Places Discussed

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Gopher Prairie

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Gopher Prairie. Fictional Minnesota town that is the novel’s primary setting and target of its satire. Lewis begins with a prologue describing Gopher Prairie’s Main Street as the “continuation of Main Streets everywhere. . . . the climax of civilization. . . . Our railway station is the final aspiration of architecture.”

Lewis modeled Gopher Prairie on the similarly sized town of Sauk Centre, Minnesota, in which he grew up. Each is a wheat town of about three thousand residents, situated at the edge of an endless prairie, but within easy reach of Minnesota’s many lakes. In a thirty-two-minute walk, Carol Kennicott, the newly arrived bride of Dr. Will Kennicott, completely explores the town. She hopes to find a village of the sort described in sentimental novels, with hollyhocks and quiet lanes and quaint inhabitants. Instead, she is overwhelmed by the ugliness that greets her as she walks down Main Street. The town’s three-story hotel is shabby; its dining room a sea of stained tablecloths. The drug store features a greasy marble soda fountain and shelves of dubious patent medicines. A grocery story has overripe fruit in its window. The meat market reeks of blood. The saloons stink of stale beer. The clock in front of the jewelry store does not work. There is no park or courthouse with shady grounds where she can rest her eyes. Only two buildings please her. The Bon Ton Store, the largest in town, is at least clean, and the Farmers’ National Bank is housed in an Ionic temple.

The people of Main Street match the buildings. The clerk raising an awning before his store has dirty hands, and none of the men appears to have shaved in the last three days. The Gopher Prairie elite, who gather in the evening to welcome Carol, disappoint her. Lewis defines the village aristocracy as composed of all persons engaged in professions, or earning over twenty-five hundred dollars a year, or having grandparents born in America. However, to Carol they appear uncouth, lacking in culture, and deficient in style.

Lewis displays some ambivalence in his attitude toward Gopher Prairie, softening his satire as the novel continues. As Main Street becomes more familiar territory, its blemishes become less irritating to Carol. She learns to discriminate among the inhabitants of the town, finding virtues even in people who seem crude and uninteresting when she first meets them.

*Minnesota countryside

*Minnesota countryside. Brief passages throughout the novel contrast the beauty of Minnesota’s rural landscape with the shabbiness of Gopher Prairie. While walking down the railroad track to Plover Lake, Carol marvels at the wildflowers she finds in bloom, and is enchanted with a pasture near the lake, likening it to a rare old Persian carpet of cream and gold. On a hunting trip with her husband, Carol admires Minnesota’s lakes and wheat fields, seeing in them the dignity and greatness of style she cannot find on Main Street.

Lake Minniemashie

Lake Minniemashie. Minnesota resort area where Dr. Kennicott buys a summer cottage. Although the lake’s cottages are mere shacks, clustered too close to one another, Carol enjoys her summers at the cottage. Majestic elms and linden trees shade the dwellings; across the lake, fields of ripe wheat slope up to green forests. Soothed by the gentle landscape at the lake, Carol finds it easy to get along with the same women who irritate her in town. To her regret, she cannot persuade her neighbors to use the cottages after their customary September closing. A rare winter sledding trip to the lake reveals the beauty of Minnesota’s scenery under snow and ice.

*Chicago

*Chicago. Although Lewis uses Carol to dramatize his critique of village life, he does not elaborate on her city life. The narrative of Carol’s experiences while in a Chicago library school is little more than a list of features that no rural town can offer—the Art Institute, symphony concerts, theater, and professional ballet. Likewise, while she is a librarian in St. Paul, Minnesota, she reads widely, socializes briefly, and meets her future husband.

*Minneapolis

*Minneapolis. Minnesota’s largest city. After Carol settles in Gopher Prairie, Minneapolis functions as a place of cultural refuge; the sound of a passing train’s whistle holding out hope of escape from village limitations. However, when her husband takes her to Minneapolis for a week, she feels like a country bumpkin, confused by the crowds in the railroad station, shy and hesitant in the grandiose lobby of their hotel, and amazed by the conveniences offered in the hotel’s bathroom.

