Sinclair Lewis’s Critique of American Culture: Main Street

Main Street (1920) by Sinclair Lewis is a critique of capitalism through a feminist lens, among other things.  The novel is about Carol Milford who marries Dr. Will Kennicott just after college and moves to the small town of Gopher Prairie, Minnesota.  She immediately doesn’t fit in, and she spends years trying to reform the town; she wants to make it less gossipy and more artsy, less Puritan and more urban.  She is fighting an uphill battle, one I’ve seen firsthand.

main street cover

Carol reminded me an awful lot of myself in many ways.  She also reminded me of the problems my family had when we moved from San Jose, California, to Roosevelt, Utah, a rural town much like Gopher Prairie.  The people in Roosevelt are mostly related and are set in their small town ways.  They are religious, as was my family, but along with this came judgment and lack of anonymity because of how closely everybody lived, worked, and worshiped together.  For many years, the girls in my church class would not speak to me.  I will never know why.  It could’ve been that they were shy and unused to new people, or without compassion for my situation of moving, or judgmental.  I often thought it was because my family was a step-family by the time we got to Roosevelt, and I wondered if they weren’t allowed to play with me because of that.

I know of one situation in which this was true.  My step-father was a high school teacher and his principal happened to have a daughter my age.  We became friends at school, but when I tried to invite her over to our house, her mother wouldn’t let her come over.  After several attempts, her mother called my mother and explained that they didn’t know us well enough for her daughter to come and play with me.  My mother was always flabbergasted over this, since their husbands worked together and they had seen each other socially at work events.

The interesting twist to this story is that they moved.  But they had roots in Roosevelt and came back for the big town celebration each year.  The year I graduated from high school, I won the local beauty pageant and got to prance around that celebration wearing my crown and meeting and greeting people.  The mother of this girl, ten years later, saw me walking in the crowd, my crown on my head, and tried to assault me.  Crazy, huh?  The family member with me at the time saw it coming and stood in her way.  It was a strange but telling event about the types of things and the petty jealousies that happen in small towns.

But there was a lot of good as well.  I have some great friends from there, people whom I consider to be the salt of the earth and role models for me becoming who I am.  My piano teacher was and is one of those, but she was also an outsider, not from the town.  However, two of the town’s daughters, whose father and grandfather were prominent citizens, have continued to be my friends and confidants.  I see them as wonderful.

So small towns have both good and bad, just like big cities.  It takes Carol a long time to discover just what that good is in Gopher Prairie, for the constant gossip on Main Street, the business deals that exclude outsiders, and the wariness of new things overwhelm her.  She gets involved with one of the sons of a Swedish farmer, Erik Valborg, who has a taste for drama and art and dresses finely.  The town makes fun of him, but Carol encourages and mentors him, eventually nearly falling in love and running away with him. But her husband Will “saves the day” and keeps her there.  He is the good old boy who is constant and boring and economically successful as a doctor, but his reasoning for keeping her is sound.  I was moved by his forgiveness of and care of her, despite his shortcomings and roughness when it came to culture.

The novel reminded me a little of Madame Bovary, an American version of it.  The narrative certainly explores marriage as unequal, difficult, and just plain hard because it involves a man and a woman.  The novel highlights how difficult it is for the sexes to get along and understand each other.  Dr. Kennicott never really understands Carol’s desires for education and culture and art, and Carol never truly understands Will’s contentment with small-town life or his remarkable qualities as a doctor, even if he yawns every night when she speaks with him and even if he’s boring and sturdy.  Certainly, their marriage is a reflection of many real-life marriages, and anybody would likely be able to see themselves in the Kennicotts’ relationship.

