By publishing Kingsblood Royal in 1947, Lewis tried to reclaim his kudos as a critic of complacency in America. His way of gathering background information and writing stories was what he had done many times before, and what he had proved himself to be good at. He conducted extensive research, recorded actual “race talks” between African Americans whom he had invited to his house, and melted what he had learned into the story. The main character, Neil Kingsblood, finds out that he is one thirty-second African American. His struggles effectively deliver the message Lewis had intended: Racism in America is still prevalent, menacing, and destructive. However, while the attainment of this goal enables Kingsblood Royal to be recognized as a bestseller, it also stops the novel from being considered a literary classic.
Kingsblood Royal shares the qualities of a bestseller in three ways. To begin with, it has a strong journalistic quality. It is not written to entertain its audience but to provide readers with an eye-opening experience to the reality of racism. As Mencken puts it, his book “is fiction only by a sort of courtesy.” Lewis intentionally places long monologues within dialogues that Neil Kingsblood has with different members of the African American and Caucasian community. These orations report the diverse spectrum of racist thoughts. Dr. Buncer of the Baptist Church represents the rationale that whites have used to justify their “separate but equal” discrimination of blacks. He says that “segragation […] was instituted […] to protect them, from the evil-minded men of both races, until such time as they grow up mentally and are able to face reality like you and I and other white men do.” Mr. Topman, along with some “extra cordial” neighbors, expects Kingsblood to know “a Negro preacher down in Atlanta, Georgia” that he cannot accurately recall the name of. Seemingly innocent inquiries are humiliating and degrading already, but Kingsblood also has to suffer the threats of the former mayor, his former friends, and anonymous blackmailers. The novel resembles narrative journalism in that it investigates a particular subject (racism) through the eyes of an individual (Neil Kingsblood). Its connections to Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin are prominent. The term “Uncle Tom” is mentioned many times to refer to African Americans who abandon their dignity and toady to whites. Ryan Woolcape’s dismissive description of Evan Brewster as “the favorite of a lot of foot kissing Uncle Toms” highlights the conflicting views between African Americans in deciding the correct way to battle racism. The novel’s aim to link “the American bestseller and the American social conscience” is an inheritance of the literary tradition that Stowe had initiated.
Kingsblood Royal embodies another trait of bestsellers because it benefits from the halo effect of being written by a renowned author. The Babbitt, written by Lewis in 1922, was an enormous success. It was praised as an accurate attack on “hypocrisies and dishonesties” in all little people. Its contribution to modern American culture helped Lewis to be the first American to win the Nobel Prize for literature in 1930. After his worldwide success, his new novels always gained the attention of publishers and readers. Kingsblood Royal may have been the largest beneficiary, because post World War Ⅱ American readers had more time to tune into the latest Lewis novel. The war that had preoccupied them for over 5 years was over, and they could now spend leisure time. The book was advertised even before its publication, exemplified by the New York Times article in February 20, 1947, which introduced it as a novel with “great expectations.” Lewis’ writing style is so evident and looming in the story that “the public image of the author is stronger than the impression of the book itself.” This is illustrated by the large portion of the reception that is dedicated to comparing Kingsblood Royal with other books by the author, rather than analyzing the novel on its own. For example, many praises and criticisms are all based on “the old Lewis zingo.” Reviewers either praise it as yet another effective demonstration of his writing style or denounce it as redundant. Clearly the author’s early success was too great for Kingsblood Royal to be considered original.
The social context of the 1940s also contributed to the novel’s high sale numbers. America after World War Ⅱ began an earnest pushback against racism. The war created a confusion that robbed traditional elites of their hierarchical power. War propagandas focused on freedom and equality stirred citizens to be “more thoughtful about the ideas (they) were fighting for.” The NAACP toiled to stop discrimination in the warfront. It planned “a double victory—full democracy abroad and at home.” It was also in the government’s interest to accommodate the requests made by organizations such as the NAACP. The government had warred against fascists on the justification that the allies upheld democratic values. They had to be consistent with their pursuit if these ideals in domestic settings as well. Stakes interlocked to succeed in installing black organizations in the Army, the Air Force, and the Navy and Marines. William Hastie and Colonel Johnson were ground breakers as African Americans to be appointed in skilled, competitive positions. The battle against racism continued to gain momentum as a national agenda, along with Truman’s speech at NAACP’s Annual Convention on June 30, 1947. Kingsblood Royal was published in the midst of all this uproar. The novel interacted with the social background: Its timeliness urged people to read it, and many readers joined the cause and continued the resistance.
