Saturday, January 12, 2013

"Main Street"

I finished rereading Main Street by Sinclair Lewis.  I first read this novel long, long ago, when I was in high school.  I'm actually a fan of Lewis, so at one point, I read quite a few of his novels.  Main Street and Babbitt are probably his best known.

Lewis was actually the first American writer to win the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1930.

Lewis' work both represents and is critical of American society: the rhetoric of capitalism and "boosterism" in particular, and the way in which national pride and evangelical fervor often serve to mask what Lewis perceived as a bullying, provincial narrow-mindedness fueled by racism and class prejudice.

Boyhood home of American author, Sinclair Lewis, at Sauk Centre, MN. 
Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division 
Main Street was enormously popular when it was published.  It tells the story of Carol Kennicott (nee Milford) and her residence in the fictional small town of Gopher Prairie, Minnesota.

I found Lewis' attempt to tell the story of small-town America from the perspective of a female protagonist extremely interesting.  On the one hand, Carol Kennicott is a vehicle for Lewis' own satire and criticism of small-town life, which he depicts as characterized by hypocritical and nosy neighbors, mind-numbing sameness and a love of the all-mighty dollar.

When Carol asks the local mill owner in Gopher Prairie his opinions about profit-sharing, for example,
Mr. Elder thundered his answer, while the others nodded, solemnly and in tune, like a shop-window of flexible toys, comic mandarins and judges and ducks and clowns, set quivering by a breeze from the open door:
"All this profit-sharing and welfare work and insurance and old-age pension is simply poppycock.  Enfeebles a workman's independence--and wastes a lot of honest profit.  The half-baked thinker that isn't dry behind the ears yet, and these suffragettes and God knows what all buttinskis there are that are trying to tell a business man how to run his business, and some of these college professors are just about as bad, the whole kit and bilin' of 'em are nothing in God's world but socialism in disguise!  And it's my bounden duty as a producer to resist every attack on the integrity of American industry to the last ditch.  Yes--SIR!"
(I'm pretty sure I read almost exactly this same statement in a comment thread on a news article the other day.)

Lewis is also at his best when he is looking at the staples of American culture with a satirical eye.  Describing a night at the movies, the narrator notes that in the "feature film," "a brave young Yankee" goes to South America: "He turned the natives from their barbarous haibts of singing and laughing to the vigorous sanity, the Pep and Punch and Go, of the North; he taught them to work in factories, to wear Klassy Kollege Klothes, and to shout, 'Oh, you baby doll, watch me gather in the mazuma.'"

The follow-up comedy reel features "the dual motif of legs and pie."

(I think I saw both of these films just last week.)

So this is Lewis' strength: social satire.  The French novelist Albert Camus once said in his review of Jean-Paul Sartre's novel, Nausea, that one of the difficulties involved in writing a philosophical novel is that it can't be more "philosophy" than "novel."  The ideas need to be balanced by artistry.

I think this is a dilemma that Lewis also faces.  On the one hand, I think he chose the perspective of a small-town, middle-class, professional man's wife (Carol's husband, Will Kennicott, is a doctor), because this is a narrative perspective that would allow him to look at the world he wants to depict from a point of view that is simultaneously central and marginalized.

As the narrator remarks with regard to Carol, "She was a woman with a working brain and no work."

At the same time, however, Lewis seems to me to be somewhat uncomfortable with the attempt to tell the story of small-town America from a woman's perspective.  The issue of an affair comes up: he dodges it.  The issue of children comes up: Carol has them, but Lewis then seems at a loss with what to do with them or with her role as a mother.  He dodges it, sort of.

I think Lewis is also uncertain, in some ways, of what it is that he wants to say and to accomplish in this novel.  On the one hand, the criticism of small-town life in the Midwest is--at times--extremely scathing.  Carol repeatedly tries to solve it or to flee, but what is the solution, really, and where can she go?

Lewis seems uncertain himself and unwilling to confront that uncertainty openly.  How can an individual maintain her individuality in a world that not only endorses but insists on and polices--both overtly and covertly--conformity?  As the narrator puts it, "The universal similarity--that is the physical expression of the philosophy of dull safety.  Nine-tenths of the American towns are so alike that it is the completest boredom to wander from one to another."

And yet, in the end, Lewis hedges.  The tone of the novel shifts, somewhat abruptly, and Carol begins to discover a new "goodness" underneath the superficial surface of Gopher Prairie.  She settles for her fate, it seems, and yet she still pays lip service to balking it.

In the end, I wonder whether it is Lewis' choice of a female protagonist that forces him into this bind.  He is comfortable criticizing America, but he is, in my opinion, less comfortable suggesting that women will ultimately insist on breaking out of the gender roles that have been scripted for them.  (Carol is not a suffragette.  The suffragette she speaks to longs for children and a husband.)

Nevertheless, I still enjoy reading Lewis, and I would recommend Main Street over Babbitt.  I'm looking forward to rereading Arrowsmith next, and then perhaps Elmer Gantry and Kingsblood Royal, two of his novels that I've never read.

At the end of the day, I still think It Can't Happen Here, although it is one of Lewis' lesser-known novels, is one of his most interesting--and most chilling.  It is about how all things quintessentially American mask the slow but steady rise of a totalitarian regime.

The ideas and concerns that Lewis raises in his novels are still with us in the US today.  The times and the issues may have changed slightly (or have they?), and we may phrase it all a bit differently, but in essence the criticisms his novels offer still ring terribly true.

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