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by Joel Van Valin
Before Harry Potter, The Da Vinci Code or The Bridges of Madison County, before James Herriot, Watership Down, or Peyton Place, way back in 1920, the publishing phenomenon of the season was a satire on life in a small town called Gopher Prairie. The novel was entitled Main Street and its author, a young mid-list writer named Sinclair Lewis, used his own home town, Sauk Centre Minnesota, as the setting. Main Street became a rallying cry for Lewis’ Lost Generation—a call to arms against small town conventions, respectability, hypocrisy and narrow-mindedness—and its author was catapulted onto the grand stage of American letters. The book sold 100,000 copies within a few months of its publication in 1920, and was the number one bestseller for the first quarter of the 20th century. As Malcolm Cowley observed:
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”.
Sinclair Lewis went on to write Babbitt, Arrowsmith, Elmer Gantry, It Can’t Happen Here, and a dozen or so other novels, and was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. But by the time he had drunk himself to death in 1951, his literary decline had already begun. His star is now pretty heavily obscured by the clouds of the intervening years; as early as 1992, Gore Vidal (another blast from the past) was writing in The New York Review of Books that “Sinclair Lewis seems to have dropped out of what remains of world literature.” Even in Sauk Centre itself, with its Sinclair Lewis Avenue, The Original Main Street and the Sinclair Lewis Boyhood Home (open late May to early September), most of the locals I talked to had read his books only as assigned coursework in high school. This is often the rough fate that awaits satirists like Lewis—the causes they battled so vociferously for are settled, one way or the other, and society moves on to different crises, leaving their books as forgotten as old war memorials.
Yet revisiting Main Street, the novel, I found plenty of reasons to loiter. The fangs and venom may have been removed from Lewis’ biting prose, but his naturalistic description of Minnesota’s fields, forests and lakes remains beautiful, and his portrayal of ordinary life at the end of the First World War is fascinatingly vivid:
At six, when the light faltered in as through ground glass and bleakly identified the chairs as gray rectangles, she heard his step on the porch; heard him at the furnace: the rattle of shaking the grate, the slow grinding removal of ashes, the shovel thrust into the coal-bin, the abrupt clatter of the coal as it flew into the fire-box: flames turned to lemon and metallic gold as the coal-dust sifted over them; thin twisty flutters of purple, ghost flames which gave no light, slipping up between the dark banked coals.
Who else could write so lyrically about stoking a furnace? And a hundred years after Sinclair Lewis walked about Sauk Centre, laying the groundwork of the novel in his mind, much of the dirty laundry list of smug provincialism, materialism, bigotry, and verbal taunts he would catalogue in Main Street is still prevalent in an America peopled with complacent middle-class citizens— “ghost flames” which give no light.
The premise behind Main Street is not unique; the same basic storyline has been used before and since in novels like The Return of the Native and films like Footloose: A stranger appears in some village or backwater bearing new, reformist ideas from the outside world. They are resisted by the recalcitrant natives, but in the end succeed, to a greater or lesser degree, in changing the local atmosphere.
In Main Street, the outsider is Carol Milford, a Saint Paul librarian who meets a Dr. Will Kennicott of Gopher Prairie. Courting her by the walls of Fort Snelling, he sets down the outlines of her future—and Main Street’s narrative:
Come on. Come to Gopher Prairie. Show us. Make the town—well—make it artistic. It’s mighty pretty, but I’ll admit we aren’t any too darn artistic. Probably the lumberyard isn’t as scrumptious as all these Greek temples. But go to it! Make us change!
Once Carol is married and installed in town, her first view of Main Street is not promising:
Main Street with its two-story brick shops, its story-and-a-half wooden residences, its muddy expanse from concrete walk to walk, its huddle of Fords and lumber-wagons, was too small to absorb her. The broad, straight, unenticing gashes of the streets let in the grasping prairie on every side. She realized the vastness and emptiness of the land. The skeleton iron windmill on the farm a few blocks away, at the north end of Main Street, was like the ribs of a dead cow.
