Main Street is the story of Carol Kennicott, a cosmopolitan dreamer in a small prairie town in Minnesota. Carol, who spent some time in the bigger cities of the Midwest as a librarian and progressive single woman, moved to Gopher Prairie with her husband, where he is a doctor. Carol had all these ideas that she was going to revitalize this small town, from introducing the women (and her husband) to the poetry of Swineburn and Tennyson, to tearing down all the buildings and starting over – Georgian architecture and a new fangled thing called City Planning.
- In 1901, the McMillan Commission was formed to update and complete the original plan for Washington D.C. – which included Union Station (opened in 1907) and the gorgeous, symbolic National Mall pretty much as it exists today (at the time, there was a railroad station in the middle). Union Station was designed by Daniel Burnham, and as a planner, I am required to tell you that Burnham said the following: "Make no little plans. They have no magic to stir men's blood and probably will not themselves be realized." –If there really are planners reading this, they will know why that’s funny. (More on Carol & Washington D.C. later)
- In 1901, New York implemented the New York State Tenement House Law, which led to the outlaw of the “Dumbbell Tenements” – those horrible things that produced the miserable conditions of the poor immigrants to NYC in the late 19th/early 20th century, as described by Jacob Riis and others. See some photos of Riis's here...very moving.
- In 1916, the Nation’s first comprehensive zoning resolution was adopted by NYC
- In 1917, an experimental cooperative agricultural colony was established in California (farm cooperatives are mentioned in Main Street…of course it's viewed it as socialism)
- In 1917, Frederick Law Olmstead, Jr. is elected the first president of the American City Planning Institute. I am a member of its descendent, the American Institute of Certified Planners.
All this stuff is going on behind the scenes and influencing Carol. It is mentioned that she is reading city planning magazines. This is a turbulent time for the things that Carol cares about: labor is organizing, women are organizing, movies are being made (Birth of a Nation is released in 1915). Freud and Jung are writing. These things aren’t discussed outright for the most part…nobody says, “Hey, did you read about the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire?” or “Isn’t that something about Margaret Sanger?” but it’s all there.
The first half of Main Street focuses on Carol and her struggles with the town. When she tries to implement self-improvement for the poor, including employment assistance and life skills training, she is met with resistance – that’s charity, which is the job of the churches, and those lazy bums just need to get off their asses and work for a change. When Carol suggests mending the clothes they donate to the poor, she is told that the poor have more free time and should do their own mending...why should the richest wives in town waste their time doing that? She wants new buildings that take into account design, function, neighborhood character…not the haphazard development that had been occurring. She wants to start a theater group, but people are only interested in putting on stupid stuff…nothing high art that would add culture to the town.
I completely empathize with the early struggles of Carol Kennicott. She is my imaginary professional forerunner. The struggles that she has to get her reforms implemented (which never happens) – even to have them taken seriously – are struggles that I have today. “Why would we install sidewalks in this nice new townhouse development for the elderly, a block away from the grocery store? People don’t need sidewalks.” Instead they walk in the street and get run over by cars going 50 mph in a 25 mph speed zone. Ah, the countless hours I have spent trying to get municipal officials to see that zoning isn’t communism (or a way to bend the rules for your buddies while at the same time punish the newcomers), for example, or that it isn’t really a good idea to build in the floodplain. It makes me realize how much some types of people never change.
Carol oscillates between being the victim of Main Street, and kind of being an asshole. Sometimes she wants to accept Gopher Prairie for what it is, and sometimes she wants to tear it all down and start over. But I think that that was part of what made Carol come to life…she has dimensions…her feelings changed.
The second half of the book begins to focus in on the disintegrating relationship between Carol and her husband Will. Will wins Carol over in the beginning, and sells her on the idea of Gopher Prairie…charming, bucolic, pastoral, etc…and to be fair to Carol, he does say that he’ll take her there and they’ll turn the town into what it should be…into what the dreamers always wanted it to be. But when they get there, reality strikes. It takes Carol a half-hour to walk the entire area of the town, with “the grasping prairie on every side."It’s full of drab houses, gossipy women (and men), etc., and in many ways, Carol is laughed at. ("She wants to help the poor! Hahaha! Who ever thought of such a thing.") It doesn't help that he pretty much says it's all ugly and insinuates that the inhabitants are all uncultured, stupid lugs. It was probably true, though.
