A Visit to Main Street: At home with Sinclair Lewis

My wife and I recently drove out to Sauk Centre for an overnight stay. It’s the kind of short trip we enjoy taking. The town, about 75 miles due west of the Twin Cities on Interstate 94, is the birthplace of Harry Sinclair Lewis and was immortalized by him as Gopher Prairie in his hugely successful fourth novel, Main Street. The book sold two million copies in its first few years, added a new term to the language and was eventually instrumental, along with Babbitt, Arrowsmith and Elmer Gantry, in securing for its author the Nobel Prize for Literature, the first American so honored.

When Main Street came out in 1920, the population of Sauk Centre was just over 3,000, which is what it is today. Main Street is still the main thoroughfare, and some of the buildings on it still look pretty much as they must have looked when young Harry Lewis walked its snowy sidewalks as a boy. Closer examination reveals, however, that many of these downtown buildings are unoccupied and “for lease” these days, most of the town’s commercial activity having migrated to up near the interstate exits. The Sinclair Lewis Museum shares space with the local Chamber of Commerce office in a small building just off the interstate. The museum occupies a couple of small rooms and consists primarily of wall displays centered around each of the major Lewis novels, with quotations from the works excerpted and highlighted along with drawings and photographs depicting characters and events from the books. There are also some period furniture pieces, including what may or may not have been a Lewis writing desk. Overall the presentation, while interesting enough, suffers from a lack of upkeep.

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On the other hand, the Sinclair Lewis Boyhood Home, which sits just off Main Street and is also open to visitors most days of the week, is well maintained and boasts, in the person of a part-time volunteer named Judy, a tour guide who is knowledgeable and eager to be of help. Lewis’s father was a doctor and often treated patients in a front room of the small, two-story frame house. Harry, as the youngest of three Lewis brothers, slept on a small cot in the upstairs bedroom he shared with the two older boys. The doctor had reservations about the capabilities of his youngest son. According to the Lewis biographer Richard Lingeman, he once told the older brothers, Fred and Claude, “You boys will always be able to make a living. But poor Harry, there’s nothing he can do.”

Except write, apparently. By the time he was 30, Harry Sinclair Lewis was earning $10,000 a year ($150,000 in today’s dollars) churning out short stories for George Horace Lorimer’s Saturday Evening Post and writing novels on the side. At the height of his magazine career he was being paid $4,000 a story by Lorimer, roughly the same amount his fellow Minnesotan F. Scott Fitzgerald was getting per story from that legendary editor. Then came Main Street. Lewis was 35 when the book appeared, and it made him a rich man almost overnight. According to Lingeman, “In the year 1921, if you visited the parlor of almost any boarding house, you would see a copy of Main Street standing between the Bible and Ben-Hur.” Publishers Weekly would judge it to be “the bestselling novel—based on bookseller’s reports—for the period 1900 through 1925,” says Lingeman, “making it the book of the century, or at least the first quarter of it.”

Why was Main Street so successful? One reason was that it had the good fortune to appear at a propitious moment in the nation’s history. In retrospect, the feverish, roller-coaster period between the 20th century’s two great wars seems to have been a golden era of the small town in America. The telephone, the automobile and, probably most of all, the movies had expanded the consciousness of what had formerly been isolated rural villagers. A three-day horse and wagon trip to the nearest city had shrunk to a three-hour ride by car. Jones’s Dry Goods was selling frocks just like the one worn by Joan Crawford in “Rain.” Small-town residents began seeing themselves as part of a greater whole. Suddenly they were just as important to the Big Picture, or so they might let themselves imagine, as people who lived in places like Boston and Chicago, Philadelphia and New York.

Main Street anatomized this small-town life. The book was billed as satire. In it Lewis has mocking fun with the struggles of prairieland farmers and merchants caught up in such fast-moving times. Carol Kennicott, the book’s central character, is a dreamy doctor’s wife newly transplanted to Gopher Prairie who longs to change it into something it will never be: a cultural mecca, a shining example of modernity and advanced thinking. In her efforts to make a silk purse of this sow’s ear, she is repeatedly rebuffed and frustrated. But she presses on, undeterred. At one point Lewis says of Carol, “Her eyes mothered the world.” Eventually she takes up with fringe elements of the town, its hired hands and ribbon clerks, in her effort to find visionaries like herself. But these too disappoint her. “No one big enough or pitiful enough to sacrifice for,” she laments to herself at night in bed. “Tragedy in neat blouses; the eternal flame all nice and safe in a kerosene stove. Neither heroic faith nor heroic guilt. Peeping at love from behind lace curtains—on Main Street!” In the end she decamps to Washington, D.C., of all places, and finds work in the federal bureaucracy. It is left to her husband, solid, stolid Will Kennicott, the doctor, to rescue her from herself and haul her back to Gopher Prairie. The novel ends with the two of them back home at last, but not before Lewis lets Carol deliver a final defiant prophecy: “If you Tories were wise,” she says to Will, speaking of him and the town’s other Respectables, “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.”

Main Street is a big, loose novel. It lumbers along for more than 500 pages, with not much story, not much plot. But it is filled with canny observations about the nature of small-town life on the Minnesota prairie at that point in history, with the future pushing up hard against the past, causing the present to reverberate. It had to have been this dawning realization on the part of Americans everywhere that “the times they are a-changing” that caused the book to find such overwhelming popular favor. The novel’s opening sentences set the stage and make the point: “On a hill by the Mississippi where Chippewas camped two generations ago, a girl stood in relief against the cornflower blue of the Northern sky. She saw no Indians now; she saw flour-mills and the blinking windows of skyscrapers in Minneapolis and St. Paul.” The girl is Carol Kennicott, and soon she will be a new bride out in Gopher Prairie, trying to bring, if not skyscrapers, at least some semblance of this bold spirit to her new home.

•••

It was a fine fall day in late October when my wife and I drove out to Sauk Centre for our brief visit. Fall is maybe Minnesota’s best season. The air was crisp and clear, with no hint yet of what might be in store come December. The fields around the town were green, the crops were in, the silos filled. Inside the Sinclair Lewis Museum two women were on duty, one, the older, out front at the building’s reception desk, and the other, much younger, back in the small Chamber of Commerce office. As we were leaving I asked the older woman what preparations were being made for the coming centennial anniversary of the publication of Main Street. “It’s only six years off, you know,” I said, “and the whole world’s likely to be showing up out here for the occasion.” The woman said she wasn’t sure but she thought the Sinclair Lewis Society, which is headquartered at a college in Illinois, had something planned. Our talk brought the younger woman out of her office in back, and it was clear from the look on her face that the coming centennial was news to her. She was in her 20s, about the age Carol Kennicott would have been when she first arrived in Gopher Prairie, and she seemed a little alarmed by what she had overheard. It was apparent that centennial preparation hadn’t been big on her radar, and her look communicated that she suddenly feared that it may now have to be. As we said our goodbyes to the two of them, she stood a bit apart from her colleague, figuratively wringing her hands.

“So long,” my wife said brightly. “Maybe we’ll see you again in six years.”

Possibly it was my imagination, but the younger woman appeared to gulp.

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