21 December 2009

Sinclair Lewis's Main Street (1920) and Sauk Centre, Minnesota

As far as literature is concerned, Minnesota is popularly known as the birth state of Scott Fitzgerald (St Paul) and, er, Garrison Keillor (Anoka), although Sinclair Lewis (1885—1951) is not as well known. One reason for this is that, although he won the Pulitzer Prize in 1926 (for Arrowsmith (1925)) and the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1930, he produced nothing of particular merit from 1930 to his death. But he is noted for his novels of the 1920s, especially Main Street (1920) and Babbitt (1922). Both novels attack the stultifying conformity of the America of the Midwest in the postwar years, although Main Street is arguably more interesting for its autobiographical content.

Main Street is set almost entirely in the fictional small town of Gopher Prairie, although its protagonist, Carol Kennicott, is anything but that name might suggest: she refuses to toe the line. Born Carol Milford, she was educated in the Twin Cities — and later worked in a library in St Paul — with no knowledge of prairie villages, so when she marries Dr Will Kennicott, who has a medical practice in Gopher Prairie, she is destined for a considerable culture shock.

The superficial similarities between Flaubert's Madame Bovary and Main Street are striking: in both novels, a young woman, preoccupied by reading, marries a boring, conformist medical practitioner from a small town, suffers strongly from boredom, and is tempted to commit adultery. The main differences are that Carol does not commit adultery, and does not kill herself: after spending two years working for the Bureau of War Risk Insurance, in Washington DC, she returns to the strains of the cultural desert of Gopher Prairie.

But this is not Madame Bovary with a postwar American take: Lewis had a love-hate relationship with the small Midwest town in which he was born and grew up — Sauk Centre, which for some reason is given an English spelling — and his father was a doctor there. In Main Street, Lewis incorporated many of the elements — and many of the characters — he had known in Sauk Centre, and reactions in the town against his satire were very strong.

Carol Kennicott in many ways expresses Lewis's left-wing views on small town America, and although this is Lewis in full exaggeration mode, the message is clear when he launches into a criticism of the Perrys:

'The Republican Party, the Grand Old Party of Blaine and McKinley, is the agent of the Lord and of the Baptist Church in temporal affairs.

'All socialists ought to be hanged.

'Harold Bell Wright is a lovely writer, and he teaches such good morals in his novels, and folks say he's made prett' near a million dollars out of 'em.

'People who make more than ten thousand a year or less than eight hundred are wicked.

'Europeans are still wickeder.

'It doesn't hurt any to drink a glass of beer on a warm day, but anybody who touches wine is headed straight for hell.

'Virgins are not so virginal as they used to be.

'Nobody needs drug-store ice cream; pie is good enough for anybody.

'The farmers want too much for their wheat.'

The Perrys are by no means an atypical couple — in fact, their ideas are identical to the views of many others in the novel, and, Lewis believed, identical to those of many other identical inhabitants of many other identical small towns in conformist America. Carol dreads catching the 'Village Virus'.

After her (kind of) rebellion in Washington, Will ensnares her back, and five months after a holiday with her husband in Charleston, SC, and Savannah, GA, the pregnant Carol prepares to return to prairie living still an anarchist, but a gentler one:

'And why, she began to ask, did she rage at individuals? Not individuals but institutions are the enemies, and they most afflict the disciples who the most generously serve them. They insinuate their tyranny under a hundred guises and pompous names, such as Polite Society, the Family, the Church, Sound Business, the Party, the Country, the Superior White Race; and the only defense against them, Carol beheld, is unembittered laughter.'

Her vision of the beginning of the 21st century is interesting, as she sees that the real revolution will be carried out by the adults of the future. Before she retires to bed, as she points to her daughter's head, she warns her husband:

'Do you see that object on the pillow? Do you know what it is? It's a bomb to blow up smugness. If you Tories were wise, you wouldn't arrest anarchists; you'd arrest all these children while they're asleep in their cribs. Think what that baby will see and meddle with before she dies in the year 2000! She may see an industrial union of the whole world, she may see aeroplanes going to Mars.'

Sauk Centre has long since forgiven Sinclair Lewis, and has even turned him into the commercial attraction that he'd have hated: his parents' house, in Sinclair Lewis Avenue, is now the Sinclair Lewis Boyhood Home, there's a Sinclair Lewis Interpretation Center in the town, and you can even grab a Sinclair Lewis cheeseburger.

Lewis came to the world of letters at the wrong time, as he was writing in a rather old-fashioned style when writers like Sherwood Anderson, Ernest Hemingway, and William Faulkner were bringing a much fresher approach to American literature.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

My grandmother knew Sinclair Lewis and many of her experiences of moving from Duluth to Sauk Centre were written about through the character Carol in Main Street. There is a photo of her and my grandfather and great aunt having breakfast with the Lewis's in the Minnesota historical collection.