She is initiated into the local aristocracy, peopled by businessmen such as Sam Clark (hardware store owner), Dave Dyer (drug store owner), Harry Haydock (owner of a department store called the Bon Ton, the largest shop in town) and Jackson Elder (saw mill owner), along with their respective wives. With the women she attends a bridge club known as the Jolly Seventeen, and a more serious book group, the Thanatopsis Club. But even at the welcoming party thrown for her and Will, she finds the culture of Gopher Prairie as unsavory as its Main Street:
Carol listened. She discovered that conversation did not exist in Gopher Prairie. Even at this affair, which brought out the young smart set, the hunting squire set, the respectable intellectual set, and the solid financial set, they sat up with gaiety as with a corpse.
Her ideas of beautification and reform, such building a Georgian town hall, are met with a cold shoulder by most of the town’s elite. Even her own intellectual allies, the teacher Vida Sherwin and the shy lawyer Guy Pollock, are quick to disillusion her about changing the town. “Anyway, the point is that you have to work from the inside, with what we have, rather than from the outside, with foreign ideas,” Vida tells her. “That means waiting. If we keep after the city council for another ten years they may vote the bonds for a new school.” Only Miles Bjornstam, a Swedish handyman with socialist ideas, shares her rebelliousness:
I’m the town badman, Mrs. Kennicott: town atheist, and I suppose I must be an anarchist, too. Everybody who doesn’t love the bankers and the Grand Old Republican Party is an anarchist.
But the two people closest to her, her husband Will and Bea Sorenson, her Swedish maid, are both quite content in Gopher Prairie. Having grown up on a farm, the small town seems like a glittering metropolis to Bea. And Doc Kennicott, who knows the Mayo brothers and is up on the latest medical advances, who speaks pidgin German to his immigrant patients and respects Carol’s artistic taste, nonetheless shares the small-town mindset of the rest of Gopher Prairie—especially when it comes to progressive politics:
Listen to some of these kickers, a fellow’d think the farmers ought to run the state and the whole shooting-match—probably if they had their way they’d fill up the legislature with a lot of farmers in manure-covered boots—yes, and they’d come tell me I was hired on a salary now, and couldn’t fix my fees!
Will Kennicott is based on Lewis’s own father, Dr. E.J. Lewis, who moved his family to Sauk Centre in 1883, two years before his third son, Harry Sinclair, was born (Lewis’ middle name, which he eventually chose for his pen name, was the last name of a local dentist who was friends with E.J.). Though not told from Will’s perspective, he is perhaps the strongest character in Main Street, much more winning in his medical calling and brusk optimism than Carol’s vague and gossamer dreams of changing the town. Contemporary critics like Floyd Dell and, to some degree, H.L. Mencken, agreed that Carol was an ineffectual heroine. But as Mencken pointed out, Main Street was a novel of realism, not idealism. It’s much more than a jeremiad against small town provincialism, containing realistic portrayals of marriage, motherhood, family relations, and the life of a country doctor. In one memorable scene, Carol assists Will when he is called on to tend to a farmer who crushed his arm fixing a cow shed:
When Adolph was on the table Kennicott laid a hemispheric steel and cotton frame on his face; suggested to Carol, “Now you sit here at his head and keep the ether dripping—about this fast, see? I’ll watch his breathing. Look who’s here! Real anesthetist! Ochsner hasn’t got a better one. Class, eh? ... Now, now, Adolph, take it easy. This won’t hurt you a bit. Put you all nice and asleep and it won’t hurt a bit. Schweig’ mal! Bald schlaft man grat wie ein Kind. So! So! Bald geht’s besser!”
As she let the ether drip, nervously trying to keep the rhythm that Kennicott had indicated, Carol stared at her husband with the abandon of hero-worship.
He shook his head. “Bad light—bad light. Here, Mrs. Morgenroth, you stand right here and hold this lamp. Hier, und dieses—dieses lamp halten—so!”
By that streaky glimmer he worked, swiftly, at ease. The room was still. Carol tried to look at him, yet not look at the seeping blood, the crimson slash, the vicious scalpel. The ether fumes were sweet, choking. Her head seemed to be floating away from her body. Her arm was feeble.
It was not the blood but the grating of the surgical saw on the living bone that broke her, and she knew that she had been fighting off nausea, that she was beaten. She was lost in dizziness. She heard Kennicott’s voice:
“Sick? Trot outdoors couple minutes. Adolph will stay under now.”
