Main Street


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.

The book seemed, above all, to be American; and that, at a time when most American fiction was imitative of the already faint provincial fiction of Great Britain, was another element in its great success. Many of its readers had never been exposed to a novel that was so uncompromisingly American both in its seeming truthfulness to the native scene and in the language that communicated it. in spite of novelists like Norris, Dreiser, Gather, and Anderson, American fiction until the war still labored under the shadow of England, and publishers in New York still treated novelists like Galsworthy, Bennett, and Walpole as superior to even our most impressive American talent in fiction. Ironically again, it was the native quality of Main Street that appealed to British writers quite as much—and probably more, since they had no stake in the matter—as to writers in the United States.

Lewis was inundated with letters of praise from his fellows. Not only because of the efforts of Alfred Harcourt, but often independently and always out of genuine enthusiasm, English letters came from, among others, Compton Mackenzie, Hugh Walpole, John Drinkwater, H. G. Wells, Rebecca West, John Galsworthy. American congratulations came from every quarter: Rupert Hughes, Zona Gale, Hendrik Van Loon, Fannie Hurst, Hamlin Garland, Vachel Lindsay —these were a few of them.

A number of letters have special interest. One of nonliterary source, for example, came from a nearly legendary figure in Pinehurst, North Carolina:

Dear Sir I want to thank you very much for using my name in your wonderful story Main Street—every one here who has read the book say it is wonderful. Just now there is none on sale at news stand so I am loaning mine to friends. Again thank you I am very truly yours Annie Oakley

A more solemn letter from a young writer, also enjoying his first great success in 1920, is as follows:

I want to tell you that Main Street has displaced Theron Ware in my favor as the best American novel. The amount of sheer data is amazing! As a writer and a Minnesotan let me swell the chorus—alter a third reading.

With the utmost admiration F. Scott Fitzgerald

The reference to their common state almost forces the contrast upon us—Fitzgerald moving with such apparent ease from Minnesota into the life of Princeton, enjoying so immediately his fantastic success, heir to all that glamour that Lewis was never to know, let alone embody, moving so easily into “that real Parisian bunch” that always shut Lewis out, writing two great books of subtle charm and beauty and pathos, and one of them a perfect work of art and socially important as well—how different! Yet Lewis troubled Fitzgerald. In 1925 he wrote John Peale Bishop to ask, “Is Lewis’ new book [ Arrowsmith ] any good. I imagine that mine [ Gatsby ] is infinitely better …” And there is an ironical similarity in the biographical line: the waste of life in alcohol, the disintegration of marriage, the crack-up, the pretty young mistress to be educated, the final isolation and despair.

But Lewis now, like Fitzgerald, was living in the very blaze of noon, as every letter served to remind him. There were letters, of course, from the faithful Yale professors, Chauncey Tinker and William Lyon Phelps. Phelps, whose salutation read “Dear Sin,” wrote, “I call you Sin because you are as original as sin,” and assured him that Main Street was “a novel of high magnitude.” Writing from The Nation, Carl Van Doren told him that “at Columbia University everybody seems to be reading the book, and one of my colleagues there recently argued with a whole gang of men at luncheon that your book is the most truthful novel ever written.”

There were letters, of course, from the two novelists to whom Lewis had dedicated his book. James Branch Cabell was prompt and effusive, Joseph Hergesheimer slower and more stately. From Theodore Dreiser there was no word, but from Dreiser’s doughty champion, H. L. Mencken, there was; and with that began the most influential literary relationship that Lewis was to experience. Mencken loomed large for Lewis. On October 37, Lewis received an enthusiastic letter from John Peter Toohey, a theatrical press agent, who had “written Harry Mencken to go out and grab a copy instanter,” and for once, Lewis did not urge Harcourt immediately to follow up this lead for a possible blurb (“Mencken we’d better let alone—he’ll be getting touchy”). Before the thirtieth, another letter from Toohey told him that Mencken had already read it with “great joy,” and on the thirtieth, “a voluntary letter” came from Mencken himself, calling Main Street “the best thing of its sort that has been done so far,” and promising to review it in the January Smart Set, “the first issue still open.”

George Jean Nathan’s account of how he and Mencken first met Lewis is otherwise questionable, but it presents Lewis at his most dreadful precisely on an occasion when he was courting the opinion for which he most cared. Mencken and Nathan, the story goes, were urged one evening by T. R. Smith, then managing editor of the Century magazine, to drop by at his apartment for a drink.

