A new exhibit argues for the timeliness of famed Minnesota author Sinclair Lewis

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Laurie Hertzel, Star Tribune
·6 min read
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Here are three things that Patrick Coleman would like people to know about writer Sinclair Lewis:

1. Contrary to popular belief, Lewis did not hate his hometown of Sauk Centre, Minn., which was the inspiration for Gopher Prairie in his novel "Main Street."

2. Though written a century ago, Lewis' books are enormously relevant today. He explores racism ("Kingsblood Royal"), sexism ("The Job," "Main Street" and "Ann Vickers"), epidemics ("Arrowsmith") and fascism ("It Can't Happen Here").

3. The recipient of the 1930 Nobel Prize for Literature, Lewis is, all these years later, still a very good read.

"And funny!" said Coleman, who curated a new exhibit about Lewis for the Minnesota History Center. "These books are funny. I think one thing about Lewis that's been a little forgotten or underplayed is his sense of humor."

By day, Coleman is the acquisitions librarian for the Minnesota Historical Society. But for the past two years, he's had a second full-time job as curator of the Lewis exhibit. It was timed to open last fall, to mark the 100th anniversary of the publication of "Main Street," but COVID-19 did what it did everywhere, and its opening was delayed until Saturday.

An exhibit on Lewis is something that Coleman had been pushing for years. It troubled him to see Lewis fading from the cultural landscape.

"I've been disturbed to the extent that Lewis used to be part of the canon and it's really hard to find people who have read him lately," he said. "When I was in high school we had to read 'Main Street' and 'Babbitt,' and that doesn't seem to be happening anymore. In fact, I've had a high school teacher tell me it would be impossible for kids to understand these days."

But a novel about an epidemic? About a man being forced from his home because of his race? These are topics that could not be more relevant, Coleman noted.

The Trump years brought Lewis back to the forefront, with a new edition of "It Can't Happen Here" published on Inauguration Day 2017. It went on to become one of the bestselling books of that year.

A Minnesota motor headLewis was born in Sauk Centre in 1885 and lived for a time in Duluth and St. Paul (although much of his life was spent elsewhere).

"He really enjoyed Minnesota," Coleman said. "He was kind of a motor head, too, and he vacationed all over Minnesota. He stayed on Ernest Oberholtzer's island [on Rainy Lake] for a while, and we have a letter in the exhibit from a Gunflint Trail lodge where he was staying."

The exhibit includes letters, photographs, autographed first editions, translated copies of his books (one wall of the exhibit is nothing but books — 350 of them, in all languages and editions) and other artifacts, including the author's Nobel medallion. Coleman worked on the exhibit labels himself, though he found in the process that he needed to curb his enthusiasm.

"The first exhibit label I wrote was more than 2,000 words," he said. "And I got a note back saying, 'We need this to be 150 words.' "

Lewis turned down the Pulitzer Prize (for "Arrowsmith") in 1926, but four years later he was awarded the Nobel.

As biographer Mark Schorer wrote in "Sinclair Lewis: An American Life," when the author got the call about the Nobel — from a Swedish journalist — he thought it was a prank.

"Lewis thought that it was the voice of his friend Ferd Reyher, who liked to do imitations and play jokes," Schorer wrote.

" 'Oh, yeah?' he replied. 'You don't say! Listen, Ferd, I can say that better than you. Your Swedish accent's no good. I'll repeat it to you.' And he repeated it, 'You haf de Nobel Brize,' and more. The bewildered Swede protested in vain and finally called an American to the telephone to confirm the news. Lewis fell into a chair."

Equally amusing is the story behind how his gold Nobel medal ended up at Yale University, Lewis' alma mater. Lewis was living in New York at the time, Coleman said, and he was a little worried about the valuable medal's safety. So one afternoon he and a friend decided to drive to Yale and donate it. "They'd both been gardening, and they looked like bums," he said.

The librarian wasn't in and the assistant had no idea who the men were or what they were trying to do. But fortunately a newspaper reporter saw him on campus, recognized him and reported the kerfuffle.

But it is Lewis' relevance today that Coleman is most interested in. In his 1947 novel "Kingsblood Royal," a white banker discovers, while digging into his genealogy, that he has a Black ancestor — information that changes his life. Ultimately he's forced out of his house in a white-only neighborhood, a scene that is based on Black Detroit physician Dr. Ossian Sweet, who was charged with murder after defending his home against a violent white mob.

Lewis lived in Duluth while he was writing much of the book, Coleman said. "He visited the historical AME church in Duluth, and he had local African American leaders over for dinners and discussions. And 'Main Street' was published the same year as the hangings in Duluth," the 1920 lynching of three Black men wrongfully accused of raping a white woman. "Lewis must have been very cognizant of that."

In "Arrowsmith" (1925), Lewis' main character is a doctor who comes to learn that ignorance and greed can be as dangerous as a deadly epidemic. "There are a bunch of things in 'Arrowsmith' that also kind of describe our previous administration, such as 'This scourge will disappear when warmer weather comes,' " Coleman said. "It's really interesting, the parallels and the insight that Lewis had on those things."

And "It Can't Happen Here" is Lewis' 1935 novel about an authoritarian president and the loss of democracy in America. The president, Coleman noted, "has got this band of followers called 'The Minutemen,' who is just this mob. And he describes in 1935 what happened at the Capitol on Jan. 6. He just nails it. How he had that insight is extraordinary."

Lewis, Coleman said, "is a Minnesota boy who's really brilliant and had worldwide impact. And he still has the ability to entertain and the ability to make us think."

Laurie Hertzel is senior editor for books at the Star Tribune. @StribBooks

Sinclair Lewis: 100 Years of Main StreetWhere: Minnesota History Center, 345 W. Kellogg Blvd., St. Paul.

When: April 10-Dec. 31. Open 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Thu.-Sat., 11-4 Sun.

Tickets: Advance reservations required. $8-$12 at mnhs.org or 651-259-3015.