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Main Street (Barnes & Noble Classics Series) (B&N Classics) Mass Market Paperback – August 1, 2003

4.3 out of 5 stars 14 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

About the Author

Sinclair Lewis (1885-1951) won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1930, the first American novelist to be so honored. His major works include Babbitt, Arrowsmith, Elmer Gantry, Dodsworth, and It Can't Happen Here.

Lloyd James has been narrating since 1996, has recorded over six hundred books in almost every genre, has earned six AudioFile Earphones Awards, and is a two-time nominee for the prestigious Audie Award. --This text refers to the Audio CD edition.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

From Brooke Allen’s Introduction to Main Street

Main Street is very, very American, but it is not purely American. Shaw, in his characteristically flippant manner, spoke the truth when he said that Lewis’s criticisms applied to other nations as well, but that Americans clung to the idea that they were unique in their faults (Literary Digest, December 6, 1930); the British novelist John Galsworthy remarked, truly, that “Every country, of course, has its Main Streets” (Lewis, From Main Street to Stockholm: Letters of Sinclair Lewis, 1919–1930). Still, a disdain for intellect (or for what we nowadays prefer to denigrate as elitism) has been particularly marked in America, perhaps because of our commitment, stated if not practiced, to egalitarian democracy: On Main Street, Lewis writes, “to be ‘intellectual’ or ‘artistic’ or, in their own word, to be ‘highbrow,’ is to be priggish and of dubious virtue.”

More than eighty years after Lewis’s novel this is true, and it is true not only on Main Street but on Wall Street as well, and on Park Avenue, and on Pennsylvania Avenue. This is what makes Main Street such a stunning achievement: While it succeeds in being “contemporary history,” capturing a particular place at a particular moment in time, it also speaks for our own time; it is remarkable how much of Main Street is still pertinent. Gopher Prairie at war is not so very unlike our own flag-waving “war on terrorism.” Will Kennicott’s breezy dismissal of legal procedure—“Whenever it comes right down to a question of defending Americanism and our constitutional rights, it’s justifiable to set aside ordinary procedure”—can be read on almost any editorial page today. Gopher Prairie’s commercial ethos of material “progress” at the expense of every other variety, an idea Lewis would expand and crystallize in Babbitt, has been refined rather than improved in our own era of no-collar workers who meditate or practice yoga before closing the Big Deal rather than smoking cigars and guzzling alcohol.

Lewis, unlike so many of his contemporaries, was never tempted to look for an answer in political dogma: He hated dictatorships and had no particular faith in the virtue or good judgment of “the people.” All he really believed in was the wavering, imperfect liberal spirit: “Even if Com[munism] & Fax[cism] or both cover the world, Liberal[ism] must go on, seeming futile, preserving civilization,” he wrote in his notes for It Can’t Happen Here (quoted in Lingeman).

An atheist with no political illusions, two failed marriages, an unconquerable addiction to alcohol, and a moribund talent might be thought to have had every reason to give up in despair. Lewis, to his undying credit, did not. “It is a completely revelatory American tragedy,” he said in his Nobel Prize speech, “that in our land of freedom, men like [Hamlin] Garland, who first blast the roads to freedom, become themselves the most bound.” This has been true of many; it was never true of Lewis. Like Carol Kennicott, he was still reaching—though generally failing to grasp—right up to the end. His particular type of sociological fiction had gone out of fashion at the time of his death, and he continued to be undervalued for decades afterward. But in recent years we have returned to an appreciation for what he accomplished artistically. For what he was able to tell us about American life, in his day and in ours, we can only be grateful.

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Product Details

  • Series: B&N Classics
  • Mass Market Paperback: 560 pages
  • Publisher: Barnes & Noble Classics (August 1, 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1593080360
  • ISBN-13: 978-1593080365
  • Product Dimensions: 4.1 x 1.4 x 6.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 7 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (14 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,733,214 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Mass Market Paperback Verified Purchase
Carol is a girl with big dreams. When she marries Kennicott, she moves from the Twin Cities where she has supported herself, to rural life in Gopher Prairie, Minnesota, where it is her dream to transform the sleepy town into something better.
The ups and downs of Carrie Kennicott's life were felt by each member of our Family Book Club. Just when it seems things can't get any worse for Carrie, they can -- but sometimes they get better.
This book has been subject to a lot of literary criticism. Surely, the story can be studied in many ways at many levels. However, one does not need to have a master's in English in order to get a lot of enjoyment out of Main Street.
Set in the 1920s, Carrie's story -- her feelings, the changes she tries to make to Gopher Prairie, and all of the people she meets there -- could easily be told today with only minor changes. And, although this book is overall rather depressing in nature, there were quite a few places that it had me laughing out loud.
Main Street really captures the aura of small town America, especially middle Minnesota. The real life Gopher Prairie is Sauk Centre, Minnesota. It's an interesting place to visit, as the main street there has now been renamed Sinclair Lewis Boulevard.
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Format: Mass Market Paperback
This was the book that gave us the phrase "Main Street" to denote middle, everyday America. The phrase we heard ad nauseam during the bank bail outs - Main Street vs Wall Street. The book captures the divide between rural and urban people, a battle we still fight today. The current usage of the term, with Main Street representing good, is an irony Lewis would proud of.

