Today, small towns are ridiculed as cultural and economic backwaters, where the Walmart parking lot is the agora. Donald Trump promised to make the heartland great again, but with America’s small towns eroded by the disappearance of small farms, as well as by social problems like opiate addiction, suicide, and endemic poverty, that campaign pledge has been hard to keep. In the past, it’s true, Americans did believe that their small towns were superior; indeed, the Jeffersonian tradition of democracy—built on the backs of yeoman farmers—regarded tight-knit, rural communities as the building blocks of American society. How exactly did Americans begin distrusting small towns? How did American small towns stop being great?
One answer is found in literature: cities have always played a central role in the bildungsroman, or coming-of-age story. Literary protagonists quickly mature when released into frenetic urban spaces where their moxie is tested. Most fail spectacularly: Candide reaches Lisbon only to see it crumble in a giant earthquake, Jo March travels to New York with bold dreams of independence but is recalled home to care for her dying sister, and Holden Caulfield pictures Manhattan as his fresh start only to sulk around collecting romantic misadventures. Nonetheless, the city represents openness, with adolescents growing into adulthood among a multitude of interactions. Conversely, the small town—every bildungsroman reveals—is a dungeon, where the potential for personal development goes unfulfilled.
And of all the books to change this perception, of all the books that extolled cities and deplored small towns, one shines out: Sinclair Lewis’s Main Street. First published in 1920 and a runaway best seller, Lewis’s novel may have single-handedly, and radically, transformed American perceptions of life outside cities.
The book is a corrective to previous novels that depicted rural American life as an honorable struggle among kindhearted folk, expunging colonial slaughter, forced labor, casual violence, and lamentable opportunities for women. Basically, Main Street overturns the tendency to make frontier development all Little House on the Prairie with no Deadwood. The book is an anti-bildungsroman: a tale not of progressive growth but of progressive confinement. Of course, the protagonist who gets trapped is, by no accident, a woman.
Unlike a traditional bildungsroman, Main Street is about forsaking adventure for tedious existence.1 It focuses on how educated women are compelled to subordinate their desire for an interesting life to their husbands’ social and intellectual conformism. It is the story of the incomplete progress of a woman who, though afforded a college education, is thrust back into domesticity. It chronicles a society that has outgrown itself in terms of size and power, but has been slow to develop culturally or intellectually.
Lewis’s droll summary takes the edge off the enormity of his critique. But it still stung for Americans of the 1920s, who felt more assured after helping to win World War I but still provincial in comparison to Europeans. At times, Lewis’s appraisal is withering:
Such a society functions admirably in the large production of cheap automobiles, dollar watches, and safety razors. But it is not satisfied until the entire world also admits that the end and joyous purpose of living is to ride in flivvers, to make advertising-pictures of dollar watches, and in the twilight to sit talking not of love and courage but of the convenience of safety razors.
One hundred years after the publication of Main Street, the rest of the world has indeed been converted to America’s reverence for consumption, although the watches, razors, and cars are churned out elsewhere. But even with interlaced supply chains and ubiquitous national media replacing local papers, rural America can feel more isolated than ever—and not just in terms of red versus blue political identities, although these differences can sometimes reach a boil, as in Ammon Bundy’s Oregon standoff with the FBI and US Fish and Wildlife Service. Over the past hundred years, the rural-urban divide has grown even more salient, most obviously in socioeconomic terms; but even the smallest cultural referents, such as the difference between an ATV and a fixed-gear bicycle, can speak volumes about competing claims to represent the “real America.”
Main Street is a denunciation of a provincial Minnesota town, appropriately dubbed Gopher Prairie. Lewis, writing from Greenwich Village, was himself an apostate provincial (Gopher Prairie is a thinly veiled caricature of his birthplace: Sauk Centre, Minnesota).
The book concentrates on Carol Kennicott, a native of the Twin Cities who is lured to small-town life by her husband, a doctor, who misses his native Gopher Prairie. Carol’s instincts tell her that country life will not suit her—she is a college graduate working as a librarian in St. Paul—but Dr. Kennicott is persistent, complaining, “I feel I’ve got something to say about running Gopher Prairie … in a big city of two–three hundred thousand … I’m just one flea on the dog’s back.” Carol—who told a previous college boyfriend that she wanted to “do something with life” only to have him retort, “What’s better than making a comfy home and bringing up some cute kids and knowing nice homey people?”—is ultimately convinced, because being a doctor’s wife would give her the ability to help those in need.
