Sinclair Lewis’ novel Dodsworth is about the ambitious automobile manufacturer Sam Dodsworth from a town called Zenith, somewhere in the United States. At the age of 50, Sam is rich enough to refuse the well-paid job his company offers him. His American wife of German descent, Fran, convinces him to live in Europe for a while. And so the Dodsworths experience England, France and Germany in the late 1920ies. Sam, “the great Herr Geheimrat Generaldirektor that developed the entire motor industry” (116) – as Fran called him once ironically – goes with his wife on a trip to Europe to escape the narrowness of the provincial town of Zenith. During this journey to Europe, or especially during their stay in Berlin, Sam and Fran’s marriage falls apart.
In this novel, Berlin seems to function as the basic cause for the ruin of the Dodsworths’ marriage. What is the power, the influence, that Berlin exerts on the Dodsworths’ life? Fran and Count Kurt von Obersdorf, two of the main characters, are both responsible for the later separation of Fran and Sam and the breaking of their matrimony by divorce. Why was this possible in Berlin?
This question is closely connected with the American conception of Germany. It must be clarified how America views Germany, which image of Germany is portrayed in Sinclair Lewis’ novel. In this context, the attitudes of the different characters (Sam, Fran, Count Obersdorf, etc.) towards Germany must be analyzed. However, since Fran’s ancestors came directly from Europe (Germany), her conception of this country differs significantly from Sam’s. The latter represents the standard Mid-Western American of the early 20th century and has never been abroad to Europe.
The interpretation of three selected sample passages will demonstrate how the image of Germany develops throughout the novel, and how this changing image eventually affects Fran and Sam’s marriage. Sam Dodsworth is the main character of the novel and his mind and ideas also undergo a development.
The first sample passage is taken from Chapter 1, pp. 6-7. It is the only coherent passage about Germany in the beginning of the novel. This particular passage gives a description of Fran Voelker’s European background. His conversation with Fran also provides Sam with his first image of Germany.
Sam sees Fran for the first time at the Canoe Club. He asks his friend Tub Pearson about her: “Who’s the young angel on the porch?” (6). When he finds out that the young woman is Herman Voelker’s daughter, Sam replies: “that [Herman Voelker] should have fathered anything so poised and luminous as Fran was a miracle” (7). These images taken from religious vocabulary (angel, miracle) are later intensified on by the narrator who refers to her as a “crystal candle stick” (6). Opposed to the ‘luminous candle-stick angel’ are the “black and white lumps of males” who admire her (6). Fran is described as being nearly holy while these young men are profane and of such small importance as to be called “lumps of males”. Fran as an angel is even further defined: “it is an angel of ice”, “her self-possessed voice is very cool” (6). These expressions can be interpreted as an anticipation of Fran’s character, that is revealed later on in the novel. On page 307, for instance, the character of Fran is again put into a religious context: “Fran had become to him [to Sam] a nun, taboo, any passion was forbidden, a brother and sister relationship!” Later, on page 379, the narrator further exemplifies Fran’s apparent frigidity: “Sam had heard of the ‘sexually cold American woman’. Heaven knows, he felt it in Fran.”
The girl’s name is clear evidence of her background. It is Fran Voelker, “kid of old Herman Voelker”. Herman is a common German first name and their last name, Voelker, also finds its origins in the German language (Völker is the German plural form of Volk meaning people or nation). The girl’s name, Frances or Fran, is not German at all but an American Christian name, that derived from the Latin name Francisca or Italian Francesca. The fact that Herman Voelker did not give his daughter a typical German name but an English version of a Latin name underlines the process of cultural assimilation of this German family in the United States. Fran probably belongs to the first native-born generation.
Another fact that refers to the Voelkers German background is that: “Herman Voelker had brewed his way into millions”, “his tart beer was admirable”(7). This is a hint that the Voelkers originally came from Bavaria, a federal state in Southern Germany, that is well-known for its tart beer. On page 59, Fran directly refers to this region: “my ancestors come from the Bavarian mountains, in short green pants, and yodeled”. Voelker’s house in Zenith had the “greatest amount of turrets, colored glass windows and lace curtains” (7). This kind of architecture is very typical for the “castles of the Rhine” that are referred to in a later passage (214).
