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Main Street: The Story of Carol Kennicottby Sinclair Lewis
Synopses & Reviews
With Commentary by E. M. Forster, Dorothy Parker,
H. L. Mencken, Lewis Mumford, Rebecca West,
Sherwood Anderson, Malcolm Cowley, Alfred Kazin, Constance Rourke, and Mark Schorer
Main Street is the climax of civilization," Sinclair Lewis declared with a typical blend of seriousness and irony. "That this Ford car might stand in front of the Bon Ton Store, Hannibal invaded Rome and Erasmus wrote in Oxford cloisters." Main Street, the story of an idealistic young woman's attempts to reform her small town, brought Lewis immediate acclaim when it was published in 1920. It remains one of the essential texts of the American scene. Lewis Mumford observed: "In Main Street an American had at last written of our life with something of the intellectual rigor and critical detachment that had seemed so cruel and unjustified [in Charles Dickens and Matthew Arnold]. Young people had grown up in this environment, suffocated, stultified, helpless, but unable to find any reason for their spiritual discomfort. Mr. Lewis released them."
Sinclair Lewis (1885-1951), was born in Sauk Centre, Minne-sota, and graduated from Yale in 1907; in 1930 he became the first American recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature. Main Street (1920) was his first critical and commercial success. Lewis's other noted books include Babbitt (1922), Arrowsmith (1925), Elmer Gantry (1927), Dodsworth (1929), and It Can't Happen Here (1935).
Main Street is the climax of civilization, Sinclair Lewis declared with a typical blend of seriousness and irony. That this Ford car might stand in front of the Bon Ton Store, Hannibal invaded Rome and Erasmus wrote in Oxford cloisters. Main Street, the story of an idealistic young woman's attempts to reform her small town, brought Lewis immediate acclaim when it was published in 1920. It remains one of the essential texts of the American scene. Lewis Mumford observed: In Main Street an American had at last written of our life with something of the intellectual rigor and critical detachment that had seemed so cruel and unjustified in Charles Dickens and Matthew Arnold]. Young people had grown up in this environment, suffocated, stultified, helpless, but unable to find any reason for their spiritual discomfort. Mr. Lewis released them.
About the Author
Sinclair Lewis, the first American novelist to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, was born on February 7, 1885. The son of a country doctor, he grew up in his birthplace of Sauk Centre, Minnesota, the prairie village that inspired many of his acerbic portrayals of American life and manners. In 1903 he entered Yale University, where he wrote for the Yale Literary Magazine. Lewis briefly interrupted his studies to live at Helicon Hall, Upton Sinclair's abortive utopian community in New Jersey, but graduated from Yale in 1907. Afterwards he roamed the United States working as a freelance editor and journalist, eventually settling in New York City to search for employment in the publishing business. Lewis's earliest fiction--Our Mr. Wrenn (1914), The Trail of the Hawk (1915), and The Job (1917)--seemed to announce the appearance of a new and original talent on the American literary scene. But reviewers were disappointed by his other apprentice novels, The Innocents (1917) and Free Air (1919).
The publication of Main Street in 1920 brought Lewis immediate acclaim. An extraordinary critical and commercial success, this sardonic novel about life in Gopher Prairie, Minnesota, exposed the complacency and provincialism of small towns everywhere. 'What Mr. Lewis has done for myself and thousands of others is to lodge a piece of a continent in our imagination,' said E. M. Forster. 'Whether he has 'got' the Middle West, only the Middle West can say, but he has made thousands of people all over the globe alive to its existence, and anxious for further news.'
Lewis enjoyed an even greater triumph with Babbitt (1922), a lampoon of middle-class values as championed by an archetypal businessman, the robust but pathetic George F. Babbitt. 'I know of no American novel that more accurately presents the real America,' remarked H. L. Mencken. 'As an old professor of Babbittry I welcome him as an almost perfect specimen. Every American city swarms with his brothers. He is America incarnate, exuberant and exquisite.' Writing in the Saturday Review, Virginia Woolf judged Babbitt to be 'the equal of any novel written in English in the present century.'
