- Historic Sites
With the publication of his acid-etched but enormously popular portrait of the American small town, Sinclair Lewis emerged as the spokesman for a new literary generation
October 1961 | Volume 12, Issue 6
On July 17, 1920, Sinclair Lewis delivered the finished manuscript of Main Street to Alfred Harcourt in the hope that it would sell 10,000 copies. Harcourt was enthusiastic. He thought that it was great; he thought that it would probably sell as many as 20,000 copies before it stopped, and his sales manager believed that they could probably expect a sale of 25,000. In the first six months of 1921 it sold 180,000. It was finally to go into millions.
Main Street was the most sensational event in twentieth-century American publishing history, from the point of view both of sales and of public response. The printers could not keep up with the orders, and for a while the publishers had to ration out copies to book-sellers. “Main Street, A Fox Trot Song,” with lyrics by Vincent M. Sherwood carrying “old home town” sentiments very far from those of the novel from which the song took its title, appeared almost at once; and the name of Lewis’ old home town itself, Sauk Centre, became archetypal in jokes about small towns told across the country. Its residents raged in indignation, but in less than two years Lewis was welcomed back as the town’s chief ornament.
He also became through this single book the spokesman for a literary generation, and the year 1920 is in this sense historic. American culture seems always to have had a literary spokesman, a single writer who presented American culture and American attitudes toward that culture, to the world. The last of these had been William Dean Howells, who died in the spring of 1920, ancient and honored. The summer gaped; autumn brought Main Street . Its phenomenal success demonstrated that American democratic culture had received, at precisely the right point, what American democratic culture above all wanted.
Main Street: The Story of Carol Kennicott is in fact the anatomy of a small midwestern town as observed by Carol Kennicott. A romantic, impulsive, and somewhat sentimental young woman recently graduated from Blodgett College and with some experience as a librarian, she comes to Gopher Prairie as the wife of a kindly if unimaginative, indeed stolid, doctor, Will Kennicott. Appalled by the drabness of her new environment, she determines to improve it through a variety of “cultural” projects. Her efforts strike most of the villagers as silly, and very soon she becomes a kind of pariah. In the meantime, the town has revealed itself as smug, narrow, bigoted, hypocritical, cruelly provincial; and the few characters with a wider vision than most of the villagers can claim—particularly Guy Pollock, a lawyer—are themselves the victims of the “village virus.” A baby diverts Carol’s attention for a time and briefly quiets her discontent until, foolishly, she becomes infatuated with a tailor’s apprentice who aspires to be a poet, Eric Valborg. He escapes the town, and she herself, her marriage deteriorating, presently flees to Washington with her child. There she takes a small position in the government. About a year later, Will follows her, and they have a rather happy reunion, but Carol remains, and he returns to Minnesota. Her resulting pregnancy causes her to return at last, and with a second child to divert her, she relaxes, but not without continuing reservations, into the life of Gopher Prairie.
By 1920, the village as an important unit in capitalist economy had ceased to exist, had become backwash, and with that life gone from it, its social and moral attitudes had become fixed in the rigidities of its past. The war was necessary to the discovery of what had happened. Thousands of intelligent young people had for two decades been fleeing to the cities; those who could not, the many who were left behind, were frustrated and corrupted in their discontent. For an enormous audience, Main Street defined, in the most relentless detail, a situation that it had already experienced or from which it was still suffering.
Altitudes die lingering deaths, and the small town, in spite of the change in sociological status that had overcome it, was still conventionally believed—as by Sinclair Lewis himself in other moods—to be the best place after all, the real America, America at the roots, America at its kindest, its friendliest, its human best. In 1900 Woodrow Wilson had made the pronouncement that “the history of a nation is only the history of its villages written large.” The success of Main Street suggests that twenty years later the nation still believed Wilson’s utterance was axiomatic. So did Sinclair Lewis. The book begins, “This is America.... Main Street is the continuation of Main Streets everywhere....Main Street is the climax of civilization.” Thus it was not surprising that small towns throughout the nation were prepared to seize the mirror that Main Street seemed to be and gaze into it with lacerated attention.