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A Collapsing Marriage in Sinclair Lewis’s Dodsworth

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.

Limelight (1952) Review

Limelight (1952) Director: Charlie Chaplin

“The glamour of limelight, from which age must pass as youth enters.”

Rating: 5 out of 5.

In Limelight, Charlie Chaplin offers a strikingly autobiographical reflection upon his life and career. The film is a portrait of a waning stage entertainer whose time in the sun has come and gone. On the one hand, it is a sorrowful lament on the passing of time by one of cinema’s great auteurs –the cinematography is rife with dreamy hopes and old memories, a requiem for those bygone halcyon days. On the other hand, Limelight represents a filmmaker’s extraordinary effort to combat the creeping sense of fatalism we all encounter from time to time. For Chaplin, the remedy to feeling hopeless comes in the form of high art, a life-affirming mimesis, because as he states in the film, “there’s something just as inevitable as death, and that’s life. Life, life, life!”

The story for Limelight was initially written by Chaplin as an unpublished novel entitled Footlights, which has since been released. On a summer’s day in the London of Chaplin’s youth (1914) we are treated to “a story of a ballerina and a clown.” Amidst a street scene of amused children crowding around an entertainer, this peaceful moment is immediately contrasted with a young woman lying lifeless on a bed while her stove gas is turned on. A drunken man stumbles into the townhouse and smells the gas so he summons a doctor in the hopes of rescuing this woman. Despite not knowing her, the drunk is now tasked with caring for her. He takes her in and when she awakens, they get to know one another. She is Thereza “Terry” Embrose (Claire Bloom), a dancer who is secretly infatuated with a struggling composer she once met (the composer is played by the second son of Charlie Chaplin, Sydney Chaplin). However, Terry has fallen into a morbid state of sadness. Thus our protagonist must help this young dancer find hope in her life again, even though he himself regularly feels sad and lonely in his twilight years. Who is this man? His name is Calvero (Charlie Chaplin) a washed-up drunkard who was once a renowned vaudevillian stage clown. In his dreams each night he sees himself entertaining bored and emptying auditoriums with a gag about pet fleas and a collection of silly songs. As time passes, Calvero and Terry form a unique relationship. They bolster one another during their lowest points. Terry soon finds success in a new ballet show, Calvero also performs in a minor role as a clown, but when his performance meets criticism, he gathers his things and runs away. He takes up the life of a poor vagabond musician, working the streets (he cheekily remarks “there’s something about working the streets I like, It’s the tramp in me I suppose”). Some months pass, and he is rediscovered by Terry. She begs him to return for an upcoming benefit show and he relents. He is joined by his piano-playing partner who is none other than the great Buster Keaton –what a treat to see these two great comedians of the silent era united on film! The duo showcases their musical satire before a roaring crowd –the flea gag with “Phyllis and Henry” is a hit. It is so popular, in fact, that the pair are given a final encore in a hilarious bumbling gag consisting of a silent slapstick show that leaves Keaton quietly shuffling and spilling all his musical notations while Chaplin shrinks himself into his baggy clothes, and their instruments –the piano and the violin– are continually plucked out of tune. It is a beautiful nod to the vaudevillian roots of Chaplin and Keaton. Sadly, the performance leaves Calvero in a weakened state, only able muster enough strength to watch Terry’s ballet performance from a nearby couch before he quietly passes on. It is an exit befitting a gentleman –full of grace and wonder.

Limelight was boycotted upon release in the United States over rumors that Chaplin was actually a covert communist. He had become one of the most notorious victims of Joseph McCarthy’s “red scare,” and the film was only screened in a few theaters on the East Coast. Chaplin was abroad promoting the film in Europe when he found out that his visa had been revoked. After a string of scandals and the lukewarm critical reception of his previous film (Monsieur Verdoux), Chaplin officially left the United States. He returned only once when Limelight was re-released in 1972, and Chaplin was invited to receive an Academy Award for the film. Needless to say, for this brief moment Chaplin was welcomed back with open arms and cheering crowds, but he never again returned to live in the United States. While Limelight remains an apropos farewell for the king of the silver screen, he did make two more films abroad: A King in New York (1957) and A Countess from Hong Kong (1967).

