Minnesota author Sinclair Lewis lived in a lot of places, and he bitterly satirized most of them in his novels and stories.
So perhaps we should be grateful that Lewis, although he expressed a love of southeastern Minnesota, never settled down in these parts.
Lewis, the first American to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, became world-famous 100 years ago with “Main Street,” his 1920 novel about the crushing conformity and narrow-mindedness of a fictional small Minnesota town. Gopher Prairie, the town in the novel, is a thinly disguised version of Lewis’ hometown of Sauk Centre, in Stearns County.
Much of “Main Street” was actually written while Lewis was living for a short time (he never stayed anywhere for long) in Mankato. At various times in his adult life, Lewis lived in Duluth, Minneapolis, St. Paul, and on Lake Minnetonka, as well as in the East and abroad. He also traveled Minnesota from north to south, and from east to west. Many of the fictional towns in his novels are clearly based on actual Minnesota cities.
Zenith, said to be modeled on Minneapolis, appears in “Babbitt,” “Dodsworth” and “Elmer Gantry.” Grand Republic, said to be modeled on Duluth, appears in “Cass Timberlane” and “Kingsblood Royal.”
Which begs the question: When writing “Arrowsmith,” a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about medicine, did Lewis use Rochester as a blueprint?
It’s possible, although in the novel, Lewis places Nautilus, the city most closely resembling Rochester, in Iowa.
But Lewis certainly soaked up much about the medical profession while hanging around Mayo Clinic. According to the late John Koblas, whose book “Sinclair Lewis: Home at Last,” traces Lewis’ wanderings, the novelist attended meetings of the Southern Minnesota Medical Association in 1919 in Rochester.
Lewis, whose father and brother were physicians, was likely gathering material for “Arrowsmith” during his Rochester visits. “Arrowsmith” follows the career of an idealistic young physician who confronts ethical issues surrounding research, science, and the commercialization of medicine.
The book was published in 1925 and won the 1926 Pulitzer Prize. Lewis was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1930.
His many ramblings notwithstanding, Lewis appeared to have a genuine affection for the towns and scenic views of southeastern Minnesota.
“The Root River valley in Fillmore and Houston counties was another favorite,” Koblas wrote. “Lewis claimed that there was enough room for 11,000 poets to contemplate the gently rolling hills. He was also attracted to the Mississippi River bluffs from Red Wing to La Crescent.”
To the extent that Rochester, Fillmore County and Red Wing are in Minnesota, they are in nearly every Sinclair Lewis novel, at least symbolically. His writing rarely ventured far from the landscapes he knew so well.
Ironically, the man who could not stop himself from making fun of everything and everybody around him could also never completely forsake the home state he loved.
Thomas Weber is a former Post Bulletin reporter who enjoys writing about local history.