Why We Should Make Sinclair Lewis’s ‘Main Street’ Great Again

Passage from Sinclair Lewis's "Main Street" reading, "Sure, religion is a fine influence—got to have it to keep the lower classes in order."

What’s surprising about Sinclair Lewis’s “Main Street” is how little has changed in the 97 years since the book was published.Book cover of Sinclair Lewis's "Main Street."

We’ve fought wars, made our phones into computers, and still, the struggles of America in the 1910s and America in the 2010s are fairly similar.

Yes, “Main Street” is a small town story, but it’s a book reflective of societal challenges. That the setting is a rural America most Americans today won’t recognize doesn’t matter. The issues Lewis raises are all too recognizable to contemporary Americans.

Book Review of sinclair lewis’s “main street”

Sinclair Lewis’s “Main Street” is the story of Carol Kennicott. Raised in Minneapolis, Carol marries a doctor (Will Kennicott) and moves to Will’s hometown, the fictional Gopher Prairie.

“Main Street” is set in the 1910s. Thus Gopher Prairie is just removed from its frontier days. Indeed, some of its older residents remember first settling the town or fought in the Civil War.

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Carol realizes the moment she steps off the train in Gopher Prairie, adapting to small town life may be more of a challenge than she expected.Photo of of a house buried in snow with the passage from Sinclair Lewis's "Main Street" printed on it: "Winter is not a season in the North Middlewest; it is an industry."

For one thing, social gatherings are dull, with few activities and most conversations sticking to the weather or retelling old stories. And when Carol tries to enliven a party she and Will host, she’s accused of grandstanding.

Carol also recognizes the people of Gopher Prairie are a judgemental bunch unopen to new ideas.

“They did not bore Carol. They frightened her. She panted, ‘They will be cordial to me, because my man belongs to their tribe. God help me if I were an outsider!'” reads one passage.

The issues raised in Sinclair Lewis's Main Street are all too familiar to contemporary readers. Click To Tweet

Aiding in Carol’s struggle to adapt to Gopher Prairie is her struggle in being an honorable housewife to Dr. Will Kennicott. A librarian before marriage, Carol finds the placid expectations placed upon her oppressive, at least equal in confining her as the social norms of small town living.

The story follows Carol’s repeated attempts to reform herself. And Will’s growing perplexity at his wife’s inability to accept his hometown. At times Will even plays the victim, lamenting that his wife isn’t content to play the role designed for her by society. Image of a quote from Sinclair Lewis's "Main Street," reading "The greatest mystery about a human being is not his reaction to sex or praise, but the manner in which he contrives to put in twenty-four hours a day."

As the book moves along, the townspeople increasingly gossip about what a troubled soul poor Dr. Mrs. Will Kennicott must be.

Will Carol Kennicott find a way to be happy in Gopher Prairie? This is the question that drives Sinclair Lewis’s “Main Street.”

Social Commentary of sinclair lewis’s “Main Street”

Within Sinclair Lewis’s “Main Street” is strong social commentary, some of which is relevant still today.

The book takes place as labor unions and socialism is growing. (The overthrow of czarist Russia is referenced more than once.) In little Gopher Prairie, the struggle between the haves and the have-nots plays out as a conflict between the townspeople and the farmers.

Reading “Main Street” today, we’re on the other end of labor fights. Unions aren’t the political powerhouses they once were. But still, we live in a country in which the haves and the have-nots square off.Passage from Sinclair Lewis's "Main Street" reading, "It has not yet been recorded that any human being has gained a very large or permanent contentment from meditation upon the fact that he is better off than others."

Maybe the only real difference in class struggle between “Main Street’s” America and today is that working class people now are less likely to be Scandinavian immigrant farmers. (Although you could argue another key difference is that in “Main Street” the lower class seems less likely to vote for Republicans than lower classes do today.)

Of course, women’s rights are the central social issue confronted in Sinclair Lewis’s “Main Street.”

Carol Kennicott is the symbol of women’s suffrage and a woman’s role in society and in her home. Carol’s plight is painted against the landscape of a small town, but it’s important to remember 54% of the U.S. population lived in rural America in 1910.

In other words, Carol’s situation was emblematic of many American women’s predicament at the time.Passage from Sinclair Lewis's "Main Street" reading, "Sure, religion is a fine influence—got to have it to keep the lower classes in order."

Society expects Carol to be opinionless, docile, and doting. She finds it difficult to be any of these things. It’s a battle today’s reader can still recognize.

In Sinclair Lewis’s “Main Street” women are fighting the right to speak a political opinion in public. Today women are fighting for equal pay or the right to make health decisions over their bodies. The focus of the fight is different than 97 years ago, but the essence of the fight is unchanged.

Should you read Sinclair Lewis’s “Main Street?”

It seems Sinclair Lewis’s “Main Street” has slipped our modern recognition. When we talk of classic American novels, rarely is “Main Street” mentioned.

Find out why we should make Sinclair Lewis's Main Street great again. #amreading Click To Tweet

This is a mistake. If only because to know where you are going, you have to know where you have been, “Main Street” should be read by more people.

Sinclair Lewis’s “Main Street” is not just a story about small town life. It’s a story about class struggle and women’s rights, topics we still daily debate. Gopher Prairie is the backdrop for Lewis’s story because it’s a setting with which a majority of Americans at the time could relate.

Were Lewis to write “Main Street” today, it would be set in a suburb. Instead of Swedish farmers, the working class would be represented by people piecing together a life out of part-time jobs, or maybe lowly paid salaried workers overwhelmed with student loan debt.

Carol would still be Carol, except instead of fighting to do something other than keep house, she would deal with the demands of being a working mother. And a working mother paid less than a working dad doing the same job as Carol.

Sadly, Carol’s husband Will could be unchanged and still be recognizable. He’s a bore, quick to anger, to blame, and to play the victim card.

It’s unfortunate Sinclair Lewis’s “Main Street” has largely passed into obscurity. It’s a book that’s still (sadly) relevant today.

Maybe it’s time to make “Main Street” great again.

Passage from Sinclair Lewis's "Main Street" reading, "There are two insults which no human being will endure: the assertion that he hasn't a sense of humor, and the doubly impertinent assertion that he has never known trouble."

 

Main Street Book Cover Main Street
Sinclair Lewis
Fiction
Penguin
2008
475

Features the story of a college graduate from St. Paul who leaves to marry a doctor in a small, middle-class town, only to find her efforts to bring culture and beauty to the town thwarted by its residents, testing her idealism.