This worthwhile book has some flaws but many remembrances of times when human beings relied on one another. Trustworthiness, honesty and reliability had different meanings and importance in society. When human beings were apart, there was no communication. Telephone and telegraph lines could send messages but most news was one, two or three days late. Gossip slanted the news in town.
The novels establishes this complete setting in spades for a town, Gopher Prairie (3500 population). Town folk have nothing but one another to pick on and gossip about. The heroine, Carol, tries to remain apart from the settlement and its people, airing attitudes which town people attribute to her being city born and bred. Carol is married to home town boy who is the best doctor around.
Almost every limitation and opinion Carol has about the town is substantiated and correct. Her reactions to simplicities, ignorance and misguided loyalties are mostly justified. She is not always courteous, and not political. The Doctor’s position and stature protects his wife from her complete vilification. She wants the town and its people to improve – beautify the place, toss around a little architecture, and the citizens to uplift themselves with social and intellectual activities and conversation. She expresses much enthusiasm for her outside thinking.
There is a cheat in the story. Carol is not the woman she believes herself to be; she has enthusiasm but no skill, no talent and no education. She puts together a group for a play, but she has never directed; she’s never acted. She complains about hard-nosed church goers (as though going to church is the sin itself), yet she doesn’t go to church much herself. Her education is in librarianship but her efforts are a void there. Carol is not unlike any woman who complains about a new environment but lacks training and experience in psychology, sociology, history, politics rudimentary business, or any other practical discipline to do anything about the new place.
Carol wants people to be receptive to words, visions, poetry and music – anything to shift people from their stupor. What Carol faces is expressed well by Miles Franklin in My Brilliant Career: Sybil is confronted by her mother and the daughter responds (paraphrased), I wish I were born low with common desires. That I never learned. I never asked why. If I were born and lived like an idiot, I would never fear for lack of company. I would be among my people. Sybil’s mother believes her daughter is going to hell.
That attitude and adjusting to it is what Main Street is about. And Sinclair Lewis has Carol get through various scenarios: Attractive, artistic young man arrives in town; Carol befriends him. Town folk believe their love is hot and heavy. Nope, but after 150-200 pages, young man leaves. Carol later learns he is in New York City not Minneapolis; he’s changed his name and is acting in movies. An enlightened school teacher, fresh from the city, goes to a dance with a town ne’er do well, the son of a hard-nosed church goer. The son buys liquor and tries to assault the teacher repeatedly; she beats him off, repeatedly. The mother accuses teacher of corrupting her son. Everyone in town knows it’s a lie, but the teacher resigns rather than being fired. Carol loses a friend. She loses another friend when death takes his family.
Carol leaves Gopher Prairie and ends up during World War One working in Washington D.C. The War ends; she works for Women’s Suffrage. She has her son with her. Her husband at home remains steadfast and loyal to the marriage. Carol likes the work and independence, but there is a true grind: True work and effort result in uncertain accomplishments and outcomes. Life and work in Gopher Prairie and Washington D.C. are not that much different.
An older woman in the leadership of the Suffrage Movement befriends Carol, after meeting the husband. She gives the best advice about work in the public sector that I remember reading. The older woman believed Carol, a fine advocate and valued worker, does not have the correct mindset to ultimately succeed: Carol is sensitive and worried about criticism or strong feelings directed toward her. The woman says (paraphrased) You cannot be sensitive. Most people don’t know about the work I’m doing and whether it truly affects them at all, if they know about my efforts. When they hear of successful outcomes, they grumble. The older woman makes Gopher Prairie palpable. Indeed, when Carol returns home a few changes have been made and more are planned.
The power and force of the writing of conclusionary confrontations between characters (young man – Carol:Doctor) (school teacher: Carol:Prominent town’s people) (Suffrage: Carol:Older woman) surpass the issues of 1916-1920. Some of those events and words happen and are uttered today. Sinclair Lewis earned his money when he wrote and published Main Street.