Only an author with the caliber of Sinclair Lewis could make 1940’s Minnesota look like the Deep South of the 1860s. In his racially charged, Kingsblood Royal, he did just that. I remember hearing a story that someone invited him to his own lynching following the 1927 publication of Elmer Gantry. I think it fair to say Mr. Lewis didn’t increase his popularity when he wrote this piece twenty years later; certainly not in Minnesota.
Kingsblood Royal painted a disturbing picture of a racially divided America during the Second World War. Lewis used a number of creative techniques to accomplish this. He set many of his earlier works in the fictitious state of Winnemac. This story took place in Lewis’ home state of Minnesota. It occurred in a fictional town called “Grand Republic”. The fact he selected a northern state not well known for racial strife really added to the emotional resonance of the story. The name of the town clarified the author’s intention the story be applicable to the nation as a whole.
I really enjoyed the action that spurred the narrative. Dr. Kingsblood asked his son to investigate the family history. As an amateur genealogist, I could relate. The doctor heard an old family tale that the Kinsgsbloods descended from British royalty. He asserted this made them the rightful heirs to the Throne, hence the surname.
Neil’s research uncovered a much different family history. At first he discovered that an ancestor married a Native American woman. While uncomfortable with that finding, he later determined the ancestor in question happened to be African-American.
Following this, Neil went on a personal voyage to understand what it was like to be an African-American man living in America. Keep in mind that Neil was only 1/32nd African-American. Under the laws of some states at the time of publication, that would’ve made him 100% African-American. The story centered on his internal debate over whether or not to reveal his discovery to his friends, family and coworkers. Lewis described this series of events with a uniqueness all his own.
I would caution readers that this book contained a lot of language that a modern audience would consider offensive. I’d suspect it made a good portion of its 1940’s audience uncomfortable as well. The narration clearly exhibited Lewis’ abhorrence for racial bigotry. He chose the best means possible to get that across to his readers.
It wouldn’t have been a Sinclair Lewis novel without quirky characters and raw satire. Lewis did an exceptional job of fusing the two in this book. I emphasize again that some of this language will make modern readers uncomfortable. I personally find any form of bigotry offensive. In the interest of textual integrity I shall share some of them. Here is his depiction of two men pondering whether or not Neil violated the terms of a restrictive covenant.
No, not yet, but everybody knew that it would, because everybody knew that all Negroes like this fellow (Neil Kingsblood) were unbathed and noisy, and while he, Mr. Stopple, had no prejudices, and neither had he, Mr. Eisenherz, still facts were facts. Weren’t they?
Bertie Eisenherz had been very fond of the mulatto mistress he had had for two years while he was with the legation in Portugal, and he was irritated by all this insular imbecility, but he needed the money, he always needed the money, for the maintenance of his precarious conviction that he was a great gentleman. And though he was devoted to his Renoir and his autographed set of Henry James, he was legitimately the grandson of Simon Eisenherz, the shrewdest and most resolute pilferer of Indian forest-land titles in Northern Minnesota. (Page 308)
Lewis’ best satirical portrayal showed shades of Elmer Gantry. This preacher added a dose of white supremacy to his hypocrisy.
Among these latter-day Barnums of Grand Republic was one Jat Snood, who had not finished high school, but was a Doctor of Divinity. He was the owner and chief ballyhooer of a vast shed down on South Champlain Avenue and East Winchell Street, in the South End, and he had romantically named it “God’s Prophesy Tabernacle: Founded on the Book: Christ for All and All for Christ.”
It is true that the Reverend Doctor had never been able to stay in any one town for more than five years, because he knew only fifty sermons and fifty vaudeville tricks, and even his faded and gnarled and gum-chewing audiences got sick of him. But while it lasted, he did very well financially, because he titillated his crowds with ginger and hell-fire and made Swedish hired girls and German grocery-clerks and Yankee lineman feel that if they could not meet Hiram Sparrock at the Federal Club, they could meet God and His angels and the souls of the elect at God’s Prophesy Tabernacle: contributions voluntary (but frequent). Jat screamed at them, in high-toned polysyllables flavored with jazz and slang, that if they were ill-used by the snobs among old Americans, still they could be snobs themselves, and he invited them to look down, contemptuously, upon all Jews, Negroes, Catholics, and Socialists. (Page 159)
While I expected more proficient syntax from a Yale graduate, Lewis’ acerbic and amusing description allowed me to look past it.
Kingsblood Royal is an underrated masterpiece in the Sinclair Lewis catalog. Who else could present a story about a Caucasian banker being victimized by Jim Crow Laws in Minnesota? Once again, the author presented a thoroughly troubling, yet entertaining depiction of the American experience’s darker side. While the some of the language will offend modern readers, Lewis used it in a manner that illustrated his personal contempt for the racial bigotry permeating society during the late 1940’s. It personalized the story for me. I could get a true emotional sense of what Neil experienced. Readers ignore the lessons of this tale at their peril.