It's sort of amusing that I decided to read Sinclair Lewis's "Ann Vickers" considering the only other novel I have read from America's winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature was "Babbitt," and that one a few years ago. I couldn't tell you why I chose to read this 1933 novel rather than "Main Street," "Arrowsmith," "Elmer Gantry," or even "Kingsblood Royal." Any one of these four books would be the logical choice after reading "Babbitt." I'm nothing if I'm not contrary to people's expectations, so when I saw this book on the shelf at the library I snatched it up without a second thought and headed home to read it. The book, even at 560 pages, doesn't take that long to read as the font is large and the pages small. Nonetheless, it took me four days to get through the novel largely due to the outdated lingo and the uneven quality of the book. There are several reasons why you haven't heard of "Ann Vickers" before now, one of them being that moving through certain sections of the book feels like serving a ten-year sentence of hard labor at the local penitentiary. Overall, though, Lewis's scathing treatise on radical politics and feminism in the first third of the twentieth century is worth the effort.
Lewis follows the titular character from her earliest years as a resident of Waubanakee, Illinois to her emergence as a major reformer on the East Coast. Right from the start, we get the idea that Ann is different from the other little boys and girls. The only child of a college professor, Ann's social position is one of high standing and moderate wealth. Nonetheless, she soon falls under the spell of a fiery socialist German immigrant named Klebs. By the time Ann goes to college, she's well on the way to becoming a true extremist. She drops out of the Y.W.C.A. after learning to reject Christianity with the help of a radical professor. Vickers forms a socialist organization on campus, embarks on a forbidden relationship with a faculty member, and earns a decidedly unsavory reputation amongst her fellow students. After graduating, she joins the suffrage movement, an activity that requires her to deliver oratories on street corners, go to jail for organizing protests, and hobnob with prominent personalities. Vickers, like most leftist radicals, never stays with a single cause for long. After several stints as assistant superintendents at homes that teach the urban poor and new immigrants life skills, she sets out to work as a prison reformer. The best part of the book details Ann's struggles in a southern prison, where she battles unsanitary conditions, lackadaisical treatment of prisoners, capital punishment, and corruption.
Lewis is very careful to examine all aspects of his character's life. "Ann Vickers" constantly looks behind the rhetoric and politics in an effort to capture the emotional aspects of womanhood. Just because Ann is a radical doesn't mean she's cold to the idea of men. In fact, she has several relationships throughout her life, from a soldier during the First World War named Lafe Resnick to fellow radical Russell Spaulding to a corrupt New York judge named Barney Dolphin. Vickers's experiences with abortion, infidelity, and promiscuity fuel much of the narrative drive of the novel. Her experiences also cool her radical fire so that by the end of the book she's a determined liberal living out of wedlock with a disgraced member of the system. There's a great line at the end of the book where Lewis describes Ann as the "Captive Woman, the Free Woman, the Great Woman, the Feminist Woman, the Domestic Woman, the Passionate Woman, the Cosmopolitan Woman, the Village Woman-the Woman." In short, although he often disagrees with the hypocrisy of Ann and her methods, he does believe that conditions in America were changing enough that a female could now realize all aspects of her personality in both the private and public spheres.
The problems of the book are many. First, I've always believed I should support my state university's publishing house, but this University of Nebraska Press edition is an embarrassment. From pages 371 to 394, half of the pages are blank. Yep, someone let a Sinclair Lewis novel go to bookstore shelves without correcting this completely unacceptable blunder. Even worse, the missing pages start up during the best part of the story, when Ann Vickers works in the southern prison. A primal scream is in order here, but I'm hoping this mistake is specific to one copy and not to the entire run. Second, and more in tune to the actual novel, the first 100 pages of the story aren't very interesting. Vickers's childhood and college days reek of boredom. Only when the character heads out into the larger world and starts mixing it up does the book start to soar. Third, I often thought Ann an unpleasant character, especially when her marital machinations emerge towards the end of the story.
I think this last point, Ann's adultery, upsets me because I'm male. It's an unfair accusation for me to make, though, because men routinely leave their girlfriends and wives for other women in exactly the same way Vickers does. In any event, it's another example of what Lewis tries to say with the novel, that women now have the freedom to live their lives as they see fit. Ultimately, would I recommend "Ann Vickers"? I don't know. I think "Babbitt" light years ahead of this effort. I do believe "Ann Vickers" doesn't receive attention from today's leftist literati because Lewis viciously skewers the far left on nearly every page. Give it a shot if you're a Lewis fan or a moderate conservative who likes to see the leftist fringe occasionally take it on the chin.