July 18, 1916: Sinclair Lewis and first wife arrive in Duluth

On this day in Duluth in 1916, novelist Sinclair Lewis and his wife Grace Livingston Hegger, an editor for Vogue magazine, pulled into town in an automobile and stayed for two weeks. They had left Lewis’s hometown of Sauk Centre, Minnesota, the day before, and came to Duluth after first touring some Iron Range communities. Sauk Centre and Duluth were essentially the midway point of the couple’s “coast-to-coast jaunt by automobile” that would take them from the Atlantic to the Pacific. The couple left the Zenith City on August 3 and planned to be in California by November before embarking on an ocean voyage to “the Orient.” During that auto tour, Lewis began taking notes which would eventually become his 1920 novel Main Street, which won him great critical acclaim. Two years later he came out with Babbit, a satirical novel satirizing American commercial culture set in the fictional Midwestern town of Zenith which many people mistake as a stand in for Duluth, the Zenith City of the Unsalted Seas. Actually, Lewis’s Zenith was modeled after Sauk Centre. Lewis returned to Duluth in 1943 after divorcing his second wife wife, purchasing the John & Julia Williams House at 2601 East Second Street from Dr. Edwin Webber, owner of the Webber Hospital in West Duluth. Lewis brought along his girlfriend and his mother. He left in 1945, and two years later published a book that may well have been about a fictionalized Duluth, the 1947 novel Kingsblood Royal, which is set “Grand Republic, Minnesota,” and is considered by many critics to be “an enlarged and updated version of the Zenith of Main Street.

3 Responses to July 18, 1916: Sinclair Lewis and first wife arrive in Duluth

  1. It has long been generally accepted that Duluth was the model for Zenith. Sauk Centre is far too small a town for it, though somewhat flippantly, Lewis tried to say Chicago was the model. That wasn’t really accepted by critics, and when the mid-sixties television series “The American Novel,” was produced, one episode included “Babbit,” and it was filmed on location in–ta-da–Duluth.

  2. Our family owns a cabin on Cole Lake in Carlton County off Hwy 210
    The original large piece of property was bought in 1907 by Jed Washburn, Charles Smith and RE Denfeld – my great grandfather.

    There was one driveway and the place was called Burnithfeld = after the 3 owners

    2 of the original cabins built that year – the Washburns and the Smiths still remain – the Denfeld cabin burned to the ground in the 1940’s.

    Family lore has it that Sinclair Lewis visited the Washburn cabin during this travel time – he was supposedly working on his play and this was a quiet place to work – however, he may have visited then and then returned for his writing sabbatical – No documentation to back this up!!!

  3. I believe he came to Duluth in the 1940s with his girlfriend and HER mother, not his mother. This is pretty well documented. I have seen a photograph of Lewis behind the wheel of his open car taken in Duluth during that earlier visit.

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