Sinclair Lewis returned to the town of his birth on July 1, standing on the lawn of the Sinclair Lewis Library clutching a book, his gaze fixed on Sauk Centre’s Original Main Street. He is a bit larger than life, standing 7 feet tall, his bronze features younger than his more stern depiction on the side of the Palmer House Hotel. He could not possibly know that the street had been named as an homage to his best-known book, or that the library was recently renamed in his honor.
The new statue was due to the combined effort and contributions of the Minnesota Arts Board, the Sauk Centre History Museum and Research Center, the Central Minnesota Arts Board, Friends of the Library, many businesses, organizations and citizens, and chiefly a group formed five years ago called the Artify Sauk Centre Coordinating Council. This group has placed many murals in Sauk Centre: pioneers begin a new life (downtown), legendary music teacher Al Raitor directs a swirl of instruments (park band shell), and American troops are saluted (side of the VFW). Next to the Sinclair statue is the children’s literature mural, where Black Beauty and Dorothy Gale meet Red Riding Hood and Aslan. A redo of Original Main Street and an art lab are in the works, along with more murals.
The creator of the statue was Nick Christensen of Broden Studios, Inc., of Kimball, whose clients include the White House and the FBI. The statue arrived swaddled on a truck, lifted into place with a crane, fixed firmly into holes drilled on the granite base, and wrapped in a mysterious cloak of black plastic. Three young girls were invited to unveil it the following day, watched by a large crowd and members of the Lewis family.
Sinclair Lewis was a controversial figure in his earlier days. He was the youngest son of Dr. Edwin J. Lewis, who is said to have arrived in town with one cart full of household and medical supplies and another of books. Young Sinclair spent his youth reading, playing pranks, and shamelessly eavesdropping on his elders, gleaning insights that he would later use in his 23 books.
He grew up in a family of readers. He was said to have read every book in the local library, sometimes combining his chore of wood chopping by reading a book propped in the crotch of a nearby tree. In later years he sent 80 books to the library, a gift he called “the debt he owed for providing him with so much information and entertainment while growing up.”
In 1920, when he published his novel Main Street, many townspeople in Sauk Centre were furious with the man who had apparently renamed his hometown Gopher Prairie and portrayed it as a place devoid of culture, inhabited by cloddish rustics and a few would-be intellectuals. The library refused to stock it for a while, and also refused the Sauk Centre Herald to review it. Although Lewis protested that his characters were drawn from many other sources, locals were not convinced. Later, he wrote about a small town called Zenith in several books, portraying this town in a kindlier light.
By 1930, when he became the first American Nobel Prize recipient, he had gone from town pariah to favorite son. Today, his readers from all over the country and the world come to see “Gopher Prairie” and learn about its creator. They attend Sinclair Lewis Days and the Sinclair Lewis Writers Conference and wonder what it was about this town that caused such a stir. Some of the visitors say he could have been writing about their home towns.
Lewis himself summed it up: “I could have been born and reared no place in the world where I would have met more friendliness. It was a good time and a good preparation for life.”