When we got there, we found with Smith a tall, skinny, paprika-headed stranger to whom we were introduced as one Lewis …

Barely had we taken off our hats and coats … when the tall, skinny, paprika-headed stranger simultaneously coiled one long arm around Mencken’s neck and the other around mine, well nigh strangling us and putting resistance out of the question, and—yelling at the top of his lungs—began: “So you guys are critics, arc you? Well, let me tell you something. I’m the best writer in this here gottdamn country and if you, Georgie, and you, Hank, don’t know it now, you’ll know it gottdamn soon. Say, I’ve just finished a book that’ll be published in a week or two and its the gottdamn best book of its kind that this here gottdamn country has had and don’t you guys forget it! I worked a year on the gottdamn thing and it’s the goods. I’m atelling you! Listen, when it comes to writing a novel, I’m so far ahead of most of the men you two think are good that I’ll he gottdamned if it doesn’t make me sick to think of it! Just wait till you read the gottdamn thing. You’ve got a treat coming, Georgie and Hank, and don’t you boys make no mistake that!

Projected from Smith’s flat by the self-endorsing uproar—it kept up for fully half an hour longer—Mencken and I jumped into a taxicab, directed the driver to speed us posthaste to a tavern where we might in some peace recover our equilibrium and our ear-drums, and looked at each other. “Of all the idiots I’ve ever laid eyes on, that fellow is the worst!” groaned Mencken, gasping for breath. Regaining my own breath some moments later, all that I could add was that if any such numskull could ever write anything worth reading, maybe there was something in Christian Science too.

Three days later I got the following letter from Mencken, who had returned to Baltimore:

Dear George: Grab hold of the bar-rail, steady yourself, and prepare yourself for a terrible shock! I’ve just read the advance sheets of the book of that Lump we met at Schmidt’s and, by God, he has done the job! It’s a genuinely excellent piece of work. Get it as soon as you can and take a look. I begin to believe that perhaps there isn’t a God after all. There is no justice in the world. Yours in Xt., M.

By the time Mencken’s review appeared in Smart Set the book was, of course, already made. The boom began with three prepublication encomiums from F. P. A. in his “Conning Tower,” and with Heywood Broun’s enthusiastic review in the New York Tribune for October 20, which praised the truthfulness of the novel’s re-creation of the life of an entire community and, more especially, of the dialogue. “He hears even better than he sees. I can’t think of anybody who has been so unerringly right in reproducing talk. He is right to a degree that is deeper than phonographic exactness.”

If, two days after his first review, Broun reconsidered, and announced now that Carol Kennicott was “puerile” and that Lewis’ method was unselective beyond necessity and the book’s best interest, Mencken, when he came to the novel in January, 1921, found its virtue in the brilliantly packed accumulation of detail no less than in its verisimilitude of speech, at the same time that he assumed the puerility of Carol. He defended what he took to be the author’s conception of the character, assuming that Lewis had meant to show that her “superior culture is, after all, chiefly bogus.” But Lewis meant no such thing. He wrote to Harcourt of Carol as “sensitive and articulate.” in the inscription in his wife’s copy, he had written, “To Gracie, who is all the good part of Carol”; but Carol was also a large part of him. The other part was Will Kennicott, the downright. The struggle was between the halves of his divided being. The two stories together are his, and the combination of these qualities, his, too.

Sinclair Lewis was now beyond poverty and for the time being was feeling no pain. He could now, when he wished, control his native brashness, gaucherie, and social clumsiness. He had now, when he wished to exercise them, charm and graciousness. “A Mercutio from the prairies,” Clifton Fadiman would one day call him. His talk could be entrancingly and, finally, exhaustingly lively; and his impersonations entertaining and, presently, tiresome—his talk, for he had no conversation. His mind could not stay with an idea any longer than his body could stay in a chair, but leapt from point to point, from sense to extravagance, from the mundane to the earnest to the arch to the whimsical to the fantastic and, at last, to the boring, the irrelevant, the merely demanding. he seldom sat, but often slouched, long thin shanks folding and unfolding, hands always plucking at lace—nose, ears, cheek, chin—much jumping up, prancing, slouching again, smoking, smoking.

When he was at home alone or with his family, he slouched around in carpet slippers and an old bathrobe or a tattered cardigan; but he also had developed starched notions of elegance which made him conspicuously well dressed when he dressed. He was briefly tolerant of many people and sharply impatient, trigger-tempered, with a few—those closest to him. His wife annoyed him almost all the time; but at this point, although frequent short periods of freedom were essential, he could not yet conceive of living for long without her. His son did not interest him, and when the child required attention that the father thought might better be paid to himself, the little boy was a simple nuisance at least, or an object that aroused a petulant jealousy. He drank, but not yet in excess, or at least not often. He could be as delightful as he was distraught. Except for a few weeks of mild and unnecessary economic anxiety just before and after the publication of Main Street, he would never be poor again. He was well-launched at last, the great lover of Thoreau, upon his life of noisy desperation.

