Saturday, June 24, 2006

Sinclair Lewis's "Main Street"

The latest installment from Jane Smiley's Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel takes up Sinclair Lewis's Main Street; see here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here for previous entries.

It has been a very long time since I--or anyone I know--has read any Lewis, yet Smiley suggests we may soon see some wider general interest in his work.
Sinclair Lewis may be ripe for a revival; his books raise several interesting issues of art and fashion. Main Street is his most famous book, though certain critics prefer Babbitt as a better novel. Main Street was a tremendous bestseller, published when Lewis was 35, and cited by the Nobel Prize committee as a major reason he was given the Nobel in 1930. Main Street is the story of Carol Kennicott, who graduates from a small women's college in the first chapter of the novel with rather vague aspirations to achieve something or reform something. After a reasonably long (but not very enlightening) courtship, she marries small-town doctor Will Kennicott and moves with him to Gopher Prairie, Minnesota (based on Lewis's hometown of Sauk Centre). She is immediately dissatisfied with the town and her life there, and the rather episodic novel traces the simultaneous evolution of her marriage, her life in Gopher Prairie, and the passing of her youth.

The novel is rather like a Bildungs-roman in that it describes the education of a young person through a series of trials, but Carol's is a domestic education, and it is hard to decide whether she grows or is simply overcome. In the end, under some protest, she manages to agree to life in Gopher Prairie, but not quite accept it.

I'm less confident than Smiley that Lewis will find a new audience very soon, mainly for reasons she outlines herself:

He manages to be intelligent and interesting and even hopeful; his characters are well-drawn and lively. But his plots meander and his tone is unclear. His novels aren't well-made wholes, but nor are they shambling stylistic charmers. In their time, they dealt with issues that Americans wanted to read about--small-town life, the mind of the businessman, revivalist religion--but when those issues seemed to fade in importance, so did Lewis's reputation.

Lewis adhered to a strongly felt social theory that was basically leftist, and he wrote at a time when almost all writers were required to declare their allegiance to the right or the left, at least in America. In Main Street, Lewis's loyalties sometimes come across as simply a democratic sensibility, and therefore aesthetically acceptable, and sometimes as an outmoded and false-seeming programme for building the utopia of the future. No novelist can quite escape the social theories of his time, and in fact must be drawn to them, because the novel is social investigation. So to some extend the reputation of every novelist will rise and fall according to how his social theory holds up.

Click here to read the entire Smiley argument.

--Marshal Zeringue