Old Yale

Sinclair Lewis, student scribe

“On the Yale Literary Magazine and the Yale Courant I showered long medieval poems.”

Judith Ann Schiff is chief research archivist at the Yale University Library.

Carl Van Vechten/Beinecke Library

Carl Van Vechten/Beinecke Library

Nobel Prize–winning author Sinclair Lewis ’07, shown here in a 1925 photograph, felt himself an outsider at Yale but made his mark on student publications. View full image

Around the turn of the twentieth century, Yale began to come into its own as a powerhouse of literary scholarship and incubator of great writers. To name a few: in 1896, William Lyon Phelps ’87, ’91PhD, taught the first American university course on the modern novel. English literature scholar Chauncey Brewster Tinker ’99, ’02PhD, known as “Yale’s Dr. Johnson,” joined the faculty in 1902. And a year later, the Class of 1907 arrived on campus, including three future authors of note: novelist Allan Updegraff, Pulitzer Prize–winning poet William Rose Benét, and Sinclair Lewis. Lewis (1885–1951) would achieve the greatest acclaim, becoming the first American to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature.

The son of a doctor, Lewis grew up in Sauk Centre, Minnesota, later fictionalized as Gopher Prairie in his novel Main Street. At Yale, he was introduced as Harry Sinclair Lewis and called “Red” for his mass of vivid hair. He felt that most students considered him a country bumpkin, but he formed close friendships with Updegraff and Benét and made lasting impressions on the faculty. Tinker recalled Lewis as one of his first and best students and “a good friend,” bonded by their love of poetry. Phelps later wrote of Lewis, “I liked and admired him immensely although our views on many subjects were and are irreconcilable.” (He suggested that the nickname “Red” also referred to his radical opinions.)

Like so many Yale alumni writers since, Lewis honed his craft working on student publications, as he would later remember with embarrassed amusement:

On the Yale Literary Magazine and the Yale Courant I showered long medieval poems, with (O God!) ladys clad in white samite, mystic, won-der-ful; tales about Minnesota Swedes; and even two lyrics in what must have been terrible German. Perhaps half of them were accepted. The Lit was solemn, awesome, grammatical, traditional, and completely useless as a workshop, the Courant was frivolous, humble, and of the greatest use.

While still a student, Lewis was a reporter for the New Haven Journal-Courier, the San Francisco Bulletin, and the Associated Press. He also edited the Yale Literary Magazine, producing editorials that ranged from tirades against poverty in New Haven—reflecting the passion for social reform that would inform his novels—to moonstruck romanticism: 

Seriously, there are few matters giving the quiet, absolute enjoyment of standing near the big Egyptian gateway of the Grove Street Cemetery, and looking at the classical nobility of this temple, with Diana’s silver shield in the dun sky above it. . . . One can sit on the ledge at the foot of the fence, and rise to divinity, like a Neo-Platonist.

After taking a year off and graduating in 1908, Lewis worked as a journalist and editor before publishing his first serious work, Our Mr. Wrenn, in 1914. His first commercial success, Main Street, was a sensation in 1920, selling an estimated two million copies in two years. Babbitt followed in 1922. Lewis refused the Pulitzer in 1926—due to its criterion that novels “present the wholesome atmosphere of American life”—but four years later he accepted the Nobel, the first in any category awarded to a Yale graduate.

In 1936, Yale awarded Lewis an honorary doctorate. Shortly after that, Lewis connected with the next generation of literary Yale when John Hersey ’36—who would become an acclaimed journalist and novelist—worked as his private secretary. Hersey recalled his “first job” 50 years later in the Yale Review. Alluding to Lewis’s alcoholism, Hersey wrote, “Lewis’s life was in a mess. But I was to have a marvelous summer, oblivious of his suffering. He never took a single drink while I worked for him; I remained in total ignorance of his history. I saw a surface that was gentle, kindly, boyish, and vividly entertaining.”

1 comment

  • Dave Simpkins
    Dave Simpkins, 10:05am November 30 2017 | Ico flag Flag as inappropriate

    Dear YAM,

    I enjoyed Judith Ann Schiff's article on Sinclair Lewis. I've been working on a biography of young Lewis and I have the below chapter on his days at Yale.

    Please share this with her if you can.

    I've made two trips to Yale to do research and I have one more planned. There is a leather bound volume of Milton's works at the Beinecke that I want to see and get a picture of.

    As much as Lewis complained about the Yale societies he benefitted greatly from his education there. Yale also shows up many times in his short stories & novels.


    Dave Simpkins
    Becoming Sinclair Lewis

    A Fresh Man On Campus

    Freshman should be romantics,
    Sophomores should be Socialists,
    Juniors should be bums,
    and after that, it doesn’t matter.

