Katherine Bailey on Books
Book Reviews, Literary Essays


Reviews: Past Books Mainstreet by Sinclair Lewis

A woman’s reach should exceed her grasp.

In 1930 Sinclair Lewis became the first American to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. Lewis was a progressive thinker who believed that the status quo need not be, that anything could be questioned, changed, or rejected. Main Street, his most celebrated novel and at certain times a staple in American Literature courses, speaks to this forward-looking stance. Published in 1920 when Lewis was 35, Main Street claims the distinction of being the best-selling American novel for the entire first quarter of the twentieth century. The very title still resonates as a byword for provincialism and small-mindedness.

One reason for the novel’s popularity was that at the time of its publication the vast majority of Americans had grown up in small towns or rural areas. As readers they could relate to the novel’s setting – Gopher Prairie, a stolid town of some 3,000 inhabitants in the heart of the Minnesota wheat prairies. Because he had grown up in Sauk Centre, Minnesota, a prairie town with a population of around 1,200, Lewis knew his subject intimately.

Literary historians portray Lewis, a Yale graduate, as an outspoken, brash man with a homely, manic demeanor. A hatred for complacency and intolerance was the driving force in his life. To him, everything that was worthwhile had been accomplished by the free, inquiring, critical spirit, and the preservation of that spirit was imperative. It is this value, articulated with a strong voice, that pervades Main Street. Lewis’s creative vision and his original blend of satire and realism are nothing less than genius. With savage irony, he pokes fun at the crassness of Gopher Prairie society and shatters forever the myth of the wholesomeness of small town life. Now, some 90 years since its publication, the way of life depicted in the book, with all its marvelous period details, is history.

But this does not make Main Street’s impact less forceful. If the novel succeeds as a sociological discourse on small-town life during the years 1905 to 1920, it also serves as a timeless portrayal of human nature. Convincingly, Lewis depicts a woman who struggles bravely but in vain to broaden the horizons of Gopher Prairie’s smug townspeople, and to motivate her husband, a practical man, to “reach for the stars.” Over the years, Lewis’s Carol Kennicott has become a fictional icon as memorable as Theodore Dreiser’s Carrie Meeber and William Dean Howell’s Penelope Lapham. Though Main Street is subtitled The Revolt of Carol Kennicott, another equally apt subtitle would have been Portrait of a Marriage. From its beginning, Carol’s marriage to Gopher Prairie physician, Will Kennicott, is fraught with contention. Lewis subtly lets us know that Carol has within her a solipsism that would make marriage to anyone problematic.

The novel, related in the third person by an omniscient narrator, is episodic in structure. Carol’s activities, and the musings that prompt and evaluate them, shape the story. As the novel opens in St. Paul, Minnesota, Lewis catches our full attention with his masterful introduction of Carol Milford – soon to be Kennicott. “A girl on a hilltop,” he writes, “credulous, plastic, young; drinking in the air as she longed to drink life…Every cell of her body was alive – thin wrists, quince-blossom skin, ingénue eyes, black hair.” Carol, a college student and a dreamer, stands on the steep banks of the Mississippi River where it converges with the Minnesota. Ominously, Lewis asserts that, “She did not yet know the immense ability of the world to be casually cruel and proudly dull.”

After graduation and a year of study in Chicago, Carol finds a job as a professional librarian in St. Paul where her ambition and desire for reform, as well as some silly affectations and vanities, set her apart from her colleagues. On some level she expects more glory for herself than her job offers. Though she is lonely, she refuses to imagine herself in the servitude of marriage. Indeed, even after marrying Kennicott she will reject the idea of his defining her future.

Lewis describes Carol as “frail and blue and lonely” on the Sunday evening she trudges to a St. Paul apartment building to join friends for supper. The other guests are familiar to her, “But there was also a stranger,” notes Lewis, “a thick man of 36 or 7, with stolid brown hair, lips used to giving orders, eyes which followed everything good-naturedly, and clothes which you could never quite remember.” Dr. Will Kennicott of Gopher Prairie, Minnesota, finds Carol an agreeable discovery. As the two converse he dismisses the years he spent in the Twin Cities as a student and then as an intern. But he chatters with enthusiasm about Gopher Prairie, “I never saw a town that had such up-and-coming people as Gopher Prairie…and it’s a darn pretty town. Lots of maples and box elders, and there’s two of the dandiest lakes you ever saw, right near town! And we’ve got seven miles of cement walks already, and building more every day.”

