Sinclair Lewis' Minnesota: A State of Mind; 9; Sinclair Lewis and the Blatant Myth of Roughing It in the Wilds
Do you. Know. Me. Don't. You live. In. Your home is Minnesota or. No you. Live. With. The St. Cloud State College Broadcasting Service. Under a grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting presenting Sinclair Lewis as minister of state. Of Mind. You can't escape here is. Now you can't. Escape. Your.
This was written by Dr. James Lundquist native Minnesotan and author of several articles and a book on us. Now look at all oh Sinclair Lois has no saga except the part most often thought of by vacationers. The real land of sky blue waters. The northern third of the state with a rocky clear water lake. And thousands of square miles of wilderness. Despite the obvious attractions of Minnesota's most significant bridge. It was not Sinclair Lewis's favorite part of the state. By Leslie Davis on air in the show.
Roughing it. When Sinclair Lewis was a boy in Sauk Center he heard his grown ups talk about escape. But in terms of the west part of the north the north remains the direction of escape for Minnesotans because to the north lies the big woods almost as if a line had been drawn had a north west and south east tangle just below Brainard. The Minnesota landscape was broken into two relatively distinct topographies. The oak rose and Prairie is to the south and the dense spruce Birch poplar and pine forests of the northeast. Vacationing in the wilderness of northern Minnesota early became a habit with Minnesotans and like most Minnesota habits it did not escape the attention of Sinclair Lewis. As a boy and even as a man Sinclair was was not much of a wordsmith. He was clumsy impatient talkative and almost everything the outdoors man is
not supposed to be. But he understood the appeal of the world owners and he was not being unsympathetic in having Paul Riesling character in Babbitt say of the words or oh it's darn good. There's something eternal about it. But being the satirist he was Lewis could not help pointing out the folly in the notion that the wilderness is a place where a man can fill his lungs with fresh air and at the same time become instantly imbued with manliness. So in addition to debunking life in this small town and making fun of the business culture of the city they always did not let the call of the wild escape without a satiric thruster to as in this scene from Babbitt when Babbitt tries to calm his jangled nerves and escape from his domestic problems by employing a guide and going into the woods to rough it for a few a day.
Who really did the drill. 0 0 0 real told stabber of that have no compass. Was it out of the blue out of the needle the points north. Yeah that's it that's it. Yeah sure it is a. Thing. Gravity in any way that matches it. Yeah I have packs on it up. Who is you or did you know it's really good. Well I was just bored too late. How would I love to have lived in the old days on the frontier moccasins. Six Gun gamblers sleep under the stars. Irregular man. Sheet Yeah I can't wait to get out my priorities or fill my lungs like crisp air and get rid of all I saw city weighs a lot and I only learned about the wilderness from a first class backwoods guide like Joe Wright that outcome. Sarah run.
How do you feel about the trailer getting in away from those darn socks some of those women all of them all right Mr. Bell what do we say we go over to the boxcar lake and camp out on. Well all right Mr. Babbitt but it's nearer to Scott to a lake and you can get just about as good fish and I don't want to get out no real wild. Well all right I will put the packs on our backs and get out in the woods and really hike and I think maybe it would be easier to go by water. You know all to like show we can go all the way by motor boat flat bottom boat with it and never no no sir no sir. Bust up that quiet with a chugging motor. Not in your life. You chose Paris for a pair of socks and your pack and tell of the lodge what you want for eats and I'll get ready soon as you are. Most of the sports go by boat Mr. Babbitt. So long walk look here Joe are you objecting to walking alone oh
I guess I can do it. But I haven't chapped that bar for 16 years. You know most of the sports go by boat but I can do it if you say so I guess. I. Oh I guess we're getting it up pretty good for a couple of old birds. It's a very pretty place. They see a lake down through the trees and had a joy. You don't appreciate I lucky I live live in ones life. He isn't that of a city with a right in a way. Typewriters clacking and OP people bought an ally Friday all the time. I wish I would KNEW THE WORDS LIKE YOU DO. So let's let's remember that that little red flower there.