Lewis won the Pulitzer Prize for Arrowsmith (1925), a best-selling exposé of the medical profession. It was regarded by many as his most mature and well-rounded picture of American society. But he refused to accept the award, claiming it was intended only for champions of wholesomeness. Lewis further enhanced his reputation as national gadfly with two more popular satires: Elmer Gantry (1927), a controversial attack on the hypocrisy of fundamentalist religion as practiced by flamboyant Bible Belt evangelists, and Dodsworth (1929), the tale of a Babbitt-like businessman abroad. 'Sinclair Lewis could in one sense be considered the first American novelist,' observed Alfred Kazin, 'for in his unflagging absorption of detail and his grasp of the life about him Lewis caught the tone, the speech, of the pervasive American existence.' But his other novels of the period, Mantrap (1926) and The Man Who Knew Coolidge (1928), failed to reach a wide audience.
In 1930 Lewis was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature 'for his powerful and vivid art of description and his ability to use wit and humor in the creation of original characters.' In his acceptance speech titled 'The American Fear of Literature,' which he delivered before the Swedish Academy in Stockholm, Lewis spoke for a whole generation of writers involved in the revolt against gentility in literature. He stated: 'I had realized in reading Balzac and Dickens that it was possible to describe French and English common people as one actually saw them. But it had never occurred to me that one might without indecency write of the people of Sauk Centre, Minnesota, as one felt about them. Our fictional tradition, you see, was that all of us in Midwestern villages were altogether noble and happy; that not one of us would exchange the neighborly bliss of living on Main Street for the heathen gaudiness of New York or Paris or Stockholm. [Once] I discovered that Midwestern peasants were sometimes bewildered and hungry and vile--and heroic--I was released; I could write of life as living life.'
Critics agree that Lewis's subsequent novels are uneven and often undistinguished. Alfred Kazin noted: 'As his characters became public symbols, he came to seem more a public influence than a novelist [and] some part of Lewis's usefulness seemed to be over.' During the 1930s he turned out Ann Vickers (1933), a flawed feminist saga; Work of Art (1934), a novel about the hotel business; and The Prodigal Parents (1938), a disappointing satire that pokes fun at the radical offspring of another Babbitt-like hero. It Can't Happen Here (1935), his most celebrated novel of the decade, imagines a fascist takeover of America. Clifton Fadiman deemed it 'one of the most important books ever produced in this country.' In addition Lewis brought out Selected Short Stories of Sinclair Lewis (1935), a collection of short fiction originally published in The Saturday Evening Post and other magazines.
In the final decade of his life Lewis managed to write six more novels. In Bethel Merriday (1940) he told the story of a stage-struck young actress, and in Gideon Planish (1943) he skewered organized philanthropy and the activities of liberal do-gooders. Cass Timberlane (1945), a bestseller about American marriage, landed Lewis on the cover of Time magazine. 'The book . . . made me realize that Sinclair Lewis, in spite of his notorious faults, is one of the people in the literary field who do create interest and value,' wrote Edmund Wilson in The New Yorker. 'He is, in fact, at his best--what I never quite believed before--one of the national poets.' Kingsblood Royal (1947), another bestseller, addressed the subject of race relations in the United States, and The God-Seeker (1949) formed the first part of a projected trilogy about labor intended as a history of America.
Sinclair Lewis died of heart disease in Rome on January 10, 1951, two months before the appearance of his last novel, World So Wide. From Main Street to Stockholm, a collection of his letters, was published in 1952, and The Man from Main Street, a compilation of essays and other writings, came out in 1953. 'Like his master, Dickens, [Lewis] created a gallery of characters who have independent life outside the novels, with all their obvious limitations, characters that live now in the American tradition,' wrote Mark Schorer in Sinclair Lewis: An American Life (1961). 'In any strict literary sense, he was not a great writer, but without his writing one cannot imagine modern American literature.'
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