For all her admiration of Will’s profession, Carol can’t find it in her to love his town. She longs for curving, shady streets, libraries that resemble Greek temples, small theaters and cafes filled with artists and intellectuals discussing the important issues of the day. Her dream of turning Gopher Prairie into a cultural oasis on the plains barely gets beyond putting on a small theater production—and even that isn’t the George Bernard Shaw play like she wanted, but a shallow farce entitled The Girl from Kankakee. In the end, Carol’s greatest achievement is her baby daughter, who, she is sure, will carry on the crusade to civilize America:
“I haven’t even started. Look!” She led him to the nursery door, pointed at the fuzzy brown head of her daughter. “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!”
Visiting Sauk Centre seventeen years after the projected death of Carol’s baby girl, The Original Main Street looks somewhat diminished from her first vision of it—a collection of bars huddled around a few antique stores, a bed-and-breakfast, a local movie theater with its vintage marquee, and the Palmer House, a three-story brick hotel built in 1901, which in Main Street is called the Minniemashie House. It is featured in only one scene. A young teacher and friend of Carol’s, Fern Mullins, is evicted by the sanctimonious Widow Bogart, from whom she rented a room, after accompanying the Widow’s unruly son Cy to a barn dance in which he got stinking drunk. It must be the woman’s fault, and in the ensuing scandal Fern flees to the Minniemashie, where Carol visits her:
She hunted along the stale-smelling corridors with their wallpaper of cerise daisies and poison-green rosettes, streaked in white spots from spilled water, their frayed red and yellow matting, and rows of pine doors painted a sickly blue. She could not find the number. In the darkness at the end of a corridor she had to feel the aluminum figures on the door-panels. She was startled once by a man’s voice: “Yep? Whadyuh want?” and fled. When she reached the right door she stood listening. She made out a long sobbing. There was no answer till her third knock; then an alarmed “Who is it? Go away!”
Her hatred of the town turned resolute as she pushed open the door.
Having lunch in the Palmer House’s vintage dining room, where a teenaged Lewis worked as a bellhop, I found the great novelist was overshadowed on his home turf—by ghosts. Reputedly haunted, the hotel was featured in an episode of Ghost Adventures, and many visitors spend the night in the hopes of detecting paranormal activity. The hotel management seems to revel in the ghost stories—the t-shirt worn by our waitress proclaimed: “We Serve Good Spirits Here.” At least a shred of fame still clings to Lewis, though: he is supposedly one of the spirits who puts in an occasional appearance at the hotel.
Most of the commerce nowadays takes place on the south end of Main Street, where the fast food restaurants, gas stations, and a Walmart sprawl out along the entrance to Interstate 94—an ugliness that makes Lewis’ Main Street seem quaint and charming. At first glance it seems that Will’s version of Gopher Prairie has triumphed, rather than Carol’s. But go north about half a mile, and the glimmering waters of Sauk Lake come into view. This is probably the Lake Minniemashie where the Kennicotts had their summer cottage. The Lake Wobegon Trail (a name created by another, later satirist) has a trailhead here, and boaters and bikers can take a rest under the shady boughs of Sinclair Lewis Park. Growing up in Sauk Centre, Lewis could not have been entirely blind to the natural beauty that surrounded him, and indeed Main Street contains, here and there, touching naturalistic vignettes, as when Will takes Carol duck hunting:
They ate their sandwiches by a prairie slew: long grass reaching up out of clear water, mossy bogs, red-winged blackbirds, the scum a splash of gold-green. Kennicott smoked a pipe while she leaned back in the buggy and let her tired spirit be absorbed in the Nirvana of the incomparable sky.
Nirvana or not, Sauk Centre could not contain young Harry Lewis for more than seventeen years. E.J. sent him to Oberlin for a year, and then to Yale. At Yale he did not distinguish himself, or fit into the fraternity-like atmosphere on campus; he mainly devoted his time to writing for The Yale Literary Magazine and the Courant. Gangly and awkward, with hair the color of paprika, his small town Minnesota background and gauche demeanor made him an outsider back East. But those who did befriended him found “Red” Lewis had boundless energy and a boyish sense for fun. While frolicking in Provincetown, a retired soldier told a friend of Lewis’ that Harry would make the best soldier. When his friend pointed out some more athletic-looking young men, he replied “Oh, they’re all right, but that long, redheaded fellow—he’d never stop!”
