawing by David Levine


Elmer Gantry. It Can’t Happen Here. Babbitt. Main Street. Dodsworth. Arrowsmith. Sinclair Lewis. The first four references are part of the language; the next two are known to many, while the last name has a certain Trivial Pursuit resonance; yet how many know it is the name of the writer who wrote Elmer Gantry, played in the movie by Kirk Douglas—or was it Burt Lancaster?

Sinclair Lewis seems to have dropped out of what remains of world literature. The books are little read today, and he’s seldom discussed in his native land outside his home town, Sauk Centre, Minnesota. Although Sauk Centre holds an annual Sinclair Lewis Day, the guide to his home recently admitted, “I’ve never read Main Street…. I’ve been reading the biographies.” Elsewhere, the Associated Press (July 18) tells us, “About forty copies of Lewis’s books are on the shelves of the town library. For the most part, that’s where they stay.”

Read more of this article

Sinclair Lewis and the Nobel Prize

October 1961 | Mark Schorer | The Atlantic

Novelist, critic, and teacher, one of the moving spirits at the University of California, Mark Schorer has been at work for more than a decade on his big biography of Sinclair Lewis, the October choice of the Book-of-the-Month Club, from which this chapter is taken.

Read more of this article

Nobel Prize in literature will not be awarded in 2018: Swedish Academy

The Swedish Academy has said it will postpone this year’s Nobel Prize in Literature but plans to award it next year. The decision makers cited the “crisis” around sex abuse that has caused some Academy members to resign.

Read more of this article

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