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Work of Art

John Conway
Posted 7/15/22

Sinclair Lewis was the first American to win the Nobel Prize for literature, and several of his novels — “Main Street,” “Babbit,” “Elmer Gantry,” etc. …

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Work of Art


Sinclair Lewis was the first American to win the Nobel Prize for literature, and several of his novels — “Main Street,” “Babbit,” “Elmer Gantry,” etc. — are typically mentioned as among this country’s finest.

While his 1934 novel “Work of Art” is not generally rated among his best, it is the most important of his works for those trying to understand the vagaries of tourism and the resort industry. The book traces the life of Myron Weagle from childhood to adulthood and the reader learns of his single-focused vision of creating the perfect resort.

When he finally achieves his goal, and surveys the fruits of his extensive labors, he is struck by a sudden and sobering realization: He had built the perfect resort at the perfectly worst time.

“Pondering it all, he began to see vaguely now, in 1927, what he would see sharply in the early 1930s: that the entire ‘resort-hotel business’ was changing, and much of it would be lost; that with all love and devotion he had built his ‘perfect inn’ at exactly the worst possible time, as if one should triumphantly set up shop as epic poet just when the prose novel was ousting the hexameter, perhaps forever.”

What Myron Weagle would eventually figure out was that the resort industry had evolved while he was busy planning and building his perfect hotel, and by the time he had completed it, the American vacation had changed. There were two major factors in the change, he learned, the automobile and the game of golf.

For one thing, as Lewis eloquently points out, the “motor car changed the whole affair, as it changed the whole plan of cities and suburbs. It is not determined, but one may guess, that Benz, Haines, and Henry Ford have altered the world as much as Napoleon, Alexander, and Caesar.

“The new motor tourists spent most of their time in travel, for its own sake, and hotels became to them not centres of amusement, to which they were eager to contribute their own efforts at conviviality, but merely stations for food and beds and gasoline.”

And in addition, Weagle discovers, while vacationers who mainly played tennis or croquet for recreation were perfectly content to play on the same courts or lawn day after day, golfers were different. Most golfers wanted variety, they wanted to play a new course as often as possible, they were always anxious to see what was around the next bend rather than staying in the same place for a prolonged period of time.

What Myron Weagle learned — the hard way — was that the way Americans vacation changes over time, and what appeals to the masses this year will not necessarily appeal to them a year from now, let alone ten years from now.

In the popular 1987 movie, “Dirty Dancing,” the hotel owner, Max Kellerman has made the same discovery, much to his consternation.

“It all seems to be ending,” he says. “You think kids want to come with their parents and take fox-trot lessons? Trips to Europe, that’s what the kids want. Twenty-two countries in three days. It feels like it’s all slipping away.”

Those who have studied the history of the Sullivan County resort industry know the lesson well. The county’s resorts evolved over time, and the way people vacationed in the Silver Age, or that period between roughly 1890 and 1915, bore little resemblance to the way the tourists of the Golden Age (1940 to 1965) spent their time.

Yet, despite the fact that those two periods of tourism prosperity were completely different and were separated by 25 years, the Golden Age could not have happened without the Silver Age. The past always influences, if it doesn’t quite dictate, the future.

So, when Sullivan County’s Golden Age ended around 1965, there was another prolonged transition that led to a period — yet to be named — where hotel rooms were hard to find in the county, but vacation homes were aplenty. This period of about 25 years, when second home tourism predominated, then ran its course, and another transition is now upon us.

The last few years have seen the arrival of the casino and the waterpark and the proliferation of Air B&Bs and boutique hotels, but it is probably still too early to tell where it will lead. As Myron Weagle discovered in Lewis’ novel, when it comes to tourism, change is the only constant.

John Conway is the Sullivan County Historian and a founder and president of The Delaware Company. Email him at jconway52@hotmail.com.


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