Carol, the main character, marries into a small town after having been independent and living in a large city, a big deal in a just-now post-Victorian period. She tries to introduce her new neighbors to new experiences - exotic foods, new styles, new ways of thinking - and completely fails at it. She doesn't hold her tongue either; "ash pile", a favorite term of hers, is about the modern equivalent of "s***hole". I've a feeling many the teen has been put off by her "modern" tastes - Chinese food and showing ankle seem pedestrian through a lens of 100 years. Today, she's be serving organic Latin-Asian fusion cuisine with a plunging neckline and going on about Pilates, and trying to start up neighborhood activist groups. And calling the town a s***hole.

One of thing things Carol rails against is the lack of high achievers in the town. As Sinclair puts it, most people capable (or desiring) real competition don't stay in town. The people who fear change or can't cope in a competitive environment stay put, enjoying the simplicities of small town life, with like minded people. And wind up drive Carol crazy with frustration.

Carol's story makes me thankful I live today - as a woman I have a choice in where I'm to live, and that divorce is a alternative for such a miss-matched couple. Her life-long entrapment is a fate most women today don't have to face.
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Format: Mass Market Paperback
Carol Milford graduates from a small St. Paul college with idealistic notions of taking some backward prairie town and transforming it into a cultured utopia of the plains. When she marries small-town doctor Will Kennicott, she optimistically sees a chance to put her ideas into practice. After arriving in his hometown of Gopher Prairie, however, her ideas for reform fall on deaf ears, and she finds herself not the town's savior, but rather its prisoner.

Having grown up in a small town in Wisconsin, and lived in larger cities, I can see both the pros and cons of small-town life. Sinclair Lewis's portrait, however, is relentlessly one-sided and bleak. Gopher Prairie is so abysmal, and its denizens so unsympathetic, that it almost defies believability. Lewis doesn't treat his protagonist any kinder, either. We are privy to Carrie's every shallow thought, every flighty notion, every petty grievance, to the point where there's not much left in her to root for.

The title of this review is a quote from the book that encapsulates much of its plot. Chapters and chapters go by detailing Carol's dismal existence. I kept waiting and waiting for something--anything--to happen. Will she cheat on her husband? Will she run away? Will she kill herself? Finally around chapter 30 things start happening, but rather than satisfy me they just made me cringe. The book redeems itself a little in the last few chapters, adopting a more positive tone and injecting a dash of feminism, but it was a little too little and a little too late.

One thing's for certain, Lewis is an incredible wordsmith. His prose is elegant and effortless, with a beautiful poetic quality about it even when he's being sarcastic, ironic, or just plain depressing.
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Format: Audible Audio Edition
I enjoyed Brian Emerson's reading of this classic. Although a Goodreads commenter panned this for its lack of nuance or emotion, I wonder if this commenter listened to this all the way through. I did, and after over a month of my commute with this as my companion, I recommend it.

The Widow Bogart gains a wonderfully obnoxious whine. Jim Blosser sounds as boosterish as Babbitt in the making. Miles Bjornstrom finds emotion as he shifts from rabblerouser to family man to tragic figure in the eyes of Gopher Prairie. The setting, too, full of tension, satire, and warmth--for Lewis truly loved as well as hated his hometown inspiration--emerges.

While often Carol Kennicott's struggle is viewed as a social one, as she seeks to reform the town, it's also Will's drama, as he tries to court, win, and keep his wife's loyalty. Whether Lewis meant to make fun of or make a role model of Carol can still spark debate, as it did (see my review of Mark Schorer's massive biography of Lewis) when it debuted and caused a sensation nearly a century ago. Carol's coming-of-age and her maturity, fraught with doubt, find insightful articulation through Emerson's reading of her plight, as well as a host of Scandinavian, Yankee, and German-inflected settlers who contend for Carol's mind and heart in these still-gripping story.

Her marriage tempts her to turn back to the East, the civilized, the citified. Her idealism beckons her to the West, and in the Midwestern prairie of Minnesota, she is caught. Here, Lewis locates a heroine based on his more glamorous first wife, as if she came back to his hometown to marry someone like his own father, a down-home doctor.
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