    My First Day in New York
    Sinclair Lewis

    Sinclair Lewis attended his first reunion of the Yale Class of ’07 on June 18, 1922. He drove to New Haven in a shiny new beige Cadillac touring car he named “Old Growler.” He put on a funny ’07 hat and posed for pictures with friendly alums. With Main Street still a bestselling novel, he was asked to give a few comments.
    Sinclair Lewis, by then in his forties, could not forget or forgive the days when they called him God Forbid. He told them, “When I was in college, you had no use for me. And I’m here to tell you that I have no use for you now.” (Yale News March 22, 1951)
    The group broke into uproarious laughter. He went on to give the opposite of the traditional good-old-days reunion speech. He detailed each humiliation from a short list of Yale men. The alumni cheered him on. His peers were ready to let bygones be bygones, but he had to even the score.
    E. Robert Stevenson called at Lewis’s dormitory window later that night asking him to come out. The two had worked together at the New Haven Journal Courier. Stevenson remembered Lewis emerged wearing a pair of unorthodox pajamas. The two sat on the curb sharing stories and smoking cigarettes. When Stevenson said, "Let's ramble Cherry Street" and visit the newsroom of the Journal Courier, Lewis jumped up and started out in his pajamas and slippers. They visited with alumni in the hotels and bars and found their old editor Arthur J. Slone. (MS 334)
    Lewis's memories of Yale were the memories of an outcast that made good. He was an awkward, small-town boy from Minnesota that really didn’t belong in this in this collegiate aristocracy. He tried to fit in several times but he was snubbed each time. He went to Yale expecting a scholar’s nirvana and found a class of social climbers more concerned with clubs, teams and secret societies than higher learning. He quit for a time but returned learning all he could about literature and how to write. He did this by getting good grades, winning an editorship on the prestigious Yale Literary Magazine and making lifelong friends with other outcasts and the English faculty. College taught him good writing skills and tempered his awkwardness. He went on to build a writing career that made him one of the most outstanding Yale alumni
    The 18-year-old, Harry Sinclair Lewis got off on the wrong foot
    before he ever set foot onto the campus. On a railroad platform in Albany, New York,
    he stood boasting to another young man that he was heading to New Haven, Connecticut to become a Yale Man.
    The young man was also on his way to Yale but he didn’t say so. He had attended an Eastern prep school and he knew it was considered boorish to boast of attending an Ivy League School. When the young man arrived at school he spread the word about this lanky, red-haired, pock-faced prairie hick daring to call himself a Yale Man. Lewis’s ignorance of social customs, along with his zealous enthusiasm and naïveté, earned him nicknames like “God Forbid” and “Mooncalf”. One student said he was the only student at Yale who could fart from his face.
    Founded in 1701, Yale University was named after Elihu Yale who donated the proceeds of a shipment of goods, 417 books and a portrait of King George I so youth may be instructed through the “blessing of Almighty God may be fitted for Publick employment both in Church and Civil State.” When Lewis arrived on September 18, 1903 there were 3,000 students, mostly from Connecticut & New York. As one of the few students from the Midwest, Lewis stood out among the Yale men, most of whom were the sons of the American aristocracy. They had grown up in mansions with servants, large gardens and horse barns spending their summers at places like the Corinthian Yacht Club or touring Europe or playing tennis in the Berkshires. Lewis came from a middle-class stock; his ancestors were of Yankee farmers, teachers and doctors. His boyhood home was the humble frame home of a country doctor with a housekeeper and an outhouse. He spent his summers reading, chopping wood, rowing on Sauk Lake and hiking the countryside. He was a nervous, exuberant, hyper-energetic student more excited about learning than belonging to the right society or club. He was there to learn, not play.

