We all live on Main Street: Why Sinclair Lewis still matters

We all live on Main Street: Why Sinclair Lewis still matters

A couple of years ago, I happened to drive through Sauk Centre. Stopping at the Mainstreet Coffee Company, I reflected that I’d never actually read Main Street—Sinclair Lewis’s 1920 novel set in a thinly fictionalized version of the Minnesota city where he grew up. I put it on my list, and just this summer I finally got around to actually reading it.

It’s not the briskest read, as the author himself implicitly acknowledges. Near the end of the book, Carol, the novel’s central character, considers whether her life might make a good story: “She knew that there was nothing heroic or obviously dramatic in it, no magic of rare hours, nor valiant challenge, but it seemed to her that she was of some significance because she was commonplaceness, the ordinary life of the age, made articulate and protesting.”

Certainly, the first and most obvious way to enjoy the book is purely as a work of sociology: 173,000 words of detailed depiction of the all-too-ordinary life of small-town Minnesota (which Lewis repeatedly insists was virtually indistinguishable from life in any other American small town) circa the 1910s.

As the newly-relocated, newlywed Carol chafes at her geographic and social restraints, she takes us on a complete tour of the sources of potential interest in “Gopher Prairie”: the literary society that talks about the poets’ lives, not their poetry; the movie theater with its guilty pleasures; the disreputable barn dances; the library where the librarian is more concerned with preserving the books’ condition than with whether anyone actually reads them; the long, gossipy porch sits; the endless card games.

Minnesota generally, and Sauk Centre specifically, take pride in the native son who became the first American to win the Nobel Prize in Literature; within just a few years of the book’s publication, the Sauk Centre high school teams became “the Mainstreeters,” a moniker they retain today, complete with swag that would make a great gift idea for the book nerd who has everything. Still, the book is only a generous portrayal if seen from the vantage point of Carol, who marries young and is whisked from urbane St. Paul to provincial Gopher Prairie, where she struggles for a decade to find a shred of redeeming value.

It’s the very exhaustiveness of Lewis’s portrait that ultimately creates a measure of suspense: will Carol be able to make her life in Gopher Prairie, or must she flee? It’s a question not just concerning her relationship with Gopher Prairie, but with her stolid husband—a man who’s intelligent and (mostly) honest, and who knows that he’s a lifer despite all his community’s faults. Ultimately, Main Street becomes a poignant portrait of a marriage, evoking universal themes of freedom and constraint.

In broad strokes, Main Street is a Midwestern entry into the Bovary genre: a woman with limited choices marries a boring bro, and sinks into despairing ennui. (Its forbidden-love subplot doesn’t pack nearly as much heat as that of Edith Wharton’s Age of Innocence—which edged Main Street for the 1921 Pulitzer, piquing Lewis to such an extent that when the judges tried to award a prize to him five years later, for Arrowsmith, he refused it.) What makes Main Street feel contemporary, though, a century after its fictional events transpired, are the novel’s fine strokes. Long before the term was coined, Lewis wrote the book—or, at least, a book—on microaggressions.

“Passive-aggressive” is another term we like to use in Minnesota, but it’s “microaggression” that’s caught on in recent years to describe subtle little jabs that—without necessarily explicitly condemning someone or something—makes clear that the aggressor doesn’t approve. It’s microaggressions that often let people of color, for example, know that whites don’t respect them, even at times and places where they’re ostensibly highly valued.

There aren’t any named characters of color in Main Street, though the WASPy town leaders do plenty of trash-talking about immigrants from Scandinavia—who are described as highly suspect, painted with the kind of xenophobic rhetoric that’s still all too familiar today. That willfully ignorant attitude outrages Carol, who becomes increasingly incensed at the gap between Gopher Prairie’s pretentious view of itself and the reality of how its daily life is organized.

Gopher Prairie styles itself a rising metropolis: “They say we can’t make Gopher Prairie, God bless her! just as big as Minneapolis or St. Paul or Duluth,” says one civic leader, “but lemme tell you right here and now that there ain’t a town under the blue canopy of heaven that’s got a better chance to take a running jump and go scooting right up into the two-hundred-thousand class than little old G. P.!” Carol, though, finds that any whisper of an improvement that might actually make the town more cosmopolitan is shot down by residents who can’t or won’t buck the status quo.

At one point, Carol tries to align local influentials behind a plan to build a new city hall to serve as a center of the community. Almost no one outright disagrees with her that a new city hall would be “nice,” but one person after another declines to join Carol’s campaign.

The pastor’s wife thinks that a new church should properly be the center of the community, while the school superintendent’s wife says the town should build a new school first. When Carol visits the school and agrees that the school is inadequate and should also be replaced, she’s instantly portrayed as the pawn of the superintendent’s wife, who supposedly just wants a “big office for her dear bald-headed [husband] to sit around and look important in.” Because no one can exclusively have his or her own way, nothing changes.

Later, Carol finds herself fighting the town as it glories in an episode of what today would be called “slut-shaming.” A young female teacher goes to a barn dance with a local boy; when he gets drunk and sexually assaults her, the teacher is blamed for having put herself into such a scandalous situation. All Carol can do in the face of the town’s moral outrage is to convince the school board to neutrally accept the teacher’s resignation rather than to publicly denounce and fire her—all in the name of “sound morals.”

I can’t imagine that anyone who’s a member of any community facing discrimination could read Main Street and not recognize several sadly universal dynamics that work in concert to perpetuate a highly problematic status quo that’s founded on irrational, self-centered fear.

The law says that all are equal, but those who enforce the law often give the benefit of the doubt to people who are similar to themselves. Questions may be asked, but phrased in such a way that they declare the speakers’ biases and make the answers irrelevant. If an idea is new and therefore frightening, it’s dismissed as “impractical.” Civic pride fuels circular arguments: since this is by definition the greatest place on Earth, the way we do things must be definition be the best way to do things.

Yesterday, hundreds of people organized under the Black Lives Matter banner to march up to the gates of the Minnesota State Fair. The march confused some: what does the State Fair have to do with violence and racism? Some marchers did have specific grievances against the State Fair, but having just read Main Street, I felt that the march could have been justified simply as a reminder that civic pride—always in full flower at the State Fair—shouldn’t be synonymous with smug self-satisfaction.

We may have a great State Fair, but to the extent that Minnesotans think life here is hunky-dory just as long as Ye Old Mill is still running and the cheese curds are sizzling in the fryer, we’re no better than Gopher Prairie. As Carol Kennicott—and Sinclair Lewis—understood, Main Street needs to welcome everyone, not just by the letter of the law but by the spirit in which the law is enforced. It matters, because lives are at stake.

Jay Gabler