Most of us feel like we want to belong somewhere.
Sometimes we spend a good deal of our time and effort to make sure that we are part of that somewhere, only to find out that, when it is all said and done, we are a stranger.
When I was in high school ( and no, this is not about my high school days) I picked up a slim paperback volume in the school library that I never returned. Sorry, Evergreen Park Community High School. The book, I am A Stranger Here Myself, was a volume of short stories by an author nobody reads anymore, but who won the first Nobel Prize for Literature for the United States, Sinclair Lewis.
After I took the book out of the library I eventually found a picture of Lewis. This was pre-internet, of course, and it meant a return trip to the library to look him up in the Encyclopedia Britannica. I opened to his biography and I thought: what a dork. No wonder he was a “stranger”. He would be a stranger no matter where he was. He was just that kind of guy. A high school kid could tell.
I read all of’ popular novels, and they were popular, selling hundreds of thousands of hardback copies, starting in the 1920’s and running through the early 1930’s. So, like the tech geeks of today, Lewis got his dorky revenge by becoming rich and famous.
His books were classified as “realism” and mostly at the American life of the emerging middle class. His first big seller was Main Street, which was about a frustrated wife of a doctor in a small town called Gopher Prairie, Minnesota. It mostly poked fun at the lives of the people in the town and their narrow points-of-view. Following was Babbitt, about a striving business man of the same name. Then Elmer Gantry, the look at the life of a fictional famous preacher, whom many say was based on the life of Billy Sunday.
Lewis had his star shine and then flame out. Other, younger writers soon were the new shiny object on the block: Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Thomas Wolf, to name a few. They wrote in a different style, each, and were more attuned to character development than Lewis. Lewis’ characters didn’t have “depth”, according to some of the critics of the day.
Still, it was a slim volume about what it was to be an outsider in a small town in the early part of the 20th Century that appealed to me.
I re-read it from time to time, to travel back to a long gone era and to think about characters from a mythical small town in the Middle West back before communication was instant and when there was still a little innocence left to the American Dream.
We are all still strangers.
Filed under: art and history