Monday, October 20, 2008

Main Street by Sinclair Lewis

I hadn’t really been looking forward to Main Street, having read Sinclair Lewis’s Elmer Gantry a few years ago and not particularly caring for it. I’ve been puttering around with Main Street since January. It’s one of those that I would read a few chapters, put it down, then pick it up a gain a few weeks later. Though I liked it enough throughout, I was disinterested. That is until the last five or six chapters. At that point, for some reason, I came to really appreciate what Lewis was doing.

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.

City Planning: what I studied in college and what I have been employed in (in one way or another) since. Because most people who are reading this blog probably aren’t overly informed about the history of city planning (unless this is another strange coincidence, such as Robby Virus and I’s interest in space age lounge music)...I'll give some background. The time period in which the novel takes place (it was published in 1920) was really a golden age for the field. Some boring facts:
  • 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:


("Why hello there! Don't you look fierce!")

I know, I know...he ends up sort of having an affair with Carol, but I don't care. He was gay gay gay (in Nathan Lane Birdcage voice). Here's the deal with their "affair": Carol pays attention to him, listens to his dreams of being a fashion designer and encourages him. Over time, she comes to realize she's in love with Erik...or maybe she is in love with the idea of being in love? He expresses interest in her...even writing her a very bad poem. But in the end, he runs away to pursue his dreams...nothing ever really happened between them. Erik eventually becomes an actor.

Sinclair Lewis was kind of an interesting chap. One drunken evening Lewis declared himself, “the best goddam writer in this here goddam country.” He wrote about the America that he knew…and it wasn’t perfect. He got a lot of slack for that. But Lewis didn’t see himself in that narrow way…that he was putting down America by writing his satires…his stories that show the black eyes and warts, in addition to the idealism and passion. He considered himself a fanatic American…desiring to push us to realize our potential. Main Street caused a sensation because of his true-to-life depiction of small towns…and most people don’t like to see true-to-life depictions of themselves. The critic Ludwig Lewisohn wrote that “Perhaps no novel since Uncle Tom’s Cabin had struck so deep over so wide a surface of the national life.” It caused a mini-sensation. His obit in Time said he “he hit the U.S. hard in its solar plexus, immortalized a national character.” I imagine they didn’t think he immortalized it in a good way.

Here is Lewis’s career in a nutshell: He writes five “forgettable and forgotten” novels. Then he writes Main Street. H.L. Mencken wrote of it, “That idiot has written a masterpiece.” Then Lewis wrote four other best sellers, each worse than the previous one. Then he wrote more forgettable and forgotten stuff. Summary: his “productivity clearly outlasted his talent.”

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.

Lewis addressed the comments of his detractors when he accepted the Nobel Prize in 1930. He said, “In America most of us are still afraid of any literature which is not a glorification of everything American…To be not only a best seller in America but to be really beloved, a novelist must assert that all American men are tall, handsome, rich, honest, and powerful at golf; that all country towns are filled with neighbors who do nothing from day to day save go about being kind to one another; that although American girls may be wild, they change always into perfect wives and mothers; and that, geographically, America is composed solely of New York, which is inhabited entirely by millionaires; of the West, which keeps unchanged all the boisterous heroism of 1870; and of the South, where everyone lives on a plantation perpetually glossy with moonlight and scented with magnolias…that, in fine, America has gone through the revolutionary change from rustic colony to world empire without having in the least altered the bucolic and Puritanic simplicity of Uncle Sam.” Again, this strikes of the patriotism test going on today in American politics.

More funny Lewis and Nobel Prize anecdotes: when Lewis got the phone call that he had won, he thought it was a joke. When he was finally convinced that it wasn’t, he called his wife to tell her. "What's the matter?" "Dorothy, I've got the Nobel prize!" "Oh, have you ... How nice for you! Well, I have the Order of the Garter!"

I think that I mentioned this when I was posting about Willa Cather, but I am amazed to look at the time period here and compare what Lewis is writing about, what Cather is writing about, and what is going on with other American writers, particularly those hanging out in Paris. This is the time when Stein, Fitzgerald, Hemingway are writing as well. It’s amazing to look at these two groups of authors and see how different they were. It’s like they were writing about completely different worlds…Lewis, Cather and others telling the story of the American heartland…pioneer stories, with the ex-pats giving us something different entirely. Fitzgerald was an early admirer of Lewis…he even wrote him a fan letter. Many would probably argue that those based in Paris at the time were probably better writers. Obviously Main Street doesn’t hold a candle to The Great Gatsby, which I think is the best American book of the 20th century, but Lewis’s first wife Grace brings up a very good point about the Fitzgerald and his fellow writers: “Were the 1920s really the Jazz Age except for a few? Most Americans at that time lived more like Sinclair Lewis’s characters.” Lewis exists in a place between the Victorians and the Moderns…between the world of writers such as Edith Wharton and her friend Henry James and the world of Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Joyce, and those to come after.

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.


Robby Virus said...

Great review! You make a lot of really interesting points, especially about city planning (which I know nothing about) and what was going on in the field at the time. I agree that Carol can be both a sympathetic character and an asshole, and I think the same can be said for Will. They're two basically good people, but perhaps not such a good match, yet I think they both really want it to work between them. But it's clear it will always be a struggle.

Kristin said...

I agree that they're both good people. Like I said in the review, I don't think either really understood the other when they got married (but hey, who really does, right?). Everyone of us can be both sympathetic and an asshole, and I think that the fact that Lewis was able to pull that off...that you are able to see both sides shows his talent as a writer. It will always be a struggle for them, but I think they'll make it through. :-)

I think that in your review you mentioned that it reminded you of The Awakening. I completely agree...Carol and Edna have a lot of similarities, except that Carol decides to muster exist in spite of her position, while Edna just killed herself. Two very different reactions to what on some level is really the same problem.

Spirea said...

Wow! One of the absolutely best/most interesting postings on your blog! Thanks for taking the time to write it all up! I'll definitely have to read this book.

I find city planning totally fascinating, although it's far from my field of work. I always read all articles related to this topic in my newspaper with great gusto. It's such an important facet of our daily environment. It was fun to learn that this is in fact your vocation. (Always thought you did something completely different!)

Hope you don't give up on your sidewalks - it's one thing I often miss when I vist the US. Can't understand why such a rich and prosperous nation can't afford them... :-)

Kristin said...

Spirea - Haha! We can afford sidewalks. Just some of our municipalities have a mindset that a wider street is more important than sidewalks. If we can afford our subdivisions with $300,000+ (in central PA) homes with six bedrooms (for our families of 4) and our 3-4 car garages, we can afford sidewalks. We just have decided as a nation that we need wider streets instead - you know, to accommodate our fat bums (that we got since we can't walk anywhere) in our Hummers.

BeccaG said...

I would like to thank you for taking the time to write this review. I am a senior in high school and I am to write a research paper on Main Street. I haven't finished reading the book yet, but you gave me a better understanding of what goes on.