Fran was “East in finishing-school”. As there are many universities of high tradition in New England, or on the American East coast in general, one can assume that the Voelkers are rather wealthy. Furthermore, “Fran has been abroad for a year” and “she speaks German and French and Italian and Woof-woof and all known languages” (6). During her year in Europe (‘abroad’), Fran has acquired her cultural pretensions. At a later point in the novel she proclaims to Sam: “I have read more French and German and British books than you detective stories” (117). Fran’s concept of Europe is quite different from Sam’s. The latter got his information only from newspapers and other people telling him about it. Fran experienced Europe herself and has German ancestors that must have kept their German traditions to a certain degree.
Herman Voelker “was a leader among the German-Americans, who were supplanting the New Englanders as controllers of finance and merchandising” (7). This point is taken up in the second passage to be further analyzed, where professor Braut lectures about the only real European , the aristocrat, who prefers culture and ideals to quick money-making. Herman Voelker, not being such a European, preferred to emigrate to the United States. However, Herman Voelker’s wealth is in harmony with the fine arts and intellectual ambitions. He is interested in paintings, for example, as he recently brought back from Nuremberg, Germany, “one of the genuine hand-painted pictures” which “was worth nearly ten thousand dollars” (7). The intellectual reader can assume that it is referred to a work by the famous painter and art critic Albrecht Dürer who lived in Nuremberg in the 15th and 16th centuries. Herman Voelker also entertained German professors when they came lecturing (as for instance Professor Braut whom Sam meets in Berlin in the second sample passage).
The narrator describes Herman Voelker as a “beef-colored burgher” (7). The word ‘burgher’ must have been chosen intentionally since it has the same etymology as the German word ‘Bürger’ (citizen). The old or humorous term ‘burgher’ designates a citizen, especially of Dutch or German town (cf. New Webster’s Dictionary and Thesaurus). Moreover, Herman Voelker was a citizen whose skin must have had the color of beef. This image obviously alludes to the word ‘hamburger’ which contains beef. The hamburger, however, gets its name from Western Germany’s largest port city: Hamburg.
In this first encounter with Fran Voelker, Sam learns a lot about her German background and her traditions. Since he has never been to Europe himself, he is impressed by the information he receives about her. He learns that her family is wealthy, cultured and intelligent. He learns about tart beer and Bavarians in leather pants yodeling. And Fran, the young woman he admires at the party, comes out of even this context. Therefore, Sam gets a very positive picture of Germany, and everything that comes with it.
However, referring to Fran as an ‘angel’ in the beginning of the passage and calling her a ‘miracle’ at the end, Sam seems to consider Fran Voelker as something almost supernatural, inconceivable. He possibly feels inferior to her and insecure. Indeed, this feeling overcomes him very often when he stays with her in Europe. In any case, Sam’s conception of Germany is significantly shaped and defined by his encounter with Fran Voelker.
Later, Sam and Fran decide to get married and to live abroad in Europe for some time. But before they eventually arrive in Berlin, the descriptions in the text already focus on Europe. There are short allusions to Germany – mingled with the text of each chapter – that shape Sam’s image of Germany.
When talking about their trip to Europe, for instance, Sam mentions that he would like to see the Mercedes plants in Germany (17). Later in the story, Mr. Atkins, whom Sam meets in Paris, “won Sam by telling him of a meeting with Dr. Carl Benz, the father of the motor car, at Mannheim” (147). Another reference to a German car manufacturer is on page 193, when Sam and Tub speak about automobiles: “The Opel people in Germany are putting up low-priced cars” (193).
In a brochure, Sam reads about the “Römerberg at Frankfort” (22). A little later, there is a reference to “the Biedermeyer rug from Fran’s kin in Germany” (28). The narrator mentions German Catholic churches and Schnutz College in Minnesota (106). Fran wonders: “what was Karl Baedecker like?” (121). Later on, Sam reads in Baedecker historical dates about Notre Dame Cathedral (157). Ross Ireland talks to Sam about skyscrapers: “they make Cologne Cathedral look like a Methodist chapel” (171). In the streets of New York, Sam also finds signs that allude to Germany. He reads: “Löwenstein & Putski, Garments for Little Gents,” and “The Gay Life Brassière, Rothweiser and Gitz” (173). When Sam’s son Brent comes to see him for a day, he wants to show his father “a real joint with real German beer” (193).