The man who knew Coolidge… or did he?

Sinclair Lewis as a young man

Sinclair Lewis, who went on to receive the Nobel prize for literature in 1930 for works such as MAIN STREET, ELMER GANTRY, or BABBITT, gives voice to one Lowell T. Schmaltz in his lesser-known 1928 novel THE MAN WHO KNEW COOLIDGE. In the first of the six monologues that make up the novel, Schmaltz -a small business man and member of the Kiwani’s Club in the mythical midwestern town of Zenith, Winnemac- relates to his fellow passengers in a Pullman sleeper train car how he had made Coolidge’s acquaintance way back in their college days at Amherst, and how he and his family attempted to call on Coolidge in the White House. It turns out that they do not get to meet the president, but spend a while pestering an aide with all kinds of questions about him. Ultimately, it is unclear whether all this is merely boasting on Schmaltz’s part and if he really ever “knew Coolidge.”

Sinclair’s fame rests on novels that skewer the type of small businessman exemplified by Schmaltz and, much more famously, the eponimous Babbitt. Of course, in real life this type of man was almost certain to also be a rock-ribbed Republican and Coolidge fan, much as Schmaltz proves to be in this excerpt from THE MAN WHO KNEW COOLIDGE:

They can say all they want to about how President Coolidge -good old silent Cal Coolidge- isn’t maybe as flashy as some of these statesmen. Maybe he isn’t as much given to shooting off his mouth as certain other public figures that I could name. Maybe he isn’t what my daughter would call so “Ritzy.” . . . He may not shoot off a lot of fireworks, but do you know what he is? He’s SAFE. Yes sir, Cal is the President for real honest-to-God Americans like us.

Schmaltz’s claim to fame is that he was, VERY briefly, an acquaintance of President Calvin Coolidge in their college days at Amherst. In Part I of the monologues, he windily regales, with many digressions, this and other claims to fellow businessmen in a train’s Pullman sleeper car. He tells how not long ago he took his wife and two children to call on Silent Cal in the White House. The Schmalzes got as far as the President’s outer office and had all their questions answered by an aide. Is the President a good fisherman? Does he belong to a service club, and on and on. Suddenly and with apology, the family learned that the President could not see them: the British ambassador was calling.

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