History of Literature









Sinclair Lewis



 
 



Sinclair Lewis




 

Sinclair Lewis

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
 

Sinclair Lewis (February 7 1885 – January 10 1951) was an American novelist, short-story writer, and playwright. In 1930, he became the first American to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, "for his vigorous and graphic art of description and his ability to create, with wit and humor, new types of characters." His works are known for their insightful and critical views of American society and capitalist values, as well as their strong characterizations of modern working women.


Biography

Boyhood and education
Born Harry Sinclair Lewis in the village of Sauk Centre, Minnesota, he began reading books at a young age and kept a diary. He had two siblings, Fred (born 1875) and Claude (born 1878). His father, Edwin J. Lewis, was a physician and, at home, a stern disciplinarian who had difficulty relating to his sensitive, unathletic third son. Lewis' mother, Emma Kermott Lewis, died in 1891. The following year, Edwin Lewis married Isabel Warner, whose company young Lewis apparently enjoyed. Throughout his lonely boyhood, the ungainly Lewis — tall, extremely thin, stricken with acne and somewhat popeyed — had trouble gaining friends and pined after various local girls. At the age of 13, he unsuccessfully ran away from home, wanting to become a drummer boy in the Spanish-American War.


In late 1902, Lewis left home for a year at Oberlin Academy (the then-preparatory department of Oberlin College) to qualify for acceptance by Yale University. While at Oberlin, he developed a religious enthusiasm that waxed and waned for much of his remaining teenage years. He entered Yale in 1903 but did not receive his bachelor's degree until 1908, having taken time off to work at Helicon Home Colony, Upton Sinclair's cooperative-living colony in Englewood, New Jersey, and to travel to Panama. Lewis's unprepossessing looks, "fresh" country manners, and seemingly self-important loquacity did not make it any easier for him to win and keep friends at Oberlin or Yale than in Sauk Centre. Some of his crueler Yale classmates joked "that he was the only man in New Haven who could fart out of his face". Nevertheless, he did manage to initiate a few relatively long-lived friendships among students and professors, some of whom recognized his promise as a writer.


Early career
Lewis's earliest published creative work—romantic poetry and short sketches—appeared in the Yale Courant and the Yale Literary Magazine, of which he became an editor. After his graduation from Yale, Lewis moved from job to job and from place to place in an effort to make ends meet, write fiction for publication, and chase away boredom. While working for newspapers and publishing houses (and for a time at the Carmel-by-the-Sea, California writers' colony), he developed a facility for turning out shallow, popular stories that were purchased by a variety of magazines. At this time, he also earned money by selling plots to Jack London, including the plot for London's unfinished novel The Assassination Bureau, Ltd.

Lewis's first published book was Hike and the Aeroplane, a Tom Swift-style potboiler that appeared in 1912 under the pseudonym Tom Graham. In 1914 he married Grace Livingston Hegger, who was an editor at Vogue magazine. His first serious novel, Our Mr. Wrenn: The Romantic Adventures of a Gentle Man, appeared in 1914, followed by The Trail of the Hawk: A Comedy of the Seriousness of Life (1915) and The Job (1917). That same year also saw the publication of another potboiler, The Innocents: A Story for Lovers, an expanded version of a serial story that had originally appeared in Woman's Home Companion. Free Air, another refurbished serial story, was published in 1919.

Commercial success
Upon moving to Washington, D.C., Lewis devoted himself to his writing. As early as 1916, Lewis began taking notes for a realistic novel about small-town life. Work on that novel continued through mid-1920, when he completed Main Street which was published on October 23, 1920. As his biographer Mark Schorer wrote, the phenomenal success of Main Street "was the most sensational event in twentieth-century American publishing history." Based on sales of his prior books, Lewis's most optimistic projection was a sale of 25,000 copies. In the first six months of 1921 alone, Main Street sold 180,000 copies, and within a few years sales were estimated at two million. According to Richard Lingeman "Main Street earned Sinclair Lewis about three million current [2002] dollars".

He followed up this first great success with Babbitt (1922), a novel that satirized the American commercial culture and boosterism. The story was set in the fictional Zenith, Winnemac, a setting Lewis would return to in future novels, including Gideon Planish and Dodsworth.

Lewis' success in the 1920s continued with Arrowsmith (1925), a novel about an idealistic doctor which was awarded the Pulitzer Prize (which he refused). Elmer Gantry (1927), which depicted evangelicalism as hypocritical, was denounced by religious leaders and was banned in some U.S. cities. He divorced his first wife, Grace Hegger Lewis, in 1925, and married Dorothy Thompson, a political newspaper columnist, on May 14, 1928. Together they had a son in 1930, actor Michael Lewis, but they divorced in 1942. Lewis closed out the decade with Dodsworth (1929), a novel about the most affluent and successful members of American society leading essentially pointless lives in spite of their great wealth and advantages.

