Recently, while on a road trip across America, I stayed in a hotel haunted by the ghost of the Nobel-Prize-winning-author Sinclair Lewis. This was in the small town of Sauk Centre, Minn., in a four-story, turn-of-the century brick building called the Palmer House. Lewis, who grew up in Sauk Centre, worked at the Palmer House during his teens behind the cigar counter. The hotel’s website boasts that Lewis’s ghost has since been spotted throwing glasses in the lobby bar.
If you know anything about Sinclair Lewis, it isn’t difficult to picture him as a cursed, complaining specter. He had, by all accounts, a very unhappy time in Sauk Centre. Born Harry Sinclair Lewis to a stern and taciturn physician who didn’t relate to Lewis’s bookish, sensitive nature (“You boys will always be able to make a living,” Lewis’s father once told his other two sons, “But poor Harry, there’s nothing he can do.”) Lewis was a shy, strange, and often ridiculed little boy. His kind of fast-talking hyper-intelligence didn’t go over well in that farmland setting. He was derided by peers and elders alike for being “old-fashioned” and “queer.” It didn’t help that he was awkwardly tall, with bright red hair and acne all over his face. In 1901, he tried unsuccessfully to run away—hoping, he said, to join the Spanish-American War. He was 13.
In 1920, Lewis finally got his revenge on his hometown with the publication of his novel Main Street. By then he was a Yale graduate, married, and living in the rapidly-growing city of Washington, DC. The plot of the novel concerns a spirited, socially-minded young woman from St. Paul named Carol Kennicott, who is forced to move to a small Minnesotan town after marrying the town’s physician. She finds the place stifling and soul-crushing, the people gossip-prone and petty. Critics lauded the novel as a satirical send-up of provincial small-town life, and the book’s enormous success launched Lewis’s literary career. The book became so famous, in fact, that “Main Street” entered the cultural lexicon as a metonym for small-town life—one used to this day, though its meaning has shifted. Originally, the term was used pejoratively, denoting a backward, ignorant, isolated way of life. It wasn’t until the ’40s and ’50s, with the rise of small-town depictions in film and television, that the term began to accrue fond, nostalgic connotations.
At the time of the book’s publication, the citizens of Sauk Centre, recognizing themselves as real-life models for the novel’s more insipid characters, were enraged. The Sauk Centre Herald waited six months before mentioning the bestselling book. But gradually the town came to embrace Lewis’s novel. By the 1950s, Sauk Centre’s real-life Main Street had been recast as a tourist attraction.
Lewis published over 23 books and is best known today for Babbitt—another satirical novel that coined a new American phrase—but outside of the English classroom, his work has been largely forgotten. Meanwhile, suburban sprawl has all but done in the idea of a small town with a bustling city center. And yet, Sauk Centre still stands today, its Main Street largely intact.
Sauk Centre lies about a hundred miles west of Minneapolis, surrounded by cornfields and dairy farms and the occasional hay bale rolled up like an old carpet. Exiting off the I-94, there is the usual smattering of fast food chains, but another mile north along Highway 71 and the sight is impossible to miss: Sauk Centre’s “Original Main Street.”
I arrived early one Thursday evening. Not a single pedestrian strolled down Main Street; passing cars were rare and unhesitating as they passed. Most shops had already closed for the day—Bart’s Bakery, a Christian bookstore called Hidden Treasures, a family-owned department store called Mead’s. The only exception was the Main Street Theatre. Soon it was dark out and the theatre’s classic, turquoise marquee was illuminated with white and blue and orange blinking lights—the brightest attraction for a mile in either direction.
Milling about in the theatre lobby were three boys of middle-school age, wearing backpacks and cargo shorts, mashing the controls of an old Cruisin’ USA arcade game. I must have looked odd through the lobby windows, walking aimlessly by myself past nine o’clock. The boys stopped and stared at me. I am a small, boyish man with large glasses, not usually such a threatening sight. Experimentally, I raised my hand and waved. The boys laughed viciously. I ducked my head and scurried away.
On the way back to the hotel—a distance of only about 500 feet—I was nearly run down by a white Ford F-150. The truck was pulling onto Main Street as I was crossing the intersection. The driver of the truck, evidently not expecting to find anyone walking downtown, had to slam on his brakes to avoid hitting me. He held down his horn.
I swung around, spreading my arms. “What the hell?”
Inside the stopped truck were four large young men in white V-neck T-shirts. They flailed their arms out their windows and jeered back at me. I was still in their way.