And he seldom did. In between studies at Yale, he traveled to Europe on a cattle boat, and worked for some months as a janitor at Helicon Hall, the short-lived utopian community Upton Sinclair founded with the money from The Jungle. Though billed as a progressive, socialist experiment, the colony was open only to whites, and Jews were unofficially excluded. (Whether Lewis knew of this policy at the time is uncertain; but his views on race were clearly stated in his 1947 novel Kingsblood Royal, which tells the story of a middle class banker who learns he has African ancestry, and is then forced from his job and ostracized by his community.)
Being a successful writer, then as now, required networking. Lewis put connections made at Yale and Helicon Hall to good use, working at a string of newspaper jobs (one in Waterloo Iowa) that all ended rather abruptly, and working as a secretary at a writer’s colony at Carmel-by-the-Sea, where he rented a cabin with former classmate William Rose Benét. He met Jack London there; the old adventure writer was running short of ideas, and bought plots off young Lewis for $5 apiece. Another Yale classmate snagged Lewis a magazine editing job in Washington, and he was quickly swept into the publishing industry in New York. He lived a Greenwich Village boardinghouse and worked as a publicist for a time, promoting sentimental novels that he secretly despised.
By this time, he had his own work to promote; he’d sold his first story to a mass market publication (Red Book, of all places) and had finished his first novel, Our Mr. Wrenn (1914). Chronicling the small revolt of a downtrodden souvenir shop clerk, Our Mr. Wrenn is firmly in the realist/naturalist tradition of Frank Norris (whom Lewis had met) and, particularly, H.G. Wells, whose 1910 comic novel The History of Mr. Polly was a template for Mr. Wrenn. The novel was eventually accepted by Harper and Brothers, backed by Elizabeth Jordan, an editor he knew from the Village.
The book was a modest success; and Lewis, who had two left feet, as it were, in his romantic dealings with women, had also succeeded in getting married—to Grace Hegger, an editor at Vogue who he’d met in the elevator of his building. Beautiful and cultured, the social-climbing Miss Hegger may have seen in Lewis a rising star to hitch her wagon to. Not long after their wedding in April 1914, Lewis was able to quite the publishing biz and make a fairly comfortable living writing stories for magazines—in particular The Saturday Evening Post, edited by George Horace Lorimer. This allowed Red to continue his gypsy lifestyle, accompanied now by Grace. In a two-month visit to Sauk Centre in 1916, Lewis finished another realist novel, The Job, whose main character is a working girl trying to make a career in a man’s world (a staunch feminist, Lewis often wrote about the difficulties of being a woman in America). Then he and Grace were off in a new Model T on a cross-country road trip to Seattle and San Francisco, which furnished the raw material for a series of road stories serialized in The Saturday Evening Post and eventually published as the novel Free Air (1919). By then he and Gracie had a son, Wells (born in 1917, and named after Lewis’ English hero) and enough money saved for him to take time off from freelancing stories and concentrate on the ambitious novel he’d wanted to write for some years: Main Street.
He had the title in mind as far back as 1913, when the editing assistant at one of his publishing jobs, George Bunn, mentioned that he’d written a show called “Main Street” for the Triangle Club at Princeton. During World War I, Lewis stayed on the home front, researching and writing early drafts of the novel. In 1917 he and Gracie rented a house on Summit Ave in Saint Paul, but their activities in the Nonpartisan League and the hiring of a German-born maid caused them to be snubbed by high society. In 1918, during the influenza epidemic, they took refuge on James Avenue in Minneapolis. “This place is fascinating,” Lewis wrote fellow author Joseph Hergesheimer about Minneapolis, adding that it was “a city of huge, crude new fortunes, love of music, & dominant Puritanism.” He also visited Sauk Centre, taking pictures and making careful notes of its Main Street, and stayed at a friend’s house in Mankato one summer. After imbibing deeply at a party in the latter town, he shocked the locals by disappearing, then reappearing in one of the hostess’ best dresses (the poor woman pretended it was a great stunt, but later threw the dress away). But the grand purpose behind all his movements was the novel. “Main Street was with us day and night,” Grace recalled.