Lewis also spent much of the late 1920s and 1930s writing short stories for various magazines and publications. One of his short stories published in Cosmopolitan magazine was "Little Bear Bongo" (1936), a tale about a bear cub who wanted to escape the circus in search of a better life in the real world.[6] The story was acquired by Walt Disney Pictures in 1940 for a possible feature film. World War II sidetracked those plans until 1947, when the story (now titled "Bongo") was placed on a shorter length as a part of the Disney feature Fun and Fancy Free.

Nobel Prize
In 1930, Lewis won the Nobel Prize in Literature in his first year of nomination. In the Swedish Academy's presentation speech, special attention was paid to Babbitt. In his Nobel Lecture, he praised Theodore Dreiser, Willa Cather, Ernest Hemingway, and other contemporaries, but also lamented that "in America most of us — not readers alone, but even writers — are still afraid of any literature which is not a glorification of everything American, a glorification of our faults as well as our virtues," and that America is "the most contradictory, the most depressing, the most stirring, of any land in the world today."

Later years
After winning the Nobel Prize, Lewis published nine more novels in his lifetime, the best remembered being It Can't Happen Here, a novel about the election of a fascist U.S. President. He was married to Dorothy Thompson until 1942, but the marriage effectively ended in 1937. Lewis died in Rome on January 10, 1951, aged 65, from advanced alcoholism and his cremated remains were buried in Sauk Centre. A final novel, World So Wide, was published posthumously.
 

 




BABBITT
 

Type of work: Novel
Author: Sinclair Lewis (1885-1951)
Type of plot: Social satire
Time of plot: 1920s
Locale: Zenith, a fictional midwestern town
First published: 1922

 

Babbitt is a pungent satire about a man who typifies complacent mediocrity. Middle-class businessman George F. Babbitt revels in his popularity, his automobile, and his ability to make money. He drinks bootleg whiskey, bullies his wife, and ogles his manicurist. Because he is firmly grounded in realism, Babbitt is one of American fiction's most memorable characters; his very name has entered the language as a synonym for the widespread phenomenon he represents.

 

Principal Characters

George Г. Babbitt, a satirically portrayed prosperous real-estate dealer in Zenith, a typical American city. He is the standardized product of modern American civilization, a member of the Boosters' Club, hypnotized by all the slogans of success, enthralled by material possessions, envious of those who have more, patronizing toward those who have less, yet dimly aware that his life is unsatisfactory. His high moment comes when, after delivering a speech at a real-estate convention, he is asked to take part in a political campaign against Seneca Doane, a liberal lawyer who is running for mayor. As a result of his campaign efforts, Babbitt is elected vice-president of the Boosters. His self-satisfaction is shattered when his one real friend, Paul Riesling, shoots his nagging wife and is sent to prison. For the first time Babbitt begins to doubt the values of American middle-class life. He has a love affair with a client, Mrs. Judique, and becomes involved with her somewhat bohemian friends; he publicly questions some of the tenets of Boosterism; he refuses to join the Good Citizens' League. But the pressure of public opinion becomes too much for him; when his wife is taken ill, his brief revolt collapses, and he returns to the standardized world of the Boosters' Club.
Myra Babbitt, his colorless wife, whom he married because he could not bear to hurt her feelings. She lives only for him and the children.
Verona Babbitt, their dumpy daughter. Just out of college, she is a timid intellectual whose mild uncon-ventionality angers her father. He is relieved when she marries Kenneth Escott.
Theodore (Ted) Babbitt, their son. A typical product of the American school system, he hates study and the thought of college. He elopes with Eunice Littlefield, thus winning his father's secret admiration, for he has at least dared to do what he wanted.
Paul Riesling, Babbitt's most intimate friend since college days. With the soul of a musician, he has been trapped into a lifetime of manufacturing tar-roofing and is burdened with a shrewish wife. Goaded to desperation, he shoots her and, though she lives, is sent to prison.
Zilla Riesling, Paul's nagging wife. With a vicious disposition that is made worse by having too much time on her hands, she finally drives Paul to the point of shooting her.
Mrs. Daniel (Tanis) Judique, a widow with whom Babbitt has a brief affair as a part of his revolt against conventionality.
Seneca Doane, a liberal lawyer, the anathema of all the solid businessmen of Zenith.
William Washington Eathorne, a rich conservative banker. He represents the real power behind the scene in Zenith.
Charles and Lucille McKelvey, wealthy members of Zenith's smart set. The Babbitts are hopeful of being accepted socially by the McKelveys but do not succeed.
Ed and Mrs. Overbrook, a down-at-heels couple. They are hopeful of being accepted socially by the Babbitts but do not succeed.
The Reverend Dr. John Jennison Drew, the efficient, high-powered pastor of Babbitt's church.
Vergil Gunch, a successful coal dealer. He is prominent in all the civic organizations to which Babbitt belongs.
T. Cholmondeley (Chum) Frink, a member of Babbitt's social group. He is a popular poet whose work is syndicated throughout the country.
Howard Littlefield, Babbitt's next-door neighbor. An economist for the Zenith Street Traction Company, he can prove to everyone's satisfaction that Zenith is the best of all possible worlds.
Eunice Littlefield, his flapper daughter. She elopes with Ted Babbitt to the public surprise and indignation of both families but to Babbitt's secret delight.
Kenneth Escott, a newspaper reporter. After a tepid courtship, he finally marries Verona Babbitt.
 