The feminist themes arise through this marital conflict.  Lewis certainly knows the issues of the day, and examines how Carol’s life as a housewife, a privileged one, is stifling to her spirit and her ambitions.  She ends up going out into the world for a break from her husband and domesticity.  There she learns about factory and office work and finds that it isn’t as great as she thought it would be, but what is great is her freedom to choose and her ability to experience.  This is a tension throughout the novel, as Carol wants to accomplish more and experience more than the confines of her home and the small town afford.  She is continually dissatisfied because of this, but she gets a chance to try out something different.

Ultimately, she chooses to return to her husband and have another child.  This choice to leave Washington and return to Gopher Prairie is fraught, but it is hers and she makes it with her head instead of her heart or the force of her husband.  Will learns to let her choose and to accept her as an individual with thoughts and feelings different from his.  This leads to some sort of stasis or truce in the marriage.

Capitalism is also a culprit of the small sort of life the residents of Gopher Prairie seem to be living through Carol’s eyes.  They are more concerned with business and prosperity and shopping at each other’s stores rather than beauty and art and culture.  Some of the problems with mass culture are explored in the novel, with Will and the town’s inhabitants happy to see the latest formulaic movie each weekend, while Carol wants to attend a play or read poetry together.  She attends the movies, laughs, and then hates herself for laughing at how ridiculous, stupid, low, and contrived the movies are.  She especially critiques the treatment of women as objects of scorn or ridicule in the movies. Worse than the content of the movies to her is the way the people in Gopher Prairie enjoy and consume this mass culture without scrutiny or thought.  These ideas echo those of the Frankfurt school theorists during and after World War II.  Horkheimer and Adorno, along with Benjamin, critique American culture as redundant and lacking the aura that art has.  They see this sort of culture as oppressive as a fascist regime.  It promotes sameness and robotic living.  If we all swallow and consume whatever is placed in front of us by the media, we are being brainwashed to think in a way that isn’t critical, thoughtful, or productive.  Carol’s upset over mass culture and the unquestioned consumption of it in Gopher Prairie is a representation of the philosophical thought of the day.

I really enjoyed this book.  It isn’t necessarily a page turner, but it isn’t dry either.  The plot is exciting, and the emotional conflicts are just as important or more so than the happenings of the town.  The residents include the obligatory old maid, the crusty Puritan widow, the rascally drunk teenager, and the new school teacher without allies.  All of it is archetypal for the type of towns we live in and the main streets we have all known.  The title, Main Street, is fitting and questions the values and ethics we tend to embody in the United States.

Is this book still relevant?  Certainly.


32 thoughts on “Sinclair Lewis’s Critique of American Culture: Main Street

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  1. What a great post and review, Emily. I like how you tied the book to your own experiences in Utah. I’m sorry you went through the things that you did. I live in a small town but it is not intimate enough for these kinds of tensions to arise. The themes sound fascinating and I am always up for a story with a feminist bent. I will add this to my TR list.

  2. thanks for this review, emily! it’s a book i’m ashamed to say i’ve never read, frankly, there are SO MANY books that i should have read but haven’t (must be my misspent childhood!). thanks also for the insight into your own experiences. always interesting. i’m sad that u r not downtown any more; i miss our lunches. bee good.

    1. I miss our lunches too! And I actually am downtown on Fridays, but I have such a tight schedule that I have to leave as soon as I’m done instead of meeting friends! We need to get together again soon, though.

  3. I love this review, just ordered the book (ebay), can’t wait to read it. I really enjoyed hearing how it related to your childhood. My family moved to Utah from a very small town in Minnesota and our experiences were so similar. What causes this behavior?

    1. I’m not sure of the cause, but I think Main Street has some insight that you’ll find relatable. I don’t think it is just Utah either. I think any rural area suffers from this, but I keep trying to remind myself that there is good and bad in any area. It just depends on your perception. I like the anonymity of a big city, but some people would find that very very bad. 🙂

    2. So I wrote my first response in a hurry, and I realize that it came off as argumentative and I didn’t mean it to be. I’m sorry you had similar experiences! I hope you enjoy the book. Let me know what you think after you read it.

