“Clear and cold and pure and very dead”

October 19, 2011 § Leave a comment

Laura Miller wrote about my previous post and the exchange that ensued in her latest column for Salon, “What Makes A Book Great?”    While reading her post and thinking about this issue, I was reminded of Sinclair Lewis’ famous acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize in 1930.

Lewis did not accept politely, but he did accept brilliantly. As when he said that:

In America most of us – not readers alone but even writers – are still afraid of any literature which is not a glorification of everything American, a glorification of our faults as well as our virtues. To be not only a best seller in America but to be really beloved, a novelist must assert that all American men are tall, handsome, rich, honest, and powerful at golf; that all country towns are filled with neighbors who do nothing from day to day save go about being kind to one another; that although American girls may be wild, they change always into perfect wives and mothers; and that, geographically, America is composed solely of New York, which is inhabited entirely by millionaires; of the West, which keeps unchanged all the boisterous heroism of 1870; and of the South, where everyone lives on a plantation perpetually glossy with moonlight and scented with magnolias.


He continues to discuss the lack of literary institutions for Americans:


[H] is oppressed ever by something worse than poverty – by the feeling that what he creates does not matter, that he is expected by his readers to be only a decorator or a clown, or that he is good-naturedly accepted as a scoffer whose bark probably is worse than his bite and who probably is a good fellow at heart, who in any case certainly does not count in a land that produces eighty-story buildings, motors by the million, and wheat by the billions of bushels. And he has no institution, no group, to which he can turn for inspiration, whose criticism he can accept and whose praise will be precious to him.


Lewis discusses the American Academy of Arts & Letters, then the only such institution (no National Book Foundation then). But wait–he’s not done. He turns to the universities:


To a true-blue professor of literature in an American university, literature is not something that a plain human being, living today, painfully sits down to produce. No; it is something dead; it is something magically produced by superhuman beings who must, if they are to be regarded as artists at all, have died at least one hundred years before the diabolical invention of the typewriter. To any authentic don, there is something slightly repulsive in the thought that literature could be created by any ordinary human being, still to be seen walking the streets, wearing quite commonplace trousers and coat and looking not so unlike a chauffeur or a farmer. Our American professors like their literature clear and cold and pure and very dead.


And our critics?

With a wealth of creative talent in America, our criticism has most of it been a chill and insignificant activity pursued by jealous spinsters, ex-baseball-reporters, and acid professors. Our Erasmuses have been village schoolmistresses. How should there be any standards when there has been no one capable of setting them up?


So there you have it. A similar question, asked 81 years ago, with some of the same answers and complaints, but with a passion and lyricism and guts that gets the blood moving . Go, Sinclair.  Save that “jealous spinsters” line, there’s nothing not to love in this speech.


An award well-deserved and well-accepted.



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