By Jay Fox
Brooklyn, NY, USA
Main Street is arguably the most famous of Sinclair Lewis' novels. For perhaps the first time, an author made a satire that criticized the soul of small town America for its pettiness, hypocrisy and dullness. Unsurprisingly, it caused a sensation when it was published in 1920. Similarly unsurprisingly, most of the changes that have occurred in small town America in the ninety-five years since are largely cosmetic and superficial.
The story is a bit of an inversion of a familiar theme, particularly in nineteenth and early twentieth century literature, in which a young, passionate artist moves from the country to the city to pursue a dream. These creative protagonists eventually become less interested in the pursuit of art and more interested in love, wealth or impressing a benefactor class to whom they are, at best, a fleeting curiosity. The tale can usually take one of two directions from there. The protagonist either reaffirms the initial love of art and goes on to become the toast of the town or falls prey to the banalities of the city and is ultimately forced return to the country where urban pretensions are exchanged for the simple virtues of the country.
Main Street's narrative begins in the city and moves to the county. The protagonist, Carol Milford, is a college-educated woman who is a bit more of a dilettante than she would like to admit. She is not an artist, but, rather, a reformer living in the Twin Cities during the Progressive Era (a term that Lewis probably would have found absolutely ridiculous). It is not art or the desire to reform that takes her to the country; rather, it is the love of Doctor Will Kennicott. The two marry. After a honeymoon out in the Rockies, they return to the doctor's hometown of Gopher Prairie, Minnesota—a fictional town of a few thousand with a train station, several churches and a Main Street that, in the words of Lewis, "is the continuation of Main Streets everywhere."
Though Kennicott thinks that the town to be an idyll, Carol's first impressions of Gopher Prairie are less than positive. "Only to Kennicott was it exceptional," Lewis tells us. However, it is in the town's shabbiness that Carol finds a purpose. She believes that she can reform Gopher Prairie. She believes that she can bring it culture; that she can beautify its streets and buildings.
The problem, of course, is that there's nothing wrong with Gopher Prairie, according to its residents ("If folks will just take us as we are, I think we're a pretty good bunch!" as Juanita Haydock, one of the town's more vocal residents, explained). And this refusal to change is what drives the novel. The conflict throughout Main Street is that Carol cannot adapt. She cannot be complacent or resign herself to what she considers to be the mediocrity, narrow-mindedness and pettiness that define life in small town America. She wants an epic life. Meanwhile, those who have called G.P. home all their lives can't entertain the notion that any right thinking person would ever want to live anywhere else. Most of those in G.P. would echo the sentiments of Carol's husband, who says that there are three classes of people: "Folks that haven't got any ideas at all; and cranks that kick about everything; and Regular Guys, the fellow with stick-tuitiveness, that boost and get the world's work done." Kennicott would identify with the third class of folk. Whether Carol belongs to the first or the second remains a subject of debate.
On top of the comically provincial and dated dialogue, there were two things that I found particularly amusing about Main Street. The first is that political discourse is largely the same today among conservatives as it was back then. While the left has largely abandoned the language of Mother Jones or Gopher Prairie's Red Swede in order to make certain that everyone on campus gets a safe space, the right continues to maintain the type of eternal truths expressed by Champ Perry, one of the original pioneers who had founded the town:
"All socialists ought to be hanged."
"People who make more than ten thousand a year or less than eight hundred are wicked." (Assuming that Champ was speaking in Year of Our Lord 1913, this would amount to approximately $240,000 and $19,000, respectively today.)
"Virgins are not so virginal as they used to be."
The second thing I considered was how personal, passive entertainment (radio, television, the internet) has in many ways allowed for greater privacy. While Carol feels as though she can never escape the prying eyes of the town's residents, many of whom have nothing to do but gossip and spy on their neighbors, it is not because of an innate nosiness. It's because these individuals, one, don't have other passive entertainment options during the day and, two, the only subject matter that all of these individuals have enough of a shared knowledge to discuss concerns the gossip of the town.
Scandals involving Miss Mullins and the widow Bogart's boy or that queer tailor and the doctor's wife spread like wildfire in 1917. This is not to say that, in 2015, the residents of Gopher Prairie wouldn't care if such scandals were uncovered. However, this probably wouldn't happen. Instead of sniffing around town for improprieties and infidelities, most of the town's gossipers would be too busy keeping up with the Kardashians.