Book Review: Main Street, by Sinclair Lewis

Before I read Main Street I would have confused Sinclair Lewis with Upton Sinclair.  Both of them American novelists of the early 20th century; both of them having written books that English teachers require their students to read and that nobody otherwise picks up anymore.  I still can’t tell you much about Upton Sinclair, but reading Main Street has motivated me to find out more about Sinclair Lewis.  There is a lot to find out.

I was so motivated not only because I enjoyed the book, but because I was almost immediately impressed with the idea that this book has, as it were, “a place” in American literature.  Although I read that Garrison Keillor has not much good to say about Mr. Lewis, no one will convince me that he was not a major influence on Keillor’s own work.

Main Street is a story about a fictional Minnesota town named “Gopher Prairie.”  No one will convince me that this town was not the forerunner of Keillor’s “Lake Wobegon.”  There are differences in tone, that’s for sure.  Keillor is a comedian and his takes on small-town life were designed to evoke knowing, sympathetic, gentle laughter.  Some have categorized Sinclair Lewis’s writing as “satire” but I disagree.  I think of satire as comedic and cartoon like.  Main Street, like any human drama, has its humorous and ridiculous moments.  There are characters in the book, like some in every life, who really are not much more than ridiculous.  But the tone in Main Street is serious and the drama realistic.

Because I saw the effect of Lewis on Keillor, I looked around the Web at Lewis’s career. There are lots of surprises.  Here’s one:  Sinclair Lewis was the first American to be awarded the Nobel Prize for literature.  Consider that Lewis was a contemporary of those guys who are still worshipped in American literary circles: Hemmingway, Fitzgerald, and Faulkner and it was he who first won the big prize.  Lewis not only produced a raft of novels; he also wrote for the screen.  Many of his books became “major motion pictures” but it looks like he wrote other screenplays, as well.

Main Street is the story of a marriage.  It is a marriage that is profoundly affected by the town in which the couple lives; by the bleak and unimaginative Main Street that defines the town, but it is the marriage itself that is the heart of the story.  The book reveals the ways in which men and women unthinkingly and unintentionally mistreat each other.  It is worthwhile for that alone, inasmuch as those dynamics have not changed.

Some have commented that Lewis was “not a stylist,” and that this is a reason why his books have not continued to sell like those of Hemmingway, Fitzgerald and Faulkner.  Lewis’s writing, in Main Street at least, is pretty direct, not hard to follow or figure out.  He does not, unlike Hemmingway, leave the greater part of the story submerged below the page.  But “style?”  Just let me say this: there are scenes in this otherwise straightforward story that simply come off the page.  His description of the prairie spring – the countryside that Carol Kennecott walks through as she meditates on the plainness of her life; and his description of a sleighride across a frozen lake on a starlit winter night are sheer poetry.

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