Exile on Main Street

You won't find any Sinclair Lewis novels on the "regional" shelf at Tale of the Twin Cities, the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport bookshop, although you can select from a goodly number of more recent works by Garrison Keillor and Jon Hassler. The exclusion makes some sense: Lewis himself alleged that Main Street, his landmark satire of "Gopher Prairie," Minnesota, could be set anywhere. "The story would be the same," the Sauk Centre native claimed at the novel's outset, "in Ohio or Montana, in Kansas or Kentucky or Illinois, and not very differently would it be told Up York State or in the Carolina hills."

In fact, any rush to claim Lewis as our own would prove self-effacing, since the homegrown heretic advertised us with such ambivalence. Over the course of 21 novels, Lewis was unswerving in portraying Midwesterners as banal business boosters, religious hypocrites, and complacent consumers. So we alternately embrace and decry the Corn-Belt cosmopolitan who earned the first Nobel Prize in Literature awarded to an American (1930), along with the animosity of fundamentalist ministers, Republicans, Junior Leagues, and chambers of commerce nationwide. Lewis won the coveted Nobel for the "vigorous and graphic art of description" he displayed in his most famous novels: Main Street, Babbitt, Arrowsmith, Elmer Gantry. But for many locals, his thick descriptions, based on exhaustive, almost anthropological research in the field, were a little too personal.

Some readers--even those far afield of Minnesota--rushed to disassociate themselves from what Lewis called "the village virus." After Main Street's publication, merchants in Richmond, Virginia, petitioned the City Council to change the name of its Main Street in the belief that the name now exercised "a depressing effect" on business. In an ironic turn, Minneapolis bragged (as did Duluth) that it was the city satirized in Babbitt, while Twin Cities realtors publicly debated whether the novel's scathing portrait of a "zip and zowie" sales hustler constituted libel. And in 1960, the Sauk Centre chamber of commerce successfully lobbied to rename its central thoroughfare the "Original Main Street" in a bid for tourist dollars as much as for historic recognition. Yet the revolt against Main Street continues to this day: Kmart now advertises itself as the hip alternative to small-town stores and sensibilities with the slogan "Definitely Not Main Street."

Lewis, who left Minnesota in 1903 at age 18 bound for Yale, but who entertained perennial plans to return, reciprocated those mixed feelings. According to Virginia Woolf, Lewis waffled like a tour guide, equally divided between shame at what he had to show and anger at the outsiders who laughed at it. In one breath he might condemn Minnesotans' "naive boosting and fear of the unusual," and in the next praise them as the essence of "everything that is pioneer, democratic, realistic, American."

Typically, although Lewis said he intended a 1923 Nation article ("Minnesota, the Norse State") as a "flagrant boost meant to increase civic pride and the value of Minnesota real estate," he seized the opportunity to excoriate the state's "commerce-ruled barrenness," "standardized and formula-bound culture," and "Old Families," along with its social climbers and racists. ("A state like this needs more eccentrics and more Jews," he later complained of Minnesota and its lack of "soul.") Lewis distilled his love-hate relationship when he endowed a 1931 paean to Sauk Centre, commissioned for the high-school yearbook, with the title "The Long Arm of the Small Town."

So, if the state still feels the sting of Lewis's barbed tongue--the Coen Brothers' Fargo seems a recent embodiment of his legacy--the roving, red-haired writer couldn't escape the region's clutches, either. Critics frequently invoked his roots to belittle his rebellion. "Mr. Lewis is a half-baked metropolitan," journalist Walter Lippman pronounced. "The terrible judgements which he pronounces upon the provincial civilization of America flow from the bitterness of a revolted provincial." On the author's death in 1951, another critic confessed to holding "an uncharitable suspicion whether one reason Mr. Lewis could capture so neatly and pillory so mercilessly the U.S. provincial mind was that he himself was the quintessence of that mentality."

No wonder, then, that all of Lewis's characters strain to purge themselves of the oft-cited "provincialism," most of them ultimately realizing that the suffocating "home town mind" rules America and that resistance to the "army of complacency" is futile. Main Street's disillusioned protagonist hates her small-town neighbors, calling them "a savorless people, gulping tasteless food, and sitting rocking chairs prickly with inane decorations, listening to mechanical music, saying mechanical things about the excellence of Ford automobiles, and viewing themselves as the greatest race in the world." But still, she reconciles herself to an empty, repressed future among them. So does Babbitt--the original organization man and Truman Show archetype--who moves from rebellion (refusing to join the anti-labor vigilantes of the "Good Citizens' League") back to resignation.

Perhaps the author made the same move when he conceded that his revolt against the village came not from distaste, but from "a love of Main Street, from a belief in Main Street's inherent power....I like Gopher Prairie, all the G.P.s; I couldn't write about them so ardently if I didn't." The prodigal son explained the roots of his dilemma: "My father has never forgiven me for Main Street...[the book] condemned me in his eyes as a traitor to my heritage--whereas the truth is, I shall never shed the indelible 'Sauk-centricities' that enabled me to write it."

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