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Man Who Knew Coolidge: Being the Soul of Lowell Schmaltz, Constructive & Nordic Citizen

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Fitfully funny satire of a philistine booster ca. 1927

Feb 1, 2004
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Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:some documentary value capturing a voice

Cons:mostly padding, plotless, a voice of which the reader quickly tires

The Bottom Line: America's first Nobel laureate in literature needed an editor.


Sinclair Lewis, the first American to win the Nobel Prize in Literature (in 1930), was a very prolific writer. When he was starting out, he sold plots to Jack London, whose imagination had dried up. This has always seemed strange to me in that the canonical Lewis novels (Main Street, Babbitt, Elmer Gantry) lack memorable plots. The 1928 series of monologues of Lowell Schmaltz, "constructive and Nordic citizen" of Zenith in mid-America, make up a novel with no plot. It is all voice, a very long-winded voice that won't shut up, even long after ceasing to amuse readers (at least this one).

Having been born and grown up in Minnesota, my (self-) image is of Minnesota taciturnity, of having a high tolerance for silence, speaking only when we have something specific to say, and then usually "yup" or "nope" (or "you bet," never "you betcha"). But there are also "blowhards," and the pretensions of embodying common-sense are widespread across the gopher-infested prairies. Salesmen (and itinerant preachers like Elmer Gantry) are especially given to nattering and denigrating every kind of person except successful WASP businessmen, and Lowell Schmaltz is in the business of selling office equipment, a business that seems to involve a lot of false bonhomie and claims to expertise he does not have (including a mastery of psychoanalysis and of what American foreign policy should be to spread Christianity and prevent Bolshevism spreading).

A long story titled "The Man Who Knew Coolidge" was published in The American Mercury in 1927. It was a monologue of 15,000 words of what Schmaltz considered "wisdom," delivered in a railroad club car returning to Zenith. Schmaltz's claim to a measure of celebrity is having briefly been in college (Amherst) with the president, the legendarily laconic (Vermont-born) Calvin Coolidge (who occupied the White House from August 1923 until January 1929). Schmatlz's first discourse meanders to recounting having taken his family to drop in unannounced at the White House to greet the president who had not even been a classmate, but was someone to whom Schmaltz addressed a question of two and got a few words of reply back when Coolidge was an undergraduate.

Lewis padded out a book (published in 1928) with five further monologues from Schmaltz, one during a poker game presented as reported by Mack McMack, the next to a cousin of his wife (Walt), followed by a very brief misrepresentation to his wife Mamie of what he had told Walt, travel advice to George F. Babbitt wrapped around memories of trivial incidents from a visit to the Black Hills (which Schmaltz locates in North Dakota), and a concluding, summary address on "The Basic and Fundamental Ideals of Christian American Citizenship."

Lewis had the Middle Western businessman's sententious voice down and spun out the monologues quickly (facilely!). The original one worked just fine on its own, and already made me want to get out of any room in which Lowell Schmaltz was holding forth. The poker game monologue lacks direction or point, but "You Know How Women Are" provides some justification for expanding on "The Man Who Knew Coolidge." It prefigures Dodsworth in showing (from the man's perspective) the long-running marriage of two people who don't like each other (Lewis divorced his own wife in 1927). Schmaltz "wonder[ed] if we don't lack something in American life when you consider that you almost never see an American married couple that really like each other and like to be with each other."

As about everything else, Schmaltz was overgeneralizing, but this monologue portrays an antagonism between a bread-winning husband and a nagging homemaker that was not unique. Both Mamie and Lowell Schmaltz have something of the "know-it-all" about them, Mamie considering Lowell boorish, Lowell considering Mamie pretentious, inconsistent, and puritanical (/frigid). Their antagonisms find focus on pets with Lowell loathing Mamie's cat, Mamie loathing the stray dog Lowell brings home (since the death of another dog, the only friendliness Lowell said that he encountered when he got home was from a canary—threatened by the already overfed cat...). Although Lowell is a patently unreliable narrator, his narration provokes pity for both him and for Mamie (and for the children of such a loveless coupling).

There is a bit more poignancy in some of Lowell's admissions to Walt. The travel advice to Mr. Babbitt falls flat, and the summation of Lowell Schmaltz's views on progress and Christian American foreign policy is mostly repetition (and even more puffed-up than the first account of visiting the White House occupied by his old school mate Calvin Coolidge).

Like Lewis's oeuvre, The Man Who Knew Coolidge is uneven. The documentation of sententiousness, sexual antagonism, and of the views on birth control on the Americanization Committee of the Zenith Chamber of Commerce are historically interesting, the impressions of travels east and west are not. Lewis's skill as a mimic were highly developed, but the book (like Elmer Gantry and Dodsworth) is padded with dull descriptions and other extraneous material. Knowing what to leave out was not a forte of Lewis, and it doesn't take 275 pages to reveal and satirize the character of a smug middle-American businessman from the boom years of the late-1920s.

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Lewis was born 7 Feb. 1885 in Sauk Centre, Minnesota, and I chose his birthday as the occasion for a "products of Minnesota" writeoff (after two for later Nobel laureate John Steinbeck of my adopted state). Links to other contributions are/will be on my profile page.


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