    First Days
    Lewis’s first days at Yale were intense. He arrived on the train on Friday September 18, checked into the Arlington House and slept until 10 the next morning. His first step was to look for a room. He found one at Mrs. Cramer’s boarding house at 124 ½ Park Street, which was a “post grad. house” where the food was good. Once established, he explored the campus entering the old campus through the long Tudor-style tunnel of Phelps Gate and proceeded to the sprawling Phelps Hal which was located in into a quadrangle of New England puritan dormitories, and simple gray Gothic Revival classrooms. He wrote he was “delighted by the magnificent buildings.”
    On Sunday he sat through a drowsy sermon at the Centre Church, toured the monument to English Parliamentarian John Dixwell and visited Judge Bishop’s house in Westville where his father had once stayed. He received a welcoming letter from his campus mentor, Hugh Rankin, who would arrive on campus in October. He studied his chemistry lessons and finished Alfred Lord Tennyson’s In Memoriam.
    Monday saw him “reverently” touring the “burying ground” at Grove Street Cemetery in New Haven with its Egyptian gate and graves of Eli Whitney, Noah Webster and Lyman Beecher. On Tuesday he bought a used bike and peddled to East Park.
    On Wednesday he joined in the annual Soph-Fresh Wrestling Match. The two classes lined up and marched around the village green with torches, yelling and singing. The sophomores won the individual matches and the freshmen won the race to York Street. The two groups then formed two lines and charged at each other in one large wrestling match. “I was in the thick of it a couple of times & once was down with a lot of fellows on top,” wrote Lewis. “After that I didn’t get into the rush, as I was too tired to be any good.” (SL Sept 03)
    Later he watched Calcium Night where fraternities paraded through campus carrying colored calcium lights made of burning lime, hence the term limelight. The new pledges sang songs that Lewis believed were “a wonderful scene…brilliant and weird.”
    On Thursday he peddled his used bicycle to the New Haven Harbor where he saw many ships anchored, unloading logs and coal while other ships were being towed in by tug boats. He was impressed by the immense Winchester Ammunition and Fire Arms plant. That night, he stood in long lines waiting to register for classes at Alumni Hall. He bought his co-op ticket, books and a Waterman Fountain pen for $2.50 at the Co-op story in old South Middle College Hall.
    His recitations began at 8:30 am on Friday with an introduction to King Henry IV in his Shakespeare class with Dr. Chauncey Tinker, which he wrote would “prove exceedingly interesting”. Then he went to his Greek class at Phelps Hall under Prof. Thomas Seymour, “one of the world’s great, great Greek scholars” where they would study Homer. He had began studying Greek in high school but feared he would have trouble at this high level of scholarship.
    He found a hallowed place to study in Chittenden Hall. Ornate, olive green walls held oak carvings and a Tiffany stained glass window titled Education. The plaque below read from Proverbs 25, "Through wisdom is a house builded, and by understanding it is established, and by knowledge shall the chambers be filled with all precious and pleasant riches."
    He bought many Greek books and a $4 Latin dictionary, a Rand McNally atlas, the plays of Richard Brinsley Sheridan and the essays of Francis Bacon, but his “best bargain ever” was a Chambers Encyclopedia, 10 volumes, 800 pages to a volume, excellent paper, binding and illustrations for $1.50. (SLD Oct 1)
    At City Point in the New Haven Harbor he sat on a battered fishing boat. He saw large warehouses, factories, chimneys, gas tanks, coal docks along waterfront. Men dug for clams and gulls swooped over the water. There were many boats in the harbor, “ugly coal barges and dredgers, fussy tugs big three-masters, schooners and what not.” A large soldier’s monument with bronze tablets with the names of New Havens soldiers in the Civil War stood in a park on the point. There were oyster houses with piles of opened shells big as houses. ( CC January 10, 1904 letter )
    He chided himself for wasting time, saying he must get at it if he is to make valedictorian, “hence I must work wie der Teufel (like the devil).
    In large letters, he wrote across the top of his diary, “Magnus Yale!”
    While his father was proud of and willing to help with his son's finances, he wasn’t about to help him live a lavish lifestyle. Lewis had to work for his spending MONEY. Lewis sent his father a regular accounting of his expenditures. In that first October, Lewis spent $114.70 in getting established including railroad fare, the used bicycle and board and room. Books were the most expensive item, and he admitted spending his own money for soda water. He didn’t join any social clubs preferring to study. He picked up a reporting job writing critiques of the plays at the Poli Theatre. He told his diary the two greatest deals in New Haven were the cheap 75-cent matinee seats at the Poli and 75-cents for a ginger ale and a sandwich at the Hofbrau.
    His hard work landed him 69th in a freshman class of 431 but his single-minded dedication to his studies and a few other quirks didn’t land him very well socially.
    In his letters over the summer, Hugh Rankin had suggested that Lewis join the Y. M. C. A., take part in athletics or the Yale Literary Magazine. Instead, Lewis studied hard and found work. When the two met in October, Rankin told Lewis he was doing everything wrong. He labeled called “fresh” and suggested he move onto campus and take his meals at the commons.
    Lewis wrote in his diary that he would set out to fit into Yale, “I can see in many ways where I have been fresh—dreadfully so. I owe Rankin an unbounded debt for what he has told me.”
    Owen Johnson from the Yale class of 1900 wrote of a character in his book in 1911, Stover at Yale, “He had been pronounced ‘fresh,’ equivalent almost to a ban of excommunication, for his extraordinary lack of reverence to things that traditionally should be revered, and as he had a blunt, direct way of showing in his eyes what he liked and disliked, his sterling qualities were forgotten in the irritation he caused.”
    Lewis got Rankin’s message and set out to remedy his social errors. He moved to student housing at 79 South Middle Hall and signed up for meals at the University Dining Hall with its 1,000 seats. He joined a table of 12 students that he said was a “fine place to become acquainted, jolly crowd.”
    South Middle Hall, a Georgian style building, was one of the oldest dormitories on campus. Built in 1752, it had housed such students as the Revolutionary spy, Nathan Hale; dictionary author, Noah Webster; inventor of the cotton gin, Eli Whitney; Confederate leader John C. Calhoun; and one of Lewis’s favorite authors, James Fenimore Cooper.
    The colonial-era dormitory had received a facelift in 1906, and its name was changed to Connecticut Hall. Lewis wrote an essay honoring the old building for the Yale Literary Magazine titled, “In Praise of South Middle”, writing, “There is one room on the top floor which has been a delight. One may lie on the big window-seat and note the elm-adorned stretch of Green; across it, on Church Street, the lights, a mystery and a suggestion. The room has none of the metallic conventionality, which is dangerously likely to exist in the hard, well-planned new dormitories. And, around the fireplace, sit with one, even til dawn, tireless friends, the spirits of those who, for a hundred and fifty-six years have ‘lightly vaulted up three flights of stairs, in the brave days when they were twenty-one.”
    Lewis threw himself into school activities meeting with a prayer group, becoming a student volunteer and joining the Freshman Union debate group. He attended church and taught Sunday school. He wrote his high school friend Clara Carpenter that there was plenty to keep him from getting homesick. He wrote he enjoyed regular swims in the heated pool and spent hours in the gym every day “playing basketball or hopscotch, working with iron dumbells, chest weights, punching the bag and running the track”.
    He told Clara he was studying The Odyssey in Greek, Tacitus in Latin, Shakespeare’s Tempest and some Victorian literature in English and grammar in French. “I passed all my xmas exams all right and got in the 1st division of 80 fellows who got 3 or over as average,” wrote Lewis.
    His theatre reporting for the Journal Courier got him into performances at the Poli Theatre where he told Clara he saw George Bernard Shaw’s Candida, Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing as well as taking in an organ recital on the “great Newberry organ given by Prof. Jepson” and he heard the Boston Symphony Orchestra, “finest in U.S.”. ( CC letter January 10, 1904 )
    As stimulating as these early days at Yale were, Lewis was still lonely and longing for intelligent companionship, he wanted a true friend to discuss all the ideas that were whirling in his head.

