Markov Chains, Sinclair Lewis, and Other Letters to the Editor

For the editor:

“On Main Street” (January 2) is a welcome reminder of the life and literary achievements of Sinclair Lewis. Disappointing, however, is Robert Gottlieb’s treatment of “Kingsblood Royal”, offered as an example of Lewis’ “mediocre to terrible” later novels. The revelation of Neil Kingsblood’s mixed racial ancestry forcing his family to flee their home should not seem, as it does to Gottlieb, ‘absurd’, given the riots over integrated housing in the 1950s and 1960s and the fact that de facto segregation is still variously in place across the country. Although critics, including the Times, criticized the book upon publication, Brent Staples reassessed it in 2002, noting, “The literary sands that buried Lewis’s reputation half a century ago began to change. … Much of the country couldn’t hear the sage of Main Street in 1947, but it certainly can hear him today.

Two decades later, Gottlieb’s otherwise generous assessment of Lewis’s legacy bears this out.

Ralph Goldstein
Altadena, California.

The writer is president of the Sinclair Lewis Society.

For the editor:

Robert Gottlieb’s impassioned and unbiased overview of Lewis’s career is an excellent argument for revisiting a writer whose inventiveness deserves more credit. But in discussing “Babbitt,” Lewis’ greatest novel, Gottlieb omits what made it most radical.

George Babbitt does not only rebel against racism, consumerism, religious conformity and capitalism. Above all, it opposes heteronormativity.

In a subtle subplot, Lewis portrays “Babbitt’s proud, gullible love passing the love of women” for Paul Riesling, his best friend. Like something straight out of “Brokeback Mountain”, Babbitt yearns to run away with Paul, camp and fish in Maine, a desire “as irresistible and imaginative as homesickness”. Babbitt’s desire for “Paulibus”, as he affectionately calls Paul, is ultimately unfulfilled, as are all his fantasies of breaking free. But the subplot shows just how far Lewis’ imagination could go, and that complexity still demands our attention.

Carla Kaplan
Boston

For the editor:

Thank you for this wonderful article on Sinclair Lewis. It reminded me of my high school project on the author, circa 1960. I read all his books, telling myself that I was doing homework and therefore had the right to do so.

I will be 79 this month. I believe his books gave me ideas of what I could do and what life was about. They have unknowingly helped me throughout my life. I’ve been a single mom for most of my adult life and have embraced many of her ideas.

On this New Year’s Day, you brought back wonderful memories of an enjoyable time and certainly of an author who helps me continue to love reading throughout my life. I didn’t remember her character Myra!

Myra Levy
Rockville Center, NY

For the editor:

Why is the reference to mathematical ideas considered “superfluous technical jargon” while references to a medieval love story and a century-old book about a day in Dublin are not?

Giles Harvey, in his review of Tom McCarthy’s “The Making of Incarnation” (January 2), lambastes the author for making a character speak of a “discrete-time Markov chain in a countable state space” . I and a large group of others with no more than a college education in math, physics, finance, engineering, or statistics certainly understand those terms. On the other hand, I had to look for the story of “Tristan und Isolde”. Somehow, expecting readers to know Joyce’s “Ulysses” isn’t considered pedantic. I guess right now more people are using Markov chains in their work than reading “Ulysses”. Many, of course, have done both.

I hope that a discussion of mathematics should be a source of pleasure rather than derision.

Andy Davidson
New York

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