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(Harry) Sinclair Lewis
publisher: Querido, Amsterdam, 1920
|Sinclair Lewis may be ripe for a revival; his books raise several interesting issues of art and fashion. Main Street is his most famous book, though certain critics prefer Babbitt as a better novel. Main Street was a tremendous bestseller, published when Lewis was 35, and cited by the Nobel Prize committee as a major reason he was given the Nobel in 1930. Main Street is the story of Carol Kennicott, who graduates from a small women's college in the first chapter of the novel with rather vague aspirations to achieve something or reform something. After a reasonably long (but not very enlightening) courtship, she marries small-town doctor Will Kennicott and moves with him to Gopher Prairie, Minnesota (based on Lewis's hometown of Sauk Centre). She is immediately dissatisfied with the town and her life there, and the rather episodic novel traces the simultaneous evolution of her marriage, her life in Gopher Prairie, and the passing of her youth.
The novel is rather like a Bildungsroman in that it describes the education of a young person through a series of trials, but Carol's is a domestic education, and it is hard to decide whether she grows or is simply overcome. In the end, under some protest, she manages to agree to life in Gopher Prairie, but not quite accept it.
Lewis is careful to present Carol as immature but well-meaning, an unreliable spokesperson for the valid idea that there is something more to life than bridge, something more to politics than voting the straight Republican ticket, and something more to human relationships than empty forms and eager gossip. He sets up her husband, Will, as her foil - he is steady and, on the surface, unimaginative. He defends the town and his friends there against her denigrating comments, though as the novel progresses, he softens in his insistence on having their marriage conform to a traditional model. Carol is ambivalent. She is moved by all forms of beauty, including that of the Minnesota landscape and that of a young man who comes to town as a tailor late in the novel and who courts her (she entertains his crush but doesn't concede her virtue). In fact, she has no consistent allies and no rational programme, only feelings that sometimes offend her fellow citizens and sometimes are offended by them. She not only criticises their aesthetic but also crosses social boundaries by maintaining a friendship with her housemaid and her housemaid's husband, a jack-of-all-trades who is a communist sympathiser. Carol's fecklessness is believable and sometimes irritating, but the townspeople's general resistance to every form of nonconformity is also believable. Lewis perfectly renders the frequently nice and friendly narrow-minded prejudice of small-town America that is all the more difficult to combat because it is well-meaning and patriotic.
Lewis was a satirist, but his plots were realistic rather than fabulist, so an element of exuberance is missing in the
| novel and the tone sometimes seems unclear. Satirists such as Swift often signal the reader that it is time to laugh at the characters by making them or their situations fantastic. Others, such as Fielding, use a certain elevated language or comic tone to do the same thing. But Lewis was satiric without being overtly funny or comic, which means the signals the reader is supposed to pick up are easily missed. He called himself a ‘scold’, and that was an appropriate characterisation - his criticisms of American life are far from lighthearted.
He manages to be intelligent and interesting and even hopeful; his characters are well-drawn and lively. But his plots meander and his tone is unclear. His novels aren't well-made wholes, but nor are they shambling stylistic charmers. In their time, they dealt with issues that Americans wanted to read about - small-town life, the mind of the businessman, revivalist religion - but when those issues seemed to fade in importance, so did Lewis's reputation.
Lewis adhered to a strongly felt social theory that was basically leftist, and he wrote at a time when almost all writers were required to declare their allegiance to the right or the left, at least in America. In Main Street, Lewis's loyalties sometimes come across as simply a democratic sensibility, and therefore aesthetically acceptable, and sometimes as an outmoded and false-seeming programme for building the utopia of the future. No novelist can quite escape the social theories of his time, and in fact must be drawn to them, because the novel is social investigation. So to some extend the reputation of every novelist will rise and fall according to how his social theory holds up.
For example, in the 1960s and 70s, the era of the new left, Dickens was considered well-meaning but naive; his ‘programme’ was thought to be poorly worked out and inconsistent - not Marxist enough (though Marx was a great fan of Dickens). After Marxism went out of fashion, Dickens's amorphous social critique came to seem more universally true because it was not programmatic but based on feelings of generosity and brotherhood combined with specific criticisms of practices common in England during his lifetime.
Novelists of a conservative or more purely aesthetic bent hold up better on the surface, but their novels go in and out of fashion according to relevance or irrelevance. Trollope, for example, in some eras seems interesting and in others trivial but not, like Dickens, right or wrong. Some novelists are luckier than others in the eras of their formative intellectual years, but all Weltanschauungs return, which means that most novelists have at least a chance of a revival.
- Jane Smiley, The Guardian, 24 June 2006
|BOOKS BY (HARRY) SINCLAIR LEWIS:|
A novel of life in a quiet Midwestern town exposes the complacency and hypocrisy there.
editor-in-chief: Stacey Knecht, email@example.com
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