    Finally, intelligent conversation
    Lewis stayed on campus during his first Christmas break. He went to a party at the college president’s home, ate Christmas dinner at the Hofbrau with students and saw a rural melodrama at the Sky Farm Theatre. He toured the Benedict Arnold home and received a dollar for a story for the Journal Courier. Concerned his acne hurt his chances to get on the Lit board he had an X-ray treatment for the pimples on his face. He suffered skin cancer from this last in his life possibly because of this radiation. (MS ) On Christmas, he opened letters from Sauk Centre. A Christmas box from his parents contained ties from his father and homemade candy from his mother.
    This was a time of solitary brooding for Lewis. He took long walks through the slums, visited the saloons and sat on the wharf watching the ships. He took bicycle rides in the countryside visiting with farmers much like he did at home in Sauk Centre. Yale promised academic stimulation but gave him only surface connections, rejection and humiliation. (MS xxx) His diary posts throughout these days include words like, lonely, dumpishness and melancholy. He wrote he was, “So lonely this evening!—some one to go home to; someone to work for & with—yet that someone need not necessarily be a woman. A friend, one true friend.” (SLD May 1908)
    On January 2 he found what he had been looking for from the day he arrived at Yale. He and fellow student John Kitchen made a supper of hot dogs, sugar wafers, nuts, dates and cocoa. Then they talked like scholars until midnight. He had found someone who cared about scholarship as much as he did. He found other outcasts, intellectual gadflies who avoided the clubs, sports and secret societies. Reference…
    Lewis revealed his Yale frustrations in a 1917 short story, Young Man Axelbrod published in Century magazine. In it, a 65-year-old Swedish immigrant farmer from Minnesota named Knute Axelbrod goes to Yale. Knute, much like Lewis, read late into the night dreaming of being a scholar. Knute sells his farm and enrolls at Yale excited to attend this great temple of knowledge. Disappointed, he sees himself as a “grotesque figure, a white-polled giant squeezed into a small seat listening to instructors younger than his sons.”
    Axelbrod finds no inspiration or comradeship among the blue bloods, dilettantes and sturdy athletes. Not even those working their way through college will give him the time of day. A “playboy, a wit and stealer of street signs” mocks his long grey beard causing high mirth at the dinner table in the grand commons, which held 1,000 students. Rejected, the old man eats his meals at a local diner. Lewis wrote that Knute’s classmates “were afraid of being queered by being seen with him.”
    A snobbish professor speaking tells Knute, “I do wish you wouldn’t try quite so hard to show off whenever I call on you during quizzes. You answer at such needless length, and you smile as though there were something highly amusing about me. I’m quite willing to have you regard me as a humorous figure, privately, but there are certain classroom conventions, you know, certain little conventions.” You have to wonder if Lewis experienced a similar put down.
    On a walk to the top of East Rock, a tall butte over looking the campus and Long Island Sound, Knute met Gil Washburn, another outcast more interested in learning than playing. Washburn is was reading a small, leather bound French edition of Alfred de Musset’s poems. The two talk until morning of great men, heroic ideals, ancient cities and the glory of chivalry.
    The short story ends with Knute saying, “This is vhat I come to college for—this one night. I go avay before I spoil it.” The old man leaves on the westbound train smiling, with a small French book in hands.

    Tap Day
    Reporting on the spring Tap Day for the Journal Courier, Lewis went into the office of the Yale Daily News. He asked an assistant editor, “What is this Tap Day anyway?” The editor called in the entire news staff and asked Lewis to repeat the question. The answer brought thunderous laughter and mockery of the red-headed reporter for not knowing the importance of the day. (MS 69)
    Tap Day was one of the biggest events of the school year. Juniors were “tapped” and told to go to their rooms to accept or reject membership in one of Yale's secret senior societies. Yale graduate and professor Chauncey Tinker said Tap Day was where “the maximum amount of chagrin is inflicted upon the largest possible number of students". (Havemayer… )
    The secret societies with names like Skull and Bones, Scroll and Key, Wolf’s Head, Book and Snake began as early as 1832. Students believed they were a pathway to future success. George W. Bush, his father George H. W. Bush and grandfather Prescott Bush were Skull and Bones members. Conspiracy theories about Skull and Bones say it had a big influence within the Central Intelligence Agency. The 2006 film, The Good Shepard tells a illustrates a connection between the Skull and Bones members going into the Agency.
    Other stories tell of a secret vault in the Skull and Bones’s windowless, tomb-looking brownstone headquarters containing skulls of such famous men as President Martin Van Buren and Mexican Revolutionary Pancho Villa. One legend claims Prescott Bush stole Geronimo’s skull from the Apache chief’s grave at Ft. Sill Oklahoma and put it in vault. ( XXXXX )