The early drafts have Fern Mullins as the heroine, but after his first visit to Sauk Centre with Grace, seeing how she took in his home town with fresh eyes, he built the novel around a character based on her: Carol Kennicott. After a 30,000-word false start in 1919, Lewis began the novel in ernest. It was completed at the Cosmos Club in Washington, D.C., where he holed up for the summer of 1920 while Gracie and Wells stayed in the Virginia countryside. He later wrote, “I have never worked so hard, and never shall work so hard, again.” He had written over 200,000 words in about 14 weeks.
Main Street was published by the new firm Harcourt, Brace and Howe—Lewis had been one of those who had encouraged Alfred Harcourt to leave Henry Holt and start is own publishing house. Harcourt hoped to sell 20,000 copies, and Lewis was able to spread advance buzz using his connections, PR experience, and previous track record as a mid-list novelist. The sales were certainly buoyed by the scandalous reputation the novel garnered in its early reviews. More conservative commentators complained that the characters were immoral and noted the lack of Christianity in the book, some going so far as to call it pagan. But Mencken, Norris, Upton Sinclair, Sherwood Anderson and most of the other literati loved it. Even Lewis’ realist icon, H.G. Wells, lauded it. John Galsworthy, in America on a lecture tour, picked up Main Street and wrote Lewis that “Every country, of course, has its Main Streets, all richly deserving of diagnosis, but America is lucky to have found in you so poignant and just and stimulating a diagnostician.” Indeed, his Forsytes were not so far afield from Lewis’ Kennicotts and Babbitts. Another letter came from a young Minnesota writer, whose first novel had been published that same year:
I want to tell you that Main Street has displaced Theron Ware in my favor as the best American novel. The amount of sheer data is amazing! As a writer and a Minnesotan let me swell the chorus—after a third reading.
With the utmost admiration F. Scott Fitzgerald
But soon Main Street’s readership extended far beyond the usual genteel upper- or middle-class readers who typically purchased such books. The novel seems to have struck a chord with the restless youth of America, most of them from small towns but now, thanks to the Great War and rapid economic development, living in the city or in another state. Lewis’s love/hate relationship with the small town mirrored their own; they felt he was writing about their home. In once scene, Guy Pollock tells Carol:
Anyway, Gopher Prairie isn’t particularly bad. It’s just like all villages in all countries. Most places that have lost the smell of earth but not yet acquired the smell of patchouli—or of factory-smoke—are just as suspicious and righteous. I wonder if the small town isn’t, with some lovely exceptions, a social appendix? Some say these dull market-towns may be as obsolete as monasteries.
An estimated two million copies of Main Street were purchased in the first year or two, outselling all those sentimental novels Lewis used to promote, and even Zane Grey’s latest western. Main Street had become its own phenomenon. As the critic Robert Littell presciently wrote, “If Main Street lives, it will probably be not as a novel but as an incident in American life.”
Some works of art are so perfectly in tune with their own era, they inevitably become out of tune in another. Our own place in time, the early 21st century, seems positively languid compared to the hectic pace of innovation parading down Main Street, where cars, telephones, airplanes and electric streetlights are all new arrivals. Sinclair Lewis’ new novel not only took the new American lifestyle in stride, it agitated for more change—particularly at the socio-economic level. Lewis never planned for it to be a runaway bestseller—in fact its popularity made him suspect his own talent. “I don’t think Main Street is as bad as the sales (over 100,000) would indicate,” he wrote to fellow author James Cabell. It was serendipity, rather than calculation, that caused him to write a satire of small town life just when America needed it most.
His insecurities were somewhat put to rest when the Pulitzer Prize in fiction was awarded not to Main Street but to Edith Wharton, for The Age of Innocence. When he wrote the grand dame of American letters to congratulate her, she replied: “When I discovered that I was being rewarded — by one of our leading Universities — for uplifting American morals, I confess I did despair.”
