Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Main Street (5). Sinclair Lewis.

New York: A Signet Classic; The New American Library. 1920; 1961.

Why read it? The American small town is the focus of some pretty good literature. Winesburg, Ohio, for example. The Spoon River Anthology. Our Town. To Kill a Mockingbird. The novels and stories of Sarah Orne Jewett. And one of the best novels with a small-town setting is Main Street by Sinclair Lewis.

Carol Kennicott is an idealist who wants to transform the cultural climate of Gopher Prairie. Her sophisticated tastes encounter the dullness of the people of her small town, including her husband, a doctor, who loves the small town in which he lives and its people. In the end, Carol learns to live with her neighbors. She learns a lesson in patience and tolerance.

Anyone who has lived for any time in a small American town, whether it is Quarryville, Pennsylvania, or Brant Lake, or Rouses Point or Chazy, in the state if New York where I spent considerable time, will recognize the characteristics of the people of Gopher Prairie,.

Sample quotes and ideas:

“The jocose insults which are the wit of Main Street.” p. 202.

“In the prairie heat she trudged along unchanging ways, talked about nothing to tepid people, and reflected that she might never escape from them.” p. 224.

“A thousand dreams governed by the fiction she had read…absorbed her drowsy lake afternoons, but always in the midst of them Kennicott came out from town, drew on khaki trousers which were plastered with dry fish scales, asked, 'Enjoying yourself?’ and did not listen to her answer.” p. 228.

“She felt that willy-nilly she was being initiated into the assembly of housekeepers; with the baby for hostage, she would never escape; presently she would be drinking coffee and rocking and talking about diapers.” p. 234.

“The true Main Streetite defines a relative as a person to whose house you go uninvited, to stay as long as you like.” p. 236.

“The citizen of the prairie drifts always westward…maybe because he is the heir of ancient migrations—and it may be because he finds within his own spirit so little adventure that he is driven to seek it by changing his horizon.” p. 241.

“The greatest mystery about a human being is not his reaction to sex or praise, but the manner in which he contrives to put in twenty-four hours a day.” p. 254.

[Small town America]: “It is an unimaginatively standardized background, a sluggishness of speech and manners, a rigid ruling of the spirit by the desire to be respectable…contentment…the contentment of the quiet dead, who are scornful of the living for their restless walking…a negation canonized as the one positive virtue…the prohibition of happiness…dullness made God.” p. 257.

[Small town America]: “A savorless people, gulping tasteless food, and sitting afterward, coatless and thoughtless, in rocking chairs…listening to mechanical music, saying mechanical things about the excellence of Ford automobiles….” p. 258.

“But a village in a country…which aspires to succeed Victorian England as the chief mediocrity of the world…functions admirably in the large production of cheap automobiles, dollar watches, and safety razors…not satisfied until the entire world also admits that the end and joyous purpose of living is to ride in flivvers…and in the twilight to sit talking…of the convenience of safety razors.” p. 259.

To be continued.

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