*Washington, D.C

*Washington, D.C. National capital where, during World War I, Carol escapes from Gopher Prairie for an extended period by working as a clerk in a government bureaucracy. Lewis uses the city and Carol’s experiences to elaborate on his own ambivalence toward small-town life. Washington offers Carol vast parks and splendid buildings whose absence disturbs her on her first encounter with Gopher Prairie. She particularly values lively political and cultural discussions with her new friends. However, she also soon discovers that two-thirds of her Washington acquaintances come from small towns. When Gopher Prairie residents visit, she welcomes them to Washington and shows them its many sights. Experiencing urban life as a mature woman, Carol becomes more sympathetic to Gopher Prairie, accepting the raw new settlement’s uncouthness. Eventually, she returns to her life within it.

Historical Context

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The Rise of the Middle Class
The American middle class, a category that most citizens fall into today, developed during the period marked by the end of the Civil War in 1865 and the start of World War I in 1914. During that time, the development of industry and the westward expansion across the North American continent provided opportunities for wealth on scales previously unheard of. Key industries, such as steel, petroleum, banking, and railroads, were controlled by a few individuals who established monopolies, fixing prices and making deals with their suppliers to run competitors out of business. There were different levels of income, but most citizens were closer to poverty than wealth. This situation became nearly intolerable during the depression that hit the country in 1893 and lasted for four years. Much of the country suffered economic hardship: more than 15,000 business firms failed, and at least seventy-four railroads, which had constituted the nation’s growth industry, filed for government protection. Without the social “safety nets” such as unemployment insurance and Medicaid, which are now available to help people with low income, there was much suffering and death.

One result of the 1893 depression was that the wealthy captains of industry came to be seen as villains who were bleeding the country dry. Such famous figures as John D. Rockefeller of Standard Oil, Andrew Carnegie of United States Steel, and railroad magnate J. Pierpont Morgan were dubbed “robber barons,” enemies of the working people. Politicians found it in their interest to enforce laws, such as the previously ignored Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890, which served to limit the unbridled acquisition of those already holding most of the wealth.

Just as the political conditions became favorable to a more equal distribution of wealth, manufacturers were mass-producing consumer products that the growing middle class could spend their incomes on. Vacuum cleaners, telephones, and phonographs were the must-have items at the turn of the century. Catalog outlets, such as Sears, Roebuck and Company and Montgomery Ward, made the same merchandise available to every home in the land. Those who were at the bottom of the social ladder were pushed upward by poor immigrants entering the country in one of the greatest expansions the country has ever known: in the first decade of the twentieth century, nine million immigrants arrived. The influx of cheap immigrant labor gave people more time for leisure activities such as reading, and mass-market magazines, such as McCall’s and Cosmopolitan, gave advertisers the opportunity to show off new styles and inventions. As the middle class spent more, more middle- class jobs in manufacturing and distribution developed.

Progressivism
As already mentioned, the early decades of the century were a time when citizens favored increased power for the government. This new attitude of governmental involvement manifested itself in many different forms. The most mainstream of them was the enforcement of antitrust laws: Theodore Roosevelt won the 1901 election by campaigning as a “trust-buster,” and after eight years in office, William Howard Taft succeeded him by promoting similar policies. Politicians who worked at changing the political structure, giving the government more power and more involvement in the lives of the citizenry, were called “progressives.”

But the Progressive Movement of the early twentieth century was not limited to mainstream politics. In fact, so many small movements are today lumped into the category of “progressive” that the word has lost much of its value as a description. In short, movements intended to change society for the betterment of the downtrodden and struggling have all, at one time or other, been called progressive. This would include the temperance movement against alcohol, the Socialist movement (of which Lewis was a member), farmers’ alliances, industrial labor unions, opposition to child labor, support for mothers with dependent children, and the struggle against racism.

The Women’s Movement
Many of the influential social movements in the beginning of the twentieth century were spearheaded by women. Prohibition of alcohol, for example, was an idea that had supporters since the founding of the country, but it was not until the Women’s Christian Temperance Union was formed in 1873 that it gathered enough support to be passed as a law in 1920. Women were also instrumental in passing new laws to prohibit child labor. At the turn of the century, a movement toward settlement houses, for helping poor immigrants who would otherwise starve, spread across the country. These social establishments, including the most famous one, Jane Adam’s Hull House in Chicago, were usually started and run by women, and their existence indicated a milestone for women who were able and willing to work and who could effect change in their communities.

