Published in 1920, Sinclair Lewis's
MAIN STREET is the story of an ambitious and passionate young woman, Carol Kennicott, who marries a country physician and follows him to live in the town of Gopher Prairie, Minnesota. Lewis drew heavily on his own Minnesotan hometown for the book's material, but as the title implies, Gopher Prairie is also clearly intended as a generic stand-in for all of small-town America at the beginning of the 20th century. Educated, artistic, and inquisitive, Carol arrives in Gopher Prairie eager to share her love of literature and art with her new neighbors, and to throw her limitless energies into various civic improvement projects. Almost immediately, however, Carol finds her efforts stymied and even ridiculed by the decidedly middlebrow and conservative townspeople, who reveal themselves to be trenchantly resistant to even the slightest suggestion of change. They are also stubbornly obtuse to the mediocrity of their taste in all things aesthetic and artistic: when Carol organizes a group of women to undertake a poetry study group, for example, she finds that they believe a hour's worth of superficial presentations cover all that there is to know about English poetry.
A contemporary reviewer of the novel in THE NEW YORK TIMES noted, "There is practically no plot, yet the book is absorbing. It is so much like life itself, so extraordinarily real." And indeed, the narrative works principally by relating a repetitious series of events and incidents, as time and again Carol involves herself in and then extricates herself from the rhythms and rites of the community, cycling from uncertainty to frustration and defiance to acceptance and back again. Lewis's writing has a distinctly sociological bent, and his work teems with the mundane -- and notably realistic -- details of ordinary life. MAIN STREET is an indictment of the smug mediocrity and complacent narrowness of vision that mar closed and isolated communities -- and yet, for all its cynicism, the novel is not without ambivalence. After years of struggling to find fulfillment in Gopher Prairie, Carol leaves her husband to live alone and work in Washington, D.C. for a few years. There she feels herself to be, finally, "the whole of a person," but also finds that "an office is as full of cliques and scandals" as any small town, and misses the sameness and stability of her prior life. There are many complicated trade-offs between the close-knit community of a small town and the cultured, cosmopolitan anonymity of the city, Sinclair seems to be saying, and each must choose for himself where he belongs. Previous