Well lump of God one thing folks call another. I just call it the flower. You and I. Jones Well Ron what would you do if you had a lot of money here. Would you would you stick to stick to Geithner. Well would you would you take a client way back out of the woods and be already independent of people. I've often thought of that if I had the money I would go down to Tinker's. And open our small wells. May. Soon cause there was often talk about the North Woods and like his own bad. He had a romantic attitude toward it. In his talk when he got back into the woods him
self he was invariably overcome by the stillness the isolation and the mosquitoes. His most extensive encounter with a wilderness occurred back in 1924 when with his brother Claude he accompanied a Canadian Government treaty party into the wilds of Saskatchewan and Manitoba. The purpose of that trip was to pay off the pensions of the Cree Indians pensions do them under a governmental treaty. Claude Lewis kept a diary of that trip and this monotonous but often very funny account has subsequently been published a few of Claude's notations will serve to tell us just how bully Lewis found the trip. They set out in a rain the first day and were forced to camp after only 12 miles. The second day the rain let up now and then and they travelled for all of 14 hours. The third day was even longer. I thought Bill the leader of the party would never quit and he didn't pull in for a camp until 9pm. Claude wrote We had a rotten place all this stuff and the news had to be carried up a 15 foot bank and
the tent sites had to be chopped out of the brush. We finally finished up supper at 10:40 who was a long day 4:00 a.m. in the morning till Levon PM. Not only was the traveling difficult campsites were often miserable and the ground was far from soft. As Claude wrote Harry meaning Sinclair had arranged the beds but he had made a poor guess as his rocks could not be surrounded. And I guess he had a bad night. I had a rock just under the middle of my back but by turning on my side the rock could sink into my belly so that being tired I slept like a rock. Harry looks tired to death this morning. Harry was tired and he took the first opportunity which came after about 30 days of leaving the party and getting back to civilization via sturgeon landing and the steamer to LA a month afterward when Claude Lewis arrived at Sturgeon landing. He discovered that the residents were still talking
about Sinclair Lewis is emergence from the wilderness. Claude put it this way. They told us of Harry's arrival with you on the fur trader and God and the big party they had all of them were drunk and they musta killed nine bottles of scotch and played poker in Tel daylight. That's life for Harry if you add a woman or two at the proper time. When Claude reached Paul he learned that Sinclair was remembered there as well. I must have had another fierce party at Claude road as a yawn and Dr crock went with him that night as far as Hudson Bay junction and from what I could hear he was loaded to the gills again. Lewis's experience on the treaty trip became part of the plot of mantrap a novel published in 1926. The setting of the novel is Canada but the title is drawn from a Minnesota lake and the terrain described as nearly identical to Minnesota's Arrowhead country. The hero of Man Trap is a New York lawyer named Ralph
Prescott who in all his 40 years of bachelorhood has never experienced the pleasures of the wilderness. He is convinced by a Babbitt he friend named the Wes and Woodbury that what he needs is to quit all this crossword puzzle mongering of the law in these concerts and highbrow English weeklies incautious games of bridge get out among some real men and need some agreeable grub and sleep on good old Mother Earth. Well here agrees to take a vacation with Woodbury. I look forward eagerly to the Long Trail dim path among the enormous bruises overhead of gold green light slipping through the branches. Many last plagues for reflecting is ebony the silver of birch grows the iron Knight and in the vast silence more brilliant stars grim wordless Indians tall and hawk nosed following for lead on leave the trail of a wounded moose. A log cabin and at the door a lovely Indian princess a trapper bearing a pack of
furs. Jerry and ermine and cross fox and beaver and all this up in the country where you can see the Northern Lights streaking across the sky in August. How does rouse vacation work out. Let's listen in after Ralph in Woodbury had been on the trail for a few days. Well. This being our first night you can find us with a long day ahead of us tomorrow we better turn him. Yes I am a bit sleepy. That you think you're doing and dressing for bed but in my pajamas. John is but how well you take over the North is your shoes and coat your point but don't tell me you brought a pillow not a pillow. A lot of takes up enough room for
three days ration desired you're going to die laughing here if you're going to be such a mollycoddle. Roll up your coat. Sleep on it like a real man. A wake. Up random it's daylight in the swamp. Where you get up. Do I need to throw some water on you come on now up bad out of it's daylight I know in the swamp and you can lower your voice. Well let's get moving then one can expect to get toughened up unless you're going to move that. Ground a little too much for your tender skin. Well you'll soon get used to that now up not home. Go to hell. I don't get sore.
As ready as you are Wes. A little catch next time. One two three. Write a story about it too. Well maybe the thing is choked up here. Here we go one. Off one more time here. Time here. Missed again. One more time here. Yeah here we go. God. Do you suppose the feed pipe might be plugged up. Oh it must take a great brain to think up suggestions like that because I've only cleaned out the feed pipe a couple of times now while you get on.