 

The Story

George F. Babbitt was proud of his house in Floral Heights, one of the most respectable residential districts in Zenith. Its architecture was standardized; its interior decorations were standardized; its atmosphere was standardized. Therein lay its appeal for Babbitt.
He bustled about in a tile and chromium bathroom during his morning ritual of getting ready for another day. When he went down to breakfast, he was as grumpy as usual. It was expected of him. He read the dull real-estate page of the newspaper to his patient wife, Myra. Then he commented on the weather, grumbled at his son and daughter, gulped his breakfast, and started for his office.
Babbitt was a real-estate broker who knew how to handle business with zip and zowie. Having closed a deal whereby he forced a poor businessman to buy a piece of property at twice its value, he pocketed part of the money and paid the rest to the man who had suggested the enterprise. Proud of his acumen, he picked up the telephone and called his best friend, Paul Riesling, to ask him to lunch.
Paul Riesling should have been a violinist, but he had gone into the tar-roofing business in order to support his shrewish wife, Zilla. Lately, she had made it her practice to infuriate doormen, theater ushers, or taxicab drivers, and then ask Paul to come to her rescue and fight them like a man. Cringing with embarrassment, Paul would pretend he had not noticed the incident. Later, at home, Zilla would accuse him of being a coward and a weakling.
So sad did Paul's affairs seem to Babbitt that he suggested a vacation to Maine together—away from their wives. Paul was skeptical, but with magnificent assurance, Babbitt promised to arrange the trip. Paul was humbly grateful.
Back in his office, Babbitt refused a raise for one of his employees. When he got home, he and his wife decided to give a dinner party, with the arrangements taken from the contents of a woman's magazine, and everything edible disguised to look like something else.
The party was a great success. Babbitt's friends were exactly like Babbitt. They all became drunk on prohibition gin, were disappointed when the cocktails ran out, stuffed themselves with food, and went home to nurse headaches.
Sometime later, Babbitt and Myra paid a call on the Rieslings. Zilla, trying to enlist their sympathy, berated her husband until he was goaded to fury. Babbitt finally told Zilla that she was a nagging, jealous, sour, and unwholesome wife, and he demanded that she allow Paul to go with him to Maine. Weeping in self-pity, Zilla consented. Myra sat calmly during the scene, but later she criticized Babbitt for bullying Paul's wife. Babbitt told her sharply to mind her own business.
On the train, Babbitt and Paul met numerous businessmen who loudly agreed with one another that what this country needed was a sound business administration. They deplored the price of motor cars, textiles, wheat, and oil; they swore that they had not an ounce of race prejudice; they blamed communism and socialism for labor unions that got out of hand. Paul soon tired of the discussion and went to bed. Babbitt stayed up late, smoking countless cigars and telling countless stories.
Maine had a soothing effect upon Babbitt. He and Paul fished and hiked in the quiet of the north woods, and Babbitt began to realize that his life in Zenith was not all it should be. He promised himself a new outlook on life, a more simple, less hurried way of living.
Back in Zenith, Babbitt was asked to make a speech at a convention of real-estate men, which was to be held in Monarch, a nearby city. He wrote a speech contending that real-estate men should be considered professionals and called realtors. At the meeting, he declaimed loudly that real estate was a great profession, that Zenith was God's own country—the best little spot on earth—and to prove his statements, he quoted countless statistics on waterways, textile production, and lumber manufacture. The speech was such a success that Babbitt instantly won recognition as an orator.
Babbitt was made a precinct leader in the coming election. His duty was to speak to small labor groups about the inadvisability of voting for Seneca Doane, a liberal, in favor of a man named Prout, a solid businessman who represented the conservative element. Babbitt's speeches helped to defeat Doane. He was very proud of himself for having Vision and Ideals.
On a business trip to Chicago, Babbitt spied Paul Riesling sitting at dinner with a middle-aged and pretty woman. Later, in his hotel room, Babbitt indignantly demanded an explanation for Paul's lack of morality. Paul told Babbitt that he could no longer stand living with Zilla. Babbitt, feeling sorry for his friend, swore that he would keep Paul's secret from Zilla. Privately, Babbitt envied Paul's independence.
Babbitt was made vice-president of the Booster's Club. He was so proud of himself that he bragged loudly when his wife called him at the office. It was a long time before he understood what she was trying to tell him; Paul had shot his wife.
Babbitt's world collapsed about him. Though Zilla was still alive, Paul was in prison. Babbitt began to question his ideas about the power of the dollar. Paul was perhaps the only person Babbitt had ever loved. Myra had long since become a habit, and the children were too full of new ideas to be close to their father. Babbitt felt suddenly alone. He began to criticize the minister's sermons. He no longer visited the Athletic Club and rarely ate lunch with any of his business acquaintances.
One day, the pretty widow Mrs. Judique came to his office and asked him to find her a flat. Babbitt joined her circle of Bohemian friends. He drank more than he had ever drunk in his life. He spent money wildly. Two of the most powerful men in town requested that he join the Good Citizen's League—or else. Babbitt refused to be bullied. For the first time in his life, he was a human being. He actually made friends with his archenemy, Seneca Doane, and discovered that he liked his liberal ideas. He praised Doane publicly. Babbitt's new outlook on life appealed to his children, who at once began to respect him as they never had before. Babbitt, however, became unpopular among his business-boosting friends. When he again refused to join the Good Citizen's League, he was snubbed in the streets. Gradually, Babbitt found that he had no real resources within himself. He was miserable.
When Myra became ill, Babbitt suddenly realized that he loved his colorless wife. He broke with Mrs. Judique and joined the Good Citizen's League. By the time Myra was well again, there was no more active leader in the town of Zenith than George F. Babbitt. Once more he announced his distrust of Seneca Doane. He became the best Booster the club ever had. His last gesture of revolt was private approval of his son's elopement. Outwardly he conformed.
 



