1921 Near Miss: Main Street by Sinclair Lewis

Main Street was a widely popular and controversial book when it was published in 1920, selling over 250,000 copies in the first year and making Sinclair Lewis wealthy almost overnight. It was cited (along with his later Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Arrowsmith), to be one of the main contributing factors to his winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1930, making him the first American author to win the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Plot summary:

Main Street is the 1920 novel by Sinclair Lewis that tells the story of Carol Milford, a liberal, free-spirited young woman from Minneapolis, Minnesota. Carol meets and marries Will Kennicott, a doctor who convinces her to move back to his small hometown of Gopher Prairie, Minnesota. While there, Carol finds the smug conservatism of the town objectionable and sets out to try and make the town a little more progressive, with little effectiveness. A satirical gem, Main Street is Sinclair Lewis’ classic portrait of small town Midwestern American life.

My thoughts:

Main Street is biting, sarcastic, and satirical in all the right ways. It is hilarious and at times oddly prescient. Unfortunately, it also feels very dated. Focused on small town Midwestern life in the 1910s, Lewis deconstructs the myth of “God’s Own Country” and doesn’t pull any punches. But it’s a way of life that’s a hundred years gone, and I found it difficult to read at times, especially when Lewis falls into lengthy descriptions of a Midwestern life that are hard to relate to anymore. But when he begins talking about the people, that’s when Lewis really shines through, and the reader is treated with some fantastic lines. “Mr. Blausser was known as a hustler. He liked to be called Honest Jim,” and “It has not yet been recorded that any human being has gained a very large or permanent contentment from meditation upon the fact that he is better off than others,” are two that particularly stand out, but the book is full of similar small gems.

The happy smiling faces that greet Carol when she moves to Gopher Prairie after marrying the local doctor are soon found to be hiding resentment, disdain, and any number of other ugly aspects. While on the surface they applaud and smile at Carol’s progressive ideas, it soon makes it’s way around town, and eventually back to Carol, that she is often on the receiving end of their jokes and condescension. The townspeople are painted as fickle, ignorant people with an inflated sense of culture (such as spending an hour discussing the lives of the English poets, and feeling well-versed in that topic from then on).

Carol Kennicott is not the heroic protagonist who is held above the common people of the town. She has her fair share of problems, too. Her ideals and plans to reform and change the city are often lofty and rash, and she feels like she can change things overnight in Gopher Prairie, but she is eventually humbled to find that the building of a new schoolhouse, which she proposed years before and dropped shortly thereafter when she found little support for it, was, though patience and persistence, pushed through to completion by another townswoman. Carol is quick to become frustrated and give up on her projects, leading to her eventually leaving the town of Gopher Prairie for some time, an attempt to give it up altogether after growing increasingly frustrated with it.

Despite the novel feeling dated at times, Lewis also shows himself to be perceptive of some of the more progressive ideas at the time, and predicts some of the social and political movements that would come later in the century. When Carol stands up for the immigrant farmers and their rights, only to be told that they’re pro-German dissidents, she says, “Of course, since we’re at war with Germany, anything that any one of us doesn’t like is ‘pro-German,’ whether it’s business competition or bad music. If we were fighting England, you’d call the radicals ‘pro-English.’ When this war is over, I suppose you’ll be calling them ‘red anarchists.’” And later, she calls out the social conventions expected of women and says, “Solitary dish-washing isn’t enough to satisfy me–or many other women. We’re going to chuck it. We’re going to wash ‘em by machinery, and come out and play with you men in the offices and clubs and politics you’ve cleverly kept for yourselves!”

Sinclair Lewis deconstructs the ideals of American life in the 1910s and early 1920s in a wonderful fashion. His descriptions of people in Gopher Prairie are hilarious, insightful, and even at times frustrating. I’ve never wanted to slap fictional characters and knock some sense into them as much as I did reading this novel. The exaggerated and annoying characters seemed all too real while reading, and there was something satisfying in the humor and sarcasm of those characters. Though it feels dated at times, I still found it a humorous and enjoyable read.

Favorite passage:

Mrs. Bogart lived across the alley from the rear or Carol’s house. She was a widow, and a Prominent Baptist, and a Good Influence. She had so painfully reared three sons to be Christian gentlemen that one of them had become an Omaha bartender, one a professor of Greek, and one, Cyrus N. Bogart, a boy of fourteen who was still at home, the most brazen member of the toughest gang in Boytown.

Why you should read it:

Sinclair Lewis doesn’t let anyone off easy in this sarcastic and at times hilarious look at a small town life that has been mostly forgotten in America.

Currently reading: Alice Adams by Booth Tarkington

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