But by that time Lewis was already off and running again, taking Gracie and Wells to Europe and working on a new novel about a fast-talking real estate agent named Babbitt. In many ways, his own personal life was more flamboyant than those of his characters. While Carol Kennicott vacillates between admiring and disparaging her husband, between finding Gopher Prairie an okay place to live and unbearable, very little drama comes of it. Both she and Will have romantic interludes with others—in her case, with an idealistic young Swedish taylor named Eric Valborg—but the sordid and adulterous debacle one would expect in a novel never materializes. Indeed, it is not even certain either couple commits adultery, as sex is never mentioned directly (remember, it was 1920). By contrast, the real-life Sinclair Lewis had ended his first marriage by 1925 (his heavy drinking was much to blame, according to Grace). In 1928 he married the political columnist Dorothy Thompson, and in 1930 was the first American to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. But within a decade his argumentative, didactic style of writing was out of vogue, at least in novels. His second marriage failed. His son Wells was killed in France fighting the Germans in 1944, and he was more or less alone when he drank himself to death in Rome in 1951. Edna St. Vincent Millay, another icon of the incandescent ‘20s who had “burned the candle at both ends,” had died just four months earlier.
Back in Sauk Centre, my last stop was Greenwood Cemetery—just follow Sinclair Lewis Avenue east out of town for about a mile. Most of the grave markers here are flat, rectangular stones laid flush with the grass in front of the family’s larger marble stone. Near the Lewis stone, Sinclair’s marker is no different, save that below his name it reads: “AUTHOR OF MAIN STREET.” As Lewis biographer Richard Lingeman comments: “It is as though the town was withholding notice of all the other novels (twenty-one of them) he wrote about the world beyond Sauk Centre—and of the Nobel Prize that gained him world renown. In this last gesture of provincialism, it reclaimed him as its own.”
But after all, Lewis had stipulated that after death his body should be cremated and then shipped back to his home town. And he probably would have given a chuckle over the proceedings: it being January in Minnesota, the temperature was below zero, and the literati that had flown in from the East Coast probably felt they had landed on an alien planet. As he was not religious, his funeral was held in the high school auditorium, where a young Minnesota writer named Frederick Manfred gave the eulogy. The mayor of Sauk Centre, Fred Walker, sounded a bit like Will Kennicott when he issued his press statement:
We were a little put out when Main Street came out, but we soon forgot it. We soon saw the humor of his writings and were happy we were a part of them... A truly great man never really dies.
And to a few lonely readers like myself, Sinclair Lewis lives on—his voice still sounds loud and clear, and many of the balloons he tried to burst with the steel pen of his prose are still filled with hot air. In the Prologue to Main Street, he writes:
Main Street is the climax of civilization. That this Ford car might stand in front of the Bon Ton Store, Hannibal invaded Rome and Erasmus wrote in Oxford cloisters.
And I might add: “That this cafe barista might friend you on Facebook, the Allies stormed the beaches at Normandy, and Neil Armstrong stepped on the moon.”
Which is to say: Sinclair Lewis might be outdated; he might be disappearing from our collective consciousness like a magician performing his last great disappearing act—but we still need him, or someone like him. If I were to write a letter to the author of Main Street, and sent it to him in the Great Beyond via some ghostly post office, it would run something like this:
Hey Red Lewis. Hope you’re doing well, wherever it is you are. Hope you’re still writing. I was at your grave yesterday. Nice stone. Sauk Centre is still here, and I’m happy to report that the town that you once railed against has embraced you. You’re a business, a tourist industry, sort of. You’d probably hate that. But maybe not. Let’s admit it, you kind of liked the attention, the Nobel Prize for Literature and all. Which reminds me, another Minnesotan has won it, and no it’s not that chap Fitzgerald. He’s a popular folk singer. He didn’t bother showing up for the ceremony, and cribbed some of his acceptance speech from SparkNotes. I wonder what you’d say about that, if you were still alive? I’m also dying to hear what you’d write about Trump. I guess what I’m trying to say, Red, is I wish you could come back, mad as hell, and write up a storm about everything wrong here. I know you can’t, but it’s like you said: every baby in a crib is a bomb to blow up smugness. Anyway, that’s about all I wanted to say, Red.
PS - Loved Main Street!
For further reading: I drew much of the background information on Sinclair Lewis’ life from Richard Lingeman’s excellent biography Sinclair Lewis: Rebel from Main Street.