OCTOBER 31, 2020
SINCLAIR LEWIS’S MAIN STREET, which turns 100 this year, was a blockbuster best seller when it was published in 1920. This is a bit ironic, given how relentlessly cynical the novel is about its subject. Lewis’s eye is as jaundiced as Flaubert’s or Flannery O’Connor’s as he maps out the intellectual and emotional cul-de-sac of small-town life. Lewis knew whereof he spoke, having grown up restless in a Minnesota town much like the fictional Gopher Prairie, whose inhabitants live staid, complacent lives with no curiosity about the world beyond their white picket fences.
We follow the spunky and idealistic Carol Kennicott, a recent graduate of Blodgett College, “a bulwark of sound religion […] still combating the recent heresies of Voltaire and Darwin,” where “pious families” send their children to “protect them from the wickedness of the universities.” Despite her primly conservative background, Carol has developed an evangelical zeal. Lewis clearly wants the reader to like her, and it’s very easy to. We first see her standing on a hill in the sun, arms wide open, “credulous, plastic, young; drinking the air as she longed to drink life. The eternal aching comedy of expectant youth.”
Even if her contemporaries aren’t remotely on her wavelength, Carol’s optimism and high spirits still count for something. Lewis’s narrator opines that “a rebellious girl is the spirit of that bewildered empire called the American Middlewest.” Carol is a reformer who wants to uplift the social and intellectual life of Gopher Prairie, injecting into the community a healthy dose of art, science, and freethinking. She’s like a combination of Elizabeth Warren’s idealism and frankness with the egalitarian nature of Leslie Knope (of Parks and Recreation).
Carol’s program of reform meets obstacles from the outset. She tries to start a book club, but the town library hasn’t been used in a while. Her closed social circle of fellow wives is more content playing bridge and swapping recipes than discussing political reform, and Carol’s insistence on staging an Ibsen play with the community theater group turns into a disaster. One of the few locals whom Carol can relate to is a radically minded Swedish handyman who lives alone in the woods and who relishes his open disdain for the town swells, much to the chagrin of the locals. Carol is a bit naïve about whether the town is ready for her ideas, but she’s no dummy: she is very aware of the economic inequality at the core of Gopher Prairie’s complacent way of life.
At one point, a labor organizer arrives to speak to a farmers’ collective. A mob of angry businessmen literally runs him out of town on a rail and warns him not to return. Carol insistently complains about this event to her husband, an unenlightened if amiable fellow, who grumbles that those union types are “seditious as the devil — disloyal, non-patriotic, pro-German pacifists.” He complains that he can’t abide having his own wife echo this subversion, completely ignoring Carol’s potential as anything more than a pleasant adjunct to his life. When he frets that she might leave him, Carol hits back by saying, “You have a right to me if you can keep me. Can you?” He shifts uneasily in his seat and says nothing.
Reading Main Street today, it’s a little depressing to see how much things haven’t really changed. The body politic still pulsates with reactionary instincts. Despite the complexity and rich variety of American life, there’s always been a pressure, subtle or otherwise, for the rebels and the weirdos to knock it off and get with the program. American identity is amorphous and very much up for grabs, which creates a perpetual conflict over who is and is not a real American and who gets to set the terms. Those who dissent from mainstream culture or try to alter its shape often end up alienated and frustrated by their fruitless attempts to break through. Carol’s husband calls her “a neurotic,” and her friends scold her for being an “impossibilist” who wants “perfection all at once.”
Gopher Prairie, the narrator informs us, is “taking pains to become altogether standardized and pure,” aspiring “to succeed Victorian England as the chief mediocrity of the world.” Lewis suggests that these wholesome and dutiful citizens don’t like change because they were taught long ago, explicitly and implicitly, to be content with the given. They are perfectly satisfied with their lot because they haven’t explored anything beyond their own little world, nor do they care to.