Watching the truck veer around me and speed off, I thought of poor Sinclair Lewis and how he hated growing up in this small, closed-off place. I’d been in town for half an hour. Already I was starting to hate it, too.
The Sinclair Lewis Interpretative Center sits on the corner of Main and 12th, across the street from a Snap Fitness Center and a Dairy Queen. The squat little building is flat-topped and brutalist, more like a military bunker than a literary museum. A motion sensor sounded like an alarm as I entered the antechamber, where a bronzed bust of Sinclair Lewis’s scowling head was poised on a plinth.
That Friday morning, I was the museum’s only visitor. The guestbook hadn’t been signed in weeks.
“...[O]ut of this setting emerged a man of such independent spirit that he not only started a new era in literature—he forced Americans to take a new, more critical look at themselves,” read one of the museum’s exhibits. “Because of him, America will never be the same again.”
“I mean, his books just aren’t all that exciting to modern readers,” Andrea Kerfeld, the executive director of the Sauk Centre Chamber of Commerce, whose office shares the same building as the museum, told me a while later. She winced a little with guilt. “Frankly we’d do a lot better with a Brett Favre Museum, something like that. But it’s what we’ve got.”
Kerfeld, who’s 33 and a mother of three, has lived in Sauk Centre for her entire life, aside from her time in the National Guard. She spoke like a Minnesotan, with clipped vowels and a smirky tension at the corners of her mouth. She had choppy short dark hair with blonde-tipped bangs.
I thought of poor Sinclair Lewis and how he hated growing up in this small, closed-off place. I’d been in town for half an hour. Already I was starting to hate it, too.
“I guess it’s ironic that so much in our town is named after him. First because no one knows who he is anymore. Second because—well, it’s not like he exactly loved this place.”
Casually, I hoped, I brought up the men in the truck who’d harassed me.
Kerfeld snorted. “Ah, well, they were probably just getting off work from one of the welding plants,” she said. “It’s a small town—not a whole lot to do here. I remember when I was a teenager we used to cruise Main Street. Just drive up and down it, over and over again, smoking cigarettes just because we had nothing else to do.”
“Do people still shop on Main Street?” I asked. “I didn’t see many shops open.”
“A lot of the businesses have closed,” she said. “Mead’s survives because they have a loyal clientele. Everyone knows everyone here. But the Walmart on the edge of town has drawn a lot of new people away, that’s for sure.”
Kerfeld told me that she hasn’t read Sinclair Lewis in years, not since she was at Sauk Centre High School, where until a few years ago reading Main Street was a requirement for seniors. “The school administration finally put a stop to that,” she said. “Not much use to anyone—not anymore.”
Outside the public library, at the corner of Main and 6th, a small, anxious crowd had gathered. Though it was well past one o’ clock, the library confusingly still hadn’t yet opened its doors.
Among those waiting were Lisa Wuertz and her six-year-old daughter, Brooke. Wuertz’s family lives in nearby Melrose, she told me, on a small dairy farm that’s been in their family for generations. When I asked her how often she shops on Main Street, Wuertz nodded enthusiastically. “We come in for the Walmart about twice a month,” she said, although Walmart is not on Main Street. “And we see a movie every once in a while. Nothing too violent, though.”
Interestingly, Wuertz didn’t seem to think of Sauk Centre as being especially small. “It’s really nice—having a city so close by to do all the city things in,” she said. “It can get lonely out on the farm.”
The August sun bore down on us. Finally, a girl with dyed-black hair, maybe 14, shouldered past me toward the library. She rattled the handle, and the door opened. “See?” she said to the crowd. “They just forgot to flip the sign again.”
We all went in, laughing.
The librarian-in-charge had been waiting for Lisa Wuertz’s redheaded six-year-old. “Hey there, was that you that I saw on Facebook?” she asked her. “All covered in mud?”
The little girl nodded, blushing. “Yes.”
Sinclair Lewis’s childhood home—located just a few blocks off Main Street, on what is now Sinclair Lewis Avenue—is painted a color so pale it looks almost transparent against the cloud-streaked sky. With its classic, single eave, forest green shutters, splintery shingles, and porch fit for a rocking chair, the thing looked like the very idea of a home, like the original text on which all homes are based. Atop a full-size flagpole stuck into the bright green lawn, the stars and stripes, feeling a little redundant, idled and drooped.
Patty Peschel, 46, met me at the door in a blue jogging suit. “Here for the tour?” she said, swinging her elbows up and down. She turned on one heel, leading me into the restored living room. A rusty Franklin stove sat in the corner, a wooden baby crib by the window. The wallpaper was faded with patterns of sigils and foiled arabesques.
