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.
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.