PITTSFIELD — Winning the Nobel Prize in Literature fixed the fame of a writer from Minnesota — and no, we're not talking about Duluth native Bob Dylan.
Eighty-seven years before Dylan grudgingly accepted writing's greatest prize, it went to Sinclair Lewis, whose satirical novel "Babbitt" skewered hubris and greed in American culture. Lewis' star was still rising when he used his Nobel lecture Dec. 12, 1930, to dissect his country's strange fear of literature.
Then, in the 1940s, Lewis came to Berkshire County to briefly lord over Thorvale Farm on Oblong Road in Williamstown, a Georgian mansion with outbuildings, tennis court and, of course, a writing study. He rented, then bought. Thorvale sat awaiting Lewis' return from a European trip when the writer's star burned out.
Lewis died Jan. 10, 1951, in Italy at age 65, his death attributed to alcoholism.
Today, provisions of his will continue to occupy officials with the Berkshire Probate and Family Court in Pittsfield, along with lawyers and accountants, who arrange for yearly payments from interest earned on the writer's estate.
That duty gears up this week as a deadline approaches at 10 a.m. Wednesday for anyone to object to how the estate is overseen.
Whether or not people keep reading Lewis, his name will continue to appear in yearly legal ads and on the local court docket.
"This thing is going to go on in perpetuity," said John J. Martin Jr., the Pittsfield lawyer who helps JP Morgan Chase Bank handle estate business. Together, they are asking the court to allow the new distributions from Lewis' financial legacy — including, at one point long ago, proceeds from the sale of Thorvale Farm.
It's not much money, but because the payments draw off only interest, the estate will live on, regularly replenished by royalties.
In his will, recently unfolded for examination atop a table in the court's cramped public area, Lewis provided for the care of his son, Michael Lewis, marking half of the estate's value for his support until age 25, when he would get his half-share.
The will is just one of many papers growing brittle inside a thick folder bound with a fabric ribbon.
At the time of his death, the estate, not counting Thorvale Farm, was valued at $211,361.04. In today's dollars, that would be worth $2,049,762, according to an inflation calculator. The adventurous writer preferred safe stocks, especially industrials and utilities. Though only a recent arrival in the Berkshires, Lewis, as an investor, seemed to favor the General Electric Co. He held GE shares worth about $27,000 —or $261,000 in today's dollars.
At the bottom of one page in the first tally, completed in September 1951, executors noted that Wilson Perkins still owed Lewis $100. The documents don't say why.
An early audit estimated the farm's value at $50,000. When the 720-acre property went up for sale, advertised in a fancy brochure produced by a New York City broker, it was listed at $65,000 — the equivalent of $630,365 today. A 1946 article in The Eagle said Lewis had bought the tract for $45,000.
The writer invested heavily in renovations at the farm, but was soon restless and ready to move on. In 1949, before leaving for Europe, Lewis confirmed to the paper that the farm was for sale, listed at $75,000.
Lewis' will, signed Oct. 4, 1948, and witnessed by three Williamstown residents, is perhaps Lewis' least-known work. But thanks to the court, there's no forgetting its contents.
One-fourth of the estate's value went in four equal shares to friends Marcella Powers Amrine, Carl Van Doren, Mrs. Sewell Haggard (her first name lost in the mists of time) and to one other: Joseph Hardrick, who Lewis identified as "my faithful driver."
Lewis gave his papers to Yale University, his alma mater, along with "pictures of every sort and description."
Today, the shares continue to flow to their descendants, with checks mailed to people in Connecticut, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Louisiana and Washington, D.C.
Lewis also gave portions of what he had amassed through his successful writing career, which included a stint writing for Hollywood, to the NAACP and the National Urban League.
One of Lewis' novels, 1947's "Kingsblood Royal," was based on the real case of an African-American doctor from Detroit who was barred from buying a house in a white section of the city. Lewis is said to have worked on the book in Williamstown; today, it is considered by some to be an early instance of a best-selling white writer raising issues of racial justice.
In his first news conference after getting the nod in 1930 from the Nobel committee, one journalist needled the writer about what aspect of American life he planned to criticize next.
The Nobel committee had lauded the writer for "his vigorous and graphic art of description and his ability to create, with wit and humor, new types of characters."
According to one biography, Lewis played dumb that day. But when he delivered his Nobel lecture later that year, he pulled no punches.
"In America, most of us — not readers alone, but even writers — are still afraid of any literature which is not a glorification of everything American, a glorification of our faults as well as our virtues," Lewis said. He called the U.S. "the most contradictory, the most depressing, the most stirring, of any land in the world today."
One of his admirers, the journalist H.L. Mencken, hardly a shrinking violet himself when it came to critiquing American foibles, said of Lewis: "[If] there was ever a novelist among us with an authentic call to the trade ... it is this red-haired tornado from the Minnesota wilds."
Historian and journalist William L. Shirer, a Lewis friend with Berkshires connections, once wrote that critics were wrong to place Lewis lower on the list of writers like F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, John Dos Passos and William Faulkner.
"Lewis lacked style," Shirer wrote, "yet his impact on modern American life ... was greater than all of the other four writers together."
The National Association of Scholars recommends "Babbitt," Lewis' 1922 novel about a materialistic, social-climbing real estate agent, for college common reading programs. And just this year, writer Ryan Holiday, in an essay published on medium.com, put Lewis' novel "It Can't Happen Here," on the list of must reads for 2018. The book, published in the 1930s as Adolf Hitler rose to power in Germany, imagines the election of a populist demagogue as president of the U.S.
The court file is a kind of time capsule of the writerly life and Berkshire farm affairs.
It fell to executors to keep track of the estate's rising value, as royalties flowed in and disbursements went out. Two of the writer's local friends, Melville H. Cane and Pincus Berner, took on the task of steering his affairs. Early on, a handwritten list notes that $25 was fetched by selling a cover for a Jeep. The sale of hay brought in $100.
The move to Oblong Road wasn't Lewis' first stay in the Berkshires. He is believed to have received treatment for alcoholism for 10 days in 1937 at the Austen Riggs Center in Stockbridge. A doctor with the program later wrote that Lewis appeared not to grasp the threat alcohol posed to his health.
Thorvale Farm eventually became a residence for the religious order known as the Carmelite fathers, according to Sarah Currie, who runs the Williamstown Historical Museum on New Ashford Road. The farm is privately owned today, she said.
While the museum has no Lewis artifacts, Currie said materials about the Carmelite presence offer a look back.
"It lays out some of the history of that land," she said.
Over many years, royalties have continued to buck up the estate's balance. It opened in 2017 at $11,097, but took in $41,838 during the year, all but $149 of it from royalties. At year's end in 2017, its managers paid out $28,000 — each party getting a few thousand dollars at best.
The biggest check, for $8,400, went last year to Gregory Lewis; $5,600 was paid to the estate of the writer's son, Michael, who died in 1975 of bacterial pneumonia. Descendants of the original friends given money by Lewis received shares worth $2,916. The NAACP and National Urban League each got $1,166.
"I don't think this is JP Morgan's most lucrative account," said Martin, the estate's Pittsfield lawyer.
This year's distributions, he said, will be the 38th from the estate. While the balance is modest today, the probate process demands continued audits, tax filings and other paperwork.
"It's kind of a workout," Martin said.
Larry Parnass can be reached at email@example.com, at @larryparnass on Twitter and 413-496-6214.