 

Critical Evaluation

Zenith, "the Zip City—Zeal, Zest, and Zowie," is Sinclair Lewis' satirical composite picture of the typical progressive American "business city" of the 1920s, and middle-aged, middle-class midwesterner George F. Babbitt is its average prosperous citizen. Everything about Zenith is modern. A few old buildings, ramshackle witnesses of the city's nineteenth century origins, are embarrassing, discordant notes amid the harmony of newness produced by shining skyscrapers, factories, and railroads. One by one, the old buildings are surrounded and bulldozed. The thrust of all energies in the city is toward growth: One of Zenith's most booming businesses is real estate; one of its favorite occupations is the religious tallying and charting of population increase.
As Lewis presents his characters, however, the reader discovers that the prosperity and growth of Zenith has been inversely proportional to the intellectual bankruptcy and spiritual stagnation of its inhabitants. Because they subscribe to the values of Zenith's culture, which are all based on the "Dollar Ethic," Lewis' characters think in terms of production and consumption, judge people on the grounds of their purchasing power, and seek happiness in the earning and spending of money. This creed of prosperity permeates every aspect of society. It is evident not only in political and economic beliefs (discussion between Babbitt and his friends about government affairs is limited to the monotonous refrain, "What this country needs is a good, sound business administration") but in moral and religious attitudes as well. Thus, Dr. Drew attracts followers to his "Salvation and Five Percent" church with a combined cross-and-dollar-sign approach. Even more sinister is the facility with which the upright Babbitt carries through crooked deals in his real estate business. In one maneuver, he plots with a speculator to force a struggling grocer to buy the store building (which he has been renting for years) at a scalper's price. The money ethic is so elemental to Babbitt's conscience that he honestly feels nothing but delight and pride when the deal is completed; his only regret is that the speculator carries off nine thousand dollars while Babbitt receives a mere four hundred and fifty dollar commission. At the same time, Babbitt—with no inkling of his hypocrisy—discourses on his virtue to his friend Paul Riesling, touting his own integrity while denigrating the morality of his competitors.
The value placed on money also determines Zenith's aesthetic standards. There is no frivolity about the city's architecture; the most important structures are the strictly functional business buildings. Other structures, such as the Athletic Club—where the businessmen go to "relax" and discuss weighty matters of finance—are gaudy, unabashed copies of past styles; the Club's motley conglomeration includes everything from Roman to Gothic to Chinese. The culmination of literary talent in Zenith is the work of Chum Frink, whose daily newspaper lyrics are indistinguishable from his Zeeco car ads. He comes to Babbitt's dinner party fresh from having written a lyric in praise of drinking water instead of poison booze; with bootleg cocktail in hand, he identifies the American genius as the fellow who can run a successful business or the man who writes the Prince Albert Tobacco ads.
Most important, the prosperity ethic is at the heart of social norms in Zenith; it is the basis upon which each citizen judges his individual worth. Lewis' novel includes caricatures of men in every major field of endeavor: Howard Littlefield is the scholar; T. Cholmondeley Frink, the poet; Mike Monday, the popular preacher; Jake Offut, the politician; Vergil Gunch, the industrialist. Yet despite their various professions, these men are identical in their values; they are united in their complacent pride at their own success and in their scorn for those who have not "made it." A man is measured by his income and his possessions. Thus, Babbitt's car is far more than his means of transportation, and his acquisition of gimmicks like the nickel-plated cigar cutter more than mere whim; both car and cigar cutter are affirmations of competence and virility. But the more Babbitt and his peers strive to distinguish themselves through ownership, the more alike they seem. Thus, the men of Zenith, since they are saturated day after day with the demands of the business life and its values, are even more alike than the women, who are not as immersed in the "rat race" as their husbands.