Carol tries to steer the conversation to the topic of a physician’s prestige and power in a small town, gushing that he must have the capacity “to transform the whole community.” Will’s reply exhilarates her. He tells her that he’s “in a rut of obstetrics and typhoid and busted legs. What we need,” he continues, “is women like you to jump on us. It’d be you that would transform the town.” Lewis recounts that before the evening was over, Will’s kindness and strong personality had enveloped Carol. “She accepted him,” he writes, “as one who had a right to know what she thought and wore and ate and read.”

Clearly, as the weeks pass Will becomes besotted with this lovely and intelligent woman. He rationalizes that if she displays a tendency to make hasty judgments, to harbor mistaken impressions of others, and to speak too bluntly, these are traits in her he can easily change. He learns that she loves smart clothes – expensive tweeds, soft chiffons, hats with wool flowers. She is fond of dancing, walnut fudge, satin pillows, male strength, comely children, and, most of all, outdoor beauty. Carol, from the moment of meeting Will right up to the book’s final paragraphs, is never certain whether she loves or hates her husband, whether or not she has squandered her life by attaching herself to him.

Lewis implies that escape is a very real motive for Carol in her encouragement of Will. Because of her proclivity for romanticizing life, she thinks that a small town like Gopher Prairie might be the perfect solution for her current dissatisfaction with St. Paul library work. Later she will come to relish the open country outside of Gopher Prairie as a welcome escape from the confining town.

Some 80 characters fill the pages of Main Street, many of them mere representations of types of human nature. Carol and Will, however, are brilliantly true-to-life, and her intensity in living her life serves as a perfect foil to his phlegmatic content. Few characters in literature are as complexly discontented as Carol or as intricately complacent as Will. In other words, few are as authentic.

Borrowing from the classical Greek writers’ custom of having major events happen “off-stage,” Lewis avoids portraying the Kennicott wedding. Instead, while detailing the couple’s train trip to take up residence in Gopher Prairie, he simply notes, “They had been married at the end of a year-long conversational courtship, and they were on their way to Gopher Prairie after a wedding journey to the Colorado Mountains.” We are not surprised to read that Carol is disappointed, if not devastated, by the town’s ugliness and by the condition of Will’s boyhood home in which they are to live. Will had characterized the house on Poplar Street as “nice and roomy,” but Carol instantly hates the old, damp, brown cube.

A party thrown by Will’s best friend, Sam Clark, who owns the town’s hardware store, marks Carol’s first evening in Gopher Prairie. Sadly, her attempts to enact her earlier vision of herself as a chic spouse fencing conversationally with clever men backfires abysmally. When she steps out of the circle of gossiping women to converse with the group of men, she has, in fact, stepped out of the bounds of Gopher Prairie’s rigid social norms. Her eager questions, “Do you favor education reform?” and “What do you think of profit sharing?” are met with embarrassment and non-answers. She detects, however, that she is definitely lacking because she doesn’t play bridge, and, more significantly, that conversation does not exist in Gopher Prairie. On the walk home Will gently gives her advice, “You ought to be more careful about shocking folks. Talking about gold stockings and about showing your ankles…I’d watch out for that if I were you.”

As Carol settles into her new life, Bea Sorenson, her hired girl, proves to be a respectful servant, a bosom friend, and Carol’s only confidante. She joins a women’s study group known as the Thanatopsis Club, and a young women’s social club called the Jolly Seventeen, only to be thwarted by both. Bravely, but to no avail, she tries to raise the intellectual and stimulation level of the unimaginative Thanatopsis-Club programs. “Had she actually believed that she could plant a seed of liberalism in the blank wall of mediocrity?’ Lewis asks rhetorically. Out of Carol’s mouth comes Lewis’s blistering indictment of the tediousness of Gopher Prairie’s townspeople: “It is an unimaginatively standardized background, a sluggishness of speech and manners, a rigid ruling of the spirit by the desire to appear respectable.”