“Life can be wonderful if you’re not afraid of it.”

Battling Butler (1926) Review

Batting Butler (1926) Director: Buster Keaton

Rating: 4 out of 5.

As was so often the case in Buster Keaton’s films, the title of Battling Butler was actually a spoof on a popular musical play entitled “Battling Buttler” (note the second “t” in “Buttler”). In the film, an effete son of an aristocrat, Alfred Butler (Buster Keaton), is accused of being weak by his father so he heads out on a hapless hunting and fishing trip in the mountains. Amidst a series of mishaps, Alfred accidentally falls in love with a rural mountain girl (Sally O’Neil). However, in order to impress her gruff, poor, working-class father, Alfred’s valet explains that despite Alfred’s slight appearance, he is in fact a famous boxer known as “Battling Butler.”

The lie entraps Alfred in a marriage and forces him to begin a lengthy training regimen in order to prep for a big Thanksgiving fight versus the “Alabama Murderer” –though his biggest challenge is successfully entering the boxing ring without becoming entangled in the ropes! When the big day finally comes, the real Battling Butler arrives and saves Alfred from being brutally beaten in the ring. However, later in the locker room the real Battling Butler starts a fight with Alfred for impersonating him. In the end, Alfred musters the courage to fight back and he actually defeats Battling Butler in the locker room, thus winning the heart of his new wife. They walk away together, arm in arm, she in her dress (rather than her fancy overcoat) and Alfred in half-boxing gear and half-top hat and cane.

Buster Keaton often described his youth as being “brought up by being knocked down” and so it only made sense that he would release a boxing film. There is an amusing class inversion here in which an aristocrat must win the heart of a working class girl (and her family) by lowering himself to appease the crowds as a lowly boxer. In the end, they both shed their opposing outfits to reflect their change into a blend of something new. I thought this was an apt metaphor, as she sheds any aristocratic pretense and he finds himself halfway between boxer and milquetoast, and while this film is another delight from Buster Keaton, it is not as outright hilarious or powerful as some of his other classics, like The General or Sherlock Jr.

Elmer Gantry: A Satire of American Evangelism

For some reason, I decided to punish myself by reading all of Sinclair Lewis’s major works. I first encountered this fiery, re-haired, tornado-of-a-writer in my survey of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novels. He looms large over American literature as the first American to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, though he is often overshadowed by the Hemingways and Faulkners to come. Sinclair Lewis dedicates Elmer Gantry, the fourth of his six major novels, to H.L. Mencken “with profound admiration.” Mencken was a biting satirist and Nietzschean writer, and Elmer Gantry is a clear lampoon of religion in American. Clearly, the two writers –H.L. Mencken and Sinclair Lewis– share a close kinship.

In the character of Elmer Gantry we might see any number of religious businessmen in the United States –Billy Graham, Joel Osteen, Pat Robertson, as well as scandal-makers like Ted Haggard or Jim Bakker. And even though Elmer Gantry predates the age of television, we can only speculate as to how Sinclair Lewis might have incorporated televangelism into Reverend Gantry’s schemes.

Elmer Gantry is a study in unprincipled hypocrisy. Sinclair Lewis researched this book by traveling through Kansas City and witnessing no less than fifteen different preachers upon whom he based the character of Elmer Gantry, though he goes out of his way to announce that “no character in this book is the portrait of an actual person.” In the novel, Elmer Gantry is a wayward simpleton. He drinks heavily and womanizes while serving as football captain at Terwillinger College alongside his best friend and college roommate, Jim Lefferts, a freethinker who pushes Gantry to read the likes of Thomas Paine. Nevertheless, Gantry is pushed to attend Sundays at the Baptist church despite his own moral failings “…he had resisted his mother’s desire that he to become a preacher. He would have to give up his entertaining vices, and with wide-eyes and panting happiness he was discovering more of them every year” (505). Gantry’s mother expects him to grow up and become a good Christian in the American marketplace. In order to appease both his mother and his best friend, Gantry makes a plan to convert Jim so that he might “yield to the mystic fervor.” Elmer Gantry then publicly and flamboyantly professes his sins, desirous of adulation and attention, longing for popularity, hoping for a successful career after graduation, delighted by heaps of ecstatic “hallelujahs” and “amens” while he announces his faux conversion. His concerns are always of his own self-interest. Consider the following passage as he considers whether not to become a preacher:

“Where could Elmer find a profession with a better social position than the ministry –thousands listening to him–invited to banquets and everything. So much easier than– Well, not exactly easier; all ministers worked arduously– great sacrifices–constant demands on their sympathy– heroic struggle against vice– but same time, elegant and superior work, surrounded by books, high thoughts, and the finest ladies in the city or country as the case might be. And cheaper professional training than law…” (540).

Much like the shallow clerics in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, Elmer Gantry pursues a sturdy career in the seminary rather than pursuing a law degree (much to his mother’s delight) however he soon engages in sexual indiscretions that would make Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones blush, thus Gantry (or “Brother Gantry” as he is known around the Mizpah Theological Seminary) is unceremoniously thrown out of school, especially after having shown up drunk to church. From here, he bounces between sales jobs before developing a romantic relationship with a well-known traveling evangelist named Sharon Falconer (a caricature of Aimee Semple McPherson). As a notable charlatan, Sharon Falconer performative business takes her traveling throughout the Midwest, claiming to heal the sick, and running up extravagant tabs at local hotels, while Gantry serves as her assistant and business manager. But soon a fire breaks out during one of her wild, raucous sermons. Her tabernacle catches fire while she engages in delusion –she attempts to persuade her attendees that faith will protect them from the rising flames. Those who are smart, run for the doors of the church, while the rest burn to death (an interesting metaphor for Sinclair Lewis’s unsubtle portrayal of American Christianity). Falconer dies in the fire leading Gantry to take up his own business as a preacher. Everywhere, people seem upbeat and enthusiastic about his profit-friendly brand of Christian preaching, even if it is a personal struggle for himself. More than anything, we see this type of preaching little more than a business akin to the trickery of snake oil salesmen. Reverend Gantry settles down in the fictional Midwestern town of Zenith, Winnemac (a place which is seated midway between Pittsburgh and Chicago, and also appears in Sinclair Lewis’s other major works). He ultimately fails as an independent evangelist and so he turns to new age ideas like “New Thought” occultism and “Cosmic Vibrations” and so on. He even turns to various get-rich scams like theological prosperity doctrines akin to contemporary preachers like Joel Osteen and Deepak Chopra. Some observers today might call these preachers little more than self-serving grifters. At any rate, Reverend Gantry blends these new age theories with Christian theology as he preaches of the coming Judgment Day until the newspapers catch wind of his numerous scandals but in the end he escapes reputational destruction and continues to propound his piety for his Christian brand of American nationalism.

In a country renowned for religiously-motivated bannings of everything from The Beatles to Harry Potter, it goes without saying that Elmer Gantry caused quite a stir and found itself on any number of banned books lists. Elmer Gantry was banned in Boston and other cities, and it was denounced from pulpits across the United States. Despite all this calamity, Elmer Gantry was a bestseller and it was made into a 1960 film starring Burt Lancaster (which I have yet to see) and the likes of H. G. Wells used Lewis’s portrayals of American culture in Elmer Gantry to form the background of his syndicated newspaper articles called “The New American People,” though he also traveled through the country, visiting with people like Huey Long and President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The rampant materialism of American culture plays well for selfish fools like Elmer Gantry, but we would do well to be wary of the hollow Elmer Gantrys of our world.

Lewis, Sinclair. Elmer Gantry. Library of America Edition (Hardcover), New York, 2002.