Main Street by Sinclair Lewis ~ 1920. This edition: Penguin, 1991. Afterword by Mark Schorer. Softcover. ISBN: 0-14-018124-5. 432 pages.
My rating: 8/10
This is decidedly one of those books which deserves sober consideration and scholarly discussion. Luckily it has been so treated by so many people that I can justify this very casual review of it by referring anyone eager to delve deeper to the many other discussions which abound in print and online.
I had read Main Street several times before, though not very recently, so was wondering if my impressions would change this time around. And the answer to my musings was no, not at all. I still feel exactly the same about Carol Kennicott’s emotional journey, even though I am now at the far end of the arc myself in regards to age and situation in relation to Carol, compared to our shared optimistic youth the first time I made her acquaintance.
Carol Milford, college girl, strides eagerly forward into her future. Anything might happen, and the world is full of potentially wonderful things – art, literature, poetry, travel!
Contemplating but reluctant to commit to a career as a teacher, Carol ends up spending a year in Chicago hobnobbing with the local bohemians, then moves on to a position as a librarian in St. Paul, Minnesota, with her lofty ideals slightly rattled though not at all dulled. She meets Dr. Will Kennicott, some years older than herself, rising young physician in the (fictional) prairie town of Gopher Prairie, and is wooed both by handsome Will’s physical appeal and by his readiness to bow down before Carol’s intellectual superiority.
Come to Gopher Prairie, pleads Will. Show us how to bring culture into our lives. You could do such good…
Already rather jaded by the workaday routines of her not-very-exciting job, Carol allows herself to be romanced, and off she goes to Gopher Prairie, as Mrs. Doctor Kennicott, full of ideas and ideals.
Gopher Prairie raises a collective eyebrow at Carol and her effervescent cultural improvement projects, and sturdily attempts to put her in her place, an enterprise which takes some years but which is eventually mostly successful.
I found Main Street to be rather slow going this time round, and I found myself putting it down for a day or two here and there and turning to other diversions. But I always returned, and towards the end of the extended read, I found myself wondering if the long, slow tone were in fact a deliberate attempt by Sinclair Lewis to demonstrate the long, slow taking down of Carol Kennicott from her uppity ideals to a state of intellectual dullness acceptable to her fellow Gopher Prairie-ites.
Carol Kennicott is very much a woman written by a man, and though Sinclair Lewis did a stellar job in putting himself in his character’s shoes, there are authorial lapses here and there, as Lewis conveniently skips over the time around Carol’s pregnancy and new motherhood with a few (admittedly apt) paragraphs:
The baby was coming. Each morning she was nauseated, chilly, bedraggled, and certain that she would never again be attractive; each twilight she was afraid. She did not feel exalted, but unkempt and furious. The period of daily sickness crawled into an endless time of boredom. It became difficult for her to move about, and she raged that she, who had been slim and light-footed, should have to lean on a stick, and be heartily commented upon by street gossips. She was encircled by greasy eyes. Every matron hinted, “Now that you’re going to be a mother, dearie, you’ll get over all these ideas of yours and settle down.” She felt that willy-nilly she was being initiated into the assembly of housekeepers; with the baby for hostage, she would never escape; presently she would be drinking coffee and rocking and talking about diapers.
… She alternately detested herself for not appreciating the kindly women, and detested them for their advice: lugubrious hints as to how much she would suffer in labor, details of baby-hygiene based on long experience and total misunderstanding, superstitious cautions about the things she must eat and read and look at in prenatal care for the baby’s soul, and always a pest of simpering baby-talk. Mrs. Champ Perry bustled in to lend “Ben Hur,” as a preventive of future infant immorality. The Widow Bogart appeared trailing pinkish exclamations, “And how is our lovely ‘ittle muzzy today! My, ain’t it just like they always say: being in a Family Way does make the girlie so lovely, just like a Madonna. Tell me—” Her whisper was tinged with salaciousness—”does oo feel the dear itsy one stirring, the pledge of love? I remember with Cy, of course he was so big——”
… Then the baby was born, without unusual difficulty: a boy with straight back and strong legs. The first day she hated him for the tides of pain and hopeless fear he had caused; she resented his raw ugliness. After that she loved him with all the devotion and instinct at which she had scoffed… For two years nothing else existed…
The baby grows, life steadily grinds on. Carol loses one of her best friends – her ex-maid Bea – to typhoid, and finds her neighbours casually dismissive of her emotional pain. Will strays into a casual relationship with a neighbour’s wife, though Carol is unaware of it; she herself goes through a period of infatuation with a beautiful younger man, a Swedish farm boy with high aspirations working as a tailor’s apprentice. Gopher Prairie sees all, and files it all away for future reference. The Great War creates a few ripples; Carol eventually uses it as an excuse to break away with Hugh and take on a job in Washington, DC, while Will remains in Gopher Prairie.
Is the Kennicott marriage dissolving? Is Carol on the path at last that she was forced off of so many years ago? Apparently not, as her return to Gopher Prairie in a sleet storm with her husband at her side brings her full circle, back again to the place she could not change, and which has done its stolid best to change her into the acceptable pattern of a Gopher Prairie matron.
We end with Carol looking to her child – sorry, children – she does pop out another baby right at the very end of the saga, this one too without much obvious effort or appreciable comment by Lewis – with speculative eyes. Surely he/she will go out into the world and bring about the change which Carol herself has so far been unable to pull off…
For all of its hype as one of the Great American Novels – so often a foreboding designation of excessive earnestness – Main Street is a very readable thing, cynically amusing and cleverly analytical in its satire of Every Town, U.S.A. And though Carol fails to fully engage me as a relatable heroine – she never becomes quite real, for she is as terminally misguided as the rest of the Gopher Prairie characters and as stereotyped in her way as they are – her struggles are thought provoking and her situations cleverly staged.
What does Carol really want? We never do find that out, for she doesn’t know herself, and that is perhaps the most real and relatable thing about Main Street.
This remains to me a book not so much about the mythical Carol Kennicott as it is about the real man Sinclair Lewis, based as it is on his own experiences of growing up in Sauk Center, Minnesota. Discussing Lewis this morning with my husband, we both agreed that cynically enjoyable though his writings are, there is a certain spirit of – well – meanness showing through, as though Lewis never really got over some slight of his early days, and is always hitting back at the place he came from. Escaped from, is the implication. (In our joint opinion, anyway.) Too much of that kind of thing rather gets the reader down; I’ll be taking a breather before going on to another of Sinclair Lewis’s eminently readable but slightly depressing tomes.
And there I will leave you. A worthwhile read for its detailed portrait of a time and (generic) place; a fascinating piece of Americana.