Main Street by Sinclair Lewis

This is a real star. I’ve been so pleased to take in this witty, bitingly satirical story of small-town life. The setting is the fictional town of Gopher Prairie, Minnesota, based on Lewis’s hometown of Sauk Centre; but as he says in the introduction, “the story would be the same in Ohio or Montana, in Kansas or Kentucky or Illinois, and not very differently would it be told Up York State or in the Carolina hills.”

This is my first experience with Sinclair Lewis, and I’m sorry I waited so long. Certainly his other work is now on my long list TBR.

It’s the story of Carol Kennington (née Milford), who as a college student has some vague and lofty ideas of improving small towns, before she marries and settles in Gopher Prairie. This small town (patently representative of small towns everywhere – Lewis all but beats us over the head with this statement) does not want to be improved, does not believe it needs improving, and disapproves of Carol on every level. It’s a painful story, and it drags along, not becoming boring, but definitely oppressive in Carol’s pain. She’s no pristine heroine, repeatedly distracted from her lofty goals of uplifting Gopher Prairie and the human race; she’s decidedly flawed. And yet I don’t think the reader can help but sympathize with her.

She tries to implement her idealized improvements but is rejected in her theater group, her improvement of the town library, her crossing of social, economic, and class lines. She tries to escape in a few cheap flirtations, but none is consummated – her choices of love are disillusioning. She finally makes her husband take her on a trip to leave behind the doldrums, but her relief is temporary. From page 393:

Yes. She was back home! Nothing had changed. She had never been away. California? Had she seen it? Had she for one minute left this scraping sound of the small shovel in the ash-pit of the furnace? But Kennicott preposterously supposed that she had. Never had she been quite so far from going away as now when he believed she had just come back. She felt oozing through the walls the spirit of small houses and righteous people. At that instant she knew that in running away she had merely hidden her doubts behind the officious stir of travel.

Finally, just when I thought we were going to wallow forever, Carol up and leaves town with her three-and-a-half-year-old son for Washington, D.C., where she starts a new and relatively satisfying life. But she is still not ultimately fulfilled… Relatively quickly, she ends up back in good ole GP with good ole Will Kennicott. The book ends with Carol resigned to GP, with an oddly comfortable but not entirely content feeling. I found this a ending a little strange. So much of the book had been writhing discomfort and dissatisfaction and dreaming and planning for something different. Then we finally – very late in the game (by which I mean the book) – saw Carol go to DC for a life that I do see was not entirely suited to her, but also seemed very much an improvement. And then she went back… home? Do we call it home? She makes a few final defiant statements at the end of the book; but her defiance is in spirit and not in action or even, I feel, in emotion. I’m not disappointed with the ending. I suppose I’m a bit surprised. I’m awfully removed from Carol’s world. I will see my 30th birthday a good 95 years after hers; and I’m if anything a bit independent in my own time. Her life in DC looked pretty interesting to me but I realize that I am not Carol. And who on earth could I have been in her day? But I digress.

Lewis’s criticism of Gopher Prairie and by extension, all of the U.S., is almost cruelly biting, but also wonderful, witty, and funny. I was entertained from the first page. Besides American hypocrisy, or maybe even before it, its largest social issue is definitely feminism and women’s place in the home. But there is also tangential treatment of war (World War I), communism, workers’ rights, religious hypocrisy, class structures… and Carol doesn’t escape criticism, either. Lewis reserves a sneer for the out-of-touch artsy do-gooder in her. But in the end I think he retains something of a loving touch for most of his characters at the same time.

The writing was delightful. I laughed out loud and I felt Carol’s pain, and I felt for the ridiculous Will Kennicott (who mostly, I did not like) when he stoically handled Carol’s infidelity-in-spirit. But I also gloried in the turns of phrase. I loved “that amiable contempt called poise” and that Carol “picked [the book] up carelessly, with a slight yawn which she patted down with her fingertips as delicately as a cat.” Does that not paint a portrait?

I was interested to find, in the Afterword (by Mark Schorer of the University of California, in my Signet Classic paperback edition of 1961), discussion of this book in relation to Madame Bovary. Apparently my repeated comparison of the two, while I was reading, has a strong precedent. Schorer writes,

Madame Bovary is more than a study of provincial manners in a certain time and place in France; that much is only the setting for a highly dramatic presentation of human catastrophe. But Main Street cannot be lifted out of its historic setting, which is, in effect, the whole of it.

Perhaps this is what I was saying above, about trying to put myself in Carol’s shoes. At any rate I found the Afterword to be a few thoughtful pages, worth the time I spent on it.

I picked this up as a casual read and it was very enjoyable and worth my time and interest. I’m going to apply it towards the Classics Challenge at which I am so miserably far behind, so there we go. More to come!

11 Responses

  1. As a longtime fan of Sinclair Lewis, I am always happy when someone discovers him for the first time. He wrote so many interesting books but I think that Babbitt, Arrowsmith, and Elmer Gantry are the ones most on par with Main Street.

  2. Thanks, Thomas! Yes, Babbitt appears to be the next recommended. I’m very glad to have discovered him too!

  3. [...] but I’m going to behave as though rereads don’t count.) So far I have very much enjoyed Main Street by Sinclair Lewis, and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson. Although I’m [...]

  4. I’m reading the book right now on my Kindle (so I don’t have access to that afterword you’re talking about) and enjoying it tremendously. There are some pretty heavy lessons on good writing in there. I mean: “That lady was leaving damp fingerprints in the air”, just wow.

    I was googling to see if I was the only one connecting it with Mme Bovary, which I read a long time ago (and is part of my “cultural upbringing”, as I am French-Canadian), and I stumbled upon your blog. It’s kind of cool, because I was much more in the mood to read the kind of personal appreciation you wrote here than some academic paper.

    That book is really good, I’m a bit overwhelmed by its modernity and its depth, actually. It’s great to come back to Lewis after some years.

    Thanks for the post.
    Hope you’ll enjoy Babbitt.

  5. Clarence, thanks so much for your thoughtful response! I’m glad I had something to offer. I clicked on your blog but can’t read French :) maybe someday.

    Yes, I look forward to Babbitt, though I don’t know how soon I’ll get around to it. I came across it on my bookshelf just the other day – I didn’t realize I already had it! It’s an old copy (another paperback classic, possibly Signet, can’t remember right now) that belonged to my parents. How about that.

    I’m glad to hear of your appreciation of this book. I’m currently reading Hotel du Lac by Anita Brookner; another literary artist with an astounding way with words, too. Thanks for stopping by!

  6. [...] Main Street (Sinclair Lewis) – pagesofjulia [...]

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  8. [...] I saw Papa on these pages, unmistakably, I was also constantly reminded of Sinclair Lewis’s Main Street, another quiet, subdued story about everyday, small-town life and its quiet tragedies. Perhaps it [...]

  9. [...] Main Street, Sinclair Lewis. Fiction. [...]

  10. [...] Main Street, Sinclair Lewis. Fiction. [...]

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