While topicality was a major success factor for Kingsblood Royal, its fame was short lived precisely because of it. The first edition had two printings at best (Abebooks notes a 2nd printing, but WorldCat, GibbsBooks, and Amazon only list the first printing). Random House for High School Teachers comment that the book “quickly expunged from the American literary canon.” As Barry Targan writes, “anything depending too closely upon a specific political or economic or societal subject is unlikely to live any longer than the subject does.” Even though racism is still an ongoing agenda in the American public discourse, Targan’s critique is definitely applicable to Kingsblood Royal. Minnesota’s rule of defining an African American “as a person having even one drop” of black blood no longer exists. Neil Kingsblood’s shocking realization of his identity, which the book solely depends on for its plot, is presently not relatable to anyone. The betrayal that Kingsblood feels as he experiences the sudden change in attitude from his family, neighbors, and colleagues lost its realistic, journalistic feature. The topic was too narrowly tailored to meet the specific needs of Midwestern America during the 1940s that while it was enough to have immediate social impact, it could not transcend its time. This over emphasis on social conscience is also why the personas in the novel are flat figures incapable of rising as archetypes of humanity. Many reviewers have pointed the “implausibility” of Kingsblood, who was a typical white middle-class businessman, suddenly developing an overwhelming love for colored people even at the cost of his family’s safety. The moment Kingsblood realizes his ancestry, there is not one black person who hates whites with the same degree of baseless contempt, or someone who is not wrongfully denied the right to learn and work, despite his/her competence and ability. Even Belfreda, his former maid whom Kingsblood had thought as disrespectful, is revealed to be a down-to-earth, mature woman who does not hold a grudge against his family. Whites are “uniformly evil and racist” with the sole exception of Vestal, who is at times torn between her love for Neil and her dislike of the colored race. Even though his pale complexion would have let him pass as a white man for all his life, Neil Kingsblood wholeheartedly accepts the notion without once regretting it. He even says that if he were not “even a tiny bit” black, he would have volunteered to convert himself as an African American because they are prized for their “kindness and courage and intelligence.” Barry Targan writes that the finest fiction (which may be synonymous with the term “literary classic”) “grasps and shapes complexity.” Characters in the Kingsblood Royal are far from ordinary people who are neither saintly nor devilish, and who are always having second thoughts. Psychologists Hoorn and Konijn observed that readers go through three stages of encoding, comparing, and responding to fictional characters to fully appreciate them. The encoding stage places characters into certain types according to ethics (good-bad), aesthetics (attractive-ugly) and epistemics (realistic-unrealistic). Then readers compare the characters’ goals and struggles to their own in order to engage or distance themselves. When they spot dislikeable features, they detach themselves from the character to dislike that character and grow fond of his/her opponent. Readers of Kingsblood Royal who follow these stages will have a hard time identifying themselves inside the novel because the characters stand at either extreme end of the spectrum.
From an intrinsic approach to critiquing literature, Kingsblood Royal fails to qualify as “a work of art.” The “actual writing” is low-quality, compared to the noble intention of the author to end racism. The intrinsic approach observes the work without connecting it to social context or the author. It considers how the rhetoric is structured and brought out. Thus reviewers look at how the author used diverse aesthetic features such as rhythm, metaphors, symbols, or paradoxes. Aesthetic literature simply please the audience with the beauty of writing itself—readers are not compelled to learn a lesson and contribute in developing the society. An example of it would be The Great Gatsby. Regardless of what Gatsby’s life represents of materialism in 20th century America, the final quote “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past” stirs something inside our hearts. Even though Kingsblood Royal shares the topic of business and post war American societies, there is no rhetoric that excels beyond the boundaries of the setting to be pleasing in itself.
Kingsblood Royal is a faithful representation of the standard Lewis way of writing. Lewis conducted thorough research on how racism destructs an individual’s life, and how many white Americans justify their discrimination in order to remain oblivious to the harm they cause. In a time of intense nationwide efforts to improve the standard of living for African Americans, his book received much public attention. Being written by an already-famous author when readers could afford to spend the time and money in reading also contributed to its success. However, the glory days of the novel were only limited to those few years. It failed to expand its focus to the broader theme of inequality or “banalities of evil” in ordinary people, which would have helped more recent readers to appreciate the novel. Despite its enormous fame half a century ago, Kingsblood Royal is now no more than just another Lewis novel.
“Random House for High School Teachers | Catalog | Kingsblood Royal by Sinclair Lewis.” Accessed April 15, 2018. http://www.randomhouse.com/highschool/catalog/display.pperl?isbn=9780375756863
Fadiman, Clifton. “The American Problem.” Saturday Review of Literature, 24 May 1947, p. 9.
Fleming, Robert. “Kingsblood Royal and the Black Passing Novel.” Critical Essays on Sinclair Lewis, G.K Hall, 1987, p. 215-220.
Grebstein, Sheldon Norman. Sinclair Lewis. Twayne Publishers, 1962, p.152-154.
Hamilton, editor. “Book and Current Literature Reviews.” Greensboro Daily News, 3 Dec. 1922.
Hoorn, Johan F., and Elly A. Konijn. “Perceiving and Experiencing Fictional Characters: An Integrative account1.” Japanese Psychological Research, vol. 45, no. 4, 2003, pp. 250–268., doi:10.1111/1468-5884.00225.
Lewis, Sinclair. Kingsblood Royal. The Modern Library, 2001
Lingeman, Richard R. Sinclair Lewis: Rebel from Main Street. Borealis Books, 2005, p.505-507.
Mencken, H L., The Smart Set, Oct. 1922, pp. 138–140.
NAACP, and National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. “NAACP: A Century in the Fight for Freedom World War II and the Post War Years.” World War II and the Post War Years - NAACP: A Century in the Fight for Freedom | Exhibitions - Library of Congress, 21 Feb. 2009, www.loc.gov/exhibits/naacp/world-war-ii-and-the-post-war-years.html.
Sutherland, John. Bestsellers: a Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press, 2007, Ch.4.
Targan, Barry. "Where Does Fiction Go?" The Sewanee Review, Vol. 112, No. 2 (Spring, 2004), p.258.
 Lingeman, Richard R. Sinclair Lewis: Rebel from Main Street. Borealis Books, 2005, p.505-507.
 Mencken, H L., The Smart Set, Oct. 1922, pp. 138–140.
 Lewis, Sinclair. Kingsblood Royal. The Modern Library, 2001, p.121.
 Lewis, Sinclair. Kingsblood Royal. The Modern Library, 2001, p.221
 Lewis, Sinclair. Kingsblood Royal. The Modern Library, 2001, p.279.
 Lewis, Sinclair. Kingsblood Royal. The Modern Library, 2001, p.114
 Sutherland, John. Bestsellers: a Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press, 2007, Ch.4.
 Hamilton, editor. “Book and Current Literature Reviews.” Greensboro Daily News, 3 Dec. 1922.
 Fadiman, Clifton. “The American Problem.” Saturday Review of Literature, 24 May 1947, p. 9.
 NAACP, and National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. “NAACP: A Century in the Fight for Freedom World War II and the Post War Years.” World War II and the Post War Years - NAACP: A Century in the Fight for Freedom | Exhibitions - Library of Congress, 21 Feb. 2009, www.loc.gov/exhibits/naacp/world-war-ii-and-the-post-war-years.html.
 .“Random House for High School Teachers | Catalog | Kingsblood Royal by Sinclair Lewis.” Accessed April 15, 2018. http://www.randomhouse.com/highschool/catalog/display.pperl?isbn=9780375756863
 Targan, Barry. "Where Does Fiction Go?" The Sewanee Review, Vol. 112, No. 2 (Spring, 2004), p.258.
 Lewis, Sinclair. Kingsblood Royal. The Modern Library, 2001, p.59.
 Lewis, Sinclair. Kingsblood Royal. The Modern Library, 2001, p.260
 Lewis, Sinclair. Kingsblood Royal. The Modern Library, 2001, p.163.
 Lewis, Sinclair. Kingsblood Royal. The Modern Library, 2001, p.213.
 Lewis, Sinclair. Kingsblood Royal. The Modern Library, 2001, p.261.
 Hoorn, Johan F., and Elly A. Konijn. “Perceiving and Experiencing Fictional Characters: An Integrative account1.” Japanese Psychological Research, vol. 45, no. 4, 2003, pp. 250–268., doi:10.1111/1468-5884.00225.
 Grebstein, Sheldon Norman. Sinclair Lewis. Twayne Publishers, 1962, p.152-154.
 Fleming, Robert. “Kingsblood Royal and the Black Passing Novel.” Critical Essays on Sinclair Lewis, G.K Hall, 1987, p. 215-220.