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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
The hubbub over Main Street was swelling. Parodies were about to appear, books called Jane Street and Ptomaine Street, and Donald Ogden Stewart’s Parody Outline of History would contain a burlesque of it. Negotiations over foreign rights and translations were under way, until ultimately it would be published in a dozen languages. The public quarrel over it continued. In May, the New York Times, for example, published a special article by one Catherine B. Ely that deplored the picture of village life, the dullness of the book (“a mud puddle of sordid tattle”), and the author’s stylistic clumsiness: “Its capacity for minuteness, plus a lumbering style, makes such a reader [who cares for style] feel as if he were watching an elephant with a teacup—you are afraid he’ll break it and you wish he would, in order to end a nerve-irritating performance.” What matter? Later in the same month the same newspaper would publish an extended interview with the author by W. D. Wagstaffe in which Sinclair Lewis quite blithely associated himself with a new, truth-seeking generation in fiction that included Wilbur Daniel Steele, Zona Gale, Evelyn Scott, and Scott Fitzgerald, experimenters in “the chant of industrial romance,” and all primarily concerned with style.
Although there had been a forty-year history of “debunking” in the American novel, no novel had hitherto smashed the myth of the friendly village or the shell of middle-class complacency. There was a considerable tradition, in other words, but somehow one that had made small impression on the popular consciousness. For that, Sinclair Lewis was requisite. Main Street was certainly the fullest indictment that had been delivered, the least compromising and the noisiest, a thunderclap that changed the literary atmosphere. In that very year, Mencken’s essay “The National Letters” had seen no escape from the “conformity,” “timorousness,” and “lack of enterprise and audacity” that he believed to be the enemies of great literature. But with Main Street, in fact, he was to discover the beginning of a decade of literary revolt that would challenge every accepted value. Beginning with Lewis’ assault on the provincialism of backwoods America, the attack would come to include everything that Mencken denounced—”fundamentalism in religion, capitalism in industry, commercialism in education, science, and the arts, chauvinism in international affairs, reactionism in public opinion at large.”
Lewis’ influence may derive in part from the fact that he shared in another tradition, the tradition of provincial manners as depicted by midwestern and western humorists—George Ade, Artemus Ward, Josh Billings, Finley Peter Dunne. With them he shared a gift for the extreme, the overdrawn, the excessive, the grotesquely absurd. This is the strain that turns merely realistic novels into the Lewis “fables,” stories that create nearly archetypal figures rather than “characters” alone. From them too, but above all from Mark Twain, he derived the gift of the flow of colloquial speech that poured through his novels, here and there in the five early works, but consistently from Main Street on. And this is a native, comic strain that at once heightens verisimilitude and, through its touch of parody, palliates terror.
Writing of Sinclair Lewis in 1926, Waldo Frank recognized that in those postwar years the American audience wanted above all to be lashed—but not too hard! And he might have observed that the rest of the world was more than merely well-prepared to stand by and applaud the spectacle, and to believe that it was harder than it was. For Lewis, while without any very clear partisan convictions in politics, was equally stubborn in his democratic faith and, even in his shrillest denunciations of the blemishes in American culture, never yielded up that faith. If 1920 marked the opening of a decade of American cynicism, it also marked the end of two decades of an influential liberalism—an era of progressivism equally characterized by its reformist zeal and its democratic hopes. This was the tradition in which Sinclair Lewis had matured; but with Main Street he, too, seemed—but only seemed—to announce that it was finished. Floyd Dell reports in Homecoming that Lewis “was said to have cut out from his Main Street, on the advice of Cabell, the one sensible character in the book, through whom his own constructive views were to have been expressed.”
Suppose such a character, a clear spokesman for the author, had been permitted to remain in the novel, precisely what would his “constructive views” have been? The complaint of Main Street is that small-town life is dull, shallow, unbeautiful, and frustrating; its desire is that it become lively, profound, beautiful, and fulfilling. One may wonder whether Sinclair Lewis would have held any clearer or more effective program toward that end than Carol. They suffered from a common limitation, a deficient sense of history. History for both seems to have begun about 1850. Nearly everything before that dissipates itself in mythological reveries, and even their notions about pioneer times are largely mythological.