Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 29, 2011

Main Street, by Sinclair Lewis

Main Street ruffled more than a few feathers in small town America when it was first published in 1920, and I expect it  has the same effect on some readers today, nearly a century later.  Sinclair Lewis wrote this savage satire as an indictment of small town life in the early 20th century – a time when prairie life was patriotically idealised as wholesome and honorable.  But Lewis saw small towns as claustrophobic, narrow-minded, anti-intellectual, mean-spirited and conformist.  He labelled the power of small town life to inculcate its citizenry with enervating shallow values as ‘The Village Virus’, and the focus of the story is whether the outsider Carol will succumb to Main Street, or not. The choice of Carol as the central character means that Main Street also explores the same territory of female aspirations and limited career choices as Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie (1900), and this adds interest to Lewis’s primary critique.  (Click here for my review of Sister Carrie).

Carol is a young woman with ambitions to change the world.  She spurns her first would-be boyfriend because he thinks the only role for woman is with home and family and even in those pre-feminist days Carol wants more than that, (That will come later, she thinks). At first she wants to be a town planner, and then a teacher, but ends up in librarianship where she hopes to introduce readers to the finer things of life…

Reality is more prosaic than that. Carol’s readers are more keen to read about fishing and romance and  after a few short years she is relieved to marry  the ebullient Dr Will Kennicott who comes from the small town of Gopher Prairie, Minnesota.  He is twelve years older than she is and they have nothing in common – but he is utterly besotted by her and her desire to escape the library blinds her to the lifestyle he is offering her.

But before long her misgivings about leaving the metropolis of St Paul are realised: Will introduces her to his huntin’ and fishin’ pals, and right from the start she has trouble controlling her impulse to shock and dismay them.  She wants to jolt them out of their complacency because Gopher Prairie is ugly, soulless, and boring.  Its inhabitants are small-minded conservatives and proud of their lack of education.  They either despise ‘culture’ or suffer under the delusion that they have it.  Alas, all Carol’s naïve efforts to liven things up bring only scorn and mean-minded gossip, and one by one those of her class who might have been her friends drop away.  She then alarms Will when she is reduced to friendships beyond the social pale (in so-called classless America); she has some hard lessons to learn…

Sinclair’s satire is brutal.  Mrs Bogart is Carol’s bête noir:

She was a widow, and a Prominent Baptist, and a Good Influence. She had so painfully reared three sons to be Christian gentlemen that one of them had become an Omaha bartender, one a professor of Greek, and one, Cyrus N. Bogart, a boy of fourteen who was still at home, the most brazen member of the toughest gang in Boytown.

Mrs. Bogart was not the acid type of Good Influence. She was the soft, fat, sighing, indigestive, clinging, melancholy, depressingly hopeful kind. There are in any chicken yard a number of old hens who resemble Mrs. Bogart, and when they are served at Sunday noon dinner, as fricasseed chicken with thick dumplings, they keep up the resemblance.

The meeting of the women’s study group, the Thanatopsis, is hilarious.  Carol is asked to share her knowledge of books and poetry but the group is really a front for gossip-mongering.  The religious fraternity censor anything they think unsuitable and the ‘papers’ presented are inane.  Carol, with the insouciant confidence of youth puts her foot in things over and over again, concealing her contempt for the town none too well.

It’s this tendency of Carol’s to make mistakes which protects this novel from becoming a self-righteous rant.  The heroine not lays herself open to criticism with everything from her unsuitable clothes to her taste in modern furniture or her insistence on rejecting local produce but she’s also hasty, tactless, imprudent and occasionally selfish.  She tries hard not to be but she’s unkind to Will who flounders around trying to please her.  She does rise to the occasion sometimes, as when her friend Bea is critically ill, but she doesn’t ‘read’ people well and alienates even the best of them from her cause.

Nevertheless, Lewis makes a convincing case for his argument.  The only way to survive small town life, he says, is to conform, and anyone who aspires to more than the common denominator is doomed to discontent.   I think Main Street would make a terrific book group choice because it raises all kinds of questions:

  • Was Lewis ‘fair’ in his critique?  Was what he described typical, and widespread?
  • Are small towns more or less the same today?
  • Does his critique apply to small towns anywhere?  Australia? Canada? In Britain, with its tolerance of eccentrics?
  • Would a male reformer have been more successful than Carol?

Sinclair Lewis was the first American to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1930.  I am now looking forward to reading Babbit, published two years after Main Street in 1922

It’s included in 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die.

© Lisa Hill

Author: Sinclair Lewis
Title: Main Street
Publisher: Project Gutenberg, eText 543
First published 1920
Source: Personal library, downloaded to my Kindle from Many Books.

Availability:
Many Books (free, and available in many different formats)  Main Street
Project Gutenberg (free) Main Street


Responses

  1. While this book may have been a classic in its own time, now its very dated. In fact much about nothing. So she dressed a little bit differently, had different views to most of the leading members of the town. Almost had a affair with a younger man. Only finally when leaving with her son, she stood by her own convictions. It came as no surprise she returned back to the town, to me she was a typical town dweller. You find these people all round the world, they are going to do this or that, but actually do very little. Typical moaning town folk.

    There are plenty of women who changed towns, so it makes no difference if male or female. The person needs to be driven, and then they will attract others who also want change

  2. I would also like to add your Critique/post was more interesting than the book. Very well written and analysed. However my view of the novel is the same

  3. […] reminiscent of Sinclair Lewis’s character Carol in Main Street (see my review), Daniel’s wife Esme is quietly mocked for her efforts to liven things up with dancing and a […]


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