Mercilessly revealing and minutely detailed as its portrait of Zenith is, however, Babbitt would not be the excellent novel it is if Lewis had stopped at that. In addition to being an expose of shallowness, the novel is the chronicle of one man's feeble and half-conscious attempt to break out of a meaningless and sterile existence. In the first half of the book, George Babbitt is the Zenithite par excellence; but in the realtor's sporadic bursts of discontent, Lewis plants seeds of the rebellion to come. Babbitt's complacency is occasionally punctured by disturbing questions: Might his wife be right that he bullied Zilla only to strut and show off his strength and virtue? Are his friends really interesting people? Does he really love his wife and enjoy his career? These nagging questions and the pressures in his life finally build sufficient tension to push Babbitt to the unprecedented step of taking a week's vacation in Maine without his wife and children. The trip relieves his tension and dissolves the questions, and he returns to another year in Zenith with renewed vigor and enthusiasm for Boosters, baseball, dinner parties, and real estate.
It takes the personal tragedy of his friend Paul Riesling to really shock Babbitt out of this routine way of life; Paul's snooting of his wife and consequent imprisonment,
which occur approximately midway in the novel, shake Babbitt to his foundations. The Babbitt of the first half of the story is a parody; the Babbitt of the second half, a weak and struggling human being. After Paul goes to prison, Babbitt seems to throw off his previous life-style: he drinks, smokes, and curses; he frequents wild parties, befriends the city's bohemian set, adopts radical opinions, and has a love affair. All these things are part of his rebellion against stifling circumstances and his attempt to escape into individuality. The attempt fails because he lacks the inner strength to be independent, and his revolt is ultimately little more than a teapot tempest. Whether preaching the philosophy of the Elks or rebelliously praising the radical politics of Seneca Doane, whether giving a dinner party with his wife or sneaking out to see Mrs. Judique, Babbitt never truly acts on his own.
Thus, by the end of the novel, Babbitt has returned to the fold, joining the Good Citizen's League and redoubling his zeal in behalf of Zenith Booster activities. But even though Babbitt lacks the strength to break out of his mold, Lewis does not imply that he is unchanged by his experience. On the contrary, Babbitt rediscovers his love for his wife and learns something about himself. By the close of the novel he has grown in awareness, even if he has proven himself incapable of essentially changing his life. If he has lost his own individuality, he is still able to hope for better things for his son, Ted, of whose elopement he secretly approves.

 

 



MAIN STREET
 

Type of work: Novel
Author: Sinclair Lewis
Type of plot: Social satire
Time of plot: с 1910-1920
Locale: Small midwestern town
First published: 1920

 

In this portrait of a typical small midwestern town called Gopher Prairie, Lewis satirizes the smug complacency, narrow-mindedness, hypocrisy, and resistance to change of the small-town mentality. Despite its social criticism, however, Main Street reflects Lewis' affection for his home town ofSauk Center, Minnesota, upon which Gopher Prairie was based.

