Sunday, February 1, 2015

Main Street by Sinclair Lewis

In recent years I've found great enjoyment from American fiction that was written from 1910-1930. Most notably, Willa Cather has been a favorite, but Edna Ferber's So Big was an enlightening view on the era, and Sinclair Lewis has been wonderful as well. I started with Free Air that I bought in a fit of Cover Love last year (the cover art was too adorable...fortunately the book was just as great) and followed up with Main Street.


I'm fascinated with the period in general—when Victorian ideals clashed with Modern sensibilities and no one yet knew which would win. With burgeoning advances in transportation and communication, people from rural areas started flooding into the cities for all the exciting opportunities they held for both the entrepreneur and the independent woman.  And yet, this is when Prohibition came in to being and women had yet to earn the right to vote, which illuminates the very great division in the beliefs of the American people. Flappers and Activists aside, though, how did life look for the relatively mainstream citizen? How did life look from within? These are the answers that fiction provides in a far more complete manner than nonfiction can manage.

In Main Street, a college educated girl tries to come to terms with small town living and finds that her visions of the perfectly cultured community are harder to realize than she'd dreamed. Even though her husband, Dr. Kennicott, is a kind and loving husband (generally speaking) Carol finds herself disillusioned and misunderstood.

As a window on the inner workings of marriage, we see the comparison of the husband's desire for a simple cozy home life contrasted with the wife's desire for stimulation and culture. While some might view Carol's schemes and obsessions as proof of a shallow, flighty nature, I thought it reflected more on the futility of being trained for a greatness with no hope of fulfillment.

As a commentary on small town life vs. big city life, I thought it was spot on.  Lewis didn't weigh in fully on one side or the other, but showed the good and bad in turns. In a time when small town life seemed idyllic, Carol's hope of finding the perfect small town didn't seem as absurd as it may now. Similar to many things in life, the good parts are more apparent when you can look at it from some distance.

The next book on my radar from this time period is Booth Tarkington's Pulitzer Prize winning The Magnificent Ambersons. Do you have any experience with Tarkington or Lewis?

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