The most obvious period during which women changed the political landscape was the epoch of the Suffrage Movement, which is mentioned favorably in the final chapters of the novel. It is one of the country’s oldest political movements, dating back before the Civil War. Throughout the latter eighteenth century, the movement was active and vocal, splitting into two parties, the National Suffrage Association of Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton and the American Woman Suffrage Union of Harriet Ward Beecher. These two groups, representing different degrees of militant thought, joined together as one in 1890 and began the arduous task of changing state laws in order to get women’s right to vote put on ballots, in the process of passing a Constitutional amendment. The result did not come until 1920, when, after a surge of feminist activity in the previous decade, the Nineteenth Amendment provided women with the right to vote.

Literary Style

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Point of View
Most of Main Street is told from a third person, limited omniscient point of view. It is third person because the narrative voice is not that of one of the characters who appears in the book: the speaker never refers to himself or herself as “I” but, instead, always relates the actions of the characters in terms of what “he” or “she” did or said. It is an omniscient voice because it has access to human thoughts and is not just limited to describing objective reality as it could be observed by anyone. It is considered limited, however, in that for most of the novel, the narrative can only relate ideas and incidents that have been experienced by Carol: the range of information that the narration can tell readers is limited to things that Carol would know about. Usually, the narrative voice does not relate any information that is beyond Carol’s experience.

There are exceptions to the norm, however. In some cases, the narrative voice shifts point of view and relates ideas that are in the heads of other characters, which no one else, including Carol, could directly experience. For instance, chapter 25 starts with Will Kennicott’s thoughts. “Carrie’s all right. She’s finicky, but she’ll get over it. But I wish she’d hurry up about it!” It is only after a few sentences that the source of these ideas is identified: “Dr. Will Kennicott was brooding in his office.” Later in that same chapter, there is another point of view shift, as the narrative focuses on the way Hugh sees the world and eventually begins talking for him: “In his office Father had tools fascinating in their shininess and curious shapes, but they were sharp.” These are obviously Hugh’s thoughts because they refer to Will as “Father,” although the narrative voice uses words, such as “fascinating,” that would not be used by a three-year-old to describe what he sees.

Foil
A foil is a character whose function in a novel is to help readers understand the character of another by holding the opposite values. In this book, Aunt Bessie Smail functions as a foil for Carol because she sees the world from an entirely different perspective. Aunt Bessie supports old-fashioned values, conventional morality, subservience of women to their husbands, and anti-Semitism; she is opposed to farmers’ cooperatives, divorce, and liquor. Bessie and her husband, Whittier, whose views are practically the same as hers, take a condescending view toward anyone who sees the world differently from the way they see it: “They were like the Sunday-afternoon mob staring at monkeys at the Zoo, poking fingers and making faces and giggling at the resentment of the more dignified race.” Carol disagrees with the ideas of many in Gopher Prairie, but the attitude of the Smails, and the clear disdain that Sinclair Lewis has toward them, marks them as counterexamples. They exist in the book to show the opposite of the values that Lewis wants to promote.

Another example of a foil is Mrs. Bogart. Lewis makes no secret of the fact that she does not have the values that this book holds to be worthwhile, even from the very first time she is introduced:

Mrs. Bogart was not the acid type of Good Influence. She was the soft, damp, fat, sighing, indigestive, clinging, melancholy, depressingly hopeful kind. There are in every large chicken-yard a number of old and indignant hens who resemble Mrs. Bogart, and when they are served at Sunday dinner, as fricasseed chicken with thick dumplings, they keep up the resemblance.

Mrs. Bogart and Aunt Bessie are not foils for Carol only because they have different values from hers; the point of the book is that most of the people with whom she associates have different values. They are her foils because they are so closely involved with her. Carol can choose to stay away from the Thanatopsis Club or the Jolly Seventeen, but Mrs. Bogart is a neighbor, and a prying, curious one at that. Aunt Bessie is brought into the story relatively late in the book to further interrupt Carol’s privacy: as a relative of Will Kennicott’s, Carol has to be involved with her whether she likes it or not.