 

Principal Characters

Carol Kennicott, an idealistic girl eager to reform the world. Interested in sociology and civic improvement, she longs to transform the ugliness of midwestern America into something more beautiful. Having married Dr. Will Kennicott, she moves to his home in Gopher Prairie, Minnesota, a hideous small town indistinguishable from hundreds of similar communities. There she shocks and angers the townspeople by her criticisms and by her attempts to combat the local smugness. To its citizens Gopher Prairie is perfection; they can see no need for change. To her, it is an ugly, gossipy, narrow-minded village, sunk in dullness and self-satisfaction. Her efforts to change the town fail, and she drifts into a mild flirtation with Erik Valborg, a Swedish tailor with artistic yearnings. Frightened by the village gossip, she and Kennicott take a trip to California; but on her return she realizes that she must get away from both her husband and Gopher Prairie. After some argument, she and her small son leave for Washington, where she stays for more than a year. The flight is a failure, for she finds Washington only an agglomeration of the small towns of America. She returns to Gopher Prairie, realizing that it is her home. Her crusade has failed; she can only hope that her children will accomplish what she has been unable to do.
Dr. Will Kennicott, Carol's husband, a successful physician in Gopher Prairie. Though he loves Carol, he is dull and unimaginative, unable to enter her world or to understand her longings. He is the typical self-satisfied citizen of a small town.
Guy Pollock, a lawyer. Though sensitive and intellectual, he is the victim of the "village virus" that has deprived him of all initiative. At first he appears to Carol as the most hopeful person in town, but he disappoints her with his timidity and conventionalism.
Vida Sherwin, a teacher in the high school. Though better educated, she is as satisfied with the Gopher Prairie standards as are the other citizens. She marries Raymond Wutherspoon.
Raymond Wutherspoon, a sales clerk in the Bon Ton Store. A pallid, silly man, he marries Vida Sherwin. He goes to France during World War I and returns as a major.
Erik Valborg, a tailor in Gopher Prairie, the son of a Swedish farmer. Handsome and esthetically inclined, he attracts Carol, and they have a mild flirtation. But gossip drives him from the town; he goes to Minneapolis and is last seen playing small parts in the movies.
Bea Sorenson, a farm girl who comes to Gopher Prairie to find work. She is as much fascinated by the town as Carol is repelled. She becomes the Kennicotts' hired girl and Carol's only real friend. She marries Miles Bjornstam and has a son. She and the little boy both die of typhoid fever.
Miles Bjornstam, the village handy man and radical, one of the few genuine people in Gopher Prairie and one of the few who understand Carol. He marries Bea Sorenson; when she and their child die, he leaves the town.
Mrs. Bogart, the Kennicotts' neighbor. She is the epitome of village narrow-mindedness.
Sam Clark, a hardware dealer and solid citizen.
Percy Bresnahan, born in Gopher Prairie but now a successful automobile manufacturer in Boston. He visits his home for occasional fishing trips and stoutly maintains that it is God's country. Heavy-handed, jocular, and thoroughly standardized, he is the forerunner of George F. Babbitt.
James Blauser, known as "Honest Jim." A professional hustler and a promoter, he is hired to start a campaign for a Greater Gopher Prairie. Not much is accomplished.
Hugh, Will and Carol's first child, on whom she lavishes her attention.
 



 

