is also the first major work of author Sinclair Lewis
, first published in 1920
. It tells the story of Carol Millford, a young, forward thinking woman with dreams of reforming small towns with culture and landscape, who becomes trapped in the close-minded world of a Midwestern main street.
The book starts with an introduction of Carol, a pretty, intelligent girl in the conservative Blodgett University, trying to find something she has a talent at. After much experimenting, she hits upon a hobby of sociology and finds a book on village improvement. It captures her imagination, and she entertains fantasies about creating a beautiful little town, as gorgeous as any village from Italy or France. Eventually, however, reality in the form of graduation demanded more attention, and, after refusing her college boyfriend's proposal of marriage because he wanted her to stay in the home and raise children, she becomes a librarian in St. Paul.
After some time in St. Paul, Carol goes to dinner with a friend of her sister's and meets Dr. Will Kennicott, a country doctor from the little town of Gopher Prairie, Minnesota. Carol's former dreams of village improvement are revived. The two take a liking to each other, and after other dates and events, agree to get married.
Now, upon arriving in Gopher Prairie, Carol finds it a hideous little town with no style or culture. The 'common working folk' whom she had exulted over in college, turned out to be rough and provincial, with no culture or grace. She is pulled down into the world of petty gossip and prying eyes, the rest of the book chronicaling her frantic attempts to escape from Main Street, even as she becomes part of it.
Lewis's writing is clear and precise, with absolutely brilliant characterization. Many people remark that his people and places are so believable and effectively rendered, that the books scarcely seem like fiction anymore. Gopher Prairie, indeed, is such a real little town, peopled with characters so believable, that you expect that if you drove to Minnesota, you could see the ugly grain elevator and a 90-something Carol Kennicott hobbling miserably down the street. Furthermore, Main Street's message, a cry for individuality, is still vital today, even though it has been more than 80 years since it was first published.
That is not to say that it doesn't have its faults. Lewis's use of irony becomes heavy-handed at times and fairly bludgeons the reader over the head. His plot is sometimes non-existent, which causes the book to drag at some points. The ending is somewhat dreary and abrupt, but perhaps necessary to stay true to life.
Still, there is a reason why this book is considered a modern classic. You will find yourself arguing with it, shouting 'hear, hear!', and genuinely mourning for Carol and she sinks into the world of Main Street and conformity. I give it a 9 out of 10.
This is America--a town of a few thousand, in a region of wheat and corn and dairies and little groves.
The town is, in our tale, called "Gopher Prairie, Minnesota." But its Main Street is the continuation of Main Streets everywhere. The story would be the same in Ohio or Montana, in Kansas or Kentucky or Illinois, and not very differently would it be told Up York State or in the Carolina hills.
Main Street is the climax of civilization. That this Ford car might stand in front of the Bon Ton Store, Hannibal invaded Rome and Erasmus wrote in Oxford cloisters. What Ole Jenson the grocer says to Ezra Stowbody the banker is the new law for London, Prague, and the unprofitable isles of the sea; whatsoever Ezra does not know and sanction, that thing is heresy, worthless for knowing and wicked to consider.
Our railway station is the final aspiration of architecture. Sam Clark's annual hardware turnover is the envy of the four counties which constitute God's Country. In the sensitive art of the Rosebud Movie Palace there is a Message, and humor strictly moral.
Such is our comfortable tradition and sure faith. Would he not betray himself an alien cynic who should otherwise portray Main Street, or distress the citizens by speculating whether there may not be other faiths?
Sinclair Lewis, Introduction to Main Street.