    As in Sauk Centre, Lewis found refuge from the Yale in the countryside and with talking to strangers. Shortly after being laughed at at the Yale Daily News, Lewis recorded a seven-mile hike, going from the harbor to Westville visiting the people who lived in the house his father once lived in, visited with people in a country store, listened to a man criticize the Methodist church and talked about Machiavelli with a fellow in City Park. He ended the post with an unusual statement, “yale snobbishness of which there is little, et quid no.” (SLD March 12, 1904
    Bonfire & Upde
    Lewis surprised many when he became the first freshman to get his work published in the Yale Literary Magazine and later the Yale Courant. Allan Updegraff was another literary standout having won the McKenzie Prize for literary essay. Lewis sought out Updegraff and the two became fast friends. They took long walks, talking late in the night about Kipling, Keats and Swinburne. (MS 88) They were Midwesterners, bright, literary men, living outside the social fabric of Yale. They once translated 850 lines of the Medea “consuming a glass of claret & a box of Murad Turkish cigarettes.” Lewis was Bonfire and Updegraff was “Upde.” [SP?]
    The two shared their deepest thoughts, love of literature and radical ideas. Updegraff introduced Lewis to the intellectual writers of the day, such as Ernst Haeckel, the German biologist philosopher. Lewis concluded that Haeckel's evolutionary writings were, “inspiring; but too much, withal.” Lewis recited the poems of Walt Whitman saying Whitman was “the only American poet.” He also introduced Updegraff to the poetry of Minnesota poet Arthur Upson.
    Updegraff was born in Iowa in 1883, brought up in the Missouri Ozarks. He ran away from home at 17 later saying his father didn’t approve of writers. He became a reporter for the South Chicago Calumet at $7 a week and in six months became the editor at $11 a week.
    Early in Lewis’s time at Yale, he tried to impress the campus elite like Frederick Erastus Pierce, the senior president of the Lit, a winner of many writing prizes and a member of Skull and Bones. According to Updegraff, Yale taught Lewis the necessity of learning charm, social poise and purpose. “Lewis tried over and over again to gain acceptance from the big men in college, only to be kicked in the face over and over again to fall back among his own kind. He was the only man I ever knew who learned how to be charming.” said Updegraff.

    Cattle boat
    While his classmates went to Europe on luxury liners during the summer break, Lewis signed up to work his way to England on a cattle boat after his freshman year. It was hard, physical labor among coarse, filthy men ALONG with a few educated adventurers like himself. His crew chief was a Rev. Wayne Womer of the Wesley Methodist Church in Belleview, New Jersey. Remembering one of the nights the crew were resting on the deck, Womer wrote Lewis confided about his life at Yale, “Every time I say anything or do anything they ride me. I am tired of it and I am through.” Womer encouraged him to go back to college saying this was his first great crisis and he was running away. On the way to their bunks Lewis stopped Womer and asked, “Doc, will you pray for me?” The two knelt in the hay and went on (MS 82)
    He wrote his mother, “What faults & mistakes I have had last year & this summer, forget I pray you, I shall start in with renewed energy…next year I am to be 1st scholar in my class! Would you not be proud of your western son if he should take 1st place in scholarship? At least, I will keep my place on the “Honor Roll” Then—I must be striding on to the chief editorship of both the Lit & Courant—either one of which is considered as one of the academic honors. Besides this I hope to take a more active part in YMCA work. Whether I do this or not one thing is certain—I shall endeavor never to use a single “swear word”—not even the convenient damn—or use anything save the purest English. The need of this has as never before been enforced on my attention by the foul mouthed cattlemen ….Be glad that I have taken this trip if only for the reason that it has made me see how fortunate I have been to have such parents, home, college & friends… I am learning to get along with men better—to jolly them—or the opposite—an art in which Claude is such an adept—though of course I can never approach to him in it….Though I have saved no money, as yet, however I feel that my vacation has been far from wasted; and that I have taken a good course under that excellent teacher experience.”

