I have long been a fan of Sinclair Lewis. The first American to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, his books are quintessentially American. And despite their superficially red, white and blue trappings, even the most upbeat of his novels expose some part of American society that those with jingoistic tendencies would prefer not to examine. If you haven’t read any Lewis you should start with one of his biggies like Main Street, Babbitt, Elmer Gantry, or Arrowsmith, but beyond these there are others like Dodsworth, The Prodigal Parents, Cass Timberlane and some 20 others that may not be as well known but are worth investigation. And then there is Kingsblood Royal.
Written in 1947 toward the end of his life, Kingsblood Royal, despite its over the top melodrama, still manages to stir the blood in 2010. Knowing nothing about the contents of the book, my copy is an old hardcover with no dust jacket to give it away, I was lulled into a false sense of what was to come. It starts off with some trenchant humor typical of Lewis.
Mr. Blingham, and may he fry in his own cooking-oil, was assistant treasurer of the Flaver-Saver Company. He was driving from New York to Winnipeg, accompanied by Mrs. Blingham and their horrible daughter. As they were New Yorkers, only a business trip could have dragged them into this wilderness, and they found everything west of Pennsylvania contemptible. They laughed at Chicago for daring to have skyscrapers and at Madison for pretending to have a university, and they stopped the car and shrieked when they entered Minnesota and saw a billboard advertising “Ten Thousand Lakes.”
Although we never hear about the Blinghams beyond the first few pages, Lewis continues to paint the picture of the fictitious Grand Republic, Minnesota and to describe the everyday Joe kind of personality of our hero, thirty-one year old, war-wounded Captain Neil Kingsblood:
And here were his own not-very-numerous books. The set of Kipling, the set of O. Henry, the set of Sherlock Holmes, a history of banking, and the bound volumes of the National Geographic Magazine, with Beasley on tennis and Morrison on golf. Among these solid wares, pushed back on a shelf, was a volume of Emily Dickinson, which a girl, whose name and texture he had now forgotten, had given to him in college, and sometimes Neil picked at it and wondered.
It isn’t long though, before we start to sense a much darker underbelly to this tale than what the opening pages has lead us to believe. Essentially Kingsblood is a book about race. The book, with a bit of a sledgehammer lets it be known that the great Middlewest of America is not the tolerant northern bastion most of us would like to believe. And after some time (Let this serve as your SPOILER alert) Neil Kingsblood finds out that he is 1/64th Negro. After shock and anger and confusion, he begins to try and understand what his racial “impurity” means to him and his life. What follows is less a voyage of discovery and more of a baptism by fire. Although it is overly dramatic in places, its essence rings true even today. On the one hand I felt how different the outcome would be today, but I also couldn’t help but realize how far we have yet to go when it comes to race relations in the United States.
Kingsblood could be fairly grouped with Lewis’ earlier novel It Can’t Happen Here (and perhaps others) that have a decidedly political point of view. As I have mentioned before on My Porch, I wasn’t able to get into It Can’t Happen Here. Something about the story of a fascist becoming U.S. president wasn’t sitting right with me. Probably because after eight years of the Bush Administration forwarding Dick Cheney’s power-grabbing policy of the unitary executive, and the irony of the whack-a-doo far right calling President Obama the next incarnation of Hitler I just couldn’t stomach it. But both these books, and indeed his less political and more popular books represent what I think is best about Lewis’ and my home state of Minnesota. The Minnesota I remember was by no means free of prejudice or hate, but on the whole seemed like a much balanced and fair place than it has become in recent years. It is the populist, grange movement, farmer/labor Democratic Minnesota. The one that produced the likes of Hubert Humphrey and his rousing civil rights speech at the 1948 Democratic Convention. The same speech that pushed the racist Dixiecrats into the welcoming arms of the Republicans, once the party of Lincoln. With words like these, one wonders if Humphrey read Kingsblood Royal before giving this speech:
To those who say, my friends, to those who say, that we are rushing this issue of civil rights, I say to them we are 172 years too late! To those who say, this civil rights program is an infringement on states’ rights, I say this: the time has arrived in America for the Democratic Party to get out of the shadow of states’ rights and walk forthrightly into the bright sunshine of human rights!
The bright sunshine of human rights indeed. It is alternately gratifying and galling to read a book such as this with our first African American President sitting in the White House. Have whatever policy or ideology difference you want with President Obama, but to deny that race has not played a role in the venom and hatred spewed toward him by the aforementioned whack-a-doos is to be as clueless as the nut jobs who inspired Lewis to write Kingsblood Royal in 1947.
Here is Lewis’ birthplace in Sauk Centre, Minnesota.
And here is his house when he lived in DC. This was news to me, not only that he lived in DC, but that this house was right around the corner from the apartment John and I lived from 2002 to 2005. And, oddly enough is right next door to a house (the yellow one) that Tallulah Bankhead lived in (or was it Mae West?).