While struggling to play bridge with the Jolly Seventeen, she unsuccessfully campaigns for a higher hourly wage for the town’s house maids. She forms a drama group and stages a play, which turns out to be a mortifying flop. Her tenure on the library board proves similarly disheartening. Lewis relates one of her conversations with the head librarian. When Carol asserts “…I’m sure you will agree with me in one thing: the chief task of a librarian is to get people to read,” the librarian replies, “My feeling, Mrs. Kennicott…is that the first duty of the conscientious librarian is to preserve the books.” When Carol tries to involve townspeople in planning new city hall and school buildings and an improved rest room for famers’ wives, the townspeople tell her they do not want to spend money on unnecessary things like buildings. She even fails to persuade Will’s social set of “young” couples to repeat skating and sledding parties. Again and again her hopes are shattered.

With the exception of her friendship with Bea, Carol’s relationships are far from beneficial. Though she shares common interests with Vida Sherwin, a high-school teacher, they fail to establish any sort of bond. Too bluntly, Vida admonishes Carol, “Stop imagining yourself as the Joan of Arc of hired girls.” Vida tells her, too, that Gopher Prairie regards her as a show off and that she dresses too expensively. At first Carol is attracted to Guy Pollock, a clever bachelor lawyer, but soon she realizes he is a rather shallow man without vision or goals of any kind. In the end, Miles Bjornstam, a rough-neck handyman scorned and ostracized by the townspeople in part because of his socialist leanings, is the only person with whom she can honestly converse.

Through Carol’s reaction to her parade of defeats, Lewis reveals a great deal about her nature. She strives to rebuild parts of the ugly town. Though the reason she does not succeed is basically that the town resolutely resists change, she takes the failures personally. Lewis lets us know that his protagonist lacks toughness and the steadfast spirit of a doer, remaining instead a thinker and dreamer. Moreover, Carol is easily discouraged and self-conscious of the townspeople’s criticisms. Very soon after moving to Gopher Prairie she begins to lose her self-esteem, and becomes overly sensitive to every nuance and gesture in her dealings with others.

Some years following the publication of Main Street, Lewis discussed its two main characters, catching readers off guard by asserting, “[Carol is not] of as good stuff as her husband…I had most painstakingly decided that she shouldn’t be – that she should be just bright enough to sniff a little but not bright enough to do anything about it.”

Lewis’s surprising disparagement of Carol notwithstanding, critics have underscored the idea that “Will, though demonstrably a good man and endowed with both more intelligence and more humor than Carol, is severely limited as a human being. Carol, though a foolish woman in many ways, is saved by ideals and ambition that are as noble as they are absurd.” In rendering the dismal Kennicott marriage, Lewis flies in the face of readers’ expectations by creating the easygoing Will as the more powerful personality of the two.

Precisely midway in the novel Carol gives birth to her son Hugh. Lewis chronicles the burdens of her pregnancy – sickness, poor complexion, hair loss, unwieldy shape – but he reveals nothing about the baby’s delivery. He points out, however, Carol’s initial resentment of Hugh because of all the pain and fear he had caused. But by the end of the baby’s first day Carol is elated, loving Hugh with herculean devotion.

Though they have the precious baby in common, and Will’s thriving medical practice and his successful land investments have made them well off financially, Carol and Will become estranged. In the first year of their marriage, hoping to find in Will some hidden dimension, Carol had read Yeats to him by candlelight. But the poetry evenings, to Will’s relief, soon petered out, and had no lasting effect on him.

Also, for a period of a few months before Hugh’s arrival, Carol’s love and respect for Will were dramatically rekindled after she witnessed him performing a heroic operation deep in the countryside in the midst of a raging blizzard. A German farmer had been near death following a gory accident with farm machinery. Will capably placed the patient on the kitchen table and gently but authoritatively issued orders to Carol to dispense the ether and to the farmer’s distraught wife to hold a lamp. In a four-hour grueling surgery Dr. Kennicott amputated a mangled right arm, thus saving the farmer’s life. Carol chided herself, “And I thought that it was I who had the culture.”

Her hero worship wears off rather too quickly, and as Carol grows instinctively closer to her son she feels little or no affection for her husband. As far as Will goes, Lewis lists his interests – medicine, land investment, Carol, motoring and hunting. He comments ironically, “It is not certain in what order he preferred them.” On the pretext of being disturbed by Will’s snoring, Carol moves into the spare bedroom, finding relief and peace at last in a room of her own. While dutifully caring for Hugh she seeks in vain for something more to give meaning to her dull life. As Lewis puts it, “Carol comes to the realization that she is “a woman with a working brain and no work.” Lonely she embarks on a romantic friendship with Erik Valborg, a young man who comes to town to work as an apprentice tailor. The townspeople ridicule Erik, calling him Elizabeth, because of his feminine appearance and his love of books.

