The Main Street of a small town is the nucleus of much of that town’s activity, giving focus and gravity to the surrounding streets and houses. My own Main Street in my own personal version of Gopher Prairie was still a hub of activity, although my mother sadly pointed out the cinema closed by the advent of cable television (the town was previously beyond the broadcast radius of all but one television station, some fifty miles away), the former soda fountain, the hotel, and the other landmarks of her youth. There might have been still more points of interest – the swimming pool and golf course, the high school, the public library, and – of course – the proliferation of small churches – but there was only one “downtown”. There was only one Main Street.
Published after almost a decade of trying to be noticed as a writer, and having slowly and painfully increased his sales through sheer dogged determination, Main Street was the book which made Sinclair Lewis his name and assured his success through the 1920s, the decade of his big “problem books”, including Babbit, Main Street, Elmer Gantry, and Arrowsmith. A surprise best-seller, Main Street was to 1920 what The Bridges of Madison County was to the early 1990s, except perhaps for the fact that Main Street is actually good.
No one could ever accuse Sinclair Lewis of being a prose stylist, unless it was to say that his novelistic style was somewhat artless, perfunctory, and clipped. That he accurately reproduced at least one chorus of the American voice of the era, however, is also indisputable. The fact that nothing much happens in Main Street could be considered a mirror of small-town life. In many ways, that’s what is good about small towns. Like the contemporary novel Winesburg, Ohio (1919) (q.v.), it paints portraits of the inhabitants of an archetypical small town in a variety of lights, as seen through the eyes of the “city-girl” protagonist, Carol. Full of a youthful ferment of ideas for improvement and a desire to bring the finer points of culture to the wider world (indeed, Carol’s enthusiasm goes well beyond the point of puerile naïveté), when she marries physician Will Kennicott she is transported to face the grim reality of a small Minnesota town of the 1910s.
The town in which Carol Kennicott finds herself, Gopher Prairie, is one which not only does not desire her efforts at making improvement, it finds her to be self-important and “hoity-toity” for even suggesting that they are necessary. Mrs Kennicott, according to her peers of the “Jolly Seventeen”, a local club of influential ladies, is possessed by ideals above her station in her desire for the betterment of what is, to the other denizens’ minds, the perfectly respectable and pleasant town (itself based on Lewis’ birthplace of Sauk Center, Minnesota). As Carol’s quest for childish conceptions of beauty, art, and grace continue, she finds herself increasingly at odds with nearly all of her fellow denizens. Those few fellow-spirits which she finds in the town are not suitable to Carol’s station as a respectable doctor’s wife, and invariably lead to disappointments and scandals.
As the years pass and America moves slowly toward a war in Europe, the insularity of this small outpost remains. Mrs. Dr. Kennicott, as she could be styled, is seen as an oddity and a square peg. Yet when similar attempts at “boosting” the town are brought by a caddish outsider, they are embraced by the locals with far more warmth than anything that Carol ever suggested. Further, Carol is horrified by an incident in which the town’s school-teacher, Fern Mullins, is driven from her post after the small-town gossip machine links her in an unsavoury incident with a loutish youth, Cy Bogart. The final straw has been placed on the camel’s back at this point. Carol flees Gopher Prairie, taking a train to Washington D.C. to do “war work” during the final few months of the Great War. The question of whether or not she is to be reunited with Dr Will Kennicott, who has tolerated her with an air of mystification, seems very much an open question as the book enters its final chapters.
Sherwood Anderson may have been a better craftsman, but Lewis’s books outsold the other’s, which led to continuing rancour between the two men, despite Lewis’ early praise of Anderson in lectures and public addresses (this according to Mark Schorer’s biography of Lewis). Lewis’ book, although artless, is compelling, and the hundreds of pages simply fall away once you begin to get the rhythm of “dear old G.P.”. I would argue that there are traces of Gopher Prairie in small town middle western America even to this day, and that the very rigid conceptions of propriety and social stratification as portrayed by Lewis exist as much now as they did twenty-five, fifty, or a hundred years ago. Lewis’ town resonates with anyone who has experience of small towns, the Midwest, or the microcosmic scale of petty and gossiping human interactions. Whatever its flaws, Main Street remains an American classic. 4 of 5 stars, recommended.
Originally reviewed 3 February 2013.
Find your copy on AbeBooks.com.