Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Lindbergh and Lewis

The two local historical/literary figures in this area are Charles Lindbergh and Sinclair Lewis. Obviously, Charles Lindbergh is the better and bigger historical figure. His childhood home is in Little Falls, Minn., and has a really nice museum next door. The house itself is where he lived with his mother and grandmother, and on the tour they don't volunteer information about his father. Still, I can't imagine there's a tour where people are so "Minnesota nice" they don't ask, "If this was his mother's room, where did his father sleep?" His father, who was a congressman and mostly lived in Washington, lived a few blocks away, presumably with his mistress, when he visited or returned to Minnesota. Although Wikipedia says they divorced when Lindbergh was seven, the tour guide doesn't hint at divorce but just a highly irregular marriage.

Sinclair Lewis grew up in Sauk Centre, Minnesota, and made that town into Gopher Prairie, Minn., the town in Main Street that exposed small town America as small-minded, narrow, provincial and a bit mean. After hating the book at first, the town eventually came around-- might have been the Nobel Prize Lewis won in 1951-- and embraced their identity. There are still two blocks of "Original Main Street," with a vintage hotel that still had the room keys in little cubbies behind the desk. My parents and I stopped in to see it and thought about absconding a key and checking out a room. Two blocks off Main Street is Lewis's childhood home, a very modest affair, where his father the town doctor and his stepmother raised him and his two brothers. His mother died when he was six, and his father remarried within a year. He was a bookish and taciturn kid, a loner, and didn't fit in. His parents also didn't really fit in, and it seems his stepmother did a good job encouraging him in his educational and literary pursuits. In the end, he died alone in Italy but had requested to be buried in Sauk Centre, Minn.

I tried reading Babbit in high school but didn't really get it, and so gave up. I am going to get around to reading Main Street, maybe soon.

When I left New York for Silicon Valley in California after graduate school, my friend Hermine Meinhard gave me a framed black-and-white print of Sinclair Lewis and his second wife, Dorothy Thompson, sitting on the steps of a trailer in Hollywood. Lewis is typing, presumably a script, and Thompson is smiling. The print was from a calendar of literary folks, and Hermine took it off her wall and gave it to me as the only one of a writer in California. I had no affinity for Sinclair Lewis, but I loved Hermine and hung the print on my wall. I took it with me to Chicago and then, more aptly, hung it in my apartment in Long Beach, California, when I moved there in 2002. Finally, I brought it with me to Stearns County, Minnesota, 25 miles from Sinclair Lewis's boyhood home. I hung it in the hallway by my bedroom, and now it is next to my desk. Tucked into the frame is a snapshot of Hermine and me at graduation from Sarah Lawrence.

I'm not sure what that means, if anything. I just like the journey the print has taken, and that I've landed here. I hope to fit in better than young Sinclair did, and I hope to make something of my literary dreams, which it feels like I've held onto for a long time, and carried from coast to coast and back to the Midwest again.

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