Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Main Street

Sinclair Lewis, who refused the Pulitzer in 1925 (see below) and accepted the Nobel in 1930 (love that international yet anti-American chauvinist attitude), isn't much talked about anymore.

Main Street, Sinclair Lewis' classic satire of the midwest, is my favorite book--at least occasionally, when I reread it. It has a perennial place in women’s studies and American studies (a kind of thank-God-I-took-that-class novel, with a radical bent). Lewis, who grew up in Sauk Centre, Minnesota, mocks the sanctimony of small town America . His Gopher Prairie (brilliant name!) is a dull, smug town of 3,000 gossips, which dismays and almost defeats Carol Kennicott, the heroine. (If you've read Babbitt, you'll know that Gopher Prairie is the country cousin of Babbitt's Zenith City.)

Poor Carol Kennicott, the heroine and would-be lofty converter to the arts in Gopher Prairie, is horrified by the ugliness of the town. She is baffled by the dull citizens' emphasis on "comfiness" and "jolliness" and resistance to change. She dreams of art, writing, drama, anthropology, archaelogy, plays, parties, and concerts. Born in Mankato, a university town with hills and valleys, she is encouraged to dream and studyt. As a librarian in Saint Paul, she dreams and influences patrons and attends parties where people discuss the latest" ideas." Her marriage to the good-hearted Dr. Will Kennicott almost shatters her dreams. Gopher Prairie, Will's home, almost breaks her. Although she loves Will, Carol fights back.

She guides us through the small town as though she has a Baedker. It takes 31 minutes to walk around the town. She is aghast at fly-specked store windows, a grocery store with a cat sleeping on bananas and lettuce, Billy's Lunch (an odor of onions and hot lard), ugly one-and-a-half-story houses, no town square. This is not a pioneer town--it's a nightmare, she decides.

Lewis’s style is blunt, yet he knows exactly the bluff tone of the dialogue. “Maybe we’re kind of slow, but we are democratic,” “Bridge is half the fun of life,” “There’s a fine class of people,” and “Best people on earth here. Great hustlers, too. Course I’ve had lots of chances to go live in Minneapolis, but we like it here. “Real he-town. did you know Percy Bresnahan came from here?”

Carol alienates people by her attempts to inculcate culture. Even Vida Sherwin, the "liberal" schoolteacher, a friend, crushes her by passing on the biting gossip of "The Jolly Seventeen "about Carol. (A whole chapter describes Vida's hatred and envy of Carol).

The most interesting character in the novel after Carol is Miles Bjornstam, a socialist handyman who becomes a successful and farmer and tones down his ideas so his wife, Bea, Carol's former maid, will make friends. No one comes near her. Carol has more in common with these two than with anyone else and visits them often.. But she is afraid to declare it. She doesn't want to lose any more friends.

Carol, though she is also subtly satirized, is a strong character, a nonconformist who tries hard not to be provincial, who doesn’t want to give in to the men’s narrow jokiness and the women’s gossip. Completely realistic.

Excerpt from Lewis's reasons to decline the Pulitzer:

"I wish to acknowledge your choice of my novel Arrowsmith for the Pulitzer Prize. That prize I must refuse, and my refusal would be meaningless unless I explained the reasons.

"All prizes, like all titles, are dangerous. The seekers for prizes tend to labor not for inherent excellence but for alien rewards; they tend to write this, or timorously to avoid writing that, in order to tickle the prejudices of a haphazard committee. And the Pulitzer Prize for Novels is peculiarly objectionable because the terms of it have been constantly and grievously misrepresented.

"Those terms are that the prize shall be given "for the American novel published during the year which shall best present the wholesome atmosphere of American life, and the highest standard of American manners and manhood." This phrase, if it means anything whatsoever, would appear to mean that the appraisal of the novels shall be made not according to their actual literary merit but in obedience to whatever code of Good Form may chance to be popular at the moment. "

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