Literary Techniques

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Very few critics or literary scholars praise Lewis for the aesthetics of his work. It makes some sense to think of Lewis more as a social commentator than as a literary artist of the first rank. Too often Lewis wrote rapidly and carelessly; he tended toward cloying melodrama and gross overstatement. But mixed with his literary lapses are many excellent passages, and no American writer captured as effectively as Lewis did the nuances of the language or the personality of a particular American type.

Many critics have described Lewis as having two sides: the ironic and satiric, which is where his real talent lay, and the romantic, for which he could never find a valid literary expression. But be that as it may, his novels do exhibit structural patterns. The major structural device in Main Street is the contrast between illusion and reality, and the novel is built on a series of episodes that bring the crusading Carol Kennicott into various situations that result in her increasing disillusionment. Babbitt (1922) is also built upon a set of external contrasts, but the title characters internal conflict is emphasized more fully, thus providing a reader with a more substantive sense of character and a great empathy.

Compare and Contrast

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1920: The year that Main Street is published, the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution grants the vote to women.

Today: Voting rights are strictly enforced. Women are considered a powerful political bloc that politicians try to gain support from.

1920s: The first commercial radio broadcast signal is sent out of KDKA in East Pittsburgh, using a technology that will eventually allow people from coast to coast to share a common experience simultaneously.

Today: Many low-wattage local radio stations are available across the world via the Internet.

1920s: A town like Gopher Prairie could hire an advertising consultant to design a brochure that exaggerates the town’s features, hoping to lure prospective businesses.

Today: Small towns are even more likely to hire media consultants to help polish their images.

1920: The national prohibition against alcohol, mentioned in the novel’s final pages, goes into effect on January 16, in accordance with the Eighteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Prohibition lasts thirteen years.

Today: Many draw parallels between the government’s inability to keep liquor out of the hands of the populace during Prohibition and the current influx of illegal drugs.

1920s: The United States has twenty million telephones, twice as many as it had two years earlier. A long-distance phone call from New York to Chicago takes twenty-three minutes to be channelled through.

Today: Phone calls travel near the speed of light through fast fiber optic lines.

1920s: For the first time, the census reports America’s urban population to be larger than the rural population, 54 million to 51.1 million.

Today: The urban population has more than tripled the 1920 census figure at 187 million, while the rural population has barely grown, at 61.7 million.

Literary Precedents

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Clearly, Sinclair Lewis descends from a line of social critics such as Thomas Paine, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Mark Twain; but the contemporary writer he came closest to was H. L. Mencken who attacked American university professors and others with the same gusto as Lewis attacked the American middle class. Where they differed is in their belief systems. Mencken's primary attitude toward the United States and its people was negative. He believed that Americans were a people ruined by their heritage of bigotry and that democracy, rather than being a force for individual growth and achievement, actually operated to keep power in the hands of the powerful.

On the other hand, one part of Sinclair Lewis continued to believe in the American Dream and in concepts of chivalry and romance, but he apparently lacked a philosophical framework to provide for him a reason to believe, and consequently, his novels lack an element of tragic confrontation with a real world.

Adaptations

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Main Street has not been adapted to film, but many of Lewis's novels have. See the biographical entry on Lewis for a discussion of these movies.

Media Adaptations

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Sinclair Lewis: Main Street Revisited is a 1998 videocassette from Thomas S. Klise Company. It includes photos of Lewis and his boyhood home and examines his most popular books, Main Street and Babbitt, looking at how the author’s background formed both.

Sinclair Lewis: The Man from Main Street is a 1986 videocassette produced by WBGU of Bowling Green, Ohio, and distributed by Ohio Humanities Resource Center.

Books on Tape, Inc., produced an audiocassette version of Main Street (slightly edited) in 1987. It is packaged in two parts, each part includes seven cassettes.

An unabridged version of Main Street, read by Barbara Caruso, is available from Audio Books, Inc., and can be downloaded from Amazon. com’s audio division, Audible.com.