The Story

When Carol Milford was graduated from Blodgett College in Minnesota, she determined to conquer the world. Interested in sociology, and village improvement in particular, she often longed to set out on a crusade of her own to transform dingy prairie towns to thriving, beautiful communities. When she met Will Kennicott, a doctor from Gopher Prairie, and listened to his praise of his hometown, she agreed to marry him. He had convinced her that Gopher Prairie needed her.
Carol was essentially an idealist. On the train, going to her new home, she deplored the rundown condition of the countryside and wondered about the future of the northern Middle West. Will did not listen to her ideas sympathetically. The people were happy, he said. Through town after town they traveled, Carol noting with sinking heart the shapeless mass of hideous buildings, the dirty depots, the flat wastes of prairie surrounding everything, and she knew that Gopher Prairie would be no different from the rest.
Gopher Prairie was exactly like the other towns Carol had seen, except that it was a little larger. The people were as drab as their houses and as flat as their fields. A welcoming committee met the newly weds at the train. To Carol, all the men were alike in their colorless clothes; overfriendly, overenthusiastic. The Kennicott house was a Victorian horror, but Will said he liked it.
Introduced to the townsfolk at a party held in her honor, Carol heard the men talk of motorcars, train schedules, "furriners," and praise Gopher Prairie as God's own country. The women were interested in gossip, sewing, and cooking, and most of them belonged to the two women's clubs, the Jolly Seventeen and the Thanatopsis Club. At the first meeting of the Jolly Seventeen, Carol incurred the member's resentment when she stated that the duty of a librarian was to get people to read. The town librarian staunchly asserted that her primary trust was to preserve the books.
Carol did many things which were to cause her great unhappiness. She hired a maid and paid her the over-generous sum of six dollars a week. She gave a party with an Oriental motif. Sometimes she even kicked off a slipper under the table and revealed her arches. The women frowned on her unconventional behavior. Worse, she redecorated the old Kennicott house and got rid of the mildew, the ancient bric-a-brac, and the dark wallpaper. Will protested against her desire to change things.
Carol also joined the Thanatopsis Club, for she hoped to use the club as a means of awakening interest in social reform. The women of Gopher Prairie, however, while professing charitable intentions, had no idea of improving social conditions. When Carol mentioned that something should be done about the poor people of the town, everyone firmly stated that there was no real poverty in Gopher Prairie. Carol also attempted to raise funds for a new city hall, but no one could see that the ugly old building needed to be replaced. The town voted against appropriating the necessary funds.
Will Kennicott bought a summer cottage on Lake Minniemashie. There Carol enjoyed outdoor life and during the summer months almost lost her desire for reform. When September came, however, she hated the thought of returning to Gopher Prairie.
Carol resolved to study her husband. He was well thought of in the town, and she romanticized herself as the wife of a hardworking, courageous country doctor. She fell in love with Will again on the night she watched him perform a bloody but successful operation upon a poor farmer. Carol's praise of her husband, however, had little effect. Will was not the romantic figure she had pictured. He accepted his duties as a necessary chore, and the thought that he had saved the life of a human being did not occur to him. His interest in medicine was identical with his interest in motorcars. Once more, Carol turned her attention to Gopher Prairie.
Carol, trying to interest the Thanatopsis Club in literature and art, finally persuaded the members to put on an amateur theatrical, but enthusiasm soon waned. Carol's choice of a play, Shaw's Androcles, was vetoed, and The Girl from Kankakee put in its place. Carol considered even that choice too subtle for Gopher Prairie, but at least the town's interest in the theater had been revived.
After three years of marriage, Carol discovered that she was pregnant. Almost immediately, the neighborhood became interested in her condition. When her son was born, she resolved that some day she would send little Hugh away from Gopher Prairie, to Harvard, Yale, or Oxford.
With a new son and the new status of motherhood, Carol found herself more a part of the town, but she devoted nine-tenths of her attention to Hugh and had little time to criticize the town. She wanted a new house, but she and Will could not agree on the type of building. He was satisfied with a square frame house. Carol had visions of a Georgian mansion, with stately columns and wide lawns, or a white cottage like those at Cape Cod.
Then Carol met a tailor in town, an artistic, twenty-five-year-old aesthete with whom she imagined herself in love. She often dropped by his shop to see him, and one day Will warned her that the gossip in town was growing. Ashamed, Carol promised she would not see him again. The tailor left for Minneapolis.
Carol and Will decided to take a trip to California. When they returned three months later, Carol realized that her attempt to escape Gopher Prairie had been unsuccessful. For one thing, Will had gone with her. What she needed now was to get away from her husband. After a long argument with Will, Carol took little Hugh and went off to Washington, where she planned to do war work.
Yet hers was an empty kind of freedom. She found the people in Washington an accumulation of the population of thousands of Gopher Prairies all over the nation. Main Street had merely been transplanted to the larger city. Disheartened by her discovery, Carol had too much pride to return home.
After thirteen months, Will went to get her. He missed her terribly, he said, and begged her to come back. Hugh was overjoyed to see his father, and Carol realized that inevitably she would have to return to Gopher Prairie.
Home once more, Carol found that her furious hatred for Gopher Prairie had burned itself out. She made friends with the clubwomen and promised herself not to be snobbish in the future. She would go on asking questions— she could never stop herself from doing that—but her questions now would be asked with sympathy rather than with sarcasm. For the first time, she felt serene. In Gopher Prairie, she felt at last that she was wanted. Her neighbors had missed her. For the first time, Carol felt that Gopher Prairie was her home.
 



