Appropriately, Sinclair Lewis started writing Dodsworth while in Berlin on a tour of Europe filled with carousing and drinking alongside fellow writers like Hemingway. It was to be a rollicking year for Mr. Sinclair (1929) –he was remarried, had a son, published his fourth major novel (Dodsworth), and in 1930 he became the first American to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. Unlike his debacle with the Pulitzer Prize, Lewis actually decided to accept his Nobel Prize (feel free to read my reflections on his Pulitzer debacles here, here, and here). As in his novels, Sinclair Lewis’s Nobel acceptance speech was intended to hold a mirror up to American culture –to capture both its vast complexity as well as its cultural bankruptcy. The speech was both a praise as well as a withering critique of a land without standards, though he did manage to find some words of hope for the work of major American writers like Ernest Hemingway, Thomas Wolfe, Thornton Wilder, John Dos Passos, William Faulkner, Willa Cather, Eugene O’Neill, Theodore Dreiser, and others.
Dodsworth was the last novel Sinclair Lewis published prior to winning the Nobel Prize. In it, we again return to the fabled midwestern town of Zenith in the state of Winnemac. It is 1903, or the “the climax of civilization” (917). Samuel “Sam” Dodsworth works as the mustached superintendent-turned-president of the Zenith Locomotive Works. As a former local college football star, his marriage to the daughter of the wealthiest man in Zenith, Fran Voelker, has cemented his rise to wealth and success.
“With Fran Voelker, he was inspired; he waltzed as though he was proud of his shining burden. He held her lightly enough and, after the chaste custom of the era, his hands were gloved. But his finger-tips felt a current from her body. He knew that she was the most exquisite child in the world; he knew that he was going to marry her and keep her forever in a shrine, he knew that after years of puzzled wonder about the purpose of life, he had found it” (919).
Needless to say, their marriage rests upon the false promise of one day living a vibrant, well-traveled life, but the years begin to slip by and along comes two children, Emily and Brent. Sam is privately despised at the Revelation Automobile Company –he is promoted to president only because of his inherited wealth from the Voelkers which comprises a large share of the company’s stock holdings. Now, with his wife begging to travel the world, this millionaire magnate decides to retire and to travel the world with Fran.
“Samuel Dodsworth was, perfectly, the American Captain of Industry, believing in the Republican Party, high tariff and, so long as they did not annoy him personally, in prohibition and the Episcopal Church. He was the president of the Revelation Motor Company; he was a millionaire, though decidedly not a multimillionaire; his large house was Ridge Crest, the most fashionable street in Zenith; he had some taste in etchings; he did not spit many infinitives; and he sometimes enjoyed Beethoven. He would certainly (so the observer assumed) produce excellent motor cars; he would make impressive speeches to the salesmen; but he would never love passionately, lose tragically, nor sit in contented idleness upon tropical shores… To define what Sam Dodsworth was, at fifty, it is easiest to state what he was not. He was none of the things which most Europeans and many Americans expect in a leader of American industry. He was not a Babbit, not a Rotarian, not an Elk, not a deacon. He rarely shouted, never slapped people on the back, and he attended only six baseball games since 1900” (927).
Once they arrive in Europe, Sam is immediately an alien “American abroad” while Fran quickly assumes a pretentious, elitist air about her. They encounter all manner of figures representing Thorstein Veblen’s leisure class. She yearns to be young and fawned over by wealthy European aristocrats, in a word, to celebrate her life as “a moveable feast.” She imagines herself as Henry James’s “Daisy Miller” while hopping from one well-to-do-party to another. Like Carol Kennicott in Sinclair Lewis’s Main Street, she longs to escape from the idle dreariness of small town America. Notably, Americans like Carol and Fran look to Europe for salvation from their woes. At any rate, while the ongoing pageant of European parties picks up steam for Fran, Sam slowly fades into the background. He is then cuckolded by a revolving door of European gentlemen eager to impress this vivacious young American girl (she only appears young despite being in her early 40s). Here, we see a more sympathetic, less savage portrayal of middle America than in other Sinclair Lewis novels. Sam Dodsworth is complex in his devotion to his wife. He remains by her side while paying little attention to himself, simply wanting her to be happy, while she scoffs at him and claims he is a total bore. Sam’s presence is uncomfortable, even pitiable. It is a sad, selfish affair that has brought their marriage to this point. While Sam enters his greying years where he looks forward to golf and local charitable work, his wife Fran rejects growing old in that dreary town of Zenith. She clinging to the hope that she can still become cosmopolitan, cultured, and European.
The one-dimensional caricature of Sam Dodsworth slows down considerably to a somber pace as he leaves Fran in Europe and decides to return to Zenith alone. It is quite a sad state off affairs as Sam re-engages with old business colleagues and attends an old class reunion and so on. He wishes his wife was by his side the whole time. Here, we find a man who was once fearful of a creeping sense of anarchy invading the American family, only for it to suddenly happen to his own marriage. “This ‘adventurous new life’ they’d been going to find– Rats! Might be for her, but he himself had never been so bored. All came of trying to suit himself to her whims. And then lose her, after all–” (1198). Sam returns to Europe only to find Fran even more of a distant stranger who refuses to return to America, even when they learn their daughter Emily has given birth to a child. Consider the following quotation by Fran:
“‘I’m delighted. of course. Dear Emily! She’ll be so happy. But, Sam, don’t you realize that Kurt –oh, I don’t mean Kurt individually, of course; I mean al our friends in Europe– they think of me as young. Young! And I am, of I am! And if they know I’m a grandmother– God! A grandmother! Oh Sam, can’t you see? It’s horrible! It’s the end, for me!” (1190).
Wandering lonely, Sam, the retired automobile magnate, roams alongside the Seine, the Thames, and through the alleyways of Rome and Berlin. Eventually, he runs into Edith Cortright, a woman he met earlier into their European voyage (she is from Michigan, the daughter of a former U.S. Treasury Secretary). Edith is a worldly woman, yet kind and understanding. She shares a similar struggle about her own husband’s false pretenses. She and Sam strike up an unspoken affinity (I hesitate to call it an affair) until Sam is once again summoned back by Fran when her latest liaison falls apart. Only this time, Sam refuses to stay. He immediately rushes back to Edith, though they both know their respective spouses still remain in their hearts, despite it all.
This is perhaps my favorite of Sinclair Lewis’s major works. Dodsworth examines and tests the fortitude of an American marriage when it goes abroad. Ensconced in a sea of murky and sleazy people, we actually find ourselves longing for Sam and Fran to return to the simplicity and safety of familiar neighborhoods in the American Midwest. This is a wholly distinct conclusion from the one drawn in Main Street for example. Despite being exposes which highlight the trappings of drab mundanity, perhaps Main Street, Babbitt, Elmer Gantry, and Dodsworth each offer us differing perspectives on the heartland as both a land of hope and security, as well as a stifling repository of vapid conformism. This is the great difficulty of accurately portraying a people and a place. Sinclair Lewis’s greatest contribution to the pantheon of American literature will always be his log-headed caricatures of middle-class patriarchs occurring in the string of novels he published in the 1920s –Dr. Will Kennicott, George Babbitt, Reverend Elmer Gantry, and Sam Dodsworth– however, in Dodsworth we are at least granted a degree of depth, complexity, and nuance in the tragic figure of Sam Dodsworth and his collapsing marriage which forces us to embrace a new perspective on middle America.
Lastly, I recommend watching William Wyler’s brilliant 1936 film adaptation of Dodsworth (çlick here to read my review).
Lewis, Sinclair. Dodsworth. Library of America Edition (Hardcover), New York, 2002.