      1. No I didn’t think it was argumentative at all 🙂 I have lived in quite a few states and I have never found one that was as hard to become part of as Utah, but again it’s a very human condition, one that I have wondered about for years. I will let you know what I think of the book, and I love your blog, it’s beautifully written and always interesting.

  4. Having spent so much time studying Spanish literature, I love finding out about American novels I haven’t read (but probably should have!!!)… and that fit in well with what I study (Spanish novels written between 1900-36 dealing with women’s social roles, especially motherhood). Thanks for a thoughtful post that put a new item on my reading list for breaks

    1. You are welcome! I would love to hear more about the Spanish novels that you’ve studied. I am interested in that same time period and women’s roles as well.

      1. I’m thinking of making a new post about one of the texts I’m currently working on – it take so long to write an academic paper, and even then it reaches such a limited audience. If you’re interested, here’s a paper I wrote on an urban novel about women in Madrid in 1917 (novel is in spanish but my paper is english): “Maternity Ward Horrors: Urban Motherhood in Carmen de Burgos’s La rampa (1917).” Cincinnati Romance Review 34 (2012): 79-96.

        I just started my blog a month or two ago because I want to make my research/teaching accessible to a broader audience (my undergraduate students, friends and family who don’t realize what I do in my “free” time as a professor, etc).

  5. Thanks Emily. I really loved this review and your blog in general – I love the way you bring yourself into a book and find ways to reflect upon it and your own experiences. As for the relevance of this book? Any book that is a study of human relationships and delves into how we relate to and fit into our world is relevant.

  6. Main Street, is a great title and Sinclair Lewis is a great writer. I enjoyed your review and how you managed to make the situation personal. Its amazing to think how small minded people can be. I enjoy your blog very much.

  7. I don’t think I have ever read Sinclair Lewis. I will add this to my to-read list. Sounds good. I am curious about the feminism angle of the book where the main character eventually did what society and her husband expected of her in the first place. It is an interesting concept. Sort of like the 2013 mother who chooses to stay home with her kids and gets criticized by working outside of the home mothers. Feminism should not mean that women can’t choose a more traditional lifestyle. I have always wanted to live in a small town, but I definitely don’t want that kind of drama!

    I also understand her frustration that the people in town are more interested in superficial things than culture and art. I am from SoCal and my whole life I have been frustrated that Hollywood’s bad movies and the music industry is so much more popular than some of the good art museums or artier independent movies, etc. I can’t tell you how many times I have been called a snob because I would prefer to watch “The King’s Speech” over “Transformers 3” or read “Anna Karenina” over “Twilight,” you get the point! It is lonely sometimes looking for quality in the art world.

    1. It can be lonely. And yes, the feminist angle of the book is certainly limited to a 1920s perspective, but Lewis explores the issues and angst so well that I was moved by it. I hope you enjoy the book.

  8. Thank you for such a deep and reflective review. I’m just starting another Lewis novel, Babbitt, so I’ll be interested to see where the themes overlap with Main Street – I think you’ve just improved my reading experience!

  9. Emily, this post is truly outstanding. I especially like how you weaved your personal intimacy with the story into the post. Did she really try to assault you with the crown on your head? You uniformly describe the books you read to those who have not in a way that informs. That is a gift. Yet, the combination of your personal story with that of the novel is even more compelling. Being someone who treasures electic people who are usually outsiders, I emphathize with both your and Lewis’ story. Well done. BTG

    1. Thank you, BTG. I really enjoyed writing this post, and the book is just outstanding. I plan to read more Lewis. So, you live in North Carolina, right? I took a silly quiz a few days ago based on temperament and which state you belong in. Apparently, I belong in North Carolina!

  10. enjoyed this post. Main Street works well alongside Babbit with the ideas of Boosters and Elks and Zenith Towers… the argument in Main Street really stuck out, when she hopes for some dramatic gesture and the object pings off the wastepaper bin.

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