Main Street (1920)

by Sinclair Lewis

Main Street is usually thought an attack on small-town narrow-mindedness, which it is, but it is more nuanced than that. Protagonist Carol Kennicott, the big-city girl who is moved to Gopher Prairie by her husband and rails against the town’s provincialism, is naive and vague about her aspirations. Her husband, Will, a doctor, is unimaginative and stodgy but well-meaning, steady, and surprisingly tolerant in places. Some critics suggested that Lewis had too much affection for his hometown of Sauk Centre, Minnesota, on which Gopher Prairie was based, to condemn it completely.

The story takes place in the early 20th century. Carol has graduated from a small women’s college in Minneapolis. She and Will meet in the Twin Cities, where he is visiting. When she arrives in Gopher Prairie as a new bride, Carol immediately finds it ugly. Her attempts to improve the town by promoting civic building projects, organizing a drama club, and encouraging reading fail. She expresses liberal opinions and is resented.

To be sure, Carol’s judgment isn’t wrong — Gopher Prairie’s citizenry is uninterested in the bigger world, smugly self-satisfied, gossipy, and resistant to nonconformity and change — but her actions are headstrong. Lewis sympathizes with her while showing her as immature. When Carol makes her accommodation with the town at the end, it’s not clear whether Lewis is saying she’s given up or grown up.

Main Street is one of the most influential novels ever published in America. Critics noted that it was more informative about small-town America than sociological studies, and its image of the small town still holds today. Lewis won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1930.


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