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Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Main Street (1920) by Sinclair Lewis

Disney Main Street

Book Review
Main Street (1920)
 by Sinclair Lewis

   Between 2003 and 2005 I read extensively in American history, especially focusing on the period between the end of the Civil War and the start of World War II.   Many of the skips in the 1001 Books list from this time period- the early twentieth century- are novels I read during this period.  Sinclair Lewis is a must, and Main Street, along with Babbitt, are his two major works, both revolving around the smallness of small-town American life in the early 20th century.  Sinclair Lewis, of course, was the first American to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, in 1930, and in their announcement the Committee referenced Main Street.

  Sinclair Lewis is also one of the first canonical authors who actually won a Nobel Prize in Literature, which gave out it's first award in 1901.  The first thirty years are filled with forgotten writers and a TON of writers from Scandinavia.  Perhaps it is no coincidence that Main Street is set in a small town outside of the twin cities in Minnesota, a heavily Swedish/Danish/German area of settlement.   At 441 pages, Main Street is not what you could call a light read.  The first time I read it, I read a paperback thrift edition, perhaps even purchased used, and I remember a leaden reading experience.

  This time, I listened to an audio book, with one voice, a male voice, who "does" all the different character voices, including the dialogue of Carol Milford, the small-town Madame Bovary wannabe that lies at the heart of Main Street. Main Street is satire, which means that no one is likable, including Carol who spends perhaps half of the book agonizing over her fate in small-town America as a comfortable house frau of a country doctor.

  The audio book, 16 hours long, gave me plenty of time to dwell on the stylistic failing of Lewis as a prose stylist.  I'd be prepared to make an extended case that Main Street is at least 50 pages too long- Lewis includes lengthy segments about subsidiary characters late in the book in a way that has nothing to do with the earlier story, except as those characters exist within that universe.  The 16 hours of audio equates to about 450 pages, so it isn't even that long, but man oh man does it feel like it, particularly since Lewis is going far, far, far out of his way to make everyone sound as tedious as humanly possible.

   I can't help but think of Disney Land's Main Street- Disney Land in Anaheim opened in 1955, Walt Disney must have been cognizant of this book.  You could say that the Disney version is a kind of answer to Lewis' dark portrayal.  Lewis did, in fact, coin the phrase "Main Street," so the Disney version does relate to his novel.

  I couldn't remember a thing about the story, despite the fact that I have the book on my shelf and even have some notes in the margins.  The smug disdain expressed by Sinclair Lewis for small town American life is still active today, it's EXACTLY the kind of bias that Trump plugs into with rural voters, and it is still worth reading today just for that the reason- the insight it gives into the world of the mentalite of small town, rural America. 

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