Old Yale

Sinclair Lewis, student scribe

“On the Yale Literary Magazine and the Yale Courant I showered long medieval poems.”

Judith Ann Schiff is chief research archivist at the Yale University Library.

Carl Van Vechten/Beinecke Library

Carl Van Vechten/Beinecke Library

Nobel Prize–winning author Sinclair Lewis ’07, shown here in a 1925 photograph, felt himself an outsider at Yale but made his mark on student publications. View full image

Around the turn of the twentieth century, Yale began to come into its own as a powerhouse of literary scholarship and incubator of great writers. To name a few: in 1896, William Lyon Phelps ’87, ’91PhD, taught the first American university course on the modern novel. English literature scholar Chauncey Brewster Tinker ’99, ’02PhD, known as “Yale’s Dr. Johnson,” joined the faculty in 1902. And a year later, the Class of 1907 arrived on campus, including three future authors of note: novelist Allan Updegraff, Pulitzer Prize–winning poet William Rose Benét, and Sinclair Lewis. Lewis (1885–1951) would achieve the greatest acclaim, becoming the first American to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature.

The son of a doctor, Lewis grew up in Sauk Centre, Minnesota, later fictionalized as Gopher Prairie in his novel Main Street. At Yale, he was introduced as Harry Sinclair Lewis and called “Red” for his mass of vivid hair. He felt that most students considered him a country bumpkin, but he formed close friendships with Updegraff and Benét and made lasting impressions on the faculty. Tinker recalled Lewis as one of his first and best students and “a good friend,” bonded by their love of poetry. Phelps later wrote of Lewis, “I liked and admired him immensely although our views on many subjects were and are irreconcilable.” (He suggested that the nickname “Red” also referred to his radical opinions.)

Like so many Yale alumni writers since, Lewis honed his craft working on student publications, as he would later remember with embarrassed amusement:

On the Yale Literary Magazine and the Yale Courant I showered long medieval poems, with (O God!) ladys clad in white samite, mystic, won-der-ful; tales about Minnesota Swedes; and even two lyrics in what must have been terrible German. Perhaps half of them were accepted. The Lit was solemn, awesome, grammatical, traditional, and completely useless as a workshop, the Courant was frivolous, humble, and of the greatest use.

While still a student, Lewis was a reporter for the New Haven Journal-Courier, the San Francisco Bulletin, and the Associated Press. He also edited the Yale Literary Magazine, producing editorials that ranged from tirades against poverty in New Haven—reflecting the passion for social reform that would inform his novels—to moonstruck romanticism: 

Seriously, there are few matters giving the quiet, absolute enjoyment of standing near the big Egyptian gateway of the Grove Street Cemetery, and looking at the classical nobility of this temple, with Diana’s silver shield in the dun sky above it. . . . One can sit on the ledge at the foot of the fence, and rise to divinity, like a Neo-Platonist.

After taking a year off and graduating in 1908, Lewis worked as a journalist and editor before publishing his first serious work, Our Mr. Wrenn, in 1914. His first commercial success, Main Street, was a sensation in 1920, selling an estimated two million copies in two years. Babbitt followed in 1922. Lewis refused the Pulitzer in 1926—due to its criterion that novels “present the wholesome atmosphere of American life”—but four years later he accepted the Nobel, the first in any category awarded to a Yale graduate.

In 1936, Yale awarded Lewis an honorary doctorate. Shortly after that, Lewis connected with the next generation of literary Yale when John Hersey ’36—who would become an acclaimed journalist and novelist—worked as his private secretary. Hersey recalled his “first job” 50 years later in the Yale Review. Alluding to Lewis’s alcoholism, Hersey wrote, “Lewis’s life was in a mess. But I was to have a marvelous summer, oblivious of his suffering. He never took a single drink while I worked for him; I remained in total ignorance of his history. I saw a surface that was gentle, kindly, boyish, and vividly entertaining.”

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