One more here one. I'd say say Wes here comes that schoolteacher who is camped down the trail. Maybe you'll know what's wrong. What are cities like alike that know about outboard motors little trouble if you check to see if your tank vent is Joe. So it is. Not one word not one word. And stop that damn grounding. And I know you are.
You got that 10 page. It won't hold in the muck. We sure we should camp here at the bottom of this slope. Listen this is the best spot I can find. I know but a lot of water is running down that slope behind us. If a man knows how to pitch a tent right. Which I sure as hell know how to do. No water will come in and everything seems tight. Let's go inside and warm some tea on a portable stove. You know. Where. Yeah. There's water on the floor of the tent. My sleeping bags all wet and so is your well don't look at me like that any 10 a Leica little canvas will tighten up in a little while. But the water is running off that slope into the back of the tent. Look you're starting to look. I don't get snotty about it in my fall but it's right on the side it'll stop soon. That's what you said. Three days ago.
As you might expect vacation turned out disastrously. This is not to say however that it was unprofitable for Ralph. He learned some things he never would have learned on the sidewalks of New York. Of all the miss that Sinclair Lewis debunks the most blatant roughing it in the wilds is one that perhaps touches most closely to many Americans and certainly to a good many Minnesotans. There are many reasons for this myth. We perhaps suspect that our ancestors may have been at ease in the wilderness where heartier than we are and in vacationing in the woods we may be trying to show that civilization has not made us soft or we may be reacting to the symbolism of the wilderness like so much of our consciousness of the world and this is certainly dark and foreboding. And when we successfully manage to cope with the world around us we may see ourselves as symbolically coping with the dark and mysterious in us or more plausibly less psychoanalytic. We may be reacting to the writings of one of the great myth makers in our culture and very David Thoreau.
If it is the example of Walden Pond that sets us off camping and portaging what Lewis had to say certainly hit very close Lewis often claimed to admire Thoreau and in their struggles most of Lewis's characters especially Babbitt but also Ralph Prescott have against the moral coercion of middle class life look worst like the row is speaking out against conformity. But Lewis is able to show as if the road is not difficult it is for most of us to break lose. Babbitt is a good example for a man in Babbitt's position economic and social survival depend on conforming to a way of life quite different from that of the Backwoodsman. And if Babbitt should renounce all where would he go. He tries to escape to the north woods but he is out of place there. Babbitt like Ralph Prescott learns that the wilderness offers no possibilities for redemption nor is it even a satisfying escape. The only solution for Babbitt is more civilization not less. Walden Pond may have been
plausible in the 19th century but not in the 20th according to Lewis. Of course roughing it is no longer what it was in the 1980s especially in the setting of Babbitt and men trapped. Because air mattresses camper trailers and motorized homes have taken much of the discomfort out of living in the north woods. But I suspect that for all too many would be outdoorsmen the experiences of Babbitt and Ralph are still very recognizable. And as for the myth of roughing it and seeking spiritual rejuvenation on the trail of the Lonesome Pine there no doubt are more believers now than there ever were. Lewis just off to work for. Thank you. See what took us all out. Yes I was listening on this radio show Martin and common politeness. What if I let people down as long as my door my office when I can tell you I could kiss whatever success I had as a realtor. Goodbye unfair they well.
Well anyway what do you what do you think Bob want. What. Well that's a nice mess walleye pike you ever see I just drug a man here for your benefit. Since I heard you were still carrying on about what all red had to say about the wonders of the North Star state of ours I tell you one thing you never saw a string of fish like this is that so. Well we were just talking about Lewis's views on the outdoor life beyond your life. Read Lois. The only thing you knew about the great outdoors was that if you throw an empty whiskey bottle in the lake I'll either sink or float. I may have been pretty good with a typewriter but he didn't know the first thing about wood floor. Now I don't try to teach him everything I knew I mean I tried about you know building a fire without matches making 30 miles a day in a canoe living off the land. I didn't take any of all that He-Man stuff the way I asked a lot of us Minnesotans had to do. You mean the piney air in the sparkling waters and I'll guarantee you a plane mine. Speaking of cleanliness Mr. Babbitt since you dropped in on us today what do you
is as the sportsmen and conservationists that you say you are. Think about all the problems we're having with the pollution of the environment. I'll say one thing. Even though all this stuff about ruining the environment may have some signs of communist influence in it. When I meet it I mean it. It wasn't no chance that Earth Day back in the spring of 70 fell on Lennon's birthday. But anyway when I want to say I think there is some truth to it. Why all of the factories belching out smoke it's no wonder that the air is starting to stink out east. It hasn't got that bad here yet but just a little cloudy around the Twin Cities that's all. But you know nothing much but well I'm sure glad that the real estate industry isn't doing anything any of this pollution. All we do is we sell homes and there is no smoke and volved at all and our housing developments. Well I'd look on them as as well developments developing and improving the land. Getting rid of a bunch of useless Prussian hills and little creeks that don't go nowhere very fast anyhow.
