Main Street – Sinclair Lewis

tumblr_lyh7xktwTy1qgbqaho1_400When one reads a novel concerning the land of their upbringing, the critical eye is always searching. Main Street, the 1920 novel from Sinclair Lewis, centers around the small town of Gopher Prairie, Minnesota. Located somewhere in the middle of the state, the narrative follows the ambitious Carol Kennicot (nee Milford) as she hopes to change her dreary provincial town into a bustling metropolis full of “Georgian houses and Japanese bungalows”. Though unbeknownst to Carol, and true to Midwestern sentiment, the inhabitants of Gopher Prairie are none too excited about the young lady’s municipal revolution.

Originally from the Twin Cities, young librarian Carol Milford is mesmerized by the books that surround her. Not only has she seemingly read the entire collection – including Shaw, Tennyson, and Wilde – they have influenced an impetus to change the world. Though as she grows in age, Carol grows weary looking for romantic accompaniment. That is, until Will Kennicot strolls along.

Rugged and rural, Will Kennicot is the antithesis of Carol’s preference in a suitor.  He cares little for literature and even less for scrupulous decency of city folk. A county doctor, most of Will’s time is spent attending to “husky” Dutch, German, and Norwegian immigrants farming the land of the Minnesota Plaines. Though feeling time is against her, and the earnest efforts of this new admirer, Carol settles for persistent bravado over beauty. The two are quickly married and off towards Will’s hometown, Gopher Prairie.

“-Of course I may be prejudiced, but I’ve seen an awful lot of towns – one time I went to Atlantic City for the American Medical Association meeting, and I spent practically a week in New York! But I never saw a town that had such up-and-coming people as Gopher Praire.”

Convinced Gopher Prairie is ripe for changing, Carol begins to make her new home. For the first week, she is dazzled by the quaint shops, genial people, and homey life of the small town. At every corner, the former lady of the city sees a storefront, home, or street ready for a cultural transformation. Anxious for new friends – as a stepping stone for her future plans – Carol is invited to the Ladies’ Bridge club. There, it is soon discernable that the town  is not so willing as the newcomer hopes it would be – in fact, the people stand against it.

What’s obvious from the offset is Lewis’ home-grown observations. Born in Sauk Centre, Minnesota, of which Gopher Prairie is a fictionalized version, the author remembers well interactions from his upbringing. What proves Carol Kennicot a memorable character is the chatter and calumny surrounding her. Lewis proves that the small town world works on two planes: public appearance and private gossip:

“She perceived that Vida Sherwin had told the truth. Whether she entered a store, or swept the back porch, or stood at the bay-window in the living room, the village peeped at her. Once she had swung along the street triumphant in making a home. Now she glanced at each house, and felt, when she was safely home, that she had won past a thousand enemies armed with ridicule. She told herself that her sensitiveness was preposterous, but daily she was thrown into panic. She saw curtains slide back into innocent smoothness. Old women who had been entering their houses slipped out again to stare at her – in the wintry quiet she could hear them tiptoeing on their porches. When she had for a blessed hour forgotten the searchlight, when through a chill dusk, happy in yellow windows against gray night, her heart checked as she realized that a head covered with a shawl was thrust up over a snow-tipped bush to watch her.” 

As Carol’s chagrin grows in Main Street with each failed attempt, readers will notice a kinship with a fellow lonely housewife married to a country doctor: Madame Bovary. Lewis, who was certainly aware of the largess of Flaubert’s reputation, does little to differ Carol Kennicot from her imitation, which she most certainly is. While Hugh Mahoney believes it “off-base” to compare the two novels, one withstanding question is asked in his essay on Main Street: is this a novel or a textbook on American culture? Lewis not only admonishes the inhabitants of Gopher Prairie for their lack of literary comprehension, but later making it the subject of his speech after winning the Noble Prize for Literature. This begs the question of who Main Street is chastising:

He shone at her like a dim blue March moon, and sigh, ‘No but I do love the movies. I’m a real fan. One trouble with books is that they’re not so thoroughly safeguarded by intelligent censors as the movies are, and when you drop into the library and take out a book you never know what you’re wasting your time on. What I like about books is wholesome, really improving story, and sometimes – – Why, once I started a novel by this fellow Balzac that you read about, and it told how a lady wasn’t living with her husband, I mean she wasn’t his wife. It went into details, disgustingly! And the English was real poor. I spoke to the library about it, and they took it off the shelves. I’m not narrow, but I must say I don’t see any use in this deliberately dragging in morality! Life itself is so full of temptations that in literature one wants only that which is pure and uplifting. 

Lewis sets a lofty goal for protagonist Carol Kennicot in Main Street: urbanize a conservative, sleepy town in middle-of-nowhere Minnesota. After becoming acquainted with the conspiratorial and gossip inhabitants, the goal is seemingly noble, but problems arise in the author’s execution. Lewis attempts to display the hypocrisy of small-town in abstract episodes rife with non sequiturs. Published only a year after Sherwood Anderson’s popular Winesburg, Ohio, the American reading public was fascinated by the “directionless” world that existed outside major city limits. To this allure, Main Street owes it’s immense success.  In fact, biographer Mark Schorer called Main Street, “The most sensational event in 20th-century publishing” and novelist Ludwig Lewisohn believed, “perhaps no novel since Uncle Tom’s Cabin so deep over so wide a surface of national life.”

While it is true Lewis pens an accurate novel of the Midwest, we must ask at what cost? Main Street is a tease of the most tedious nature. Not only does the author leads readers by the minutest strands of a narrative – the wills and wont of Carol’s idea of culture – but they rarely produce emotive or intriguing results. Much like the chase of a temperamental lover, Lewis begs us to follow him through the bleak, drab landscape of Gopher Praire only to disappear mid scene, making earnest pursuers of the novel to feel ashamed of presumed faith. Putting down a read before completing the final chapter is nothing to revel in, but forgetting the amount of moments an author has questioned your patience in shameful.

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Main Street was originally awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1921, but conservative president of Columbia University Nicholas Murray Butler overturned his two colleagues decision and awarded the prize to Edith Wharton for The Age of Innocence. Butler went so far as to change the wording stipulated by Pulitzer from the novel that represented “the whole of American life” to “wholesome”. The author would again be snubbed with his even more successful novel Babbit in favor of Willa Cather’s One of Ours. When Lewis was actually awarded the Pulitzer in 1926 for the novel Arrowsmith, he declined, believing his novel did not best represent “wholesome American life.”

Lewis would continue to pen satires with controversial subjects until his final days. Kingsblood Royal published in 1947, acted as forerunner in Civil Rights literature, so much so that Paul Robeson’s wife “wrote” praise to the author. It Can’t Happen Here describes the election of a Fascist government in America. The novel gave birth to the maxim: “When Fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross”; though there is “no evidence” such a quote exists. Due to an unwillingness to stop drinking  that turned to addiction, Lewis died in Rome in 1951.

While it is of my opinion Main Street is the least favorite of the books from Time’s Top 100 Novels, readers must form their own opinion. Here, from author William Shirer, may be the reason why:

“It has become rather commonplace for so-called literary critics to write off Sinclair Lewis as a novelist. Compared to…Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Dos Passos, and Faulkner…Lewis lacked style. Yet his impact on American life…was greater than all four writers put together.”

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