Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Journal of a "Novel"-Entry 22

Give it Up for Sinclair Lewis

As my thoughts and ideas concerning Chapter 2 of the novel begin to percolate (more on this below), I have to give a shout out to the work of novelist Sinclair Lewis, whose novel "Main Street" I am about 3/4 through and whose "Babbitt" is next up on my list. (Unless I get a copy of Murakami's "Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman" in from the library, which I will jam in there so I can write a book review.) I can't say I'm totally riveted by the novel "Main Street", and I admit I was not very enthusiastic to begin reading it and Babbitt straight through as they amount to over 800 pages of reading and I have so much else I want to get to. But reading this novel has proven to be a good move for my purposes, and I am glad I made the choice.

I know almost nothing about Sinclair Lewis - the back of the Library of America version of the two novels that I took out from the library gives a chronology of his lifetime which I have only glanced through. Although one very interesting item caught my eye: that while he was composing "Main Street" he was renting an office in New York City and he worked on the novel 10-12 hours A DAY. I don't know how he was earning a living at that time, it would be interesting to find out, but man, that was dedication! I don't think I could do that even if I was independently wealthy. 90 minutes for me is a very long time to work on writing fiction.....! I do know this, that Lewis was the first American writer to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, I think in 1930. What a distinction!

Thus I can't really comment a lot on Lewis, but I can talk about "Main Street" a bit, which was first published in 1920. This novel is not a brisk read, but it is proving very valuable. It's about a woman from the city who has dreams of catching some rich man from a small prairie town in the midwest and single-handedly "reforming" the town to bring it up to the times. So she sets out to do just that and snags herself a doctor from a town called Gopher Prairie, MN. They are married, but she finds it difficult to change an old dog new tricks, so to speak, and runs into resistance from the small-town folk who think she is too arrogant and too "modern" for their tastes. The novel chronicles her repeated attempts and various schemes that, at least to this point, have more or less failed to reform the town. Instead she fears that it's she herself who is being reformed.

This novel is really helping me because 1) it describes what small town folk are like around the 19-teens (it's set around the time of World War I), which is a little earlier than the time frame I am writing about, but still gives what I perceive to be a good flavor of American small towns at that time. They talk about dance parties, playing cribbage and pinochle, the oil craze, automobiles and "motoring" on Sunday afternoons, and that sort of stuff. The gossip in the town and social positioning are vividly described, who is calling on who, who is seen in town with who, etc. 2) This novel is very helpful in describing marital dynamics and gender-differences during this time also. Since it is told from the vantage point of a female main character, although not in the first person, it gets into how she fills her day, her feelings about being domesticated and having to be subservient to the man of the house, etc. Again, this was all in the process of changing little by little as we got into the 20s, 30s, and 40s, but it is a good source of information nonetheless because when my novel opens, in 1924, it couldn't have been that much different from the way things were in the previous decade. And since Walter and Greta Brogan are newly married in the beginning of my story, this novel has been helpful in visualizing and imagining those dynamics.

I am also looking forward to the novel "Babbitt" because it is from a male point of view and is probably Sinclair Lewis' most famous work. I think that it will get more into the mind of a businessman from that time and what men were doing in society, and that will help when it comes to portaying people like P.G. Heinricks and his son Peter in my story. Without having read the novel yet I anticipate that my character Peter Heinricks will have the most similarities to a guy like George Babbitt in Lewis' novel. But we shall see. So I think it was a good idea to take on these books in spite of my impatience to try new things: the guy didn't win a Nobel Prize for nothing, and his impressions and descriptions of small-town life are invaluable to a writer who is so far detached from that era.

Chapter 2: Brogan Harbors a Secret; Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous

Well, my second chapter looms. I am almost done with the revisions of my first chapter which means I have to start on #2 very soon. Lately I have been thinking of what I want to do in this chapter and although I don't want to say much here, it seems like it might be best to focus this chapter on Walter and Greta's brief honeymoon and also to get a little bit into some of the backstories - the histories - of the two main characters. I am not sure if the second chapter will follow any of the threads that were introduced to this story in Chapter 1 that concern P.G. Heinricks, his son Peter, or another character, Myron Devreaux. But if they are not followed in Chapter 2, they will re-appear in Chapter 3. Their stories are also integral to this novel, although their lives are not the primary focus.

My main character is Walter Brogan, and it is my job to follow his lead. I want his story to be the one we are most interested in as readers, and so I will try in Chapter 2 to flesh him out more than I did in Chapter 1 and present the world that is opening up for him in the mid-1920s. Unfortunately, something has happened in Chapter 1 that has colored his vision somewhat, so to speak. I don't know a lot of particulars yet about how he will handle this exactly, but I do know that he will attempt to handle it in his own way, and without including his wife. He will keep it from her. He will do this out of good-natured motives - he will not want to see her angry or nervous - but the result will still be a certain reticence to communicate, which may not result in the best conditions for the early marriage. Nonetheless Brogan will resolve to outlast his enemies, and show determination to rise above negative forces on his own resolve, because he has grown to believe from a younger age that he does not have much help in the world, and that not everything can be relied upon.

While this is broiling nicely inside of Brogan, on the outside he and his new wife will be taking their honeymoon at the famous French Lick Springs Hotel in southern Indiana in what is now Hoosier National Forest. This is a place where rich and famous people came to play golf, relax, gamble (although it was illegal) and "take the cure" - indulge in the mineral water that came from the natural hot springs located in that part of the state. People believed that the water could cure many ailments. Presidents and movie stars stayed there. Brogan and his wife, who normally would have no place in such an establishment, will have the oppportunity to stay there briefly thanks to the generosity of P.G. Heinricks, who has cashed in a favor to get them a room. Walter and Greta will spend some time cavorting alongside the wealthy patrons while and will have the chance to observe the lifestyles of those who, in that decadent decade, really did show "obeisance to mammon".

Of course, none of this is put down yet, so we will have to see how the writing goes. But there you have it, the very latest. Looking forward to taking on my second chapter.

1 comment:

Duke Altum said...

"The very latest" is some interesting stuff indeed. Man I gotta tell you Mutt, the more I hear about the book (as planned, anyway) the more intriguing it sounds. I think it's pretty remarkable that you even have the story/plot figured out to a third chapter, even though I know that that is nowhere near the end of where you want this to go. Pretty interesting information about the French Lick (home town of Larry Bird, of course) resort... some fruit from all of that reading you chronicled earlier on these pages, no doubt.

Sounds like the reading of Sinclair Lewis is going to really pay off for you in both the short and the long terms. Again, I might suggest you check out his Nobel speech... many observations about America and Americans in it, as I recall. It's a strange speech, but interesting. Maybe after you've knocked off 'Babbitt' it will make for a nice curtain call.

You can see as you read these entries how having this blog to use as a "virtual diary" to work out your thoughts about the movel you're working on is helping to keep the pistons of your imagination pumping. I'm glad this blog you and I humbly set up is serving some real, bonafide literary purpose. Who knows, someday it may be known as one of the tools that helped the famous Mutt Ploughman pen his breakthrough novel... now how cool would that be???