    Professor’s Pet
    Lewis considered transferring from Yale to Harvard many times. He believed Harvard cost less, had a richer history and better libraries and might be more open to a radical like himself. He might have heard of Harvard Professor William James’s 1903 speech wHere he said, “Here we have thought but no school; at Yale a school, but no thought. Our undisciplinable are our proudest products.” The Yale student was conventional, respectful and accepting [WORD O.K.?] of upper-middle-class values. At Harvard, Lewis would have found individuality and political radicalism were accepted. ( MS 128 ? ) In the end, he told his mother he looked at Harvard with “great affection” and might attend graduate school there, but the connections he was making at Yale were much stronger now. From his earliest days at Yale, Lewis impressed the faculty in theIR classrooms, visited their offices, took long walks with them and had dinner with them at the Hofbrau. Feeling more at home at Yale, Lewis made lasting friendships with professors Chauncey Brewster Tinker and William Lyon Phelps.
    On his first days of teaching English at Yale in September 1903, Professor Tinker walked across the campus courtyard when he was accosted by this tall, gangling, red-headed boy from Minnesota running toward him and shouting, “Are you my prof? My name is Harry Lewis.”
    “Yes, I think I have you on my list,” answered Tinker.
    “How about this fellow Yeeets?” asked an excited Lewis about the poet William Butler Yeats, who was scheduled to speak that night.
    “He is an Irish poet, and his name is pronounced Yates. You had better go and hear him.” Lewis did just that and was profoundly influenced by Yeats, who he said was the only person writing “real poetry”. (SLD Nov. 17 1903) This was the start of a literary friendship.
    Tinker was born in Auburn, Maine, in 1876. Like Lewis he lost his mother at an early age. His pastor father, who graduated from Yale in 1868, died when Tinker was 12. In Tinker’s classes, Lewis was the first to raise his hand and the first to volunteer to recite and was always going to the professor with questions and comments after class. Students criticized him for staying after class with questions and comments.
    Lewis’s friend Leonard Bacon wrote that Tinker was the best lecturer at Yale for 30 years. His famous course, Johnson and His Circle was not so much a course but a living experience, like a journey in a beautiful and exciting country. He drew on every art form known to the actor. He was more than a magnificent teacher; he was a magnificent friend.”
    Of Lewis, Tinker told the attendees at a 1952 meeting of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, “He was my best student, and my eager helper. He enjoyed all the work and wanted to recite most of the time. This thirst was hydropic. He and I loved the same things. When he left me after one of these interviews, I was no better than a deflated balloon, his enthusiasm won me, and we became good friends. This enthusiasm I shall always remember as his first and most conspicuous quality, and I am glad to have known him in his youth when the skies glowed with the dawn of a glad new day.” (Tinker) Lewis liked visiting Tinker’s office with its two large book cases filled with classic books, a Turkish rug on the floor and a small crucifix and pictures of great cathedrals on the wall. (SLD Jan 29, 1904) While the two didn’t share similar views on politics and religion they were both enthusiastic about literature.
    Tinker was considered one of Yale’s most brilliant lecturers. His portrait hangs today in Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library where the Lewis collection of books and papers are kept today. Tinker was a founder of the Yale Library Associates in 1930 and became the Keeper of the Books. Professor Henry Seidel Canby notes that Lewis and Tinker had “ignitable minds which would explode at anything cheap or false. Lewis derived his emotional consents from nature and Tinker from Doctor Johnson and the Word of God as validated by the Anglican Church.” Canby believed Lewis might have had a “face of boilerplate, but his mental skin was as a sensitive as a baby’s”. He wrote Lewis’s abilities for dialogue were developing while he was in college. Once at his house, Lewis took on the dual roles in of an imaginary conversation between Shakespeare and Ben Jonson. He played Jonson the patronizing pompous highbrow and Shakespeare the popular, quizzical writer. (HS Canby 307-9)
    Tinker marveled at the unpredictability and broad scope of Lewis’s mind, “To fit him into a category or to look for any principle that governed his behavior was to discover that nothing would serve to define him. The conventions and restrictions of good society—especially of good collegiate society—were offensive to him. His abiding temptation was to undermine them and blow them at the moon. He might in that process spread a good deal of discomfort and make the judicious grieve, but at least life ceased at once to be commonplace and dull.”
    Lewis also became friends with Professor William Lyon Phelps, known as Bill, who grew up in New Haven, obtained a PhD from Yale in 1891 and began teaching English and European Literature at Yale in 1903 where he would teach for 41 years. The inspirational orator became a celebrity professor with a nationally syndicated column and his own radio program. His traveling Town Hall Lectures attracted an average of 1,000 people, and his Sunday afternoon sermons at the Huron City Methodist Episcopal Church near his vacation home in Huron City, Michigan attracted so many people the church had to be enlarged, twice. He wrote several books and critiques of famous authors. In 1938, Life Magazine considered Phelps “America’s foremost promoter of the humanities.” Phelps' courses became the most popular courses on campus. His engaging speaking style and personal involvement in his subject endeared him to his students. He shared stories of traveling America and Europe to meet with famous authors. (Life Dec 5, 1938)
    Phelps remembered that Lewis “was not disliked in College, but was regarded with amiable tolerance as a freak. He took not the slightest interest in the idols of the place—athletics, societies, and so on: nor did he care to ‘make’ any of the positions in extracurricular activities that are rewarded with social distinction. He was a complete and consistent individualist, going his own way, and talking only about things that interested him. It was a pleasure to me to see a lad who thought for himself.” (WLP page 117)
    Lewis wrote of Phelps while taking his seventeenth century English class, “Billy, sparkling, charming, ubiquitous supervisor. Billy made frequent puns & lead songs with a sound voice”. (SL 04/12/08) Leonard Bacon said Phelps could be dogmatic and argumentative yet kind and encouraging. “He would walk across campus to tell you that he liked something you had written in the Lit or the Courant,” said Bacon. Lewis recorded that the two went on a sociological expedition to study humanity in a saloon on lower State street in New Haven drinking “vile ale” and smoking Sweet Caporal cigarettes. SLD April 23, 1904
    Tinker and Phelps didn’t agree with Lewis’s political ideas and rebellion against religion yet they appreciated his creative mind and intellectual spirit. Not all professors appreciated Lewis’s beliefs or exuberance. In an Athenian drama class, he became over excited while reciting from Oedious Rex. The professor rebuked him saying, “Lewis! You will please translate like a gentleman, not like a cheap actor.” (MS 71)

