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Book Review: Main Street

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Main Street by Sinclair Lewis, 1920

I thought I had a pretty good education; I know it was superior to what the poor puppies get in public school today. Hell, I even went to college. So how come I’m spending my adulthood reading the so-called classics? Are there just too many for school to cover them all? In a way I’m lucky, reading books like Main Street at an age when I can fully appreciate them.

Maybe I wasn’t taught Main Street because it’s so completely subversive, particularly if you lived on it. Anyone who’s resided in a small town or its modern incarnation, suburbia, will recognize the American Homeland in these pages, despite it being set almost a hundred years ago. Gopher Prairie is a small town full of small minds, small ideas and small ambitions. Carol Blodgett, a vivacious young woman who works in a St. Paul library and dreams big dreams, falls in love and marries Dr. Will Kennicott, and follows him to his beloved home town.

Carol’s is a familiar life story: woman leaves city to follow man she loves to a place she is in no way suited to, and ends up feeling trapped among people she despises. She tries to change the town, she tries to change herself, and when all else fails she tries to have an affair. When none of these tactics produce the desired results, Carol finally leaves Gopher Prairie, child in tow. Unlike most women, and only because Will Kennicott is unusual in his level of husbandly tolerance, Carol eventually returns–but not until she’s learned more about the world and herself, enabling her to live in Gopher Prairie impervious to the tyranny of Main Street.

The picture Lewis portrays of Midwesterners isn’t pretty—in fact, it’s downright misanthropic. These are myopic people who walk through their lives half asleep, frightened of anything new, whether brightly colored dresses or “communism” in the form of a workers’ union. The writing is rich and detailed: each character springs from the page to life, with personality revealed by the tiniest of mannerisms. The way they talk to one another, the jokes they tell, the things they consider important (primarily money and appearances) come through in every sentence and paragraph. The style is smooth and natural, never calling attention to itself, never detracting from the story.

The themes of Main Street are eternal–that’s what makes it a classic–and not only has Lewis provided a historical perspective on America, but his portrait still resonates today. Though some issues may have changed—like bright dresses–the people of Gopher Prairie are scarily familiar.

I don’t know if Lewis meant to convey city living as far superior to small towns—he may have chosen the latter as a locale only in order to illuminate America’s most extreme conservatism—but, given my experiences, that’s a big piece of what I got from Main Street. I lived in suburbia for twelve years, and in a country town for fifteen. By now I’ve spent more of my life in cities than in small towns, for which I am extraordinarily grateful. Every time I lived anywhere other than a city I hungered. I wasn’t so different from Carol Blodgett: when I got married and moved from one suburban town to an even smaller one, I tried to rouse the citizenry to build a public library. All of twenty-two, I was shocked at the hatred my campaign, and I, attracted: people in Rocky Point were as determined as the good citizens of Gopher Prairie not to part with their money, especially if it was to serve the teeming, stinking masses.

Grand Central Station, New York:

Even in Woodstock, New York, a hippie-artists colony, I felt claustrophobic, and now, on Oakland’s lovely suburban-ish streets, I long for the gridlock of New York, the freedom of comfortable anonymity, where ideas and culture swarm everywhere–on the bus, in the street, in cafes.

Sinclair Lewis was the first American writer to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, in 1930, and Main Street was the book that first won him recognition. The next classic I delve into is going to be his Babbitt, which I hear is just as good. Long live the American novelist.

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One response »

  1. Hi, Marcy — it’s interesting that you chose this book to read at this particular time. I have this theory that if you re-publish the most socially relevant books at roughly 80-year intervals after they first appeared, a new audience of readers will likewise find them especially reflective of current social realities.

    It’s not really my idea, just a derivation of the Book GENERATIONS, by William Strauss and Neil Howe. You can read more about it here:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Generations_(book)

    The basic idea is that there are four generational types to the full Anglo-American social cycle, and that each type reflects the prevailing mindset for a roughly 20-year interval. So Lewis’ book is likely to remain relevant as we head into a period of sweeping financial conservatism generated by falling markets for jobs and housing. (Last time, we called it the Great Depression of the 1930s. 1930+80=2010.)

    –Bill
    http://www.LitBoy.com

    Thanks for this information, Bill. I don’t know why I suddenly decided to read Main Street, but the relevance is certainly there. I’m convinced we are almost into a Depression now.

    The book Generations sounds really interesting.–MS

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