The Man Who Knew Coolidge, by Sinclair Lewis: A Review

The Man Who Knew Coolidge, by Sinclair Lewis (Harcourt, Brace & Company, 1928)

The Man Who Knew Coolidge, by Sinclair Lewis (Harcourt, Brace & Company, 1928)

As far as I can recall, I’ve written all of two entries for Wikipedia. I gathered my resources and my notes, matched the format as best I could, and tried my damnedest to write coherently and in the approved style. To my knowledge, neither entry has had much subsequent editing (although they could certainly use some), so hopefully what I’ve done has been to create a good starting placeholder for someone who really knows what they are talking about. Not that I don’t, but…

Both of my articles were, of all things, about novels by Sinclair Lewis. I decided to write them because there were holes in the publication chronology, and initially I decided that it would be helpful to fill those in if I could. In each case, my method was limited to reading the books, reading the relevant sections of the Lewis biographies (2) that I own, and the critical works (3) that I also have, and then synthesizing a basic article. My thought was to provide a basis for future, more expert scholars to improve the articles at a later date. I still plan to do the same for some later Lewis novels which as yet do not have summaries, but those plans are subject to time. One of the books was one of Lewis’s worst, that being 1924’s Mantrap. The other was 1928’s The Man Who Knew Coolidge.

The Man Who Knew Coolidge is an odd duck of a book on many levels. When Lewis was writing it, he imagined that he had a gem set in comedy gold on his hands, a sort of light-hearted commentary on the events of the day, in the vein of Babbitt but much funnier. In a letter to his editor at Harcourt, he suggested that the words just flowed out of him. I suspect he was bewildered when it did not do as well as he had hoped, but as a successful writer, he quickly shrugged the disappointment off and moved on.

What’s odd about The Man Who Knew Coolidge is that, on my reading, I found that actually, it does work. It is a funny book, and one that made me laugh aloud more than once. And before you ask, no, I don’t typically just start laughing when I’m reading, unless it’s The Divine Wodehouse (then, all bets are off). But The Man Who Knew Coolidge is funny in a way that seems clever to me: most of the humor doesn’t require that the reader know anything about the 1920s, or Coolidge, or even Lewis’s other books (although that does help).

Spoiler Alert: This man never heard of Lowell Schmaltz in his life before.

Spoiler Alert: This man has never heard of Lowell Schmaltz in his life.

The book is divided into six parts, and begins with the title section, which was originally published in The American Mercury in 1927. The Man Who Knew Coolidge was adapted from a humorous monologue delivered by Lewis on several occasions during the writing of Elmer Gantry. Lowell Schmaltz is first presented as a traveling salesman who, on meeting a group of fellow travelers in a Pullman car, bends their ear with a tale of how he knows the President from his time at college with him. It is a long, rambling discourse, laced with the sort of homely, Midwestern wit that Lewis sometimes deployed in his books, but it establishes many of the tropes which the reader will repeatedly encounter through the remainder of the book. As the reader comes to see over the course of the narrative, Lowell Schmaltz is the classic “unreliable narrator.” Whether on a train journey (in Part 2’s “The Story by Mack McMack”), trying to wheedle a loan from a cousin (in Part 3’s “You Know How Women Are”), or explaining the previous conversation to his wife (in Part 4’s “You Know How Relatives Are”), Lowell Schmaltz demonstrates himself to be the archetypical salesman, saying whatever they think their audience wants to hear, and building lies upon truth as they go.

The final two parts of the book bring the “swan-song to Babbittism” to a climax. In Part 5, “Travel Is So Broadening,” Schmaltz and his wife have dinner in Zenith with none other than George Babbitt and his wife, and again, Schmaltz does all the talking. His discourse is a classic of the genre, as he recounts a trip from Zenith to Yellowstone (here I assume that, geographically, Winnemac is roughly where Minnesota and the Dakotas sit). The key to the story? The trip actually took Schmaltz no further than the Black Hills, and by the end of the evening, Schmaltz’s account hasn’t even gotten as far as that. In Part 6, “The Basic and Fundamental Ideals of Christian American Citizenship,” Schmaltz gives a presentation before the Men’s Club of the local Pilgrim Congregational Church. He approvingly notes the presence of both Dr. Elmer Gantry and Dr. Otto Hickenlooper in the audience before launching into a speech which is reminiscent of the “boosterism” of Babbitt, concerned as it is with “service and practicalness” to America. Schmaltz winds himself to dizzying heights by the time he reaches his entirely nonsensical motto: “Read widely, think scientifically, speak briefly, and sell the goods!”

The Man Who Knew Coolidge is not particularly well-regarded by Lewis scholars, and Lewis himself is often derided as a less-than-exemplary American author. And although his writing sometimes seems a bit chaotic, or slap-dash, at times, as in Coolidge, his wit was as sharp and accurate as any satirist. I think that this book deserves a wider audience, particularly among anyone interested in the 1920s, the novels of Sinclair Lewis, or early 20th century America. It’s not a perfect book, but it’s closer than you might think. Four stars.

Reviewed 3 November 2015.

Find your copy of The Man Who Knew Coolidge from booksellers around the world at AbeBooks.com (title links directly to search results).

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About Bill Bibliomane

Reader and writer, collector and cataloguer. Amateur mineralogist, astronomer, numismatist, philatelist: I have too many hobbies. I'm somewhat compulsive when it comes to book shopping. Fortunately for my budget, there are no bookshops near to my home. Unfortunately, I've discovered the Internet. I started out reviewing books for my own amusement. Now I've decided to assemble them on my own site.
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4 Responses to The Man Who Knew Coolidge, by Sinclair Lewis: A Review

  1. Sheila says:

    I’ve only read Main Street and loved his writing style in that one. I’ll have to look into this one now if there are laugh out loud moments. I also love the 1920s so I’ll look forward to traveling back in time with this.

    Like

    • I won’t say that Lewis was ever as funny as Wodehouse, that’s not the comparison I was making, of course. But there were definite audible chuckles. It’s more wry and whimsical than anything. Schmaltz is the archetypical salesman character, and he ends up being a buffoon. If you do read it, I’d be interested to know your reaction. I may just be weird, and the contemporary critics may have been right.

      Most of what Lewis wrote in the ’20s is worth reading, I think, even now. Fitzgerald is one view of the ’20s, dos Passos another, and so on, but I think Lewis’ voice, as halting and faltering as it sometimes was, is also important in understanding that time. I haven’t read Dodsworth yet, but of the others, the only one that I really regret – although it was strangely interesting, and I will do a full review at some point – was Mantrap.

      Thanks for reading and commenting!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: If I Were Boss: The Early Business Stories of Sinclair Lewis: A Review | Books, Reading, and Me: a bibliomane blog

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