Most serious book and literature people have a list of classics that they haven’t, for whatever reason, read yet. Some also have a second list, of titles that they should have read in school, and then later in life picked up to revisit. The problem with education, of course, is that it is wasted on the young, who may not have the life experience to appreciate figures in literature which they haven’t yet encountered in the real world. So although I came to Sinclair Lewis’ legendary salesman and booster, Babbitt, later than I should have done, I think that the book resonated more with me in my mid-thirties than it would have done when I was a callow youth of seventeen, who avoided American literature at every turn (for reasons we need not bother to go into at this point). I don’t know exactly what it was that triggered the desire to read Babbitt, maybe it was something else that I was reading that referenced it. Regardless, I picked it up one day, and I’ve been reading Sinclair Lewis ever since, slowly working my way through his novels and short stories, and learning something about the man, his life, and the times in which he lived along the way.
As readers will know, Lewis’ writing could be extremely uneven in quality. Some of his novels display their faults more readily than others, particularly the later ones, which suffered from a number of failings (some of which were due to Lewis’ problems with alcohol) in the 1930s and beyond. That is not to say that his later novels were entirely without merit; 1935’s It Can’t Happen Here and 1945’s Kingsblood Royal (qv) are two examples of powerful books written on topical and controversial themes. But the big five of Main Street (1920) (qv), Babbitt (1922), Arrowsmith (1925), Elmer Gantry (1927), and Dodsworth (1929) are still considered to be the best of Lewis’ “problem novels,” and are to date the only five enshrined in the venerable Library of America series. This selection overlooks his other two novels of the ‘20s, 1924’s rather unfortunate Mantrap, and 1928’s deeply funny (and to my mind Babbitt-esque) The Man Who Knew Coolidge (qv). Lewis’s Jazz Age novels are not quite the same animals as the works of Sherwood Anderson or F. Scott Fitzgerald, for example, although some of the slangy usages put into the mouths of their characters are the same; where Lewis expressed his thoughts on the different ways in which Americans were being taken for a ride, Fitzgerald was mainly concerned that the ride ended at a decent party with plenty of booze, and the Volstead Act be damned.
Lewis, despite his 1920s successes, was a working but largely unrecognized writer in the 1910s as well. His first novel, the juvenile-oriented Hike and the Aeroplane, was published pseudonymously in 1912, and his first “proper novel,” Our Mr. Wrenn, appeared in 1914. When these first efforts and their successors were not immediately successful, Lewis attempted to ensure a steady stream of funds from short stories, sold to organs like the Harpers, the American Magazine, Saturday Evening Post, and Metropolitan Magazine (from which the tales in If I Were Boss were culled). Lewis’s short stories are generally devoid of some of the flaws of his later novels, and were published into the 1940s. Collections of Sinclair Lewis’s short stories, however, including I’m A Stranger Here Myself (edited by his first biographer, Mark Schorer, and published in 1962) and Go East, Young Man (which includes some, but not all, of the same stories as the earlier volume, as well as some other extras, and was published in 2005), both neglect the “business stories” which are the focus of this book. Lewis, who had worked in advertising and publishing, and had early and formative brushes with the “drummers,” or travelling salesmen, of the day, knew the characters about which he wrote very well. He was helped, as editor Anthony Di Renzo points out in his introduction, by the encouragement of Post editor George Horace Lorimer, whose magazine “single-handedly created the market for business fiction” (Introduction, p. xx).
These stories are a fascinating repository of a type of Americana not otherwise well-known: the day-to-day life of workers in the world of business and advertising, almost a century before Mad Men would try to make advertising – or at least, advertising as it was in the 1960s – cool.
The stories in this volume include the following, with quick descriptions of each:
• Commutation: $9.17 (1915): In an effort to right a perceived injustice, Whittier J. Small fights against the train company that dominates his commute to and from the city. But his resistance will have unexpected repercussions.
• Nature, Inc. (1915): Real estate man William Packard visits Professor Tonson’s Colony, a retreat for healthy living that introduces him to the lovely Beulah, but won’t let him smoke, drink, or eat meat. A witty satire that shows today’s world of faddish diets and bonkers notions that there really is very little new under the sun.
