Sunday, March 14, 2021

Nobel Laureate Sinclair Lewis Wrote About Race Relations While Living In Duluth

When Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2016, a lot of the news focused on whether he was the best choice to win that year. No doubt many of those who questioned were earnest but simply unaware of the breadth and depth of his catalogue, and global influence. 

One story that did not get much play, however, was this one. The first American Nobel Laureate, Sinclair Lewis, also lived in Duluth for a season--at the same time as young Bob Dylan. That's right. Bobby Zimmerman was born here in 1941. Six years later the family moved to Hibbing. During that same time period Sinclair Lewis lived in Duluth (1944-1946) and wrote an important novel about race relations which he titled Kingsblood Royal.  

What's of interest to me isn't simply the matter that both the first and latest Nobel Prize-winning authors lived in Duluth at the same time. Rather, it's that each of them had undoubtedly been influenced by an event that occurred here, an event that made each more acutely aware of justice issues and race relations in America. I'm referring to the lynching of 1920.

Nearly every Dylan fan is keenly aware of the opening lines of "Desolation Row": "They're selling post cards of the hanging..." Fewer by far are the number of people who know the story of Kingsblood Royal, which was published in 1947 after Lewis left Duluth.

The storyline was inspired by actual events, not here but in Detroit. An African American doctor, Ossian Sweet, purchased a house in a white section of town. A hostile white mob gathered to protest his having moved into their neighborhood. Rocks were thrown at his house, windows broken. When shots were fired from an upper window two whites were struck, one killed. Dr. Sweet, his wife and nine others were arrested and charged with murder.

Sweet, who was born in Florida, had headed North to escape the Jim Crow South. After having earned his medical degree at Howard University in 1924, Sweet moved to Detroit to set up his practice there. His success enabled him to purchase a middle class home. In the South blacks could be openly treated as second class citizens. In the North, the Sweets learned -- like others before them -- that these unjust rules were not as explicit, but still applied. 

After the arrests, the NAACP acquired Clarence Darrow to represent the Sweets. Detroit prosecutors (yes, this is their argument) said that the Sweets, having moved to a white neighborhood, "violated social norms." 

There were two trials, with the second resulting in an acquittal. The NAACP celebrated this as a victory, but the story had no happy ending. The family never lived in that house. Both his wife and daughter died shortly after. After several decades of frustration Dr. Sweet himself committed suicide.

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Though Sinclair Lewis worked on Kingsblood Royal 25 years after the Duluth lynchings, it is a near certainty that the memory of that terrible event still wafted about in the air here. Lewis himself was a Minnesotan (Sauk City) and no doubt had been aware of what transpired here in the Northland. Perhaps the details of that mob's behavior helped add authenticity to the race riot that takes place at the end of Kingsblood Royal.

Here's an overview of the story's premise from Goodreads:

A neglected tour de force by the first American to win the Nobel Prize in literature, Kingsblood Royal is a stirring and wickedly funny portrait of a man who resigns from the white race. When Neil Kingsblood, a typical middle-American banker with a comfortable life, makes the shocking discovery that he has African blood, the odyssey that ensues creates an unforgettable portrayal of two Americas, one black, one white.

As timely as when it was first published in 1947, one need only open today's newspaper to see the same issues passionately being discussed between blacks and whites that we find in 
Kingsblood Royal, says Charles Johnson. Perhaps only now can we fully appreciate Sinclair Lewis's astonishing achievement.

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Those who have read the books state that it was miles ahead of its time. Unfortunately, the insights it offers will probably never be read nowadays because--like Huckleberry Finn and To Kill A Mockingbird--he uses the N-word.

You can read Goodreads Reader Reviews here.

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Related Links

The Ossian Sweet Story at BlackPast.com

Sinclair Lewis In Duluth

The Lynchings In Duluth


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