October 16, 2012

CCLaP Rare: "Dodsworth" (first edition), by Sinclair Lewis

Dodsworth, by Sinclair Lewis

Dodsworth, by Sinclair Lewis

Dodsworth, by Sinclair Lewis

Dodsworth, by Sinclair Lewis

Dodsworth, by Sinclair Lewis

Dodsworth, by Sinclair Lewis

Dodsworth, by Sinclair Lewis

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Dodsworth
By Sinclair Lewis (1929)
First Edition, First Printing

DESCRIPTION: Poor Sinclair Lewis! Once one of the most celebrated writers on the planet, for an unprecedented string of commercial hits in the 1920s making vicious fun of the bored, corrupt, empty-headed middle class of the American Midwest, all of them turned into bestsellers precisely by the self-hating middle-classers he was making fun of, Lewis' career went quickly sour upon the start of the Great Depression, when these suddenly broke middle-classers found themselves being punished enough by life in general, and no longer needed his finger-wagging to produce the painless punishment that was assuaging their guilt throughout the "Roaring Twenties." But now that we're about to approach the centennial celebrations of these early hits, it's time that a new cultural assessment of Lewis be made, and that he be acknowledged as a sharp futurist who has a lot to say about our own times; because in reality you can strongly argue that he was the Jonathan Franzen of his times, a critically adored author (the first American writer in history to win the Nobel Prize, for example) who nonetheless heavily employed the pop culture and slang of his day in order to create devastating indictments against the consumerism, celebrity worship and herd mentality surrounding him, eaten up in the millions by the very people most guilty of the behavior, because they're able to recognize in these indictments every single person they know besides themselves, the problem that led to the Great Depression just as surely as it did in our own times to the 2008 Economic Meltdown.

Dodsworth was the last of these great hits, released just a few months before the stock market crash of 1929, and in a nutshell can be called "Lewis meets Henry James;" centered around Sam Dodsworth, the fifty-something founder of the hugely successful car manufacturer in Zenith* who has just sold the entire thing to a thinly disguised General Motors, now that he's "retired" his forty-something wife convinces him to go on an old-fashioned Grand Tour of Europe, just like rich Americans have been doing since the Victorian Age if they want to consider themselves truly cultured. (And note, by the way, that this would be the last period in history that this would be true, one of the many elements that makes this almost more important now as a historical document than as a piece of popular fiction; after the destruction of Europe and the ascendency of America at the end of World War Two, the global headquarters of culture quickly shifted to the US and specifically New York, and it suddenly became passe among rich Americans to take European grand tours anymore.) The simple plot, then, follows the same structure as so many of Lewis' novels from the '20s; our narrator starts as the living embodiment of whatever Lewis is trying to criticize (in this case, the business-focused, proudly ignorant American, forced on an unending parade of interchangeable cathedral visits and appalled by the lack of modern creature comforts now taken for granted in nearly every large American city), but after being exposed to the good things from that new environment (including, as always, the potential love of an enticingly independent modern woman) he slowly becomes a convert, just to be shunned by his former peers as pressure to "return to the fold."

And as mentioned, this is perhaps why collectors are best off thinking of this as an important historical document, rather than to focus on its admittedly only so-so quality as a novel; because given that Sam's payment for Dodsworth Motors would've likely been just a little cash but a whole lot of stock, it's fascinating to realize that in the real world, he would've been bankrupted just a few months after the events of this book take place, and that he suddenly would have a whole lot more to worry about than pompous Brits, brash expats, and how all those dirty artists in the Left Bank were always getting in his way. That's the treasure of this book in general, that it's a snapshot of a moment in history right before an unexpected period of tremendous upheaval, with none of the characters (nor even the author) even remotely aware that such upheaval is about to take place; note for example Sam's ho-hum attitude towards the pre-power Fascists he meets in Europe, or how one of the biggest sources of conflict is whether Sam is going to accept the high-powered VP position of the new conglomerate at home next year, or blow another million on staying at five-star hotels across the Continent for yet another year, a much more historically naked treat than any revisionist "winds of change" novel written after the fact. Lewis' fans in his own lifetime turned on him for this, but it's time that we restore the respect and fame he deserves for being such an astute prognosticator; and with this copy of Dodsworth being auctioned at a deliberately low starting bid to encourage an actual sale, this is a fine choice for a collector who wishes to "beat the odds" before this re-lionization of Lewis takes place next decade.

PLUS! This particular copy also comes with a newspaper clipping of Lewis' 1951 obituary, as it appeared in the Chicago Tribune, albeit in poor shape (see photos for more).

CONDITION: Text: Very Good Minus (VG-). In general this is still in tight, good, clean shape, except for some impressions in the front interior cover and on the bibliography page from former pencil markings, as well as a large brown stain on the back interior covers from where the newspaper clipping was stored. (It now resides in a separate plastic bag.) Dust Jacket: Missing. Stated publication date of March 1929 on the copyright page; as confirmed by the McBride Guide to the Identification of First Editions, lack of further printing notices makes this a first edition, first printing.

PROVENANCE: Acquired by CCLaP at Bookman's Corner bookstore, Chicago, September 2012.

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*For those who don't know, Lewis set many of his novels in the fictional Midwestern state of Winnemac, which was supposed to be sorta southish of Michigan and sorta northish of Indiana and Ohio; and Winnemac's version of Detroit or Cleveland or St. Louis was the industrial powerhouse of Zenith, where so many of his stories specifically take place. In fact, in Dodsworth Lewis makes almost a science-fiction author's amount of insider references to his now expansive alt-reality, name-dropping in casual conversations such former characters as George Babbitt and Elmer Gantry. (BONUS: Read CCLaP's review of Babbitt.)

Filed by Jason Pettus at 9:54 AM, October 16, 2012. Filed under: CCLaP Rare | Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |