Sinclair Lewis and the Great American Freedom of travel

Few novelists have explored the American mind and character as deeply and perceptively as Sinclair Lewis, who in 1930 became the first American to win the Nobel Prize for Literature.

The freedom of movement — the ability for Americans to travel — is, according to Lewis, one of the most important parts of the American psyche.

So says Professor  in a perceptive and entertaining essay on Lewis on the Public Domain Review website: American Freedom: Sinclair Lewis and the Open Road – The Public Domain Review

Lewis’ most affirmative vision of what he means by freedom is found in his novel Free Air, which was serialized in the Saturday Evening Post in the spring of 1919, the year before Main Street and Babbitt made him a household name. Free Air is the story of two young people, Milt and Claire. Milt is a small-town mechanic and garage owner, and Claire is from Long Island and in the middle of a coast-to-coast trip to Seattle with her father. . .

The travelers look for something new and different from what they have known and are ultimately disappointed in what they find. Small towns, big cities, and rural areas all seem the same as the places they had left.

Michels goes on to say

This is not just about travel; for Lewis, it is about positive freedom and control. He never presents train travel as especially desirable, constrained as it is to tracks, and his early love of planes is directed at those who can fly them. Americans are rightful captains and pilots, not passengers or spectators. He would have agreed with Thomas Wolfe, who, in You Can’t Go Home Again, posited: “Perhaps this is our strange and haunting paradox here in America — that we are fixed and certain only when we are in movement.” It is only when Wolfe’s protagonist George Webber arrives at a destination, that he feels a sense of homelessness. The expansive country and its prairie makes motion the most natural and comfortable condition.

Lewis wrote at a time when the automobile was expanding the meaning of travel for Americans and giving them more options and more control. The automobile did not invent the concept of “freedom of travel,” but it certainly enhanced the idea. It is now more than ever a part of the American mind.

Illustration: Sinclair Lewis and the American Road (copyright © 2018 by Jim Stovall)

 

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About Jim Stovall

Jim Stovall, a retired journalism prof, is now a novelist, self publisher, watercolorist, gardener, woodworker and beekeeper -- among others things.

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