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Main Street Audio CD – Bargain Price, December 27, 2010
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About the Author
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
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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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.
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.
Sure, a few sections betray what would become Lewis' typical love of rambling, if well-imitated, commentary from the local folks, combined with an eye for detail to the extreme in documenting at a sociological level his hometown and his nation. I learn from Lewis' on audiobook how those Americans now in the grave or near enough to it once--if they were toddlers then like little Hugh--ate, chatted, dressed, and dreamed. Listen to Emerson's dramatization and you will find compelling characters and a story that will bring you back to the small town as America transformed from its rural roots.
(P.S. I heard this after his more uneven but entertainingly imagined fascist send-up of an America under an aw-shucks dictator from 1936, "It Can't Happen Here," read aloud by Christopher Hunt also for Blackstone Audio, equally well and reviewed by me in August, 2012
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. Still, she's willing to face who she is and not back down.
My main criticism of Sinclair Lewis is that he doesn't seem to take much pleasure in life. Everything rings hollow and false, with opportunities for genuine amusement and enjoyment lost. On the other hand, that world view does make for some biting sarcasm and commentary. I still giggle to myself when I remember the line (I'm quoting from memory) about the annoying teenage boy who caught the flu during the 1918 epidemic "but didn't have the sense to die of it".