Small towns like these, the narrator muses, are case studies in national malaise. Complacent pride in their moral rectitude has evolved into a kind of cultural imperialism. All those Gopher Prairies add up and create a nation that is so “[s]ure of itself, it bullies other civilizations, as a traveling salesman in a brown derby conquers the wisdom of China and tacks advertisements of cigarettes over arches for centuries dedicated to the sayings of Confucius.”
Carol notes that the town’s layout is “a matter of universal similarity […] the physical expression of dull safety.” The narrator adds that “nine-tenths of American towns are so alike that it is the completest boredom to wander from one to another.” This seems a bit of an exaggeration, but there are parallels in today’s monoculture. Instead of humble family-run businesses, there’s the sprawl of Starbucks or Walmart, big box stores, chain restaurants, the vast bland machinery of modern consumerism. All those quaint mom-and-pop establishments might have seemed humdrum to sophisticates a century ago, but at least they were made and maintained by human hands, bought with generations of sweat equity.
Subtlety wasn’t really Lewis’s strong suit, either as a writer or a social critic. The dry, sardonic tone of his narrative makes it pretty obvious what he thinks about this unassuming place and these utterly ordinary people. Cosmopolitan readers were likely amused by his disdainful satire of the mores of picturesque Main Street and its myopic bumpkins (this area would now be called flyover country). His urge to mock and caricature all their faults and foibles comes across at times as mean-spirited and ultimately less effective than the author presumed. Sauk Centre, Lewis’s hometown, evidently could take the ribbing in stride: by the time of Lewis’s death in 1951, it had a Main Street Garage, a Gopher Prairie Inn, and a brand of butter called The Pride of Main Street.
It’s a widely remarked phenomenon that liberal-minded reformers such as Carol tend not to fare very well in middle America, particularly during election season. Thomas Frank’s now classic book What’s the Matter with Kansas? (2004) devastatingly analyzed why people in his home state, which in Lewis’s time was staunchly progressive, now consistently vote against their own interests. Politicians who have zero interest in economic relief will talk with great energy about superficial culture war issues; Mike Huckabee, for example, definitely knows exactly whom he’s pandering to by giving his books catchy, down-home titles like God, Guns, Grits, and Gravy (2015).
Pandering is an inevitable part of politicking, of course, and that’s because it works. Not all of the time, and not everywhere, to be sure, but consistently enough that truly craven demagogues can slither into office in tightly contested races. The divisions they exploit aren’t just differences in lifestyle, they’re increasingly becoming alternate versions of reality. That disjunction is what poor Carol keeps bumping up against every time she tries to tell her neighbors about her grand ideas. It’s not that she’s a snob or that her neighbors are stupid, it’s that she doesn’t quite know how to speak the language everyone else is speaking.
At one point in the novel, Carol gets into an argument with her friend Vida, who tells her that
people like you and me, who want to reform things, have to be particularly careful about appearances. Think how much better you can criticize conventional customs if you yourself live up to them, scrupulously. Then people can’t say you’re attacking them to excuse your own infractions.
This is the mantra of the political centrist: go along to get along in the hope that you won’t sound like a weirdo and people will start to listen.
Carol interprets the message differently, though: “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!” This is the tightrope the Democratic Party is trying to walk right now, so as not to appear dangerous or threatening and thus alienate the center. It isn’t a terribly promising strategy, but the stakes are so high that there may not be any other option. Maybe Lewis was right after all to cast a cold eye on Main Street’s ability to reform itself.
At the end, Carol ponders what her baby daughter will see in the year 2000, perhaps a worldwide industrial union or airplanes heading to Mars. Dreamer that she is, she forgives herself for her failure to make her town over into what she wanted it to be. “I do not admit that Gopher Prairie is greater or more generous than Europe!” she affirms. “I do not admit that dish-washing is enough to satisfy all women! I may not have fought the good fight, but I have kept the faith.” A hundred years on, it’s still an open question whether keeping the faith will be enough.