Who Is Sinclair Lewis and Why is He Important to Central Minnesota?

Did you know that we recently had a scholar visiting SCSU from China to study Sinclair Lewis? Read more about her time with us here and continue reading to find out more about Sinclair Lewis!

Well, who is he? If you’re from central Minnesota, I’m fairly confident you’ve at least heard of the man. If you’re not from here, you might not know why he is so important to central Minnesotans, especially Sauk Centre residents!

Sinclair Lewis (full name – Harry Sinclair Lewis) was born February 7, 1885 in Sauk Centre, Minnesota, the most Scandinavian part of America (at that time). His father was a country doctor. Sinclair writes about his childhood, “Until I went East to Yale University I attended the ordinary public school, along with many Madsens, Olesons, Nelsons, Hedins, Larsons. Doubtless it was because of this that I made the hero of my second book, The Trail of the Hawk, a Norwegian, and Gustaf Sondelius, of Arrowsmith, a Swede – and to me, Dr. Sondelius is the favorite among all my characters” (The Nobel Prize).

After public school, Lewis attended Yale University. Lewis claims the only real writing he did during his time at Yale was writing for the Yale Literary Magazine. Interestingly, most of the stories he wrote for this magazine were boring romantic stories. Lewis himself finds his earlier writings interesting when looking at his later writing. He ponders, “Whether imaginary castles at nineteen lead always to the sidewalks of Main Street at thirty-five, and whether the process might be reversed, and whether either of them is desirable, I leave to psychologists” (The Nobel Prize).

After graduating from Yale in 1907, Lewis worked as a reporter and editor. Later, he wrote for popular magazines such as The Saturday Evening Post and Cosmopolitan but always wanted to be a serious novelist. In 1914, he published his first novel, Our Mr. Wrenn which received favorable criticism but few readers. In 1920, Lewis’ literary reputation was established with the publication of Main Street. It is told from the perspective of Carol Kennicott, an Eastern girl married to a Midwestern doctor who settles in the fictional town of Gopher Prairie, Minnesota. Gopher Prairie is inspired and modeled after Lewis’ hometown of Sauk Centre.

Much of the success of this novel came from Lewis’ accurate use of local speech, customs and social amenities. According to Britannica.com, “The satire is double-edged—directed against both the townspeople and the superficial intellectualism that despises them. In the years following its publication, Main Street became not just a novel but the textbook on American provincialism” (The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica).

After Main Street, Lewis led a busy life. He married Dorothy Thompson in 1928 in England, travelled a lot, but claims his travels were quite boring, and in 1930, became the first American to win the Nobel Prize in Literature. He died in Rome, Italy on January 10, 1951, just a month shy of his 66th birthday. If you would like to read more about Sinclair Lewis, check out his autobiographical narrative written for his winning of the Nobel Prize here, or click here to read a comprehensive biography written by the Encyclopaedia Britannica.

If Sinclair Lewis is interesting to you and you’re in the area, we at the English department would like to encourage you to check out Sauk Centre and all things Sinclair Lewis there.

Here are some of our favorite Sinclair Lewis sites!

  1. The Sinclair Lewis Boyhood Home – Lewis lived here from 1889 until 1902. You can take a tour of the home. The entire home has been restored to include antiques appropriate to the time period! For more information, click here!
  2. Gopher Prairie Inn – If you’re spending the night, check out the Gopher Prairie Inn! Now, even though I couldn’t find confirmation of this fact, but it seems logical to claim that the Gopher Prairie Inn was named after the Gopher Prairie town in Lewis’ Main Street. Either way, if you want to book a night, click here!
  3. Sinclair Lewis Avenue – If you’re looking for a nice drive through town, this is the avenue for you to take!
  4. Main Street – It’s hard to visit Sauk Centre without driving Main Street. Taking a trip down Main Street will make you feel like you’re driving through the past! See how many references to Sinclair Lewis you can find!

If you’re looking for other things to do in and around Sauk Centre, we recommend:

  1. Walking/Hiking/Biking on the Wobegon Trail
  2. Shopping along Main Street
  3. Viewing at movie at the Main Street Theatre
  4. Tasting some cheese at the Redhead Creamery
  5. Driving around Sauk Centre and admiring all the beautiful murals
  6. Grabbing a bite to eat at the Ding Dong Café

Let us know if you’ve ever been to Sauk Centre and what you love to do in the small town!

Works Cited:

The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. Sinclair Lewis. 3 Feb. 2020, www.britannica.com/biography/Sinclair-Lewis.

The Nobel Prize. The Nobel Prize in Literature 1930. 2020, www.nobelprize.org/prizes/literature/1930/lewis/biographical/.


Visiting Scholar from China Researches Sinclair Lewis at St. Cloud State

Dr. Chen in front of SCSU huskyCentral Minnesota’s literary claim to fame again attracted international attention this Spring. The author of the book Sinclair Lewis and American Popular Culture, Professor Ying Chen, came from the University of Inner Mongolia, China, to spend six months as a visiting scholar in the English Department in order to work with the Sinclair Lewis Papers in University Archives.

You won’t easily find her book on Amazon.com since it is written in Chinese, but Dr. Chen is an authority in, among other things, the reception of Nobel Laureate Lewis in China after the country’s turning to the outside world during the 1980s.

Despite disruptions to her library access during Spring 2020 from COVID-19, Dr. Chen forged ahead with three articles and her first Zoom presentation to the Sinclair Lewis Society of America. Her current research focuses on comparing the Lewis’s novel and play production versions of Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here. But she has made efficient use of archive time to collect electronic copies of all the documents our library holds relating to Lewis. Encountering these original papers has transformed her understanding of the novelist and enabled to discover many Sinclair Lewises in this one writer. “Before coming here, I thought of him as a hero – and now I see him as we are, ordinary people…You would think from his novels that he was very serious and skeptical, criticizing everything, but when you read his letters you find him like a kid looking for attention from others,” she added. She sees this youthful characteristic as admirable, as a driver of his open and exploring mind.