To be fair to the other inhabitants of Main Street, including Will, Carol is kind of pompous and pretentious sometimes. She comes in from St. Paul with the attitude of “I know what high art is…I’ve lived in the big city. I’ll teach you all about it.” The residents of Gopher Prairie want none of this. They’re happy with the way things are. They think Gopher Prairie is the best place in the world and are perfectly pleased with their own version of “culture.” This struggle is presented at the micro-level in the relationship between Carol and Will. Will, who really is a sweetheart for the most part (until he starts messing around with Maud Dyer), at first tolerates Carol’s opinions and efforts. He just sort of let her do her own thing. But over time, he comes to resent her and her desire to change things, including himself…and she comes to resent him in turn as well. He, and the rest of the town, don’t understand why Carol can’t just be satisfied. At one point, Will tells her, “That’s the whole trouble with you. You haven’t got enough work to do. If you had five kids and no hired girl, and had to help with the chores and separate the cream, like these farmers wives, then you wouldn’t be so discontented.”
But that’s not fair to Carol. I think that neither Will nor Carol knew what they were getting into when they married each other…they both seemed to have different ideas of who they were marrying. Carol, like many wives of her time, and for ages before and after, wanted to live what she called a more conscious life. She didn’t want to be satisfied with just more work. She wanted something more…something more than Gopher Prairie. If Will had been more understanding of where Carol was coming from, I don’t think it would have been so bad for her. But for the most part, she was all alone. Yes she was difficult, and pretentious and pompous, as I already said, but she did have a point. She was an idealist, but didn’t have the skills needed to get her ideals realized.
What Lewis does, however, is that he doesn’t really sympathize with Carol…he presents her as she is, and how she thinks that she is, but does the same for Will. What he wanted in a wife wasn’t what he got. Maybe that was his fault – I think that to a large extent it was. But Lewis shows both sides.
Anyway, Will’s indictment of his wife, along with some other factors, is the straw that finally breaks the camel’s back. Carol decides she’s had enough of Gopher Prairie, and decides to move with their young son to Washington D.C. – without Will. I was shocked by this. I was shocked not only by Carol’s courage to go off on her own – to live, with her son, in a city she never saw before. We’re talking 1917 or 1918 here. But I was also shocked that Lewis, a man obviously, was able to create such an amazing female character. She wasn’t perfect, but she wasn’t “immoral” (by the standard of the times), like her somewhat-contemporary, Carrie from Dreiser’s Sister Carrie. She didn’t go to Washington to live the single life or anything like that. She went to assert her own freedom and independence.
I think that Lewis’s choice of Washington D.C. is an interesting one, and I wonder why he chose, or had Carol choose that over the more obvious NYC or Chicago. It allowed him to have her working for the war effort, but other than that, I am struck by the coincidence that Washington was the site of so many changes at the time, including planning-related. He gives no detail. But like I mentioned at the beginning of this post, Washington during the early 20th century was a magnet for planners. It might be a surprise to some that the National Mall didn’t always exist as it does today. Pierre L’Enfant designed it in that way, or in a similar way, but it didn’t get implemented on a grand scale until the early 1900s. When Carol was there, the Lincoln Memorial was just being built (it was finished in 1922), and there was a railroad station in the middle of the Mall (see the photo below - Smithsonian is the domed building on the right).
Union Station was pretty new…maybe about a decade old. I just find it really intriguing that Lewis decided to plop Carol down in the middle of this…the center of the free world, so to speak, instead of the more obvious choices. I think that it underscores what I was saying at the beginning…that all these important things are going on around Carol and having an influence on her. Lewis puts her right in the middle of the action.
In Washington, Carol works in an office, meets a lot of interesting women – and men also – but mostly women. Suffragettes among them. She meets the type of women Carol would have been if she hadn’t gone to Gopher Prairie with Will. She has a good time.
