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Revisiting Dodsworth

Posted in Books,Change is Bad,Fiction,Putting One Foot in Front of the Other by bourdaghs on the June 17th, 2012

My father was raised in Minnesota during the 1940s and 50s. This predated the rediscovery of F. Scott Fitzgerald, and so Sinclair Lewis, winner of the 1930 Nobel Prize for Literature, was the celebrated hometown author. I remember visiting Lewis’s boyhood home in Sauk Centre during a family vacation in the late 1960s and I can vividly picture the squat pocket-sized editions of Lewis’s novels in Dad’s bookshelf: Babbit, Main Street, Elmer Gantry, Arrowsmith, Ann Vickers….

I read them all as a teenager. I was particularly struck then by Dodsworth (1929). It was likely the very first rendition of the jaded-American-reawakens-in-Europe plot I ever encountered, and it seemed quite brilliant to me at the time.

Sinclair Lewis’s stock has fallen considerably in the last few decades. It had been many years since I read him, but this summer I picked up (more precisely, downloaded) a copy of Dodsworth. I returned to it after this long absence with a sense of curiosity: would it still speak to me as powerfully as it did when I was sixteen?

The answer: yes. The novel feels dated in places. There is a misogynistic tinge to the portrayal of Fran, Dodsworth’s narcissistic wife, and there is some gay-bashing and some discomfiting ethnic stereotypes–though not as cringe-inspiring as in many other works from the period.

But the novel also includes much deft, sly writing–not something I usually associate with Lewis. Here is his description of Sam Dodsworth’s first encounter with the woman who will become his wife, at a party in 1903:

If she was an angel, the girl at whom Sam was pointing, she was an angel of ice: slim, shining, ash-blonde, her self-possessed voice very cool as she parried the complimentary teasing of half a dozen admirers; a crystal candle-stick of a girl among black-and-white lumps of males.

What really strikes me, though, is Lewis’s portrayal of his hero Dodsworth, a type of man that Lewis must have despised.

Samuel Dodsworth was, perfectly, the American Captain of Industry, believing in the Republican Party, high tariff, and so long as they did not annoy him personally, in prohibition and the Episcopal Church. He was the president of the Revelation Motor Company; he was a millionaire, though decidedly not a multimillionaire; his large house was on Ridge Crest, the most fashionable street in Zenith; he had some taste in etchings; he did not split many infinitives; and he sometimes enjoyed Beethoven. He would certainly (so the observer assumed) produce excellent motor cars; he would make impressive speeches to the salesmen; but he would never love passionately, lose tragically, nor sit in contented idleness upon tropic shores.

The verb “to bully” appears repeatedly in the novel, usually with Dodsworth as its subject. We follow this unpromising personality, who “was extremely well trained, from his first days in Zenith High School, in not letting himself do anything so destructive as abstract thinking,” as he loses his position after selling his company and as he confronts his own utter loss of identity: “He had no longer the dignity of a craftsman. He made nothing; he meant nothing; he was no longer Samuel Dodsworth, but merely part of a crowd vigorously pushing one another toward nowhere.”

We plumb the depths with Dodsworth and experience the despair of his middle-age crisis. We watch his marriage disintegrate. But then we gradually float back to the surface with him, as he reawakens to the joy and possibilities of life, thanks in large measure to the “contented idleness” he enjoys during a sojourn amidst the humane culture and earthy landscape of Naples. Lewis depicts Dodsworth’s decline and rise with remarkable sympathy, complexity, and good humor. We can’t help but like this Dodsworth, for all his bullheaded dundering.

It is a novel, finally, about a bully’s redemption. How many of those do we have?

One Response to 'Revisiting Dodsworth'

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  1. Kennerly Takeda said,

    on June 20th, 2012 at 2:33 am

    great read, I’ll be sharing the information