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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
Elsewhere, many American writers had long complained, life is lived more richly than it can possibly be lived on this thin and sullen historical soil, and elsewhere works of art with deeply reverberative associations and social complexities can therefore be written. We have a past, to be sure, but is it “usable”? A past, but no sense of the past, which, in the view of many American novelists besides Henry James,* is so major an item in a writer’s equipment. As the frontier moved westward from New England and New York and Virginia, and as thousands of new and dreary little towns were spawned on prairie and bluff, history itself, even a brief history, seemed nearly to vanish, and a young man brought up in Sauk Centre could dream of a false medievalism; and a young woman isolated in Gopher Prairie, yearning for an attractive and traditional way of life, could think in the most superficial way of transporting colonial architecture; and an enterprising manufacturer in Michigan could declare that “history is bunk.” Henry Ford, crude and emphatic like no one else, was still by no means alone in his views. A statement of editorial policy in the New Republic in 1915 by James Harvey Robinson demands, “Why should we respect the conclusions of past centuries?” and serves to remind us how prevalent the attitude was in the second decade of the century.
If the writing of the “genteel tradition” (that protracted sentimentalization of the realities of our native culture which infected the work of even so substantial a figure as William Dean Howells and largely formed the work of such a lesser figure as Meredith Nicholson) —if that tradition had tried to gloss over the limitations in American life, the writers of 1914 and the years that immediately followed did not; and this is their difference: that they seized upon these very limitations as their stock in trade. They gave to the 1920’s the picture of America as hopelessly vulgar, immoral, and dull. And from this picture, as well as from so much of it as was true, they and scores of other writers fled first to the East and then on to Europe.
The young man or woman had to go east instead of west; in search of freedom (Floyd Dell), a “style” (Glenway Wescott), culture and sophistication (Willa Cather, Carl Van Vechten, Ruth Suckow), or moral maturity (Wescott, Sherwood Anderson).
So writes Frederick J. Hoffman in The Twenties. The name of Sinclair Lewis does not appear on this list of illustrations, probably for two reasons. One is that his residence in the East was sporadic and that he returned frequently to the Midwest and the West, demonstrating that what he called “the clash between Main Street and Beacon Street that is eternal in American culture” was for him not so much a clash as it was a vacillation. His attitude toward the Middle West is as ambiguous as his attitude toward the middle class: both drawn as hopelessly narrow, the first is shown finally as somehow the only sensible place, and the second as somehow the only sensible people.
These are the unsettled attitudes that determine Carol Kennicott’s choices, and one can hardly be surprised that the affirmations of the novel at the end evaporate in vagueness. Carol turns her back from the East to Gopher Prairie, settling for “the nobility of good sense.” It is nearly inevitable that the novel should end in an imbalance, with a characteristic juxtaposition, in Carol’s words, of sentiment and fact, protest articulated, and emptiness unadmitted:
“But I have won in this: I’ve never excused my failures by sneering at my aspirations, by pretending to have gone beyond them. I do not admit that Main Street is as beautiful as it should be! I do not admit that Gopher Prairie is greater or more generous than Europe! I do not admit that dishwashing is enough to satisfy all women! I may not have fought the good fight, but I have kept the faith.”
“Sure. You bet you have,” said Kennicott. “Well, good night. Sort of feels to me like it might snow tomorrow. Have to be thinking about putting up the storm-windows pretty soon. Say, did you notice whether the girl put that screw-driver back?”
One can only point out—for whatever it may signify-that the last word is Will’s.
These are matters that must enter into any final evaluation, but they were not questions that troubled the great mass of the immediate readers of Main Street. Before he wrote that novel, Lewis had already written (but not published) the observation that “if you have it in you to produce one thundering good novel, one really big novel, just one, your place in American literature will be safe for the next hundred years.” As the dust settled, Main Street seemed to stand there as such a book, a major reputation secured. Carol Kennicott would come to be known as “the Madame Bovary of the wheat elevators,” and Lewis as the American Flaubert, the American Dickens, the American Balzac, let alone the American Arnold Bennett.