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#68….Main Street

September 21, 2010

When most of us think of small-town America, images of white picket fences, tall church steeples, farms, American flags, autumn leaves and apple pie immediately spring to mind. Mom and Pop owned stores. Old people rocking contentedly on front porches fanning themselves. Knowing your neighbors. A quieter way of life that seems to be all but disappearing these days, thanks to suburban sprawl, mass transit and superhighways.

Sinclair Lewis, in his 1920 novel Main Street, sought to tear down the wholesome stereotype of the American small town and, according to Stephen Hopewell of The Heritage American, “decry the downsides of small-town life: the ugliness and crude materialism; the rewarding of mediocrity and ostracizing of the weak or different; the false piety, the carefully-maintained class system hidden beneath the veneer of “democracy”.”  Main Street is an incisive commentary on both marriage and society, and the pressures both put on people to conform and change.

Lewis grew up in Sauk Centre, MN, a small Midwestern town that served as the basis for Main Street‘s fictional town of Gopher Prairie. As the sensitive and aesthetic son of a country doctor, Lewis grew up a round peg in the square hole of Sauk Centre, knowing well the pain of ‘not belonging’ and how it felt to be laughed at and intellectually alone. He began writing from an early age, leaving Sauk Centre for much bigger cities like San Francisco and New York, where his writing career took off.

The character of Carol Milford Kennicott, Lewis’ high spirited and emancipated main character, has a lot in common with Lewis. An idealistic college graduate living in St Paul, MN, Carol is a city girl when she meets her future husband, Will Kennicott, at a party. Will is a country doctor in Gopher Prairie, a small town about a half hour away from St Paul. They fall in love, and Kennicott proposes to Carol and challenges her to come inspire and innovate his town. Despite Kennicott’s hype, Carol sees nothing but ugliness when she arrives for the first time as a married women in GP. She comes to find it is a small town where everyone knows everyone, everyone talks about everyone, and everyone judges everyone on a daily basis. No step you take or word you say goes undiscussed. Undaunted, Carol tries her best to invigorate the town by throwing creative parties and starting drama clubs, even trying to renovate buildings in the town, but the suspicious and stubborn townsfolks are too set in their ways to change. They look upon her efforts as cultural snobbery, and she looks on their lack of culture as backwardness and ignorance. Although Carol does eventually break into the society of GP, she becomes most drawn to others that are cultural outsiders like herself: her hired girl Bea; Bea’s renegade husband Miles; Fern, a naive teacher; and an effeminate tailor named Erik. Despite her discontent with GP and her husband, who turns out to be the world’s biggest fuddy-duddy, it is her travels to the East Coast and her experiences there as a working mother that drive her back to Gopher Prairie and her marriage.

I really liked this book, because it spoke to me on a very personal level. Growing up in small towns myself, one of which ostracized my mother for being a ‘working mom’ back in the 80’s when all the other moms stayed home, I understood the closed-mindedness of small towns. I also really identified with Carol’s need for purpose in her life. Carol would have been a fantastic working mother, had that been an option in Gopher Prairie. I think she would have been happier in her marriage and in Gopher Prairie had she been able to commute to the city to work everyday.  I was lucky to have the option when my daughter was born of staying home with her or working. It sounds like daycare in Gopher Prairie was not an option, nor was having a job as a woman. Carol was an emancipated woman who was unable to be emancipated thanks to small town society. What bleak days those must have been for us mover-and-shaker women out there!

Lewis’ descriptions of Gopher Prairie really help you to feel the isolation of  a small town at the turn of the century. Gopher Prairie sounded like it was out in the middle of nowhere, when really it was only about forty minutes away from Minneapolis. While that sounds like a hop, skip and a jump to us these days, it might as well have been ten thousand miles for Carol. Going to the city meant a long train journey, and certainly you couldn’t just go for a couple hours or the day. There were no interstates yet either, so car travel wasn’t even as easy as it is nowadays. I felt so sorry for Carol, because she had no way out of GP, unless Kennicott took her on a trip, which wasn’t easy to schedule since he was the main doctor once the war started. I would have gone stir crazy if I was stuck in my house, only able to hang out with a bunch of fakey backstabbers to break up the monotony. The internet I’m sure would have helped Carol to “travel”, in the sense that she could have connected with other book and art lovers. She would have been a great blogger!!

Carol’s disillusionment of her husband, when she discovers he is also an unapologetic Gopher Prairian just like her neighbors who expects her to conform and shut up, is also very poignant. Kennicott sounds like the world’s worst husband, most nights not even looking at her and barely able to make conversation outside of the same gossip everyone else in town stews in. It was too bad that Carol could not have gone to visit GP before moving there, or lived with Kennicott before marrying him to see what she was getting herself into. I wonder if she would have rethought her decision. Kennicott redeems himself a bit by allowing Carol to spread her wings and leave town for 2 years to be on her own with her son, and he also does the right thing by not making her come home until she was ready to be satisfied with the town. He comes out to visit her in DC and goes to plays and parties, but the minute he gets back to GP he reverts back to his usual, boring self. Ugh.

It’s amazing to me, at the end of the book, to see how so many of the problems Carol experienced would not have existed today, had Main Street taken place in the Gopher Prairie of 2010. Main Street is the story of how women with modern ideas would have tried to carve out a niche for themselves with their limited options back in those days. If anything, at the conclusion of the book, I was very glad that things have changed so much for women and that we are able to have fuller, richer lives than Carol did. I’m sending a big shout-out to all the suffragettes and women’s libbers out there who helped make our lives what they are today.

A sprawling read at 526 pages, this book also qualifies as my fourth book for the Chunkster Reading Challenge.

Grade: A

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8 Comments leave one →
  1. September 21, 2010 4:45 pm

    This sounds wonderful! The only Lewis novel I’ve read is Babbitt, and it was so long ago I don’t even remember it. This promises to be better!

  2. September 21, 2010 6:29 pm

    It really was good, and it had a tough act to follow after “The House of Mirth”. I would actually say this one was better.

  3. September 21, 2010 8:15 pm

    It was agony to get through this novel for me. Aside from a few changes of pace, it’s mostly the same thing over and over again: Carol, dissatisfied, gets an idea that she wants to try something new in Gopher Prairie; she experiences initial resistance; eventually she manages to get it going anyway; it doesn’t work out as she planned; Carol goes back to being dissatisfied. Lather, rinse, repeat. It was a far cry from the socialist statement this book was supposed to be…

  4. September 21, 2010 8:44 pm

    The fact that Carol kept trying to liven things up, got stonewalled so many times, yet still somewhat held it together (ie. she didn’t walk out on Main Street one afternoon with an shotgun and start picking people off) is what was amazing to me. Even in the end, she refused to give in to “The Village Virus” and become one of the Gopher Prairians. You have to admire that kind of individuality in a town that had none before she came!

  5. Jillian permalink
    September 22, 2010 12:43 am

    Wow. I can’t believe this one wasn’t on my TBR. Just added it.

    Great review. 🙂

  6. September 22, 2010 11:39 pm

    This is a beautiful, thoughtful review that makes me want to read the book! Thanks for that.

  7. gina c permalink
    October 13, 2010 1:24 pm

    I am about a third of the way through Main Street and liking it very much. Just want to suggest that you might read Cather’s My Antonia for a view from the hired girl’s life at roughly the same time, although in Nebraska not MN.

    • October 14, 2010 7:40 pm

      I’m glad you’re enjoying it. It was one of my faves on the list so far. 🙂

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