• If I Were Boss (1916): This tale depicts the frustrations of one Charley McClure, who progresses from go-getter sales-type frustrated by his boss’s lack of vim, to taking on the role and boss himself, and learning that he must attempt to remain responsible to the company bottom line.
• Honestly — If Possible (1916): The firm of Hopkins & Gato is selling plots in the citrus paradise of Florida, and never mind if there isn’t a solitary orange tree to be found within fifty miles of the land for sale. Terry Ames is the unhappy copywriter charged with selling this unconvincing, orangeless world, and his life is further upset by the arrival of a new office worker, the seemingly tightly-wound Susan Bratt.
• A Story with a Happy Ending (1917): Leonard Price, a “colonel of business,” is persuaded to take on the recently widowed Mrs. Arroford in his department of the Magnus auto accessories company. As time and fortune reverse their roles, Price finds his preconceptions thrown out on their collective ears. Contains the fascinating line: “When the discerning historian of 3000 A.D. writes of this century he will give less space to the Great European War than to the development of gas motors.”
• The Whisperer (1917): There is a serpent in the bosom of the Bowen Drug Manufacturing Company, attempting to establish itself in the center seat of power. But is Doctor R. Chester Doremus really the man pulling the strings? This is a fun tale with a great twist. Lewis would later reuse the name “Doremus” for the first name of Jessup, the newspaper editor who struggles against American fascism in It Can’t Happen Here.
• Snappy Display (1917): The first of the stories featuring Lancelot Todd, doyen of advertising, quick with the snappy remark and the clever (well… clever-ish) quip); he is always trying to put one over on someone. When he sets his romantic sights on Miss Cordelia Evans, a society fixture who has come out in favor of women’s suffrage, he does so with his usual dishonesty and insincerity. This time, though, it will come back to bite him.
• Slip It to ‘Em (1918): Lancelot Todd appears once again, this time of the former Ballard coach works, which is now getting into the motor car business with a new model, the Vettura. And although he advertises the car’s praises before it is even built, the first models are surprisingly successful. It is only when Todd is left in charge and begins to skim off the profits that things go downhill. Yet his praise for his own work backfires, appropriately enough, when the reliability of the car is put on the line to satisfy the “dowager widow,” Mrs. Gansevoort Cole.
• Getting His Bit (1918): Subtitled “Lancelot Todd and Prudent Patriotism,” this episode has Lewis’s anti-hero attempting to profit as a fake war correspondent on a lecture tour, using stories that he has stolen from a Canadian soldier that he met on holiday. However, Todd finds that the U.S. Army has its own particular way of dealing with war profiteers of any stripe, including his.
• Jazz (1918): The final Lancelot Todd story in this volume finds Todd put in charge of a “house organ,” that is to say, a company newsletter intended for employees of a large chain of grocers. Handing the work over to an inventive, cash-strapped, and habitually drunk writer called William John Buckingham, Todd sits back to rake in the profits but encounters unexpected difficulties when Buckingham’s creation, Uncle Jerry Ginger, demands a life of his own.
• Bronze Bars (1919): Mr. Valory is a bank teller, of the sort you might remember if you are of a certain age to recall when banks were solid, stately institutions with brass and bronze and marble fixtures and fittings. When he meets Miss Marcella Page, the apparently feckless girl who opens an account at his window, though, he finds his preconceptions about people and their money dangerously mistaken.
• Way I See It (1920): An interesting story, told from the points of view of several different characters, who discuss one another with varying degrees of honesty, and the career of Mr. Ray Moller with varying levels of frankness. Ends with a curious epilogue which is oddly satisfying.
• The Good Sport (1920): Paul Banning whirls Emily off her feet and marries her, but quickly proves himself to be too feckless to hold a job for any span of time, with the blame always falling on someone else. When Emily invests her inheritance in his proposed business, it is just the first of many disasters which lead her into working herself to support them. Does that make Emily “a good sport?” Features a return to the town of Vernon, the burg in which “Way I See It” is set, with several of the same characters reappearing.
