2009: 98. Main Street

“On a hill by the Mississippi where Chippewas camped two generations ago, a girl stood in relief against the cornflower blue of a Northwestern sky.”

Main Street, Sinclair Lewis

     Main Street is a perfect example (beyond my obsessive list-o-mania) of why I continue with the Modern Library Top 100 project, despite the number of duds I seem to have read this year.  I would never, ever have picked this up on my own - I have no interest to read Lewis, generally, and even if I did, there are about three other books I’d have read first (that is, Babbitt, * Arrowsmith, and Elmer Gantry).  But instead I read Main Street, and am glad I did.  

      Main Street tells the story of Carol Kennicott, a college educated young reformer from the city (St. Paul!) who falls in love with a doctor from a small town and moves out there with him.  She finds herself stifled by her small town Midwestern life, and the book is about her attempt to find meaning in her life.  The book gives a darkly satirical look at small town life, coming down quite firmly on the side of the city.  In that sense, it is pretty heavy handed - Lewis makes some attempts to show how ridiculous Carol is, in her total rejection of the town, and snobbish notion that she is absolutely better and smarter than everyone there, but ultimately can’t make it balanced - he keeps taking easy shots and the banality and provinciality of Gopher Prairie (even the name of the town is too much!).  Which is a shame - because underneath the easy jab at small town living, is a second story, which is about marriage, and how an educated woman can find meaning in her life as wife - and, beyond that, there is the story of how romantic idealistic Carol can find happiness with her pragmatic, realistic husband.  And those two stories are so much more interesting than a simple “small towns kill our souls” - and are handled more sensitively than I expected that I found myself wishing that the other stuff was not there - or more delicately painted.  I gather it was the stuff about the small towns that made this a hit at the time, but that part is dated, while the exploration of a woman’s life is still interesting and real.  

      Which is not to suggest the book is perfect.  The writing (especially about the town) is pretty heavy handed, and Carol herself is a total pill (and Lewis doesn’t seem to get that, except in very small flashes).  But the book is interesting, and I’d recommend it.

     Also, if there is anyway you can get your hands on an edition that has an afterward by Mark Schorer, I thought it was a fantastic essay on the novel, on that really illuminated its themes to me.


* which, actually I did read, since it’s another one on the ML list


Date/Place Completed:  August 2009; D.C.

Categories:  Fiction, Modern Library Top 100, Book Resolutions


© Carrie Dunsmore 2017