 

Critical Evaluation

Sinclair Lewis frequently had difficulty in determining in his own mind whether his works were meant as bitterly comic satires of American life and values or whether they were planned as complex novels centering around the lives of the series of characters he made famous. One of the difficulties of reading Lewis is that these two conflicting sorts of writing are both present in many of his works, and frequently at odds with each other. This is demonstrably true of Main Street, which cannot simply be called a satire of life in small-town America. For all the satire of small-town attitudes and values, Lewis is not unequivocal in his attack as a satirist might be expected to be. Actually, he finds quite a lot of value in the best Main Street has to offer, and he seems to see Carol Kennicott's reconciliation with Gopher Prairie at the end of the novel as a triumph more than a failure on her part. Thus, though Main Street is, as it has been frequently called, a revolt against the village, it is a revolt marked by the complexity of Lewis' attitude toward Gopher Prairie and toward its real-life counterpart, Sauk Center, Minnesota, where Lewis spent his early years.
Lewis' characters, particularly Will and Carol Kennicott, are another complication in this novel which prevents it from being simply a satire. Unlike the one-dimensional characters typical of satire, the Kennicotts develop into somewhat rounded characters who demand attention and sympathy in their own rights. Carol in particular, as the central figure of the novel, is developed more novelistically than satirically as Lewis traces her development from a very naive and foolishly idealistic young woman into a more tolerant and understanding human being. Ironically, for the reader to adopt only the critical and satiric portrait of the small town that lies at the surface of Main Street would be for him to embrace the same overly simplistic attitudes that characterized Carol at the beginning of the novel, and which she must escape as evidence of her maturity.
During the early part of the century, Americans tended to accept on faith the premise that all that was best in life was epitomized by the small-town environment. Though by no means the first author to attack this premise, Lewis with Main Street achieved the widespread popularity which gave new prominence to this revolt against the small town. Lewis, himself a small-town boy, knew at first hand the discrepancy between the vision of the village as a Utopia and the actuality of its bleak cultural and moral atmosphere. As Lewis makes clear in his prologue, Main Street is an analogue for all such towns, and by his treatment of Gopher Prairie, Lewis sought to strike a satiric blow at the very heartland of America. Rather than a Utopia, Lewis discovers in the provincial mentality of the small town a surfeit of hypocrisy, bigotry, ignorance, cruelty, and, perhaps most damning of all, a crippling dullness and conformity which is essentially hostile to any possibility of intellectual or emotional life. Ironically, though, even while ruthlessly exposing these negative qualities of the small town, Lewis finds, particularly in the matter-of-fact courage and determination of Will Kennicott, some of the very qualities which have given the small town its reputation as the strength of America. The fact is, Lewis was himself ambivalent in his attitude toward the village, and this indecisiveness creeps into the novel to mitigate his castigation of middle America.
The action of the novel centers around Carol Kennicott 's discovery of the nature of life and society in Gopher Prairie and culminates with her eventual compromise with the town. For Lewis' purposes, Carol is an excellent device that enables him to expose the bleak heart of the midwestern town by contrasting its qualities and values with her own. Young, educated, intelligent, and idealistic, Carol can bring vision to Gopher Prairie. In that role she performs well. It is when she performs as a character in her own right that readers begin to see that Lewis' attitude is more complicated than simply approving Carol's values against those of the town. Carol's idealism is accompanied by a naivete and intolerance which prevents her from accomplishing the reforms she advocates because she can only hope to change Gopher Prairie by becoming part of it. The polarization she brings about by trying too much too soon makes it improbable that she should ever be able to realize her ambitions for the town unless she learns to accommodate to—though not necessarily to approve of—its values. After running away to Washington only to discover that the values of the city are not too different from those of the village, Carol is in a better position to adopt a more tolerant attitude toward the villagers. As readers see her at the end of the novel, she has made an effort to come to terms with her environment by working to evolve realistic reforms rather than seeking a radical overthrow of entrenched values and institutions. In losing her naivete, Carol gains in terms of her ability to confront reality and even to change it over a period of time.
Actually, most of Carol's reforms are too superficial to cure what Lewis called the village virus. Her concern is more with manners than values, and she would only substitute the slick sophistication of the city for the provincial dullness she finds so intolerable. The perfect foil to her is Will Kennicott, who, while epitomizing all the worst of the town's boorishness, goes about his daily medical practice with a quiet efficiency, determination, and even courage that Lewis clearly admires. Will's presence makes it impossible simply to accept Carol's assessment of the vulgarity of the town as Lewis' final word. It is Gopher Prairie that finally triumphs as Carol reconciles herself to its full reality.

 

 
     
         
 

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