Review: Main Street by Sinclair Lewis
It was a plodding journey at times, but I made it through the entirety of Main Street by Sinclair Lewis. While this was a required text for my Nobel Prize Winners in Literature class, I am glad that I read it. A study on small town Americana and small town prejudices, Main Street was both infuriating and insightful; infuriating because of the small-mindedness of some characters, and insightful because it caused me to think about how comfortable we become with the norms of society and the prejudices of our peers, as well as how attached we become to certain dreams and desired outcomes, even when they are not practical.
Caroline 'Carrie' Milford is fresh out of college in Minnesota, with grand plans to make over every Main Street across the American Midwest. However, she sensibly realizes that she needs money to survive, so she takes on a position at the city library and finds she rather likes it. Then, Dr. Will Kennicott of Grand Prairie, Minnesota waltzes into her life. After dazzling Carrie with quaint revelations of "prairie life" and stories about the generous, intelligent, kind folks who live on "G.P.'s" Main Street, Will convinces her that she is the only person who can help Grand Prairie elevate itself to greatness. So, Carrie becomes "Mrs. Dr. Kennicott," and Will whisks her away from the "big city" to his hometown.
Upon arriving in Grand Prairie, Carrie is in for the shock of her life. She takes in shabby buildings, faded scenery, the prying eyes of the townspeople, and realizes that small prairie towns have been grossly romanticized in novels and newspapers. Still, she determines to make the best of her situation, and over the course of many pages, attends and arranges numerous dinners and group events, and even attends a few meetings of the Thanatopsis Club - the ladies club that meets to discuss social and cultural topics.
Her attempts, however, are lost on the townspeople. While they are polite enough to her face, behind her back, they gossip about her clothes, her furniture, what she buys at the store, what she says at social gatherings, and so on. The ladies club she attends is less a forum of sophisticated cultural discussion, and more of a hotbed for gossip and studies of literature that run the gambit from shallow to just plain made-up.
Over time, Carrie attempts to start a drama group, raise interest in building a new city hall, school and library, and promote more reading in the library, but at every turn, she is met with resistance. As an avid reader, my heart shriveled a bit when the shrew of a librarian so matter-of-factly told Carrie that she would prefer the books remain clean and unread than to encourage children and the less-educated to read them and use the library services more often. After all, books are expensive, you know! Oh, the horror!
In short, Carrie is dreadfully out of place and her attempts at reforming others to think and act more like she does fail miserably. She eventually does find some kindred spirits - Bea Sorenson, her maid, and Miles Bjornstam, a handyman. Unfortunately, the town's prejudices against the immigrant families give Carrie a lot of grief, and eventually, culminate in a snub of Bea and Miles so heartless, it brought tears to my eyes. The scenes that featured this trio were so fraught with xenophobia on the part of the townspeople, and they reminded me that, on a grand scale, not much has changed in America in the way of attitudes towards immigrants. Many will accept them but will keep them on the fringes of society, insisting they could never really be "one of us."
Carrie does make a few friends of the townspeople -- namely Guy Pollock (lawyer), Vida Sherwin (teacher), and Erik Valborg (assistant tailor), and they more or less try to support her in her endeavors. Throughout all of this, Dr. Will, her husband, is a steady presence in her life, which sounds lovely in theory, but Carrie eventually becomes disenchanted with her husband, wishing he were different; more well-read, interested in social reform, and more ambitious. In short, more like her. The birth of their first son only serves to deepen the divide between the two.
Carrie goes on to have an emotional love affair with young Erik, which Dr. Will seems to be aware of but doesn't stop, because he is also paying visits to Maud Dryer, who is also married and lonely. Eventually, Carol is forced to end things with Erik, due to a scandal caused by another naughty couple, and Erik leaves town. In turn, Dr. Will whisks Carrie away to California for a much-needed vacation, which refreshes her spirits, but when she returns to Gopher Prairie to find that nothing and no one has changed, she decides that she simply cannot stand it anymore.
So, son in one hand and suitcase in another, Carrie decides to move to Washington, D.C. for an undetermined amount of time under the guise of serving in the homefront war efforts (during WWII). Washington offers Carol all the glamour of the city, which she missed while in Gopher Prairie. There, she attends plays and movies, and discusses politics and literature with other well-educated individuals. She starts working at the Bureau of War Risk Insurance, which she finds suitable but boring, and she also gets involved in the suffrage movement.
Exploring the larger world outside of Gopher Prairie, which initially seemed suffocating to her, Carrie realizes that the same personalities found in her small town can also be found in the big city – and also that she feels anonymous, whereas in Grand Prairie she felt known. At work and through her participation in the women’s movement, Carrie meets different women, many of whom are from small towns like Gopher Prairie. Through these conversations, she realizes that, by small town standards, Gopher Prairie is actually quite ahead of its time. Instead of attempting to reform individuals within the town, she sees that she should have been questioning the institutions that helped to mold their traditions and standards – the church, the state, and the country itself.
It is in the act of leaving Grand Prairie that Carrie can take a step back and see it for what it is: a small town, progressing in its own way, populated by people with whom she may not always agree, but whom she likes anyway. Dr. Will visits her, and instead of begging her to come home, he focuses on wooing her once more, as he did when they first met. It works. Carrie decides to return to Gopher Prairie with her husband and her son.
While Dr. Will and Caroline Kenicott are arguably the main characters, Sinclair Lewis created clever secondary characters that feel as "real" as if they stood before you in the flesh. While many in Gopher Prairie held the same views, they still managed to be individuals, and that's a tough feat to achieve when writing a satire of small town America.
There is no "good guy," there is no "bad guy," and frankly, there's little to no plot. While this isn't a page-turning action-packed novel, the discerning reader still seeks to turn the pages because s/he recognizes that this novel is actually quite genius at influencing the reader to look inward, at their own prejudices and contemptuousness.
Written and published during a period of time when small-town living was otherwise idealized and romanticized, for being wholesome and upright, Main Street offers an unforgiving indictment of the hypocritical, conformist mindset that the author felt was enslaving “small town U.S.A.”
Sinclair Lewis highlights the hypocrisy of Gopher Prairie citizens when Carol demands humane treatment of the farmers and other immigrant workers, and makes the simple suggestion to refurbish the rest room for the farmer’s wives. The ladies of the Jolly Seventeen, supposedly the upper class of Gopher Prairie society, scoff at her idea and feel that the farmer’s wives should be grateful for what they have. The prejudiced attitudes of the townspeople are in direct conflict with their desire to appear charitable and democratic.
We see similar hypocritical attitudes today, when those who call themselves Christians cannot be bothered to visit the sick or help the poor, or when Americans, whose country was founded by immigrants, can find no room in their hearts for sympathy for the Syrian refugees. Unfortunately this is not just the result of living on “Main Street” or in a small town, but rather the result of the arrogance and self-righteousness bred by many of America’s citizens living on Main Street and believing, smugly, that they are above it.
While undoubtedly representative of many small towns during that time period, many of the characters in Main Street are superficial and not well rounded. Sinclair does not provide psychological commentaries of his characters, and instead, his focus is more on the external. His minute observations of daily life and laboring over the meanness of small town minds can render the act of reading this tome a painstaking experience. However, the characters and the story are not without nuance, and the social commentary on the prejudices that infect small-minded people is still applicable and valuable today, making Main Street a classic “must read.”