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Saturday, October 23, 2010

Ninety years after publication, Sinclair Lewis’s Main Street still resonates with readers

On October 23, 1920, Harcourt, Brace & Howe published Main Street by Sinclair Lewis and no one ever looked at small-town America in quite the same way again. Lewis’s masterstroke was to make Main Street “the climax of civilization” on the first page:
This is America—a town of a few thousand, in a region of wheat and corn and dairies and little groves.
The town is, in our tale, called “Gopher Prairie, Minnesota.” But its Main Street is the continuation of Main Streets everywhere. The story would be the same 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.
The book became an immediate sensation. Biographer Mark Schorer called its publication “the most sensational event in twentieth-century American publishing history.” As of 1922 an estimated two million Americans had read the book. Ludwig Lewisohn conjectured that “Perhaps no novel since Uncle Tom’s Cabin struck so deep over so wide a surface of the national life.” Biographer Richard Lingeman estimated that “Main Street earned Lewis perhaps three million current [2002] dollars.”

Lewis found a way to appeal to both those who were nostalgic for small town America and those who were dissatisfied with it. His publisher Alfred Harcourt speculated that many of the book’s buyers were urbanites who had lived in small towns. Lingeman agreed:
Most native-born adult Americans in 1920 had grown up in small towns or rural areas. The United States was still a small-town country, despite the great leap of urbanization over the previous forty years. Half its population lived in towns of 2,500 or less.
Lewis himself was born in a small town of 2,800: Sauk Centre, Minnesota. He understood that small towns have familiar types: malcontents like his protagonist Carol Kennicott, solid folk like her husband Will and her best friend Vida Sherwin, and outsiders like the effeminate and poetic tailor Erik Valborg or the outspoken radical handyman Miles Bjornstam.

But most of all, Lewis struck a nerve with women readers, through his vivid descriptions, his varied characters, their common fear of gossip, and, most of all, his appealing approach to sex. As Lingeman wrote in Sinclair Lewis: Rebel from Main Street:
Main Street is franker about sex than most novels of the time, but Lewis keeps it within the marital relationship so as not to alienate the married women who made up a bulk of its readers.
These women were drawn to Main Street for its perceptive and realistic portrait of a modern marriage. Said one reader: “I lived every page of Main Street for fifteen years.” Another repeated Carol’s mantra, “I must go on,” but her courage sometimes faltered: “I have sat on the slippery edge of a bath tub and privately wept, many and many a time. Dear tender treasured longings which cause us who hunger to weep!”
Ninety years later, Main Street continues to resonate with readers. Julie on My So-Called Gifts blog recently finished reading it and wrote:
Reading Main Street has helped me to accept that although clothing styles, automobiles and ways of communicating have changed in the 90 years since it was written, the restrictive attitudes and judgmental glances detailed in the novel are still found in the Minnesota towns that surround me today. . . I wish that [Sinclair Lewis] was still alive so I could thank him for observing my experience before I was even born and documenting it in such a way that I could learn from it.
Of related interest:
  • In 1930 Lewis was the first American writer to win the Nobel Prize. You can read his Nobel autobiography, his Nobel lecture, and watch a short silent video clip of him in Stockholm here.
  • The Sound of Blackbirds blog has recapped the poets and songwriters who attended the 20th anniversary of the Sinclair Lewis Writer’s Conference in Sauk Centre earlier this month
Related LOA works: Sinclair Lewis: Main Street and Babbitt; Sinclair Lewis: Arrowsmith, Elmer Gantry, Dodsworth


  1. http://sinclairlewisandthecanon.blogspot.com/

  2. Thank you so much for the very informative outline of the book. I have an original copy and had been looking for this information for quite some team. I appreciate how nicely you have it formatted which makes very easy to understand. I have bookmarked your page and will gladly use it as a reference point in the future as I have an extensive collection of classic hardcover literature,


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