Peschel, when she wasn’t volunteering here, taught elementary school in the nearby town of Albany. She’s a mother of three, with a daughter on the University of Iowa's basketball team that she didn’t mind bragging to me about. She wore a pair of smart, rectangular lenses, and had a smoky haze of voluminous, gray-tipped hair.
“A small town can be hard on artistic types. He was teased a lot,” Peschel said, showing me the bedroom that Lewis shared with his two brothers. Lewis’s childhood bed, without its mattress for some reason, was just a nest of black wires. “After school he would come back here and read. He read constantly.”
Peschel herself grew up in Sauk Centre, though she lived for a time in the Twin Cities during her twenties, she said. “I think it can be stifling here, for some people. That’s why it’s important to leave one day.”
“You get to know a place and it stays with you. It defines you in some way, doesn’t it? I think that’s what keeps this place going.”
I asked her what made her come back.
“Family friends. Clean lakes. Good schools,” she rattled off readily. “I don’t have to worry about my kids as much because I always know who they’re with. You know, just all the usual reasons that people say. “
Lewis eventually returned to Sauk Centre, as well. He had been living in Italy in 1951, working on a new novel when he died suddenly at the age of 65 of complications related to alcoholism. He’d stipulated his remains to be buried in Sauk Centre, a move that surprised his family and friends. The mayor of Sauk Centre at the time, Fred Walker, issued a statement to the press: “We were a little put out when Main Street came out, but we soon forgot about it. We saw the humor of his writings and we were happy we were part of them… A truly great man never dies. He’ll live on… in the hearts of the people who knew him here.”
“It’s hard to deny,” Peschel said, speculating why Lewis would want to be buried in the hometown he hated. “You get to know a place and it stays with you. It defines you in some way, doesn’t it? I think that’s what keeps this place going.”
Later that night I returned to the Palmer House. In the morning I’d be leaving for the next stop on my trip: Madison, Wisc., a buzzing metropolis compared to Sauk Centre. I was looking forward to it. I was getting tired of being stared at for just being a stranger.
I was still thinking of Lewis as I got ready for bed, trying to reconcile the odd mix of loyalty and contempt he had for Sauk Centre. I called up his Nobel Lecture on my laptop. “It is my fate…,” Lewis said in 1930, “to swing constantly from optimism to pessimism and back, but so is it the fate of anyone who writes or speaks of anything in America—the most contradictory, the most depressing, the most stirring, of any land in the world today.”
I was reminded of a similar quote that is often attributed to Lewis: “I love America, but I don’t like it.”
I was almost asleep when I heard some commotion coming from the lobby bar—what sounded like a glass breaking, though I wasn’t sure. Could it be the ghost of Sinclair Lewis?
Outside my room, the hotel’s halls were lamp-lit, endlessly long, vibrating with spooky, Kubrick-ian effects. The floorboards creaked.
Downstairs, I found the four men from the white truck, dressed again in white V-neck shirts, as though it were their agreed-upon uniform. They were all sitting at the long wooden bar, tipping back bottles of Miller Lite and laughing. The rest of the bar was empty.
“Someone told me on Sunday that I was here last Saturday,” one of the men was saying to the bartender.
The bartender, a cheerful dirty-blonde in her forties who was also the innkeeper that night, wiped the counter with a rag. “You were,” she said.
The man studied her, blinking. “That’s really interesting,” he said.
I took a table in the corner, admiring the taxidermy-covered walls. The men swiveled their stools around for a nice, good look at me. After a few minutes, one of the men—perhaps 30, wearing blue jeans but no belt—shuffled over to my table. He nodded, like I’d just said something he agreed with, though I hadn’t said anything.
“Hey, was that you that I honked at yesterday? In my truck?”
I looked up wearily. “Yeah, that was me,” I said, bracing myself for more ridicule.
The man, looking abashed and quite drunk, hung his head. He introduced himself as John. “No hard feelings?” he asked. He threw an arm out, gesturing at the emptiness of the bar, shrugging without lifting his eyes from the floor. “It’s a small town, you know? Not a whole lot to do around here.”
We talked for a couple of minutes. He, too, had lived in Sauk Centre his entire life. I mentioned I was headed out in the morning.
The man nodded gravely. “One of these days, that’ll be me, too,” he said, waggling a finger. Then he faltered slightly, grasping my table for balance, before retaking his stool by the bar.