Dr. Chen in front of Ruby Cora Webster HallThe half year here, which included sitting in on TESL classes and Monica Pelaez’s advanced Literary Theory and Criticism course was a “very difficult but rewarding experience” during an era that showed both “the best and the worst of America in an important year in American history.” Dr. Chen expressed her thanks for all the support from English and from Tom Steman of Archives. The Center for International Studies assisted her with all the unexpected COVID paperwork.


When at her home university in the grasslands of Inner Mongolia, Dr. Chen teaches the extremely popular course, Introduction to Contemporary Writers in Foreign Cultures.

If you’d like to read more about Sinclair Lewis, a native to Sauk Centre, Minnesota (roughly 45 miles from SCSU), click here!

Dr. Monica Pelaez – Accomplished Faculty and Author

SCSU professor Monica PelaezSt. Cloud State University is proud to have Dr. Pelaez as a faculty member. She is a Professor of English and holds degrees from Princeton and Brown. Her primary field is nineteenth-century American poetry, and she has published on the work of Emily Dickinson, Edgar Allan Poe, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.



Published Books

Lyrical Liberators CoverLyrical Liberators documents the work of abolitionist poets who spoke out against slavery during an era when it could mean risking one’s life. It draws on archival research to recover their poems from the periodicals where they originally appeared, and considers how they succeeded in rallying public opinion by relying on a genre that was in many respects more influential than any other at this time. This collection illustrates the numerous intersections across mid-nineteenth-century American literature, history, politics, religion, and media to offer an overview of the various discourses that shaped the seminal period leading up to the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment abolishing slavery in 1865.

Consider supporting Dr. Pelaez by purchasing Lyrical Liberators here!

Courses Taught

Dr. Pelaez shares her expertise with undergraduate and graduate students through the various classes she teaches. She brings a breadth of knowledge to our students!

Her courses include

  1. Early American Literature through 1830 (ENGL 310) Considers the work of adventurers and colonists who wrote to edify and instruct English and American readers. Focuses on how Puritan divines directed their constituents in the ways of the godly. Includes readings in captivity narratives that detail local interactions with Native Americans, and addresses the role of slavery in early America. Examines the circumstances and texts that were integral to the American Revolution. The goal is to comprehend how the American literary tradition was initiated and what this tells us about the foundations of American culture.
  2. American Literature 1830-1900 (ENGL 311) Covers a range of 19th-century American texts, focusing in particular on how the literary formation and representation of self-reliance assumed importance in the face of rapid social and economic change. Considers how introspection and transcendentalism became dominant concerns in response to the destabilizing effects of secularization and industrialization. Addresses the sociocultural impact of the Civil War. Authors include Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry David Thoreau, Edgar Allan Poe, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Walt Whitman, and Emily Dickinson. Readings in various genres will offer a range of perspectives on a seminal period in American literary history.
  3. African American Literature (ENGL 216) Selections of literature by African American authors ranging from the 18th to the 20th century. Readings include lyrics, memoirs, essays, poems, short stories, and novels covering key movements in this literary tradition. Traces how the African American voice developed through different eras to build an awareness of the influences and motivations that informed these texts.
  4. Introduction to English Studies (ENGL 300) Selections of literary criticism, poetry, and fiction introducing key movements and genres in English Studies. Texts include essays by Michel Foucault and Virginia Woolf, fiction by James Joyce and Raymond Carver, and poetry by Robert Frost and Sylvia Plath. Traces the development of distinct literary movements and builds an awareness of the terminology that is used in the discipline.
  5. Literary Theory and Criticism (ENGL 402/502/602) Focuses on the concepts that apply to the writer’s creative process, the various purposes of literary art, form, and technique, and the responses that literature elicits. Selections cover key movements in the field.
  6. Introduction to Poetry (ENGL 481/581) Introductory survey of poetry ranging from the Elizabethan to the modern era. Develops an understanding of how and what poetry communicates by exploring distinct poetic movements and their corresponding terminology. Looks closely at formal elements of poetry, including meter and rhyme. Focus on poetic language and its thematic and structural evolution through the centuries in both England and America.
  7. Introduction to Graduate Studies in English (ENGL 606) Focuses on English research methods and the application of theories in the fields of literature, language, and writing. Selections of literary criticism, poetry, and fiction introduce key movements and genres.
  8. Seminar in American Literature of the Later Nineteenth Century (ENGL 611) Addresses the causes and repercussions of the American Civil War as reflected in literature of the era. Readings in a variety of genres that responded to wartime issues, including poems, short stories, speeches, and a novel. Covers sentimental and realist perspectives. Explores how some writers served political rhetoric while others challenged the status quo. Authors include Walt Whitman, Herman Melville, Emily Dickinson, Stephen Crane, and Ambrose Bierce.

For more information about any of these courses, please see the SCSU University Catalog.

List of Publications

  • Lyrical Liberators: The American Antislavery Movement in Verse, 1831-1865, Ohio University Press, 2018.
  • “‘A Love of Heaven and Virtue’: Why Longfellow Sentimentalizes Death,” Reconsidering Longfellow, ed. Christoph Irmscher and Robert Arbour, Farleigh-Dickinson University Press, 2014.
  • “The Sentimental Poe,” The Edgar Allan Poe Review 8.2, fall 2007.
  • “Reversing the Irreversible: Dickinson and the Sentimental Culture of Death,” Studies in Irreversibility: Texts and Contexts, ed. Benjamin Schreier, Cambridge Scholars Press, 2007.