American literary fiction would’ve been much duller without Sinclair Lewis’s offerings. Because of works such as Babbitt, Elmer Gantry, and It Can’t Happen Here I along with many others decided to try writing novels. I’ve always believed that Sinclair Lewis’ worst far exceeded the best novels I’ve read…until now. It wouldn’t be much of an exaggeration for me to write that reading Cass Timberlane ranked among the biggest disappointments of my adult life. I read this book because Cass and Jinny Timberlane crossed over into the follow-up novel Kingsblood Royal. Lewis would’ve been wiser to save them for that piece.
The word pedestrian best described the overall premise of this book. The tale centered around a middle-aged man infatuated with a much younger woman. Is anyone still reading this review? Really? Okay, I’ll continue. Without the two knowing each other very well, they decided to espouse. I’m serious: does this plot line hook anybody? Could the overall concept be more banal? I hate to write it, but the answer is: yes. Predictably, trouble ensued due to the age difference. Imagine that. As the story wore on Cass suspected his wife of, you’ll never believe this, infidelity! Judge Timberlane tried to do everything he could to please her, yada, yada, yada.
But Cass Timberlane got worse. Sinclair Lewis possessed a genius for crafting sentences. I loved the way he’d begin with a phrase that led the reader to come to one conclusion. He would then throw a twist in the next one to reverse the meaning. Most times he’d do this while satirizing the foibles in American society. I didn’t read many such passages in Cass Timberlane. In the interest of fairness, Mr. Lewis did include several memorable lines. I’ll provide them here.
Fortunately Hudbury did remember him, and fortunately he did not remember that he had hated Congressman Timberlane after a party caucus at which the fellow had suggested that even Republicans ought to know that there was a new invention called labor unions. (Location 2837)
Here’s another sample of vintage Lewis.
The Senator looked confused, but he was used to it. For years and years he had been confused over something or other, and he would continue to be confused until someone in his State discovered that he was their Senator, and had him defeated. (Location 2849)
The best flash of Lewis’ clever expression occurred in the following.
During his first five readings of the masterpiece, he twice decided that she liked him, once that she loved him furiously, once that this was merely a routine answer with all the romantic flavor of payment of a gas-bill, and once that she was bored by him and intended, on his evening of oratory, to go off dancing with some treacherous swine like Elno Roskinen. (Location 1556)
Textual flourishes like the above first interested me in Sinclair Lewis. Cass Timberlane dissatisfied for not including enough of them.
One critique that Lewis received over the years entailed his not qualifying as a “modern writer.” A critic, who’s name escaped me as I wrote this, called his works more similar to those of Anthony Trollope than someone like William Faulkner. Structurally, I thought Lewis tried to make 1945’s Cass Timberlane more contemporary. At the end of several chapters, Lewis inserted a section called “An Assemblage of Husbands and Wives.” In it, he described the travails of married folk in his fictitious setting of Grand Republic. None of these couples had any role in the overall story. It distracted from the narrative flow and did nothing to enhance the overall narrative. Lewis should’ve stayed with the methods he did best.
I can’t believe Sinclair Lewis wrote a boring book. It took me a week of long, ponderous reading to discover this unfortunate fact. There’s no reason for Sinclair Lewis fans to mope. If they want to read Lewis’ take on a troubled marriage: read Dodsworth. If they’d like to read a good example of plot development: read Elmer Gantry. If they read Kingsblood Royal and would like to learn more about Grand Republic or the Timberlanes, read Kingsblood Royal again. While the quality of Lewis’ other novels set my expectations quite high Cass Timberlane fell abysmally short of them.