    Unknown Undergraduate
    In the spring of his junior year, the five men with the most published pieces in the Lit were named to the editorial board. Lewis’s ambitious submissions of poems and prose paid off. While he had the most rejections he managed to rank third in the most accepted works. He had acquired the nickname “God Forbid” as a freshman when he played a prosecuting attorney in a mock trial shouting, “God forbid that this villain should go free.” Now people were saying “God forbid that Lewis should ever make the Lit.” He edited submitted copy, assisted writers and wrote the Editor’s Table, a regular column at the end of the publication. He won a spot on the Courant but declined it, allowing his friend William Rose Benet to get the position.
    While still a radical outcast, he gained respect and authority as a Lit editor and he developed a small group of like-minded literary friends who cared more about ideas than their social standing. In June of 1906 he wrote a “constructive essay” for the Lit titled the “Unknown Undergraduates” where he spoke to the value of outcasts like himself.
    He asks who is the man on campus to be the most admired? He suggests it could be the man who is little known, the man who has had to struggle, THE man of boorish habits who might have come from an abandoned New England farm with, “no honors, no prizes, no position, no popularity.” He asks if the best athlete was really the student mowing lawns on Whitney Avenue to pay his way through college rather than the captain of a rowing team. Just possibly the heeler chasing stories for the News may be stronger than the champion fencer. He reminded his readers that, “the heretics of each age, the men with outlandish ideas and customs have often become the heroes of the next.”

    Going Socialist
    After his second cattle boat voyage in 1906, Lewis returned to Yale less enthusiastic than he had in 1904. He wrote he was bored “with years of sitting in classrooms sucking in secondhand wisdom.” He skipped classes and spent time trying to sell his writings. Updegraff wanted him to join in a new, more sophisticated Yale Monthly Magazine, but Lewis stayed with the Lit. Despite articles from Phelps, Jack London and Lewis, Updegraff’s Yale Monthly failed. (NH Register) With Updegraff out of money and Lewis ready for a change, the two dropped out of Yale in October to become janitors at Upton Sinclair’s Helicon Hall, an artistic commune. Lewis fell in love and became engaged to Sinclair’s secretary Edith Summers. After six weeks of being janitors and not writers, Lewis and Updegraff left to make their way as writers in New York City. The two found a cold water flat in the rundown Gashouse District of the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Updegraff found a job counting screws in an electrical factory, and Lewis did the housekeeping duties and wrote.
    In March, Summers found Lewis a job at the Transatlantic Tales translating German and French books and articles into English that he found very confining. While his editor Arthur Sullivant Hoffman felt he did good work another editor described him as “a high-strung, nervous, tempestuous fellow, who made swift movements with his hands and talked like a blue streak… who banged doors and lost his temper at the telephone and seemed out of place, cooped up in an office. He was always longing to be off somewhere. He resented four walls and a roof more than anyone I have ever known; yet he had the will to work.” He would escape on his lunch hours to Bryant Park where he sat and read Thoreau. (RL 27)
    Updegraff remembered coming home one evening and tracking mud across Lewis’ scrubbed floor. Lewis burst into a rage, grabbed a carving knife and threw it at Updegraff. Fortunately, the knife missed its mark and stabbed a door instead.
    “My God!” cried Lewis. “I might have been hanged for murder!”
    “Yes,” growled Updegraff, “and I might be dead!” (NH Register)
    The winter of 1907 was a winter of discontent for Harry Sinclair Lewis as he became restless and wanted a change. In November he gave his job to Updegraff, then broke up with Summers, who began dating Updegraff. Later Summers and Updegraff entered into a common law marriage, moved to the Berkshires where they had two children before separating. (Laurel Callan ….) Broken hearted, depressed and unable to make a living writing, Lewis considered taking a job at Stokes and Company Publishing, going back to Yale or sailing steerage to Panama seeking adventure, work and story material. Panama won.
    During his 20 days in Panama, Lewis didn’t find work, took extensive notes and wrote little vignettes about the people. He again debated between going onto California, enrolling at Harvard or returning to Yale. Through a chance encounter, he accepted an offer to ride stowaway first-class back to New York. By December 17 he was back in New Haven staying with Paul Hilsdale from Sauk Centre and planning his course work. When his parent’s learned he was back in school they sent him $50 and wrote saying we have “great faith in you and your future.”
    A Yale man again
    Lewis was much more aware of who he was and what he wanted when he returned from Panama in December 1908 than he was as a wide-eyed freshman of 1903. He was accepted back to Yale by a special faculty vote with “Good old Tink” and “St. Billy” speaking for him. (SLD 08 ?) His plan was to cram his entire senior year into six months of study keeping him so he could remain a member of the class of ’07. Lewis spoke of these months as “his best in college.” With his own class graduated, he was not required to go to chapel, was free equally of class companionships and class ambitions, practically in the status of a graduate student, and enjoyed it.” (MS 128 )
    He had considered doing something like this in 1905, writing, “Twould be great to do 23 months work in 5 & graduate this year! I often grow weary of wasting so much of my time as I do here.” (SLD Feb Mon 6, 1905) He wasn’t about to waste any time in his senior year limiting his activities to studying, working as a reporter, editing for the Lit, and tutoring. Mentoring young heelers and at the Lit and tutoring students brought him a handful of treasured intellectual friendships.
    Lewis found a room at a boarding house at 14 Whitney Ave managed by a bawdy, gossipy Irish woman named Mrs. Quinn and he saloon keeper husband who Lewis thought was “Dickensique”. Lewis jotted sketchy notes on the people in the boarding house. There was the man who rented a room while his wife was away. It was believed he entertaining women in his room because of all the squeaking noises. There was the 16-year-old Marian Sturdovant with a creamy complexion, tender little form, nice legs and a “bucolic slowness of mind” who read a marriage book because she was recently engaged. Mrs. Quinn said her ma told fortunes and her idle pa went around barefoot. Lewis got into trouble with Mrs. Quinn for using two much hot water for bathing more than once a week and cigarette burns in the rug in his room. Lewis lived in boarding houses for much of his early years and they all showed up in his early novels.
    Fellow students knew that Lewis did his homework and that he was willing to help others with their work. He had hoped he could tutor students for money but ended up doing it for free. Future U.S. Steel executive Irving S. Olds spent more time with extracurricular activities then his classwork. Lewis was glad to give him a summary of day’s assignments before the two went to class. Olds remembered, “I have always felt a deep debt of gratitude to him for his sympathetic friendship and for the help which he volunteered. “
    Olds speculated “It is my belief that Red at heart craved popularity, admiration, and social recognition, and that his failure to attain what he desired in these directions explains to a considerable degree his rebelliousness and his apparent hostility to those who should have been close to him as friends and loyal supporters. Lewis’s gawkiness and somewhat forbidding facial appearance unquestionably constituted real obstacles in the way of attainment of general social acceptance in his earlier years and may well have colored and distorted his subsequent outlook on life.” (MS pg 94)
    Humanity vs Humanities
    The intellectual life Lewis missed at Yale in 1903 came alive for him in 1908. Students looked up to him. He enjoyed the company and confidences of some of the nation’s leading thinkers and English professors. Tinker and Phelps brought him into faculty politics. In May Lewis began “butting into College Faculty politics” by promoting his friend Arthur Upson to fill a vacant instructorship on the Yale English faculty. Upson was on the faculty at the University of Minnesota and gaining national attention with his published poems. Lewis had been writing to Upson while he was still in high school. Lewis lobbied a half dozen faculty members who agreed Upson would be a good addition to the staff. Phelps offered Upson an PhD fellowship and instructorship but Upson declined because of his father’s battle with cancer. Then Lewis was told he was also a candidate for the position. He had given up any idea of become a doctor or preacher but the idea of being a college English professor intrigued him and he applied for a fellowship.
    In his last days at Yale, Lewis described a parade of senior society candidates, wearing derbies on tap day and showing “enormous tension”. He wrote tapped juniors, “stomping in unison, faces front, pale in arc lit” were a scene of “dread mysteries & whory [sic] antiquities of Yale Senior Societies.” (SLD Spring 1908)

