Up-to-date Outdatedness

A Grant Wood illustration from my copy of a 1937 limited edition signed by the artist.

There is rather old fashioned, hale and hearty kind of feeling to both Sinclair Lewis’s prose and his characters. God knows he loved an adverb and his dialog can feel a little ham-handed and out-of-date. And if we believe Garrison Keillor, Lewis’s brand of satire doesn’t age well. But what is amazing about much of Lewis’s output, is that it was remarkably ahead of its time and remains timeless and relevant.

Certainly Lewis’s name has popped up with some frequency in recent months as the rise of America’s small-handed, orange-faced, fascist has reminded people of Lewis’s 1935 novel It Can’t Happen Here. But many of his other novels have proven relevant decade after decade as well. It’s as if every televangelist read his 1927 novel Elmer Gantry as a how-to-guide for fleecing religious folk. It’s too bad the religious folk didn’t read it and heed it’s warnings. Babbitt takes on capitalism and Dodsworth takes on the suburbs. And no one can tell me that Ann Patchett wasn’t inspired, at least in part, by Lewis’s take on the medical/scientific establishment in Arrowsmith when writing her novel State of Wonder. Lewis’s look at race in America, Kingsblood Royal was published in 1940, eight years before President Truman desegregated the U.S. military and a good 20 years before To Kill a Mockingbird.

Nine years before Virginia Woolf published A Room of One’s Own, Lewis’s heroine Carol Kennicott asked for a room of her own in Main Street. Even though Main Street is seen a classic take down of small town America, I think it should be read as well as an early feminist classic.

Main Street by Sinclair Lewis
I first read Main Street sometime prior to when I started keeping track of my reading in 1994. Since knocking out his other marquee titles (Dodsworth, Babbitt, Elmer Gantry, and Arrowsmith) in 1996, I’ve collected his novels when I come across them and have read an additional three or four of them. Most recently and most surprisingly, a few years ago I began to read It Can’t Happen Here but decided not to finish it after about getting half way through. I just couldn’t get into the swing of it.

Since it had been so long since I read Main Street I thought I would reacquaint myself with the story by listening to the audio book. In fact it was one of the first books I bought when I joined Audible. It was also the reason I found out that Audible will give you your money back if you don’t like one of their recordings. But they have no way of actually taking the unwanted recording back, so it sits on the shelf in your Audible library in perpetuity. Flash forward a year or so and I decided to grit my teeth and listen to the horrible recording by Lloyd James. Despite how much I hate his reading and mispronunciation of the name “Bea”, I managed to get back into the swing of the book and succumb once again to its brilliance. About half way through it occurred to me that there might be a better version available on Audible. There was and so I bought it and enjoyed the second half waaaay more than the first.

In Main Street Carol Kennicott is a librarian who moves from the metropolis of St. Paul with her older, doctor husband Will to his hometown of Gopher Prairie. What she finds is boredom and parochialism and prejudice. In addition to the exploration of Carol’s plight, which is, as I alluded to earlier, as much about being a woman as it is about small town life, Lewis also deals with class, immigration, religion, education, and marriage, providing a fascinating snapshot of American life in early 20th century. A snapshot that is still relevant to the early part of the 21st century.

If you haven’t read Main Street before you might find the writing style a little hard to get into. It’s not difficult by any means, it’s more like the kind of shift you need to make when you read Victorian lit. Give yourself some time to get used to it. Like many of us do with the prose in Victorian novels you may even end up finding yourself reveling in the prose. Once you get into the swing of the story, I think you will find yourself compelled and moved. It is definitely one of those books you will be happy you decided to read and you will wonder why more people don’t do the same.






8 thoughts on “Up-to-date Outdatedness

  1. Kat July 10, 2016 / 8:41 pm

    Oh, Main Street is one of my favorite books of all time and you make me want to reread it! I love Carol Kennicott; I was introduced to her when I was 17 in an Images of Women in American Fiction class and understood very well Carol’s feelings about Gopher Prairie. . II really do wish I had this edition with Grant Wood’s illustrations. How can Garrison Keillor dislike Lewis! Must admit I’m not a fan of Keillor.


    • Thomas July 16, 2016 / 8:51 pm

      I don’t think GK dislikes Lewis. I think he was just trying to explain to a fan why Lewis isn’t as well regarded as Fitzgerald.


  2. Leslie Occhiuto July 10, 2016 / 10:23 pm

    What a beautiful edition. I tried to read Main Street once but couldn’t get into it. As a librarian I thought it required reading. Maybe it’s time to try again.


    • Thomas July 16, 2016 / 8:52 pm

      Normally I a big believer in the rule of 50. But in this case I think pushing on past page 50 could yield dividends.


  3. Deb July 11, 2016 / 4:45 pm

    Have you read ANN VICKERS? Just as KINGSBLOOD ROYAL addressed race years before integration, ANN VICKERS addresses some “women’s issues” decades before they were openly acknowledged: abortion, children born out of wedlock (that sounds so old-fashioned!), women in prison and prison brutality in general, marriages that don’t work, extra-marital affairs that do, career versus home. Unlike much of Lewis’s work, the book is not satirical in anyway.

    (I’ve been lurking here a while, and have enjoyed reading your posts, but this is the first time I’ve commented.)


    • Thomas July 16, 2016 / 8:53 pm

      I always love it when a lurker de-lurks. Especially for something close to my heart. I own Ann Vickers, but I haven’t read it. Your description has pushed it higher on my TBR for sure.


  4. Christy July 12, 2016 / 9:43 pm

    I tried earlier this year to get into Main Street and quit early on. I picked up It Can’t Happen Here next, thinking its timeliness might be the ticket, but I couldn’t get on with it either. Maybe these are just not the right entry points for me with Sinclair Lewis.

    Those illustrations in your edition are pretty great though. And their captions.


    • Thomas July 16, 2016 / 8:54 pm

      Well, you know I had trouble with ICHH and that’s coming from a die hard fan. Arrowsmith or Babbitt are probably easier to get into, but I really do think you would like Main Street if you keep at it.


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