And I have to give props to Will here too, who let her go. Maybe he was trying to avoid a scandal by seeming to bless her leaving, but he does so nonetheless. He came to visit, and tried in his own way to sell her on Gopher Prairie (- Carol notices that he’s trying in the same way that he convinced her about GP in the first place). But he says that he didn’t come to bring her back, and he doesn’t. She ends up staying in Washington for a year and a half. In the end, she decides to return to Minnesota. Not, surprisingly, because she’s pregnant again. Not because it’s time to go home and be the happy wife Will always wanted. But because her active hate for the town had subsided. She needed to get away long enough to be able to appreciate it for what it was. She remarks when she returns that people care about her…they greet her when they see she has come home…they are interested (to an extent) in her travels, etc. And she realizes that it would never be like that in Washington. She has come to appreciate Gopher Prairie for what it is…she can accept the people and the town, but she can now do so without stifling herself…without giving up herself. She can finally call Gopher Prairie home.
One of my favorite characters in the novel was Erik Valborg. Oh my, was he gay. It's never stated explicitly, but you know what's going on, and you know that's what the people in Gopher's Praire are thinking. He's called a "fairy" and much to do was made about his impecible clothes, the way he talked, how he mentioned to someone that he wanted to design women's clothes (he's a tailor), etc. Everytime he would show up, I kept picturing Christian, the winner of last year's Project Runway, in clothes from 1910. I can hear him saying, "O Carol, you are so FIERCE." You know, something like this:
Despite a number of semi-important novels, he has been consistently dismissed by the literary community. Rebecca West, E.M. Forster and Mecklen were all supporters, but almost everyone else thought he was a hack. Then, he won the Nobel Prize for Literature– the first American to do so. At the time, Lewisohn wrote, “something very like a groan went up” about it. They felt that Lewis only won the prize because he didn’t portray America as this shining example in the world. He showed it as it really was (or is). People felt that this fed into the European stereotype of America as vulgar, materialistic, and hypocritical. You know, what Europe still thinks of us. Hemingway said the only good thing about Lewis getting the Prize was that it meant that Theodore Dreiser didn’t, though I doubt that had anything to do with Hemingway believing that Lewis unfairly portrayed the good ol’ U.S. of A.
But Lewis didn’t feel animosity towards them…I think he recognized his place as a transitory spot between these two literary worlds. “I have, for the future of American literature, every hope and every eager belief. We are coming out, I believe, of the stuffiness of safe, sane, and incredibly dull provincialism. There are young Americans today who are doing such passionate and authentic work that it makes me sick to see that I am a little too old to be one of them.” He goes on to mention Thomas Wolfe, Hemingway, John Dos Passos, Thornton Wilder, and William Faulkner, and says of them all (this is great), “Most of them a little insane in the tradition of James Joyce, who, however insane they may be, have refused to be genteel and traditional and dull. I salute them, with a joy in being not yet too far removed from their determination to give to the America that has mountains and endless prairies, enormous cities and lost far cabins, billions of money and tons of faith, to an America that is as strange as Russia and as complex as China, a literature worthy of her vastness.”
Time, in Lewis’s obituary, wrote that he “was not a great writer, nor even a good one.” The whole obit is a horrendously mean (IMO) stab at a decent American writer. His official biographer wrote that “he was one of the worst writers in modern American literature.” Ouch. As I said in the beginning, I was disappointed in Elmer Gantry a few years ago, and I feared that Main Street would be a mix of that and Winesburg, Ohio, which bored me to death. In reality, it turned out much more like The Magnificent Ambersons, another great but pretty much forgotten classic of yesteryear. Main Street was completely different than I expected. I appreciated it…I appreciated Carol and the voice that Lewis gave to his female character at a time when male authors didn’t bother much with females…especially ones like Carol. It’s not a perfect book…it’s not the best book ever written…not by a long shot. But I liked it, and I will pay it a complement I haven’t been paying many novels on the Modern Library’s Top 100 of the 20th Century lately…I understand why it’s on the list, and I agree.