Saturday, July 16, 2011

409. Main Street – Sinclair Lewis

History: This book was published in 1920. The story is set in Gopher Prairie, Minnesota, a fictionalized version of Sauk Centre, Minnesota, Lewis's hometown. The novel takes place in the 1910s, with references to the start of World War I, the United States' entry into the war, and the years following the end of the war, including the start of Prohibition. Readers' fascination with the portrayal of petty back-stabbers and hypocrites in a small town was probably a factor in the novel's popularity. Though it was not expected to be extremely popular, in the first six months of 1921, Main Street sold 250,000 copies, becoming a major bestseller of its time. When the book was published, it was common to wish to live in purportedly "wholesome" small towns like Gopher Prairie; a notion denounced by Main Street's vicious realism and biting humor.
Some small town residents resented their portrayal and the book was banned in Alexandria, Minnesota.
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.
In 1930, Lewis was the first American ever awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.
Because of the popularity acquired by Lewis and his book, high school teams from his hometown of Sauk Centre, Minnesota began to be called the Main Streeters as early as the 1925-26 school year. This name was essentially given to the town by the nearby towns at school events. The Sauk Centre High School still goes by the name in a tribute to Lewis.
Plot: Carol Milford is a liberal, free-spirited young woman, reared in the metropolis of St. Paul. She marries Will Kennicott, a doctor, who is a small-town boy at heart.
When they marry, Will convinces her to live in his home-town of Gopher Prairie, Minnesota. Carol is appalled at the backwardness of Gopher Prairie. But her disdain for the town's physical ugliness and smug conservatism compels her to reform it.
She speaks with its members about progressive changes, joins women's clubs, distributes literature, and holds parties to liven up Gopher Prairie's inhabitants. Despite her friendly, but ineffective efforts, she is constantly derided by the leading cliques.
She finds comfort and companionship outside her social class. These companions are taken from her one by one.
In her unhappiness, Carol leaves her husband and moves for a time to Washington, D.C., but she eventually returns.
Review: Sinclair Lewis was the great liberal critic of small town, bourgeois Middle America. His novels demonstrated the small-minded conformity of the conservative folk of the MidWest, content to wallow in smug self-righteous ignorance. This at least is the common understanding of Lewis.
And there is the masterful portrayal of a marriage - Carol and Will are not the romantic, happily-married-ever-after couple. They are married. That's it. Sinclair Lewis draws his satirical pen through the flimsy web of their married life, shreds the pretense and give us in the process a love that is at once frustrating yet touching, unfathomable yet realistic and as tiresome as it is uplifting.
While the language, mode of dress, and popular activities may be antiquated now, the interactions and struggles remain as true today as they did in the 1910s. More importantly, through Carol's fight to accept her lot in life, Lewis presents a study of humanity that never ages.
Much of what is fascinating about Main Street is the intimate look at small-town life in the 1910s. The language is quaint and full of forgotten expressions. Societal teas, drama clubs, buggies versus cars, new suits purchased once a year - these are all things which are intriguing from a purely historical perspective. Lewis was writing based on his own personal experiences, which lends credence to his narration and brings history to life. However, a modern-day reader can easily imagine how uncomfortable a reader of Lewis' era would be at reading Main Street, as it is a no-holds-barred satire on the minutiae of daily small-town living.
Speaking of which, many of the difficulties of Main Street and its impact lie in how much life and society has changed in 100 years. Carol's life as a housewife, complete with servant, would be drastically different today, as her freedom to do as she pleases, to work, to form committees, is so much greater than the time period in which the story takes place. The reader has to ignore the differences and get to the heart of Carol's struggles for happiness to be able to detect why Main Street is relevant today. Carol's happiness does not depend on her status as a wife or her inability to make changes in her adopted town, but rather stem from her inability to find inner peace. It isn't until she makes peace with her life and dreams where she finally finds the contentment she so desperately seeks. This need for inner peace is something to which any reader can relate and proves that humans everywhere have been searching for their own inner peace for ages.
Opening Line: On a hill by the Mississippi where Chippewas camped two generations ago, a girl stood in relief against the cornflower blue of Northern sky.
Closing Line: “Say, did you notice whether the girl put that screwdriver back?"
Quotes: "She was not a respectable married woman but fully a human being."
Rating: Okay.

1 comment:

  1. I'm sorry but it appears that you have plagiarized my own review of MAIN STREET word for word, which I posted on my website on June 13th. Please remove this review as soon as possible to avoid breaching my copyright. Thank you.