”Oh...I suppose America terrifies me. I feel insecure there. I feel everybody watching me, and criticizing me unless I’m buzzing about Doing Something Important--uplifting the cinema or studying Einstein or winning bridge championships or breeding Schnauzers or something. And there’s no privacy, and I’m an extravagant woman when it comes to the luxury of privacy.” Edith CortrightWalter Huston plays Sam Dodsworth in the 1936 movie.
Sam Dodsworth made a small fortune building up an automobile company and then selling it to one of his rivals. At the age of 50, thinking it would please his wife, he decides that they need to take advantage of this point of idleness to take a grand tour of Europe. Fran is 41, but looks and usually acts much younger. He fell in love with her at first sight. ”If she was an angel, she was an angel of ice; slim, shining, ash-blonde, her self-possessed voice very cool as she parried the complimentary teasing of half a dozen admirers; a crystal candle-stick of a girl among black-and-white lumps of males.”Ruth Chatterton plays Fran Dodsworth in the excellent film adaptation of the book.
By contrast Samuel Dodsworth:”was the American Captain of Industry, believing in the Republican Party, high tariff and, so long as they did not annoy him personally, in prohibition and the Episcopal Church. He was the president of the Revelation Motor Company; he was a millionaire, though decidedly not a multimillionaire; his large house was on Ridge Crest, the most fashionable street in Zenith; he had some taste in etchings; he did not split many infinitives; and he sometimes enjoyed Beethoven.”
It is interesting to read those two descriptions which are humorous, but laced with satire. As you have probably read in other novels from the 1920s the upper set of society drank as much if not more during prohibition as they did before prohibition. Now the problem is that the two of them have made a good life for themselves, but they have been so busy making money, raising kids, and taking care of all those daily trials and tribulations that they really haven’t had to spend a lot of time together. We are seeing the Baby Boomer generation starting to retire and also seeing divorce rates of people over 55 skyrocketing. When they finally have time to spend with their spouse, unfortunately, they are finding out that they really don’t like them very much.
Opposites do attract, but only if both parties focus on what they agree on more than what they disagree on. In the case of Sam and Fran his bumbling, overanxious, Americanism rubs up against her suave, cultured, faux-Europeanism making for many points of friction which for the first half of the book I found to be more amusing than provoking. The Traveling American's faithful companion.”In every phase Fran was an incalculable about ‘sight-seeing’ as about liking his business associates. One day she was brazen enough to be discovered with the tourists’ badge, the red Baedeker, unconcealed; the next she wouldn’t even sit with him at a sidewalk cafe--at the Napolitain or the Closerie-des-Lilas.
‘But why not?’ he protested. ‘Best place to see the world go by. Everybody goes to ‘em.’
‘Smart people don’t.’
‘Well, I’m not smart!’
‘Well, I am!’
‘Then you ought to be smart enough to not care what anybody thinks!’
‘Perhaps I am...But I don’t care to be seen sitting with a lot of trippers in raincoats.’
‘But you sat in a cafe yesterday, and enjoyed it. Don’t you remember the begger that sang--’
‘Exactly! I’ve had enough of it! Oh, if you want to go and yearn over your dear American fellow tourists, by all means go, my dear Samuel! I am going to the Crillon and have a decent tea.’
‘And yearn over the dear fellow American tourists that happen to be rich!’
‘Is it necessary for you always to quarrel with me because I want to do what I want to do? I’m not keeping you from sitting on your sidewalks. Don’t go to the Crillon! Go to one of your beloved American bars, if you want to, and scrape up acquaintance with a lot of drunken businessmen--’
They compromised on going to the Crillon.”
They have to leave London in rather a hurry because Fran is involved in a scandal with a young man. They have to leave Paris in even more of a hurry because of yet another scandal with a young man. The fighting is no longer two strong willed people having an argument that creates the proper chemistry for a relationship, but two people who are really starting to not like each other. Sam continues to give in to Fran, tries not to be jealous, and tries to keep his mouth in bounds, but we all know there is only so much grinding any human being can take before it evolves from being a teasing conflict to outright war. In Berlin Fran meets Count Obersdorf and she has visions of being a Countess, a broke Countess, but still royalty.
That tears it.
Or does it?”She was lovely quicksilver, but quicksilver is hard for a thick hand to hold.”
Sam storms away back to Paris and meets a girl by the name of Nande. ”She darned his socks and made him drink less cognac, she cooked snails for him so that he actually liked them, she taught him new ways of love, and when she found that he did not know them, she laughed at him, but affectionately. For the first time in his life he began to learn that he need not be ashamed of the body which God had presumably given him but which Fran had considered rather an error. He found in himself a power of intense passion such as, all his life, he had guiltily believed himself to lack; and sometimes Nande’s flat seemed to him the Bower of Eden.”
The whole time Sam can’t stop feeling like he is cheating on Fran. The poor sap. And for those of you that haven’t added “French girlfriend” to your bucket list you might want to make a note of that now. Sinclair Lewis, looking so thoughtful. How about a smile?Ok bad idea you are looking creepy and insane...no smiling...stop smiling. I'm serious!!
Dodsworth (1929) is the fifth book in what is considered the most productive years of Sinclair Lewis’s life. His breakthrough book was Main Street
in 1920 followed by Babbitt
in 1922, Arrowsmith
in 1925 and Elmer Gantry
in 1927. These five books were what earned him the Nobel Prize in 1930 with most of the emphasis given to the influence of Babbitt
on literature. He wrote in what I feel is golden age of American Literature with Fitzgerald, Wolfe, Hemingway, Wharton, Cather, Dos Passos, and Faulkner all churning out literature that is admired and emulated today; and yet, Sinclair Lewis would not make most of those lists. In his day he was wildly popular, his biting satire of American culture was lapped up by a generation in love with America, but looking to Europe for inspiration in their writing, their artistry, their vision. They had to stand on a foreign shore to really see America and in many cases make peace with it.
Maybe as a nation we do not have the tolerance for Lewis’s way of satirizing America. Are our shoulders not as broad? Are our minds not as open to what the world can teach us? Maybe we just don’t feel as invulnerable as we once did. Criticism now stings instead of producing reflective laughter.
I’ve had the pleasure of traveling through Europe several times and every time I come back with a refreshed perspective. For one thing my work that creates so much stress and strain on my life over there represents a piece of sand, something I can easily hold in my hand, rather than a mountain filled with boulders and treacherous overhangs. The world, when you travel, seems too big to be worried about something so small.
I will be reading more Sinclair Lewis and for sure I will bring him along the next time I’m in Naples. ”They came home, dusty from Naples, for tea in the dim huge room looking on the bay. The late-afternoon glow over the piled hill of Naples faded to misty blue. The last highlight in the scene was the smoke of Vesuvius, a fabulous flamingo hue in the vanishing sunlight, As the bay turned to a blue fabric woven with silver threads, the lights of braziers came out cheerfully in the little fishing boats”