Book Review: Suspended Between Hope and Despair in Sinclair Lewis’s “Main Street”

Main Street book cover

I finished the second half of Sinclair Lewis’s Main Street flying over the author’s home state of Minnesota, also home to that classic of American literature itself, its railroad-markered grasslands serving as a backdrop for Gopher Prairie, Lewis’s fictional burg and primary target of his lambasting, resentment, and occasional forgiveness. A last minute change of plans had me filling in on a business trip to Nebraska and I figured it’d be a good chance to catch up on my latest reading. Not exactly a shiver-inducing coincidence, and it’s not like my two-day excursion offered any sort of additional insight into the repression of depleted heroine Carol Kennicott, but after laying over in Minneapolis – pretty much the exact midpoint between Michigan and Nebraska – the thought occurred to me as I slouched between the twin howl of turbine engines that the flyover country mocked by the cool cats on America’s coasts is the fly-around country of so many others. Get to Nebraska or Michigan and you still have to leapfrog city by city to escape the Midwest, proud backbone and embarrassingly out-of-touch dad of our fair nation. It did, at least, add some perspective to Carol’s sense of isolation living smack dab in the middle of the middle, and a century ago to boot.

Main Street remains alarmingly relevant today, if not more, with colleges pumping out debt-ridden grads (and dropouts) into an increasingly flooded job market. Lewis makes swift work of Carol’s tragic compromise, her expedited college and post-college years reading almost like an Onion article in both spikiness and length. She defers her dreams to marry a man she hardly knows, convincing herself that she’ll eventually build the life she imagined after they install themselves in a new home. She had already begun slipping, however, at her first library job, where she struggles to hone in her wild ambitions and ultimately settles for the prospect of being a part of someone else’s success. Main Street has a pessimistic streak a mile wide, and although Carol is stranded by the more period-appropriate circumstance of getting married too young and being forced to live outside her element, it’s not difficult to project her same challenges onto anyone today entering adulthood and hoping for more out of life.

Once in Gopher Prairie, Lewis’s lively prose paints a picture of teeming desolation, simultaneously barren and infested due to Carol’s sharp prejudices. So attuned is Lewis to Carol’s desires that Gopher Prairie becomes a gallery of her pet peeves and pet projects, and the plot is derived largely from her ambition to improve upon the many aspects of the town she finds wanting. Her efforts begin with the delusionally grand – founding a theater group and putting on a disastrous play – to the intimately intrusive- her friendship with foppish misfit Erik Valborg. She sways between bouts of depression and bursts of exuberance, insulating herself from the influence of her uncultured peers while trying to exert her own presumed airs of sophistication upon them. A wild ride wouldn’t be expected from a domestic drama like this, but Lewis creates a heady mix of hope and despair in Carol’s social maneuvering, which sees her consorting with everyone from the embedded town gossips to the outcast handyman whose shoulders bear an even bigger chip than hers.

Lewis’s frustration with small town life makes up the most of his material, but the criticism goes both ways. Carol is outwardly as narrow-minded as her neighbors, stubbornly trying to realize her vision of a cultured metropolis in a sheltered town. Her introspection shows Lewis struggling to defend his own work, perhaps his own beliefs, against the well oiled, plain functionality of middlebrow society. Aside from Carol, his liberal-minded, (possibly) artistically gifted characters all meet with some sort of tragic downfall, be it the pariah Miles Bjornstam, schoolteacher Fern Mullins, or effeminate Erik Valborg. The rest of the cast are at least offered some sort of grudging respect, Lewis acknowledging their talents if not their capacity for abstract thought. That is with the exception of Cyrus Bogart, the resident bad seed, a dissolute teen whom Lewis clearly despises, and therefore lets him get away with everything to prove his point. Cyrus rarely makes an appearance, but his reputation casts an aura over the whole town that would lead one to believe Lewis dealt with people very much the same, rudderless punks who hog all the attention and whom he holds in both the highest envy and resentment.

The down-to-earth characters are those who get along just fine in Main Street, those whose thoughts rarely leave the orbit of their professions, all of which are essential to the running of society. She’s married to the pinnacle of practical wisdom in the shape of Dr. Will Kennicott, whose efforts to make her comfortable are a climb up a sand dune, redoubling Carol’s rebellion with every placating gesture. Those plagued with grand ideas are constantly punished for it, as Lewis struggles to provide any real justification for dreaming beyond the ordinary, at least in a place like Gopher Prairie. In a plot development that won’t be revealed here, the biggest counterpoint is made against perennial fish-out-of-water Carol, suggesting that she’s fighting against the human spirit at large wherever she goes, regardless of the size of town she’s in.

As pained as his stance is on the value of the arts in the mainstream, Lewis clearly has a soft spot for his characters, to use the idiomatic use of the word. Their gabbing makes up a huge chunk of the book, and he has such a hang of the Midwest vernacular that pages breeze by under the hypnotic rambling of know-it-alls, gossips, bumpkins, and armchair philosophers. Only once does the dialogue ring false, and it’s in Will’s spectacularly astute defense against Carol’s accusations against his artlessness. He makes good points and sticks up for himself more than any time before, but Lewis lets the words flow out of him in such a way that it seems as if he’s prepared this speech over a long time, which doesn’t gel with his preoccupations with his practice.

Lewis does a fantastic job of alleviating the pains of Carol’s slow inward turn with the reliably unchanging personalities of those around her, always a source of buffoonish, if exacerbating, comedy. He fashions thrills out of every one of Carol’s projects. She further invests her soul into every new one, and for her trouble the heartbreak is only intensified with every new failure. Still, she sees the chance for redemption and positive change in every new obstacle that comes her way, and Lewis constantly reiterates the yin yang relationship between hope and despair as she comes to terms with her life and the future ahead of her. That he is able to explore such unnervingly relatable subject matter with such compulsive readability is a wonder, particularly for a reader eager to be home after his fourth flight in twenty four hours.



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