Tuesday, 28 November 2000

Sinclair Lewis: Main Street (1921)

Edition: Vintage, 1994
Review number: 692

One of the reviews quoted on the cover of this edition of Main Street describes it as "one of the most merciless novels ever written". It is an apt description of this depiction of small town midwestern America in the early years of this century, but there is an important element in Lewis' writing which it does not convey.Lewis understands his subject through and through, and that makes what he has to say not just merciless but believable. He also doesn't just restrict his attack to provincial petty society, but he is equally clear about the shortcomings of would-be reformers, like Carol Kennicott. She is in the position in the novel that would usually be occupied by the heroine, but there is little that is heroic about her.

Carol is not only from the city, but she is educated and interested in social issues, with a viewpoint distinctly toward the political left of the inhabitants of Gopher Prairie, Minnesota. When she marries Dr Will Kennicot from that city - officially, because it had taken the trouble to incorporate itself as one - she does not realise quite how small it is from his enthusiastic endorsements. When she arrives there, she is determined to drag it into the twentieth century, to spread some cultural light and to change its engrained attitudes. As each of her schemes is shown to be hopelessly impractical, or just to put people's backs up, she abandons it for a new enthusiasm. She is ludicrous, and what she is trying to change is also ludicrous. (There is for example, a wonderful section in which Carol attends a meeting of the ladies of the town, in which she expects them to start a course on English literature, only to discover that by the end of the evening they expect to know all that is worth knowing and proper to know about the subject, so that they can move on to a new topic the next week.) Part of her problem is that she wants simultaneously to fit in and be accepted and to radically change things, but the way in which one new enthusiasm after another takes her is the main reason taht she doesn't get anywhere.

The characterisation is good, and it is mostly intended to paint a fairly bleak picture of Gopher Prairie. There is nothing gentle about Main Street; it is a portrait based on real understanding and real hatred.

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