A 1980 radio drama based on the novel Main Street was produced by Jabberwocky studios and made available on cassette.

Encyclopedia Britannica Educational Corporation and Lewis biographer Mark Schorer collaborated on a 1975 videocassette called Sinclair Lewis, part of the series The American Experience in Literature.

In 1975, Minnesota Public Radio released a cassette version of a program by Roland Paul Dille, entitled Sinclair Lewis. It examines Lewis’s writings on small towns, American culture, and American ethics. Dille was a professor of English and the president of Moorehead University.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Sources
Grebstein, Sheldon Norman, Sinclair Lewis, Twayne Publishers, 1962, p. 38.

Mencken, H. L., “Portrait of an American Citizen,” in Sinclair Lewis: A Collection of Critical Essays, Prentice-Hall, 1962, pp. 20–26.

Van Doren, Carl, Sinclair Lewis: A Biographical Sketch, Kennikat Press, 1933, p. I.

Wilson, Edmund, “Salute to an Old Landmark: Sinclair Lewis,” in New Yorker, October 13, 1944, pp. 101–102, 104.

Woodburn, John, “Lament for a Novelist,” in New Republic, May 16, 1949, pp. 16–17.

Further Reading
Bucco, Martin, “Main Street”: The Revolt of Carol Kennicott, Twayne, 1993. One of the few book-length examinations of this novel, this study looks at its subject from a number of different angles. Most of the book is comprised of essays proposing different theoretical viewpoints.

Davies, Richard O., Main Street Blues: The Decline of Small-Town America, Ohio State University Press, 1998. Davis only uses Lewis’s novel as an inspiration and focuses most of his study on his own home town of Camden, Ohio. Still, the points that he makes about small towns in the twentieth century bring the novel’s concerns into the present.

Light, Martin, The Quixotic Vision of Sinclair Lewis, Purdue University Press, 1975. This overview of Lewis’s entire career looks at his struggle against prevailing ideas. The main theme of the book, comparing Lewis and his characters to Cervantes’ Don Quixote, is well presented.

Lingeman, Richard, Sinclair Lewis: America’s Angry Man, Random House, 2002. This is the most recent biography of Lewis from an author whose previous works have included a biography of Theodore Dreiser and Small Town America: A Narrative History, 1620–Present.

Parrington, Vernon, Sinclair Lewis: Our Own Diogenes, Haskell House Publishers, 1974. Parrington’s view of Lewis is entirely reverent and perhaps a little too tame to really capture the author’s fervor.

Schorer, Mark, Sinclair Lewis: An American Life, McGraw- Hill, 1961. Schorer is one of the preeminent scholars on Lewis, and his book about him has stood as the authoritative biography for forty years.

Bibliography

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Bucco, Martin. Main Street: The Revolt of Carol Kennicott. New York: Twayne, 1993. Focuses on Lewis’ development of his Main Street heroine, especially her unconscious self-perceptions as prairie princess, Carol D’Arc, Lady Bountiful, Mater Dolorosa, Village Intellectual, American Bovary, and Passionate Pilgrim.

Davenport, Garvin F. “Gopher-Prairie-Lake-Wobegon: The Midwest as Mythical Space.” In Sinclair Lewis at One Hundred: Papers Presented at a Centennial Conference. St. Cloud, Minn.: St. Cloud State University, 1985. Creates connection between fictional places and their peoples. Relates them to Yi-Fu Tuan’s theories of the dualities of the fear and possibility of space and the familiarity, comfort, and constrictiveness of place.

Grebstein, Sheldon Norman. Sinclair Lewis. New York: Twayne, 1962. A comparison of Lewis’ works that concludes that Main Street critiques the falseness and shallowness of American life whereas some Lewis novels defend it.

Light, Martin. The Quixotic Vision of Sinclair Lewis. West Lafayette, Ind.: Purdue University Press, 1975. Demonstrates Lewis’ pattern, especially obvious in Main Street, of sending his heroes into the world motivated by heroic chivalric behavior, which results not only in foolish beliefs and behavior but also in kindness, generosity, sympathy, and idealism.

Shorer, Mark, ed. Sinclair Lewis: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1962. Places Main Street in the context of Lewis’ other work.

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