Lewis draws on the progressive social realist tradition without the heavy-handedness of Theodore Dreiser or Upton Sinclair. Indeed, he name-checks some of these authors as part of Carol Kennicott’s reading list. She cares deeply about the world—even loathsome Gopher Prairie—because of her college education; she was taught by idealistic young professors, such as a sociology instructor who “had lived among poets and socialists and Jews and millionaire uplifters at the University Settlement in New York.” For Carol, having a university degree and the temporary freedom of life as an unmarried librarian was a revelation, but difficult to maintain.
Ultimately, she is made to feel that her future husband’s career in medicine is more socially useful than her work as a librarian and that her own intellectual engagement is frivolous. Even worse, for the majority of Gopher Prairie residents, her erudition and willingness to voice her disagreement with others seem downright dangerous.
Lewis’s novel may have single-handedly, and radically, transformed American perceptions of life outside cities.
Upon arrival, Carol knows that Gopher Prairie will be a place “too small to absorb her.” A physically uncared-for utilitarian trading depot, the town’s Main Street is a “muddy expanse … broad, straight, unenticing gashes of the streets let in the grasping prairie on every side.”
The novel focuses on the petite bourgeoisie of Gopher Prairie, but it makes clear that women of lesser means have even harder lives and more to fear from small-town life. Carol’s friend, a young female teacher, is almost raped at a country dance when she courteously drives a drunken boy home. The would-be assaulter is forgiven, and the teacher is forced out of her job with a permanent stain on her record.
Unlike in previous bucolic rural novels, the small town is not wholesome but a place of grave danger for women. Packs of boys catcall from their perch in front of the drugstore, and young men discuss Carol within earshot in a way that makes her feel “that she was being dragged naked down Main Street.” While conservatives of the time associated female purity and protection in small-town life with rigid gender norms, Main Street makes the opposite claim: cities decrease the surveillance that women are subjected to (of both the moralistic and leering varieties) and offer job opportunities that provide a modicum of independence.
As Carol’s horizons are narrowed and she ages into a world of smaller possibilities, she finds a complex assortment of personalities in Gopher Prairie, including that of her husband. Dr. Kennicott is not an oaf or abusive; he is simply complacent and uninteresting. He loves his wife and his town but lets his marriage languish and accepts rural Minnesota parochialism with something like pride. When Carol organizes a smashingly successful Chinese-themed dinner party with paper costumes and exotic chow mein, he absorbs his friends’ praise, bids them farewell, and then tells his wife to stick closer to the normal social script of telling a few corny jokes and serving meatloaf.
Although Dr. Kennicott may be somewhat suffocating, he is an idealist compared to some of Lewis’s other characters, particularly in his next book, Babbitt (1922), which focuses on a sanctimonious but altogether scurrilous real-estate developer in a Midwestern city. Carol’s husband is devoted to helping sick farmers who cannot always pay. Unlike other members of the community, he resists the urge to mock Scandinavian immigrants or question their ability to assimilate; indeed, he comments that “Helga Rustad, she’s still scared of America, but her kids will be doctors and lawyers and governors of the state and any darn thing they want to.” He corrects Carol’s big-city snobbishness by insisting that there is no violation of the social order if he wishes to go hunting with his tailor (although when she asks if he would go with his barber, he quips: “No use running this democracy thing into the ground”).
Most consequentially, he and Carol make the decision together to delay having children. His concern is financial, but multiple times in the book Carol starkly lays out her trepidation about losing her ambitions completely after having children in the small town:
How people lie! How these stories lie! They say the bride is always so blushing and proud and happy when she finds that out, but—I’d hate it! I’d be scared to death! Some day but—Please, dear nebulous Lord, not now! Bearded sniffy old men sitting and demanding that we bear children. If they had to bear them—! I wish they did have to! Not now! Not till I’ve got hold of this job of liking the ash-pile out there!
