Thursday, August 15, 2013

Tolkien and Sinclair Lewis

So, one of the surprising things in the EMP Fantasy exhibit we went to a few weeks back that I didn't mention in that earlier write-up (because I wanted more time to research it) was a letter from J. R. R. Tolkien to Professor H. C. Bauer. While quite brief and typed, not handwritten, I found it of great interest, because (a) I'd never heard of a Tolkien/Bauer connection  and (b) the letter to Bauer, brief as it is, contains information I'd never come across before.

In the letter, dated November 1966, Tolkien thanks Bauer for an article or reprint Bauer had sent him. What this piece was I have been unable to establish, there being no entry for Bauer in West, Johnson, or Jonsson's bibliographies. Nor is he mentioned anywhere in the index to the Scull-Hammond CHRONOLOGY and/or READER'S GUIDE. However, it must have had something to do with the work of Sinclair Lewis, since Tolkien immediately segues into saying that he is now inclined to think that the word hobbit owes something to Lewis's BABBITT. That information is already known to us from the Plimmer interview a few months later (see HoH.59, Note 6), and indeed I now suspect Tolkien brought it up to the Plimmers because of this then-recent exchange with Bauer.

The Bauer letter does resolve one puzzle. In The History of The Hobbit (page xxxvii) I pointed out the difficulties of BABBITT having influenced Tolkien's creation of the word 'hobbit' on what turns out to be the false assumption that Tolkien may have learned of Sinclair Lewis's book through S.L.'s winning the Nobel Prize for literature, the first American to be so offered. But that was in November 1930, whereas the evidence suggests Tolkien invented the word earlier that year, in the summer (and those who disagree with my argument for that date all want to date it earlier, not later).

That problem disappears with Tolkien's statement in the Bauer letter that he read all of Sinclair Lewis. Even if we assume that by "all" he means not literally everything S.Lewis had ever written (some two dozen books) but the famous ones: MAIN STREET (1920), BABBITT of course, the only title we know for certain, since in his remarks to the Plimmers Tolkien describes Babbitt's character and its shortcomings (1922), ARROWSMITH (1925), ELMER GANTY (1927), possibly DODSWORTHY (1929), and IT CAN'T HAPPEN HERE (1935).

Quite aside from being interesting in its own right -- I look forward to the first article comparing S. Lewis's and Tolkien's works -- this new information helps put to rest the idea that Tolkien was largely ignorant of literature after 1400. He was of course conversant with pretty much everything a literature major today would have known about English literature up to the start of the Victorian era (i.e., through the Romantics and Austen), and we know from scattered miscellaneous evidence that he knew a fair amount about works from the following century or so, especially the Georgians, but like many of us did not keep up with many of his contemporaries (e.g. Joyce, Lawrence, Woolf). If we were picking names at random, the idea that Tolkien was fond of the work of Sinclair Lewis would seem unlikely -- but here we are fortunate enough to have direct evidence from Tolkien himself that he must have thought highly of S.L.'s work to read so much of it. A nice little discovery to make, which wd have made the visit to the Fantasy exhibit worthwhile just in itself, even without all the other enjoyable exhibits.

Next up: more on Harry Bauer.

--John R.
current reading: THE RING GOES SOUTH
current audiobook: Boswell's LIFE OF JOHNSON (tenth of thirty-four disks).


Damien said...

Dear John,

This is indeed an interesting piece of information regarding Sinclair Lewis.

From scattered comments in the _Letters_ and elsewhere, it was quite noticeable that Tolkien was conversant with contemporary literature. Yet, this adds one more piece to the puzzle.

One should also mention that Tolkien had a taste for modern science-fiction and fantasy, as _The Notion Club Papers_ shows. And indeed, we know he read Lewis' _Space Trilogy_ (of course), some writings by W. de la Mare, Lord Dunsany, E.R. Eddison, I. Asimov, as well as an anthology edited by L. Sprague de Camp, which included several additional authors: R. Howard, P. Anderson, F. Leiber, H.P. Lovecraft, H. Kuttner, C.L. Moore, and C.A. Smith.

Interestingly enough, there does not seem to be a lot a research done on Tolkien's interest for other SF and fantasy authors, except the precursors whose influence on his writings he readily admitted.


Robert Parker said...

What are the West, Johnson, and Jonsson's bibliographies you refer to?