Sinclair Lewis is a true American Author. His works are all about the American Dream, and his characters are straight from the coloring book of Great American Tropes.
Until they aren’t.
The protagonist of Main Street (1920), Carol Milford, is a good-looking, intelligent, independent young lady, working and living in Minnesota. A young woman providing for herself and thriving, initially.
When the charming Dr. Will Kennicott begins to court her, Carol is hesitant to move her life into the small town of Gopher Prairie, but decides to take a chance and dedicate her life to improving and rebuilding the whole town.
One by one, Carol exhausts every and any society, group and institution in town by expressing an energetic desire to help them improve – only to find them perfectly content and even pleased with their way of living and handling things.
Carol’s attempts are cast aside and her goodwill interpreted as haughtiness, her ideas seen as highbrow, her welcome thereby soon expires.
Lewis‘ other famous satire of the American Dream, Babbitt (1922) is for sure more to the point, a concentrate, if you will, in comparison to Main Street, having just half the length. I read Babbitt first and found it to be hilarious, stingy and charismatic and critical all at once, so Main Street was an obvious next choice. However, this novel will put its reader to the test.
As Carol herself concludes, after her final success at an independent existence:
„I may not have fought the good fight,
but I have kept the faith.“
As the protagonist does, the reader is also expected to keep the faith throughout the novel. There are plenty of chapters where life in Gopher Prairie just seems dull, repetitive and pointless – although having finished the book, they all seem to play their small and inconspicuous parts in Carols becoming. There is, apparently, a need to put the protagonist in front of seemingly endless suffering and a trajectory towards a life in servitude to a mediocre familial existence. Carol needs to keep fighting and struggling, trying to get through to the small town’s regressive, traditionalist ideology, to inspire and cultivate progress.
The fact that Carol’s utilitarian mission fails, is an obvious stab at small-town mentality – and with that criticism, Lewis remains relevant today, just as U.S. small towns remain regressive in 2020. One might compare this story to Little Fires Everywhere by Liane Moriarty – and one would find quite a few comparative arguments.
However: Her individual mission succeeds.
Carol finds her independence, her tribe of likeminded women, her fighting-for-justice sisterhood – she leaves her marital non-bliss not because her husband allows her to, but because she herself chooses to.
Only after being immersed in this other reality for quite a while, she decides for herself to then return into the periphery of history by really settling down into Gopher Prairy – this time of her own accord.
In the grand scheme of things nothing really changes for Carol nor for the small town, and the long strenuous path to fulfilling her big dreams seems much too costly in comparison to the short period of successful self-realisation.
Although the narrator starts his tale with a marveling eye on the protagonist – describing Carol’s skirt’s playful movement around her legs as if it were to be listed among the Seven Wonders of ther World shortly – her unlikeability is just as obvious.
Yes, she has great legs and a good head on her shoulders. However, as Carol looks upon the small town and its outdated ways in disdain, the reader is concurrently just as able to sympathise with its residents who quickly get fed up with Carol’s all-knowing manner.
On an existential level of interpretation – and here I was cruiously reminded of German power house Thomas Mann’s opus magni, Buddenbrooks – to be happy and feel fulfilled is but a fleeting moment and rather a memory in any individual’s life, so to experience one day of happiness surely must outweigh years of misery.
The fact that these timeless thoughts on the conditio humana are brought up – finding purpose, seeking happiness, being validated by one’s peers and the sheer impossibility of possessing all three simultaneously – boosts the novel’s value significantly.
The books are obviously very funny and the dialogues fabulously excecuted. Lewis is a master of character and situation comedy, his setting of scenes and timing for the event sequences are immaculate. And still, the thoughts I took with me are of a deeper, more complex nature. For that, I commend you to also keep the faith and read on until you have completed Main Street. It is a one-of-a-kind piece of American Literature.
Have you read anything by Lewis Sinclair? Who would be your recommendation for the category Great American Authors? I’d love to know in the comment section below.
Title: Main Street
Author: Sinclair Lewis
Publication Date: Reprint Edition 1.3.1996 (orig. 1920)
Publisher: Bantam Classics