Though Carol and Erik’s affair is sexually innocent, they do meet surreptitiously. Lewis makes it clear that in Gopher Prairie a woman’s reputation is of utmost importance. Even a hint of impropriety on Carol’s part would threaten Will’s practice and the Kennicott’s very livelihood. Carol’s relationship with Erik becomes stressful for the simple reason that in her quest for independence she does not want to hurt Will. Besides, she despises lying both in herself and in others.

Nobody’s fool, Will is angered by Carol’s coldness and outright rejection. Because he needs emotional intimacy – a woman to coddle him – he turns to Maud Dyer, the neurotic wife of his friend Dave who owns Gopher Prairie’s drug store. Late one night in a spat with Carol, Will implores “What makes you feel so superior?” And later during a free moment, Will sits brooding in his office. “Carrie’s all right. She‘s finicky, but she’ll get over it. But I wish she’d hurry up! What she can’t understand is that a fellow practicing medicine in a small town like this has got to cut out the highbrow stuff, and not spend all his time going to concerts and shining his shoes… At that, no matter what faults she’s got there’s nobody here [nor in Minneapolis] that’s as nice looking and square and bright as Carrie…But cold. She simply doesn’t know what passion is. She simply hasn’t got an idea how hard it is for a full-bodied man to go on pretending to be satisfied with his just being endured.”

Feeling sheepish because Will discovered him and Carol out walking hand in hand, Erik leaves town suddenly. Will shows Carol kindness and understanding, declaring his love for her despite her attraction to Erik. In prose that is magical in the way it brings out Will’s character, Lewis has Will first declare to Carol what “a whale of a fine fellow [Erik] is.” And then, “He leaned forward, thick capable hands on thick sturdy thighs, mature and slow yet beseeching. ‘No matter if you are cold, I like you better than anybody in the world. One time I said that you were my soul. And that still goes. You’re all the things that I see in a sunset when I’m driving from the country, the things that I like but can’t make poetry of…And I can stand the cold and bumpy roads and the lonely rides at night. All I need is to have you here at home to welcome me.’”

In the aftermath of Erik, leaving Hugh behind with Aunt Bessie, Will takes Carol to California where for three months they soak up sunshine, ocean air, and mission ruins. When they return, however, Carol is even more outraged by Gopher Prairie’s ugliness and by the stifling dullness of its inhabitants.

It is the moment that Carol informs Will that she and Hugh are moving to Washington, D.C. that marks the novel’s climax. One month before the end of World War I Carol and toddler board the train for that historic city, where jobs are plentiful because of the war. Easily Carol finds a job as a clerk in the bustling Bureau of War Risk Insurance. And fortuitously, she and Hugh and his nanny end up sharing a flat with two other working women. The nearly two years that Carol spends in Washington are immensely beneficial to her. Lewis summarizes, “The thing she gained in Washington was not information about office-systems and labor unions, but renewed courage, that amiable contempt called poise. Her glimpse of tasks involving millions of people and a score of nations reduced Main Street from bloated importance to its actual pettiness. She could never again be quite so awed by the power with which she herself had endowed [the inhabitants of Gopher Prairie.]” Unquestionably, Lewis was one of those talented male authors who could authentically create female characters.

Loneliness, or even homesickness, and, perhaps predictably, affection for Will prompt Carol to escape from Washington and to hurry back to Gopher Prairie. In conveying the notion that a degree of happiness, at last, seems possible for Carol, Lewis leaves readers pleasantly satisfied. Circumstances come together to make her content. First of all, Will desperately needs her, an ego boost in itself. He confesses that during her absence, not wanting to enter the empty house, he sat late into the night on the front porch. Secondly, their new house is being constructed according to Carol’s plans – with the exception of the garage and plumbing. Finally, Carol gives birth to a baby girl whom she predicts will become “a bomb to blow up smugness.” (Will had traveled to Washington the previous autumn.)

By the end of the book we are convinced that if Carol continues to fail as an inspiration to the town’s inhabitants, she will do so with improved equanimity. As an “affirming flame” character, Carol Kennicott joins the likes of Jane Austen’s Elizabeth Bennet. For readers, both of these characters accomplish the miracle of being at once sincerely altruistic and credible. Deserving of its acclaim, Main Street is a classic novel so rich in characterization that it warrants more than one reading.