Sunday, February 11, 2007

Main Street

When Main Street was published in 1920 it struck a chord with everyday Americans in a way that few books had done up to that time. It sold hundreds of thousands of copies and was soon to be found in small town homes all across the country because so many people were able to identify with Main Street's main character, Carol Kennicott. Through the eyes of Carol Kennicott, some readers saw their own "main streets" in a way that they had not considered them before. For the first time they noticed just how smugly narrow minded and intolerant were the societies in which they lived. Others, who had already recognized the limitations imposed upon them by their small town leadership, saw Main Street as confirmation that they were not alone in wishing for more from life than what was on offer to them in small town America.

Ultimately, of course, Carol Kennicott resigns herself to living in the small Minnesota community that she once fought so desperately to change. Two years after moving to Washington D.C. with her small son she returns to her husband with a determination to make a good life for her family in Gopher Prairie. She's found that the reality of making a better life for herself in the big city is no match for the dreams that she had about doing so, and although she no longer loves her husband the way that she once did, she respects him enough to return to her life with him.

I suspect that even the book's sad ending served as a lesson for small town dreamers everywhere. They realized that their choices were limited to blind acceptance of a narrow minded value system, fighting the system and living unhappily in their small town, or striking out on their own to at least have a chance of finding something better. Future success and happiness, however, were not guaranteed as they were reminded by Carol's reflections:
"She looked across the silent fields to the west. She was conscious of an unbroken sweep of land to the Rockies, to Alaska; a dominion which will rise to unexampled greatness when other empires have grown senile. Before that time, she knew, a hundred generations of Carols will aspire and go down in tragedy devoid of palls and solemn chanting, the humdrum inevitable tragedy of struggle against inertia...'But I've won this: I've never excused my failure by sneering at my aspirations, by pretending to have gone beyond them. I do not admit that Main Street is as beautiful as it should be! I do not admit that Gopher Prairie is greater or more generous than Europe! I do not admit that dishwashing is enough to satisfy all women! I may not have fought the good fight, but I have kept the faith.'"
I first read Main Street in 1965 as a high school junior in a small East Texas town of about 12,000 people. I was already dreaming of an escape from that lifestyle and I found a certain amount of comfort and encouragement in discussing what was then a 45-year old book with the school's new English teacher. I sometimes think back to those days and wonder how different my life might have been if not for that teacher and for writers like Sinclair Lewis.

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