    Lewis obtained his degree in June 1908 with the highest scores GRADES? of his college career. He gained permission to avoid the Class of '08 commencement and remain in the Class of '07. He was still named the "most eccentric" member of '08. Twenty years later he lost his eccentric status as the Yale Alumni Weekly declared he was a "striking illustration of how a Yale education may be of service to talent of the vigorous, forthright variety as well as to that of a precious or academic stripe.” (Schorer 103) English Professor Henry Seidel Canby wrote in his memoir that Lewis was, “a nonconformist, getting what he could—and he got a great deal—from that stronghold of intelligent conformity where radicals, once they are accepted as Yale men, can say or do what they please.”

    Yale was a major turning point in this young man’s life. He went from being a small town boy to a worldly young man having traveled to Europe and Central America, he had fallen in love, got engaged and lost that love, he switched writing from poetry to prose, from a muscular Christian to an angry agnostic, from a moderate Republican to a flaming Socialist. He met many of the leading politicians, actors, theologians and thinkers of his day. While he would always be an awkward, over zealous, small town boy, he gained a knowledge of how to handle himself and what kind of writer he would be.
    Lewis gave up the idea of a fellowship saying farewell to Yale in his diary with a salute across the page reading, “Humanity out weighs the humanities /oh hell!”
    When Lewis was given an honorary Doctor of Letters degree in 1936, Professor William Lyon Phelps told the crowd: “In the renaissance of creative literature, in which the twentieth century graduates of Yale have played, such as important part in poetry, fiction, drama, the most conspicuous in this brilliant company is Sinclair Lewis. At the beginning of this century many Yale men would have said, ‘It Can’t Happen Here,’ but is has, and we are glad and proud that the only American winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature is one of our own sons, Sinclair Lewis.
    When Lewis visited Yale in the summer of 1947, his secretary Barnaby Conrad, class of 1944, recalled that Lewis had expected to find a bunch of Babbitts. instead he found many old friends and made some new ones, “He was gay and enthusiastic. He’d had a wonderful time, had seen his old friends and met some new ones, and found them not only unbabbitty but extremely interesting. I’m sure that Lewis never felt so close to Yale and his class as that weekend.” (Yale News 3-22-51)
    In the fortieth annual report of the class of 1907, Lewis wrote, “As to general status, my teeth, hair, and ability to sit up after midnight are about as shot to hell as those of the rest of the Class, but I still, with all the youthful violence I had in 1907, dislike all the pompous heads of all institutions—political, financial, literary, ecclesiastical, educational, social, and Social…”

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