This is America–a town of a few thousand, in a region of wheat and corn and dairies and little groves.
The town is, in our tale, called “Gopher Prairie, Minnesota.” But its Main Street is the continuation of Main Streets everywhere. 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 New York State or in the Carolina Hills.
Main Street is the climax of civilization.
So begins Sinclair Lewis’s novelistic critique of the manners, mores, traditions of Main Street, USA. Published in 1920, Main Street is proto-feminist, liberal in its politics (to contrast with the no doubt conservative politics of 1920’s small town businessmen), and agnostic in its religious views. Our protagonista, Carol Kennicott becomes the wife of a small town doctor, and finds, to her dismay, that she cannot find a place for herself at all in Gopher Prairie. At one point she calls herself a “hexagonal peg.” (“Solution: find the hexagonal hole,” she says.) She tries to reform the town, to bring culture and refinement to her neighbors and to her husband, then to reform herself to appreciate village life, but all to no avail. For 479 pages Carol struggles, fights, regroups, hides, ventures out again, runs away, and finally resigns herself to being the perpetual aginner, in an overwhelming sea of mediocrity and traditional (hypocritical) family values.
“I do not admit that Main Street is as beautiful as it should be! I do not admit that Gopher Prairie is greater or more generous than Europe! I do not admit that dish-washing is enough to satisfy all women! I may not have fought the good fight, but I have kept the faith.”
Through the entire book, Carol mostly stays just this side of being an obnoxious, supercilious snob, and when she crosses the line, she knows it, admits it, and laughs at herself. It’s worth reading the book for those moments of self-deprecation and realism. Carol never will admit that anything about Main Street or anyone who lives on Main Street is worthy or objectively beautiful, but she finds that city people and office life are much the same as Main Street and its denizens. The best parts of the book are Lewis’s observations, voiced through Carol, of the contradictory ways we think about ourselves and others. His psychological insight into the mind of a young married woman is keen and humorous. Carol tries to read poetry with her prosaic doctor husband, makes various people she meets into heroes, and then finds that they, too, are rather prosaic and ordinary. She’s something of an idealist and unwilling to become a cynic.
The writing and the tone are well done. It’s no wonder that Lewis won the Nobel Prize, ten years after the publication of Main Street, in 1930. However, Lewis’s inability to see any good at all on Main Street makes the book and the world it inhabits a rather unhappy and tedious place to spend reading time. Which Carol Kennicott would say is a good description of Main Street and of Gopher Prairie.
But I still maintain that there are a few kindred spirits in the wasteland, that some church-goers are both thoughtful and sincere, that there is more depth, and even poetry, to the average Main Streeter than Lewis and his mouthpiece would credit. Sinclair Lewis became an expert at showing up the limitations and hypocrisies of American life (see Babbit, Elmer Gantry, Arrowsmith), but he never got past that antipathy to traditional American values to see anything worth appreciating and preserving in the American experience.
Interesting side note from Wikipedia: “Main Street was initially awarded the 1921 Pulitzer Prize for literature, but was rejected by the Board of Trustees, who overturned the jury’s decision. The prize went, instead, to Edith Wharton for The Age of Innocence. In 1926 Lewis refused the Pulitzer when he was awarded it for Arrowsmith.”