After much dissatisfaction with her position in Gopher Prairie and the cruelty of fellow upper-class women, Carol does have a son.
Contrary to the literary style and social norms of the time, Lewis does not make this the denouement of the novel, in which Carol is converted to a dutiful housewife. Instead she is plunged into deeper depression despite her love for her son; the possibilities promised in the typical bildungsroman, in which happiness increases two-thirds of the way through, have been snatched away.
Children are a social cudgel in Gopher Prairie: they connect people more intimately to stringent social norms, and fear for their future makes those like Carol acquiesce to the system.
She was encircled by greasy eyes. Every matron hinted, “Now that you’re going to be a mother, dearie, you’ll get over all these ideas of yours and settle down.” She felt that willy-nilly she was being initiated into the assembly of housekeepers; with the baby for hostage, she would never escape.
But amazingly, Carol does not give in. Instead she pitches a new, more ferocious battle against her fate.
In the greatest shock of an already startling book, Carol moves to Washington, DC, with her young son to work as a clerk during World War I. She does not formally divorce her husband. But her move is a daring social faux pas, which would have been scandalous in New York or Boston at the time, let alone in Gopher Prairie.
While she achieves a sense of freedom and worldliness in DC, she is not entirely satisfied. Having work is fulfilling, but the nature of the work is rather stultifying (after all, she is given a job designed specifically for women at a time when they were barred from most meaningful positions). When her husband comes to visit, humbly asking her—without reproach—if she could live in Gopher Prairie again, she agrees. In part it is a sense of growing cynicism about reform that leads her back: the things that need to change are not just the minds of individuals but entire institutions, which “insinuate their tyranny under a hundred guises and pompous names, such as Polite Society, the Family, the Church, Sound Business, the Party, the Country, the Superior White Race; and the only defense against them, Carol beheld, is unembittered laughter.”
The residents of Gopher Prairie are delighted to see Carol back in town. One assumes this is not so much out of longing but for the chance to witness her brought low. As one friend of Dr. Kennicott comments: “Carrie Kennicott’s a smart woman, and these smart educated women all get funny ideas, but they get over ’em after they’ve had three or four kids. You’ll see her settled down one of these days, and teaching Sunday School and helping at sociables and behaving herself, and not trying to butt into business and politics.”
Carol is not so much defeated as moved from the earnest reformism of the Progressive Era to a more resigned resistance. Today we might think of this as a kind of protohippie melancholy, in which the absurd can be laughed at but not changed.
At the same time, it is quite dispiriting: at the start of the book, Carol believes that making a better society can happen through interpersonal interactions and getting people to care more about their town. But by the end, she tires of fighting this uphill battle. In this sense, the book is still a classic coming-of-age story: it does not have a definitive end but a meandering wind-down, in which the main character settles into middle age.
Indeed, it is hard to decipher what Lewis wants to impart with this ending. Are the Carol Kennicotts of the 1920s destined for intellectual isolation and sadness? Should they resign themselves to their fate?
Main Street never quite delivers a rallying cry to women relegated to unfulfilling lives as housewives. Stylistically, Lewis was not a “pitchfork in the air” kind of social realist. Characters dissatisfied with small-town life simply endure, and so does Carol Kennicott, who, by the end of the novel, has had another child: a daughter.
The one thing Lewis did believe in was historical progress: not the shining utopianism of Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward but a slow grinding movement that feels positively glacial to those living it. Yet, one of the last lines of the book is delivered by Carol, looking down into her daughter’s crib:
Do you see that object on the pillow? Do you know what it is? It’s a bomb to blow up smugness. If you Tories were wise, you wouldn’t arrest anarchists; you’d arrest all these children while they’re asleep in their cribs. Think what that baby will see and meddle with before she dies in the year 2000! She may see an industrial union of the whole world, she may see aeroplanes going to Mars.
It is already 2020, and that bomb has not yet detonated. But it is ticking faster and faster.
This piece was written with funding provided by the Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute, University of Melbourne.
This article was commissioned by Caitlin Zaloom.
- This same point is made in more detail in the excellent overview Main Street and Empire: The Fictional Small Town in the Age of Globalization, by Ryan Poll (Rutgers University Press, 2012). ↩