Sinclair Lewis remembered

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Claude Lewis and his brother Sinclair

Claude Lewis, left, and his brother Sinclair visited Amsterdam as part of a 1949 European holiday. Sinclair, who died two years later, was living in Italy at the time.

Complex and critically acclaimed 20th century novelist Sinclair Lewis was noted for his biting satire about small-town America. But when it came to Sauk Centre, the hometown he famously laid bare as dull and provincial in “Main Street,” and his Central Minnesota family, Lewis maintained lifelong ties.

“Harry, or ‘Red,’ as the family called him, came back to visit his brothers,” said Pat Lewis, who is married to the author’s great-nephew, Dick Lewis ’75, a St. Cloud businessman. “They stayed close. When Sinclair wrote a new book, he signed and sent copies to his brothers in Minnesota. He helped his nieces and nephews go to college.”

One brother was noted St. Cloud physician Claude Lewis, who in 1927 built the home that is St. Cloud State’s Alumni House, frequently the scene of family dinners with Sinclair when he returned for visits from the East Coast or Europe.

St. Cloud State has built other significant connections to the bookish and gangly red-haired Minnesota native who carried out his love-hate relationship with America’s social structure, politics and religion on the pages of 22 novels, including “Babbitt,” “Elmer Gantry,” “Arrowsmith” and “Main Street,” which in 1920 became the largest selling U.S. book to date.

Lewis, who in 1930 became the first American to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, was said to greatly admire Claude, and in the correspondence housed in St. Cloud State’s archival collection of Lewis memorabilia are many fond personal letters to the older brother and his family.

The University’s Miller Learning Resources Center holds correspondence, journals, photos, signed books and letters related to the author. Donations of Lewis-related materials have been received from many sources, including the author’s companion and biographer Ida Kay Compton; Claude’s daughters Isabel and Virginia; and most recently Barbara Gustafson, daughter of Hubert Irey Gibson. Gibson’s letters and drafts of Lewis’s play, “The Jayhawker,” written while he was secretary to Lewis, offer a glimpse into the author’s creative process.

While Yale University, Lewis’s alma mater, and the University of Texas each have some items, the largest collection of personal Lewis memorabilia is with St. Cloud State. In fall 2007, when Pat Lewis brought Sinclair Lewis’s grandson Jean Paul to the University’s archives to see the collection, “He was so grateful and so emotional at looking at this material, he said he wanted to bring his daughter here,” she said. Paul was a presenter at the third Sinclair Lewis Symposium hosted by St. Cloud State at the time of his visit. Previous symposia focused on the Minnesota author were in 1985 and 2005.

- Marsha Shoemaker

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