Bio: Sinclair Lewis, the first American novelist to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, was born on February 7, 1885. The son of a country doctor, he grew up in his birthplace of Sauk Centre, Minnesota, the prairie village that inspired many of his acerbic portrayals of American life and manners. In 1903 he entered Yale University, where he wrote for the Yale Literary Magazine. Lewis briefly interrupted his studies to live at Helicon Hall, Upton Sinclair's abortive utopian community in New Jersey, but graduated from Yale in 1907. Afterwards he roamed the United States working as a freelance editor and journalist, eventually settling in New York City to search for employment in the publishing business. Lewis's earliest fiction--Our Mr. Wrenn (1914), The Trail of the Hawk (1915), and The Job (1917)--seemed to announce the appearance of a new and original talent on the American literary scene. But reviewers were disappointed by his other apprentice novels, The Innocents (1917) and Free Air (1919).
The publication of Main Street in 1920 brought Lewis immediate acclaim. An extraordinary critical and commercial success, this sardonic novel about life in Gopher Prairie, Minnesota, exposed the complacency and provincialism of small towns everywhere. 'What Mr. Lewis has done for myself and thousands of others is to lodge a piece of a continent in our imagination,' said E. M. Forster. 'Whether he has 'got' the Middle West, only the Middle West can say, but he has made thousands of people all over the globe alive to its existence, and anxious for further news.'
Lewis enjoyed an even greater triumph with Babbitt (1922), a lampoon of middle-class values as championed by an archetypal businessman, the robust but pathetic George F. Babbitt. 'I know of no American novel that more accurately presents the real America,' remarked H. L. Mencken. 'As an old professor of Babbittry I welcome him as an almost perfect specimen. Every American city swarms with his brothers. He is America incarnate, exuberant and exquisite.' Writing in the Saturday Review, Virginia Woolf judged Babbitt to be 'the equal of any novel written in English in the present century.'
Lewis won the Pulitzer Prize for Arrowsmith (1925), a best-selling exposť of the medical profession. It was regarded by many as his most mature and well-rounded picture of American society. But he refused to accept the award, claiming it was intended only for champions of wholesomeness. Lewis further enhanced his reputation as national gadfly with two more popular satires: Elmer Gantry (1927), a controversial attack on the hypocrisy of fundamentalist religion as practiced by flamboyant Bible Belt evangelists, and Dodsworth (1929), the tale of a Babbitt-like businessman abroad. 'Sinclair Lewis could in one sense be considered the first American novelist,' observed Alfred Kazin, 'for in his unflagging absorption of detail and his grasp of the life about him Lewis caught the tone, the speech, of the pervasive American existence.' But his other novels of the period, Mantrap (1926) and The Man Who Knew Coolidge (1928), failed to reach a wide audience.
In 1930 Lewis was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature 'for his powerful and vivid art of description and his ability to use wit and humor in the creation of original characters.' In his acceptance speech titled 'The American Fear of Literature,' which he delivered before the Swedish Academy in Stockholm, Lewis spoke for a whole generation of writers involved in the revolt against gentility in literature.