Reprinted from the Spring-Summer issue of the Authors Guild Bulletin

Dear Fellow Members,

You will recall that we have been engaging in conversation about changing views of copyright in an era of fast technological change.

This month, let’s digress. I want  to tell you about the Slapping Incident.

As we prepare for the 2018 Authors Guild Gala, it is useful—even sobering—to recall a gathering of literati for a formal dinner 76 years ago, in the spring of 1931, in what The New York Times described as “the softly plushed rooms of the Metropolitan Club.” Honored that evening was Sinclair Lewis, who had just become the first novelist to bring the Nobel Prize in Literature home to the United States. “That was the period,” Gore Vidal once remarked acerbically, “when the Swedes singled out worthy if not particularly good writers for celebration, much as they now select worthy if not particularly interesting countries or languages for consolation.”

The 46-year-old Lewis, an early Authors Guild member, was famous for his gimlet-eyed portraits of American life, including Main Street, Babbitt, and Elmer Gantry—all big best sellers, for their time. H. L. Mencken called him the “red-haired tornado from the Minnesota wilds.” His biographer Mark Schorer said in 1961, “He was one of the worst writers in modern American literature, but without his writing one cannot imagine modern American literature.”

Also present that evening was another contender for that same Nobel Prize, Theodore Dreiser, the 60-year-old author of Sister Carrie and An American Tragedy. Dreiser and Lewis weren’t getting along. Lewis had married Dorothy Thompson, a pioneering foreign correspondent—soon to be the author of I Saw Hitler (“the splendid journalist Dorothy Thompson, who never stopped talking either,” says Vidal). Thompson had accused Dreiser of plagiarizing her work in a book of his, and Lewis repeated the accusation, and...well, let The New York Times tell us what happened next:

The generally smooth course of American letters spun suddenly off course on a tangent late Thursday evening. For, as the quite unexpected conclusion to a formal dinner, Theodore Dreiser, who was generally considered a runner-up for this year’s Nobel Prize, slapped Sinclair Lewis, the winner....The slapping—which was said to have been both hard and repeated—came after a literary disagreement that had lasted three years.

I’ve learned about all this thanks to Tina Jordan, a new editor at The New York Times Book Review who began poking around in ancient bound volumes, hunting for buried treasure. She tweets some of her findings as @TinaJordanNYT. “Unsurprisingly, there’s quite an appetite for literary feuds,” she tells me. She also mentioned a Mexico City movie premiere in 1976 at which the great Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa reportedly sucker punched the great Colombian writer Gabriel García Márquez, giving the future Nobelist a black eye.

At this point, some of you are probably thinking about the famous brawl between Norman Mailer and the aforementioned Vidal at a party in Lally Weymouth’s apartment in 1977. Mailer knocked Vidal to the floor, which gave Vidal the opportunity, supposedly wiping blood from his mouth, to punch back with the immortal line, “As usual, words fail Norman.”

What can I say? Those were the days when men were men...or something. (Mary McCarthy feuded with Lillian Hellman for years, but they never descended to slapping.)

In the Dreiser-Lewis match, the intrepid Times reporter—whom I can’t name, because the story ran without a byline—continued:

They were seated and were indignantly pounding a table...One man said later that he heard the words “cheat” and “liar” used by Mr. Lewis. It was just after the last word had been spoken, he said, that Mr. Dreiser delivered the first of his series of direct reprisals....Mr. Dreiser, a large man, swung again...What happened then is still a matter of discussion...At all events the two separated, both very angry, with Mr. Lewis’s face about the same color as his hair.

I’m not aware of any incidents of fisticuffs at Authors Guild Galas, and we’re not looking for any this year. I should add that Dreiser himself steadfastly refused to join the Guild (or as it was then known, the Authors’ League). His biographer W. A. Swanberg says he called the League a “pink tea and chocolate bon bon brotherhood of literary effort.” Fighting words indeed! But that didn’t stop us from waging a campaign on Dreiser’s behalf when his semi-autobiographical novel, The “Genius,” was declared obscene by the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice.

As for Sinclair Lewis, he wrote 11 more novels, but he’s not the household name he once was. To quote Gore Vidal one more time, he “seems to have dropped out of what remains of world literature.” Babbitt is not much read nowadays, though the word has entered the language (“a materialistic, complacent businessman”). So has the phrase “It can’t happen here,” which was also the title of his 1935 novel about a demagogic fascist called Buzz Windrip who wins election by promising to restore the country to greatness and soon shows his authoritarian colors. It Can’t Happen Here is still in print, and it briefly surged onto the Amazon best seller list late in 2016.

— James Gleick

The Authors Guild