But I tell you we've we've got to put the clamps on the tourist to come into our state and clutter up our campsite with paper plates. Yes sir. Why maybe maybe we ought to put a coat on to us from our state. I say Minnesota for Minnesotans It's our property is met. I mean if if we're going to talk conservation we've got to consider conserving what for whom. And I say and let's save our game and fish for the real sportsman. Minnesota a sportsman like myself who know how to appreciate all the while a pheasant or a gamey pike and Mr. Babbitt. That sounds more like selfishness than conservation of it maybe so. Maybe so. But at least it makes sense. And that's something that you can't say very often these days what with a bunch of city slickers wanting to stop suspicion and hunt not only gather why I say if they want to do something at all they should license the real outdoorsman gimbal Woodward test and then make all the man be pansies who don't know our small mouth bass from a large
one stay home in a city park when able our Yes sir we need some changes if we're going to be able to continue enjoying our outdoor heritage. What's that. Probably Mrs. Babbitt and I'm patient you know I you can't blame a person can only take so much roughing it before. Yeah before home starts looking pretty good. And I guess if that weren't the way it is I. Well I turn into an old woods hermit like you know like what's his name. Oh i Washington Irving. You mean the row here yeah that's it that's it. One of the one of the last of the Mohicans and all those other Yankees stories you know. Yeah that's the one. Well I don't have to be going OK you know I sort of say to write surveys Yes service up OK I'll have my thanks for coming in.
Well I guess it's good to learn that despite what Sinclair Lewis wrote about the myth of roughing it at least there are enough front tears men like Mr. Babbitt left to carry on that myth and really believe in it. The fact that a few minutes beside almost any major highway in Minnesota on a summer weekend would certainly reinforce you know one does wonder of course who is right. Lewis in his debunking of the sporting life or Babbitt in his praise of it. It does seem like sacrilege to agree with Lewis Israel. Prescott that fishing is a doll and poker is dollar and sleeping on the ground is pure rot but it is even worse and more disillusioning to believe that an occasional few weeks in the woods will restore the innocence of a more primitive time. And it is in this that that it perhaps goes wrong. Lewis's attack on the American love of the wilderness is an attack on a sensitive point perhaps too sensitive for most Americans and maybe that is why the novel mantrap is one of his most unpopular books.
Next week we'll talk with Minnesota author Frederick men Frate about his remembrances of his friend Sinclair Lois. You have been listening to Sinclair Lewis his Minnesota state of mind this 12 program series has been produced by the St. Cloud State College broadcasting service under a grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Who's. With me. Then when.
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- St. Cloud State College
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- University of Maryland (College Park, Maryland)
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- Series Description
- In 1920, Minnesotan Sinclair Lewis published his novel "Main Street," an inciteful analysis of the American small town. This radio series, produced five decades after the novel was published, explores whether "Main Street" still holds true of small towns.
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Producing Organization: St. Cloud State College
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University of Maryland
Identifier: 71-9-9 (National Association of Educational Broadcasters)
Format: 1/4 inch audio tape
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- Chicago: “Sinclair Lewis' Minnesota: A State of Mind; 9; Sinclair Lewis and the Blatant Myth of Roughing It in the Wilds,” 1971-00-00, University of Maryland, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC, accessed February 6, 2023, http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-500-z60c1687.
- MLA: “Sinclair Lewis' Minnesota: A State of Mind; 9; Sinclair Lewis and the Blatant Myth of Roughing It in the Wilds.” 1971-00-00. University of Maryland, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Web. February 6, 2023. <http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-500-z60c1687>.
- APA: Sinclair Lewis' Minnesota: A State of Mind; 9; Sinclair Lewis and the Blatant Myth of Roughing It in the Wilds. Boston, MA: University of Maryland, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Retrieved from http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-500-z60c1687