SHELBY SHARES: Sauk Centre celebrates native son Sinclair Lewis

You may know Sinclair Lewis was born in Minnesota, and that he was the first American awarded the Nobel Prize in literature. But you probably don't know the Lewis secret that inspired what is now an annual writers conference in Sauk Centre.
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He was a tall, lanky and an unathletic intellectual at the age of 17. He had no luck with girls and he had very few friends. But Sinclair Lewis could write like the wind.

So much has been said about Sinclair Lewis and his boyhood in Sauk Centre, Minn., that it is a task to find anything fresh to say. Maybe it is enough that Lewis was the first American to be awarded the Nobel Prize in literature. He did that before Steinbeck, Hemingway, O’Neill and Faulkner. He earned that honor writing about people he knew in Sauk Centre.

Those who recognized themselves in his works held a grudge. In his heyday, Sauk Centre folks were glad Lewis lived somewhere else. He didn’t give a hoot what people thought of him. He often made that clear to people from his hometown, in New York society circles and the place where he chose to die, Rome, Italy.

Pick up just about any book about Sinclair Lewis and one is overwhelmed with Lewis’s loneliness. Not many people liked him, except those who could stand the withering lash of his blue editing pen. He was a mentor.

When the great Western writer Frederick Manfred spoke at Lewis’s memorial in Sauk Centre he surprised his audience with how important Lewis had been to him as a teacher. It was, apparently, a Lewis secret. Without telling anyone, he helped a lot of writers.

So, years ago, it struck Jim Umhoefer (below) – a current Sauk Centre writer and photographer – that somebody ought to put on a writer’s conference in Lewis’s name. This fall, Umhoefer and the Sinclair Lewis Foundation will bring aspiring and published authors together for the 23rd Annual Sinclair Lewis Writers Conference.

Umhoefer says he is no expert on Lewis, but he fooled me.

“His dad’s doctor’s office was just across from the hotel on Main Street,” he says, pointing up the famous road. We met at Jitters Coffee shop on that world-famous street in Sauk Centre this week. He was telling me of all the great writers who have keynoted the conference. “We’ve had Robert Bly, John Hassler, Patricia Hampl, Will Weaver, Kevin Kling, Bill Holm, Doug Wood, Gary Paulson – just about everybody,” he said. Umhoefer even invited me to the event. I think I’ll go.

Umhoefer reminds me about a moment in Minnesota history. “Back in 1990, Sauk Centre was crawling with secret service agents and the KGB,” he says.

If he was trying to get my attention, he succeeded.

He told me it all had to do with Mikhail Gorbachev and the former Soviet premier’s wife, Raisa. “They both loved Sinclair Lewis. When they visited Minnesota, Raisa said she wanted to helicopter up to Sauk Centre and visit Lewis’s boyhood home.” That’s when folks in cheap suits, sunglasses and brown shoes showed up speaking into their cufflinks.

“It never happened,” says Umhoefer, glumly. “But, not long after that, Rudy Perpich and his wife paid an unannounced visit during Sinclair Lewis Days. There was a parade, and one of our guys dressed up in a mask of Gorbachev. We didn’t know Perpich was going to be there. I got a picture of him shaking hands with the fake Gorbachev.” The fake was Dave Simpkins, the editor and publisher of the Sauk Centre Herald (below).

Lots of people have made the pilgrimage. I’ve made it many times. I’ve even climbed Inspiration Peak, north and west of Alexandria. A plaque says Lewis used to climb it to get, well, inspiration. I keep climbing it every year, hoping for some.

Willa Cather made the trip. Will Weaver comes down and plays ragtime piano at the Palmer House on Main Street. Young Lewis was a night clerk there. Weaver summons up another time with his piano ramblings in that historic lobby.

“I’m not sure,” says Umhoefer, “that everyone in this town has read Sinclair Lewis’s books. It is tough to be a prophet in your own hometown.”

That may be true, but Jim Umhoefer intends to keep alive what he most admires about Lewis. And it isn’t Lewis’s writing. It is the time Lewis took to help other writers. The conference is in October. A weeklong celebration, Sinclair Lewis Days, runs July 15-22.

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