Reports vary on his response to his sudden success. Waldo Frank, in 1925, recorded—almost certainly in error—that it disturbed Lewis, that he had hoped only for outrage on all sides; and Gilbert Seldes, that it shook Lewis’ faith in Main Street as a work of art. Dr. Peyton Rous and his wife, who were seeing the Lewises in these years, remember that it frightened him. “This will change us. This will change me. This will change everything! ” they recall as his lamentation. (Later, surely, except for one brief moment, he took his success lightly, quite as his due, beyond astonishment.)

At another extreme are stories of arrogance and a new accession of rudeness. In Washington, where he was then living, society in that winter of 1920–21 paid some attention to the Lewises, and one story has it—it is probably apocryphal, almost certainly heightened, but reported by John Marquand as current at that time—that one day Lewis waited on Mrs. Bainbridge Colby, the wife of the new Secretary of State, at a moment when she was being briefed by the protocol man. Lewis, still gauche in many ways, did not particularly put her at ease, and she was already uneasy about the expectations of her conduct, more so in the presence of the protocol man. At last she said, “Mr. Lewis, I think Main Street is a very interesting book. You are surely one of the most promising young writers in the United States.” He looked at her, laughed at her, and said, “You go to hell.” Gasps, stiffnesses, and, “Really, Mr. Lewis …” And Mrs. Lewis, too, became the subject of anecdotes. One story has it that on some occasion when she was introduced as Mrs. Lewis, she turned and exclaimed, “Please, Mrs. Sinclair Lewis! Even my dentist says, ‘Mrs. Sinclair Lewis, spit!’ ” And it is true enough that she sometimes signed her letters “Grace Sinclair Lewis.” And Hendrik Van Loon supposedly put a sign on the second floor of his house that read, “It is forbidden to gossip over three minutes about Grace.” They had moved into mythology.

And why not? The title Main Street was being spoken everywhere. Before the middle of November, Alfred Harcourt had submitted the novel to the secretary of Columbia University as a logical aspirant for a Pulitzer prize. The jury chairman was Robert Morss Lovett, and his fellow members were Stuart Pratt Sherman and Hamlin Garland. As late as March, 1921, Hamlin Garland had not read a novel of the previous year that he felt he could endorse, but already in February he had invited Lewis to tea (Lewis was in Cincinnati and could not accept), and he voted with his fellows that the prize should go to Main Street. In May the trustees of Columbia University overruled the jury and awarded the prize to Edith Wharton for The Age of Innocence. On June 22, in the New Republic appeared the jury’s public protest, signed by the chairman and including Sherman’s open letter to the trustees. Then Alfred Harcourt, just before the appearance of Babbitt, commissioned Stuart Sherman to write his little booklet on Lewis’ “significance,” which was to claim that Lewis was the superior of all his contemporaries—Cabell, Hergesheimer, Dreiser—and of such younger writers as Waldo Frank who were the “lunatic fringe.” In January of 1921, before some of these events, which were both to cloud the sun and to heighten the excitement, had taken place, Sinclair Lewis was writing Harcourt urgently suggesting that he find Scandinavian translators and publishers for the book, because there was, after all, the Nobel prize, too....

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.

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.

The comparison of Main Street with Madame Bovary became a commonplace among American as well as French critics. Stuart Sherman in his little pamphlet was perhaps the first critic to work out a systematic comparison of the two novels, and two years later, in Mammonart, Upton Sinclair would work out his. Lewis himself, defending the originality of his work, protested that he had not read Madame Bovary when he wrote Main Street as, similarly, he protested that he had not read Spoon River Anthology . There were many lovely extravagances that told Lewis he was now among the great, and while one reviewer went so far as to compare him with those geniuses in the novel of provincial manners, Jane Austen and George Eliot, no one was foolish enough to call Main Street the American Middlemarch. Perhaps someone should have risked the fatuity, but stressing the adjective, American, and thus suggesting perhaps that, with our famous lack of social and cultural and moral complexity, this was as near as an American novelist could come to such a work, and that what Lewis’ book seemed to tell Americans, and Europeans, was that all Americans everywhere make their march down the middle of Main Street, and that this is indeed the poverty and the pain of our lives.

*James’s lament is the most famous (see page 9). [Ed.]