• A Matter of Business (1921): Owner of a stationer’s business, Candee becomes obsessed with the primitive, Arts and Crafts-style dolls crudely made by the immigrant sculptor Emile Jumas. Determined to push them in his shop, he finds little popular response to the dolls, which fascinate him. But when he is offered the chance to clear an easy thousand dollars by selling the bland, cheap, Skillyoolly dolls instead, he can’t shake the thought of the crude, colorful Jumas dolls. Will he prioritize business over art?
• Number Seven to Sagapoose (1921): Travelling on an obscure train with an inconvenient stopover, Mr. Rabbitt is a moderately unsuccessful travelling salesman who, in the course of his career, unwittingly inspires the careers of a famous surgeon, a powerful politician, and a woman who leaves an unhappy marriage.
The stories also preview some of the ideas to which Lewis would return later in his career. The loquacious, mouth-never-closed salesman Lowell Schmaltz of The Man Who Knew Coolidge is basically seen in an earlier incarnation in the four interconnected stories of Lancelot Todd, although Schmaltz is perhaps a more sympathetic character. Mrs. Arroford, the heroine of “A Story with a Happy Ending” shares much with the character of Una Golden in Lewis’ 1917 novel, The Job. The theme of escape to a simpler life on holiday in Canada that was the centerpiece of Mantrap is alluded to several times, and Lewis’ fascination with cars plays out in several stories, including “A Story with a Happy Ending,” “Slip It to ‘Em,” and “Way I See It,” in tandem with 1919’s Free Air (qv). And, of course, there are the prototype Babbitts everywhere: the book is alive with characters who, in combination, emerged from the Lewis brain as George F. Babbitt of Zenith, Winnemac. Lewis even invents an early prototype of Zenith, the city of Vernon (its state is not given, but the town is definitely “out west”). This is a world of possibilities, of a bright future for America, even in the face of the Great War. It is a world of the new crashing into the old, of automobiles and new modern conveniences, of gramophones but no wirelesses (not until about 1922 did the radio cease to be a hobbyist toy), of Chautauquas and boosterism and the Y.M.C.A. (as something other than a punchline relating to the Village People).
The voices of the businessmen (and businesswomen, of which there are a few, even at this relatively early date), and particularly the salesmen, ring largely authentic, if obviously slightly archaic. Years ago, when I worked in the graphics department of a small advertising firm, it was the same sort of “jollying” and “kidding” salesmen who were the bane of my rather serious, stiff-collared existence, and I heard these voices once again, with trenchant clarity, in reading some of these tales. Although the details of what is being sold may have changed in one hundred years, the personality and character of a certain sort of career salesman has not.
What lets If I Were Boss down, though, is the abysmal copy-editing. The book does not appear to have been proofed at all, and with Lewis’s sometimes idiosyncratic representations of American speech of the ‘10s and ‘20s, this can be a very real problem. Words are sometimes completely missing from sentences, leaving the reading to work out from context what should have been said. Spellings of proper names vary, sometimes from paragraph to paragraph. This is either the fault of the original publications (and more errors do appear to be in the four stories sourced from Metropolitan Magazine than in the stories from the Saturday Evening Post), the fault of the conversion process (either scanned using OCR or typed from original copies, nothing is said in the introduction), but mostly, it’s a fault of editing and the publisher. And the publisher particularly, Southern Illinois University Press, hopefully learned something from this debacle, about the care required to produce a worthy and worthwhile book. Particularly in a somewhat scholarly critical work, it’s the editor’s job to either clearly annotate the text where there’s a reading problem, or to fix it for future reference and make his apologies elsewhere. Di Renzo has not done either of these things, and what would be a fascinating book for readers interested in early 20th century America is sadly and unjustly diminished because of it.
Sinclair Lewis’ short stories sometimes display a different side to the man and his writing; “The Willow Walk” is still regularly anthologized and cited as a classic of the art. The tales in If I Were Boss serve a different master: they bring to life a forgotten corner of the American experience. It’s worth ploughing through this volume, editorial disasters and all, for the insights both into Lewis and American popular writing that can be gained. Recommended, with reservations, with four stars for content and two-and-a-half for shoddy publishing.
Reviewed 27 January 2016.