Exile on Main Street

Sometimes this friend of H.L. Mencken did enjoy attacking pieties for the simple sake of shock. "He would be a heroic man who should dare to say publicly that dogs are frequently nuisances and loving mothers sometimes talk too much," he joked. But Lewis's radicalism ran deeper than parochial resentment or adolescent defiance. "America's Angry Man" directed his wrath at more significant targets. The self-described "nebulous radical" brooked no ambivalence on the American tyrannies he called "Polite Society, the Family, the Church, Sound Business, the Party, the Country, the Superior White Race."

Indeed, Lewis's rap on race was radical, although it has been largely whitewashed from memory. Although better known for his rage against Republicans and fascists--in such persons as "Lowell Schmaltz, Constructive and Nordic Citizen," and the demagogue "Buzz Windrip" and his right-wing "League of the Forgotten Men" (see The Man Who Knew Coolidge and It Can't Happen Here)--Lewis also mocked what he called "Inferior Race Theory." The "logic" of this theory Lewis outlined as follows: "An inferior race is one whose members work for me. They are treacherous, ungrateful, ignorant, lazy, and agitator-ridden, because they ask for higher wages and thus seek to rob me of the dollars which I desire for my wife's frocks and for the charities which glorify me. This inferiority is inherent. I know this is so, because all my university classmates and bridge-partners agree with me."

Racewise, Lewis's penultimate novel might suit today's Minnesota high-school curricula, not to mention students' interests, better than Main Street. Kingsblood Royal (1947) features Neil Kingsblood of "Grand Republic," Minnesota, who enjoys his smug existence as a "one hundred per cent normal, white, Protestant, male, middle-class, efficient, golf-loving, bound-to-succeed, wife-pampering, Scotch-English Middlewestern American" banker. When this respectable redhead learns he has African ancestry, he befriends local black citizens and in the process learns as much about white people and racism as about black folks. Ultimately he "resign[s] from the white race," followed by his wife Vestal, who up until then had believed "that God's purpose in creating the universe was to lead gently up to the Junior League." Alongside fellow blacks and a handful of white neighbors, Kingsblood takes up arms against a white mob.

Finally, Lewis had found a character who thoroughly rebelled, and who found community with "soul"--in Minnesota.

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