Main Street – Sinclair Lewis
Occasionally I read a book and wonder what all the fuss was about. A case in point is Sinclair Lewis’ satire of little town mid-West America, Main Street, which was enormously successful when it was published in 1920. He won the Pulitzer Prize in 1921 for it, only for the Board of Trustees to overturn the jury’s decision. And, of course, Lewis was the first American to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, in 1930.
What makes great literature, in my opinion, is that it speaks to all generations through the ages. Second tier literature may resonate with contemporary audiences but does not have the gravitas or world view to stand the test of time. And I think this is where Lewis’ novel sits. No bad thing in itself but Main Street is very much a creature of its own time and whilst fascinating as a snapshot of American society at the time and the frustrations of and sense of claustrophobia in small town America, it is dreadfully dated.
The protagonist is Carol Kennicott, an aspirational young woman, and the book, a kind of Bildungsroman, charts her path through adulthood, an unsatisfactory marriage to the local doctor in Gopher Prairie in Minnesota and her sense of frustration as she tries to find a role for herself in her new surroundings. Truth be told, there is little in the way of plot – it is more episodic – and many of the characters we meet along the way are a couple of brush strokes rather than well-rounded portraits. Lewis is on a mission to skewer middle-America but for satire to work it needs to exaggerate but his portrayal is mired in too much realism. He makes his points but not as well as if he had exaggerated the characteristics that he found fault with.
Realising that she has arrived in Dullsville, Carol sets about improving the quality of life through good works and by trying to introduce a bit of what she considers to be culture into the daily lives of the townsfolk. You can imagine that if you were set in your ways and contented, someone like that would be a veritable pain in the arse. The townsfolk give her enough rope to hang herself with, nodding in agreement to her face but fighting tooth and nail behind her back to defeat her plans. Carol crosses acceptable social boundaries by being friendly towards, and overpaying, her maid and befriending her feckless husband. But the tentacles of well-meaning, patriotic America stifle her and her ambitions. Even life in the city is no greener.
Perhaps one of the problems for the modern reader is Carol herself and her situation. She is comfortably off, has a maid but lives at a time when the woman’s place was very much in the home. Her fight to exert her independence and do what she wants to do doesn’t quite sit with the freedom and place of women in today’s society.
Along the way, Lewis comes up with some great lines. “She did not yet know the immense ability of the world to be casually cruel and proudly dull” and how about this for an analysis of the purpose of a dull, conformist community? – “It keeps strays in the flock. To word it differently: ‘You must live up to the popular code if you believe in it; but if you don’t believe in it, then you MUST live up to it!” There is no other way to be.
This book is a creature of its time but there is enough insight in the pages to keep the modern reader interested. War and Peace it is not, though.