Sinclair Lewis (1885 – 1951)
American novelist (Main Street, Babbitt, Elmer Gantry), playwright, poet and short story writer, awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1930
Travel is so Broadening, originally published as Part V of the novel The Man Who Knew Coolidge, 1938
Available to read online here (start at page 202 of the document)
The second story in the volume Points of View to be given the style classification by Moffett and McElheny Dramatic Monologue. Here’s more of their description of this narrative style: “This kind of monologue, too, has a counterpart in the theatre, whenever one character takes over the stage and talks for a long time uninterruptedly. Some such speeches provide information about what has taken place offstage or permit the character to explain himself, reveal himself, or betray himself.”
Spoiler alert – if you haven’t read the story yet and want to before you read the summary of it below, stop now!
Travel is so Broadening
Lowell Schmaltz collars George Babbitt and his wife after an enjoyable dinner, and takes it upon himself to give advice about the best way to drive to Yellowstone, considering his own extensive, personal experience of long-distance driving. Schmaltz, however, is easily distracted from his main task, and, revelling in the sound of his own voice, forces a range of opinions on his listeners, including the life and times of his brother-in-law Lafayette, the singing talent of his daughter Delmerine, buying a pair of pumps in Chicago, descriptions of typical eateries to be found en route, the rights and wrongs of thumbing a lift, and so on and so on and so on. At the end of his monologue, he realises he hasn’t told the couple half of what he had intended, so it will have to save for another time – although there’s always time for him to squeeze in just one more thing before he goes…
Strictly speaking, this is not a short story in itself, but an extract from the larger book, The Man who knew Coolidge. If one reads the book from the beginning, one will already have encountered the narrator, Mr Lowell Schmaltz, as well as having heard about a couple of the people to whom he refers – his wife Mame, his daughter Delmerine, and some of the places in his life – his hometown of Fall River, Massachusetts, and the fictional city Zenith in the fictional state of Winnemac.
It’s an amusing account of a pompous know-it-all who loves to hold court and never gives anyone else the remotest chance of having their say. We all know people like that, and Schmaltz is a very recognizable character without ever becoming a caricature; although Lewis, the writer, manages to get his own word in when he breaks off from Schmaltz’s narration to explain: “here, by request of the publishers, are omitted thirty-seven other articles recommended by Mr Schmaltz. – EDITOR”.
Its main purpose is to divert the reader with imagining what this dreadful bore would be like in real life, but to today’s audience it also gives a little insight into the early days of driving in America. Even an experienced driver like Schmaltz wasn’t able to drive more than 298 miles in one day – which makes you realise he must have travelled at some speed in the times before freeways! We also get a good understanding of the kind of man Mr Schmaltz is, which doesn’t require much room for anything too deep. Although it’s an enjoyable read, you’re also aware that, deep down, it’s fairly inconsequential, and you don’t need to read too much into it. If there is one lesson to be learned from it, it would be beware of getting cornered by the likes of Mr Schmaltz!
The next story sounds as though it might have a little more gravitas – A Novel in Nine Letters by Fyodor Dostoevsky. In my younger days I read The Brothers Karamazov and Crime and Punishment, but I’ve never read any of his short stories, so this should be interesting! This is also the first of the three stories in the anthology that have been categorised as Letter Narration.