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Sinclair Lewis in Duluth

Primary Source Set
by Tom Steman, University Archivist, St. Cloud State University

Sauk Centre native Sinclair Lewis was an American author and playwright, best known for his 1920 novel Main Street. In 1930, Lewis was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature “for his vigorous and graphic art of description and his ability to create, with wit and humour, new types of characters.” Lewis was the first American to win that prize and often wrote satire that reflected the social problems of the time.

In August 1939, Lewis met Marcella Powers who was an eighteen-year-old aspiring actress. Lewis was immediately drawn to Powers who was a direct opposite from his second wife, the educated journalist and broadcaster, Dorothy Thompson. Thompson described Lewis as verbally violent when drunk, thin-skinned, and vulnerable. His issues with alcoholism only worsened these traits. Lewis’ life was a cycle of work, drinking, and recovering from drinking.

However, after Lewis met Marcella, her youth made him feel young and creative. He became highly dependent on Marcella for companionship and offered mentorship, financial support, and upward career mobility in return. Lewis was educated at Yale and throughout his life, lived in New York, California, and even Europe. However, Lewis returned to Minnesota throughout his lifetime and, from 1944 to 1946, lived in Duluth, Minnesota. Here he worked on novels about contemporary America, Cass Timberlane, and the controversial novel about race, Kingsblood Royal.

While in living in Duluth, Lewis enjoyed the weather, natural beauty, and the people of the city and he hoped Marcella would too when she visited. Marcella came to dislike the city and, ultimately, Lewis grew tired of Duluth as well. By the time he left Duluth in 1946 and moved back east, Lewis had pushed most of his friends away and was as lonely as ever. Using letters Lewis wrote to Marcella during this period, we gain deeper understanding of Lewis’ life in Duluth, the people he met, and his research for his novels.

Discussion Questions & Activities

1. Before the use of the Internet and long-distance phone calls, people wrote each other letters to communicate. What kind of information would you write in a letter?

2. Sinclair Lewis was an award-winning author – a master of words. How did he portray his life in Duluth? How does he depict Duluth itself? How descriptive were his letters? What kind of content did he include in the letters?

3. How different are letters from email, tweets, or social media? What physical form are they? How will they be preserved for the future? Please compare and contrast.

4. Take a look at Sinclair Lewis’ clothing. During that time, men often wore suits as everyday wear. Do you see men wearing suits every day during their leisure time? If not, what kinds of clothing do people wear in their daily lives?

eLibrary Minnesota Resources (for Minnesota residents)

1. Holtz, William. 1987. “Sinclair Lewis, Rose Wilder Lane, and the Midwestern Short Novel.” Studies in Short Fiction 24 (1): 41. Accessed August 19, 2020.

2. Manson, Alexander, and Helen Camp. 1951. “The Last Days of Sinclair Lewis.” Saturday Evening Post 223 (40): 27–112.

3. Moodie, Clara Lee. 1975. “The Short Stories and Sinclair Lewis’ Literary Development.” Studies in Short Fiction 12 (2): 99. Accessed August 20, 2020.

Additional Resources for Research

1. Compton, Ida. Sinclair Lewis at Thorvale Farm. A Personal Memoir. Sarasota: Ruggles Publishing Co., 1988.

2. Flanagan, John T. “The Minnesota Backgrounds of Sinclair Lewis’ Fiction.” Minnesota History. March 1960. 1-13.

3. Lewis, Grace Hegger. With Love from Gracie. Sinclair Lewis: 1912-1925. New York: Harcourt and Brace, 1955.

4. Lewis, Sinclair. Minnesota Diary, 1942-1946. (George Killough, Ed.) Moscow, Idaho. University of Idaho Press, 2000.

5. Lewis, Sinclair. Selected Letters of Sinclair Lewis (John Koblas, Ed.) Madison, Wisconsin. Main Street Press, 1985.

6. Lingeman, Richard. Sinclair Lewis: Rebel From Main Street. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2002.

7. Schorer, Mark. Sinclair Lewis: An American Life. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1963.

Think Like a Historian

Observe a Primary Source Item and Record Your Thoughts

  • What is happening in the photograph or letter, diary, etc.? What just happened, or what is about to happen?
  • Describe the people you see in the image. How do they relate to each other and to the photographer? If there are no people in the image, what is the subject of the photograph?
  • Describe where the photo was taken. Were they inside, outside, somewhere identifiable? Was the location an urban area, suburban, or rural? 
  • Look for details that show when the photo was taken – time of day, season, and year. Do the people in the photograph look different than people today? How are their clothing, shoes, and hair styles different? Also look for differences in things like transportation, housing, equipment, and general infrastructure.

Think about the Creator, Audience, Context, Relationships

  • What is the author/creator's point of view? What was the author's purpose?
  • Who is the intended audience for this primary source material?
  • Explain how the source tells its story.
  • What was happening locally, regionally, or nationally when this primary source material was created?
  • How does this item relate to other content in this Primary Source Set and/or the rest of the Minnesota Digital Library collection? Compare and contrast two resources.

Finally, using the clues you have observed, try to figure out why the source was created. By asking these questions, you have begun to understand the what, who, where, when and why of the primary source material – and ultimately, the story it tells.

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