Thursday, October 16, 2014

Main Street - Sinclair Lewis

Main Street
Here we have yet another book from the Modern Library list I simply cannot believe I have not read before now. How did this one escape my education? 

Sinclair Lewis's satirical approach to the small town Midwest American life should surely have made an appearance in my life before now. After all, I spent the last eight years of my life in a small Midwestern village. Now, only after I've left, do I pick up this book.

I saw quite a bit of that little town in this book, too. Small town life is similar everywhere and Lewis nails it. I've read some reviews of the book that say it moves too slowly or not enough happens. Clearly, these people have never lived in a small town. The brilliance of Lewis is in even those details. 

Reading about the small Minnesota town Lewis portrayed also reminded me of my dear River City, Iowa (I played Marian in The Music Man in high school, so that little fictional town has quite a place in my heart.)

The book tells the story of young Carol. She marries a small down doctor and is swept away from her city life to a town of only a few thousand. At first, she aspires to beautify the town and improve the lives of its citizens. She quickly realizes, however, that the townsfolk are perfectly happy with things remaining status quo. They see her efforts to improve the town as snobbery, not the naive, well-intentioned efforts they are. From there, Carol becomes more and more disillusioned and dissatisfied with her small town life. 

I enjoyed Lewis's take on small town America. I know the book is a satire, but it's so true to life, even one hundred years after it was written. Without my time in a small town, I doubt I would have enjoyed this nearly as much. Of course, we all know my weakness for books set in this era, so maybe I would have anyway. 

A few small things that stood out to me:

In conversation at one point, a character says, "the oldest topic in the world: It's art but is it pretty?" Gosh, if I could only express to you how much of my life is taken up with this question. Ok, maybe not nearly as much as some others', but as a teaching of Humanities, we deal with this question all the time. I loved seeing it referred to as the oldest topic in the world. Obviously, it's not, but I like knowing that people were talking about it even before the modern or postmodern art movements.

Lewis also spends some time satirizing marriage as well. As Carol's marriage to the doctor becomes routine and a bit dreary, their marriage does struggle some. Yet, they remain (relatively) faithful to each other and see their marriage as lifelong, even if the love has gone from it. Personally, I found this whole bit depressing. But, after two years of marriage now myself (our anniversary is Monday!), I definitely understand how routine can kill the romance. But, as Lewis puts it, "the shaving and corsets familiarity of married life was not dreary vulgarity but a wholesome frankness." He may have written this statement in jest, but I rather agree with it. There is a comfort in knowing the familiar and being able to depend on it. Of course, romance is still important (are you reading this, Kevin?).

Finally, my favorite quote of the book: "It's one of our favorite American myths that broad plains necessarily make broad minds, and high mountains make high purpose." 

Such a beautifully expressed truth. It says it all, so I don't feel the need to elaborate much, other than to say: how does this relate to Angle of Repose? That whole book seemed to be driving how the point that this sentiment is not a myth. Lewis and Stegner could have had a great debate about this, I am certain.

If you have not read this classic, I definitely urge you to. Yet, it gets a bit lengthy and slow at times, but I found that to be part of its charm. It's a particularly important read if you are from or live in a small town. I imagine you'll be able to find some perspective on your own experience from Lewis's portrayal. 

Pages: 454
Date Completed: September 28, 2014

1 comment:

  1. I actually live not to far from the home of Sinclair Lewis, which (I think) was the inspiration for this book. I love small town life, so I've had this book on my mind forever, but haven't gotten around to it yet. I absolutely love the quote you shared -- so very true.