Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Main Streeted

Most of the commentary I’ve read on Sinclair Lewis’ “Main Street” focuses on the nastiness of small-town life: The parochialism, the gossiping, back-biting, sniping and overall unfriendliness that makes Carol Kennicot’s life in Gopher Prairie, Minnesota, the hell that it is.
I’ve yet to read commentary that focuses on the second theme of the book: Carol’s overall lack of put near anything to feel superior about.
Liberals champion Lewis’ Main Street for focusing on the stifling effects conservatism has on anything progressive. What they miss is that Carol, in her own naïve way, is as uneducated, misinformed, petty, and small as the conservatives most readers love to hate in this book. That’s the reason I love reading this book – because Lewis sincerely presents a balanced look at a town resistant to reform pushed by a woman too uneducated and naïve to reform it.
How can I say Carol is uneducated, her of Blodgett College, her of the library of the metropolis of St. Paul, her of the lofty ideals and strong ambitions? She’s not very good at what she tries to do.
From Vida Sherwin (Page 210) emphasis mine:
If you must know, you’re not a sound reformer at all. You’re an impossiblist. And you give up too easily. You gave up on the new city hall, the anti-fly campaign, club papers, the library-board, the dramatic association – just because we didn’t graduate into Ibsen the very first thing. You want perfection all at once. Do you know what the finest thing you’ve done is – aside from bringing Hugh into the world? It was the help you gave Dr. Will during baby-welfare week. You didn’t demand that each baby be a philosopher and artist before you weighted him, as you do with the rest of us.
And now I’m afraid perhaps I’ll hurt you. We’re going to have a new schoolbuilding in this town – in just a few years – and we’ll have it without one bit of help or interest from you.

Professor Mott and I and some others have been dinging away at the moneyed men for years. We didn’t call on you because you would never stand the pound-pound-pounding year after year without one bit of encouragement. And we’ve won!
Yes, Carol comes back with a rejoinder:

I’m glad. And I’m ashamed I haven’t had any part in getting it. But – Please don’t think I’m unsympathetic if I ask one question: Will the teachers in the hygienic new building go on informing the children that Persia is a yellow spot on the map and Caesar is the title of a book of grammatical puzzles?
Carol Kennicott begins the story unsympathetically, and ends it the same way – never satisfied, smug that her way is the best way – the same feeling she resents in the townsfolk.
Any reform, any progressivism, is going to go slowly. Over time. When you try to get reform all at once, you get things like the French Revolution, the revolt against the Czar, and other unpleasantness. Even the odious “reforms” of Nazi Germany took time – years, not months.

Would-be reformers are too impatient most of the time to get the reform they want. That doesn’t mean the blind stubbornness that clings to the present is any better, but progress and progressivism ought to have the intelligence to stick things out and be patient.
This is likely not what Lewis intended in creating this story – but it’s what I see in it. And I see it twice, because in the character of Erik Valborg, we see the same insistence that genius is there behind the innate naivete. Valborg, the local yearning artiste, knows what he wants to do: Go east to art school, so he can learn to design ladies’ clothing. But like Archie Bunker’s Meathead, he ain’t got no brains nor no ambition – he’s content to work in the local flour mill because it’s easier than pursuing his dreams, which go unpursued because they’d be too much hard work. Even when Valborg is eventually driven out of town, he shows up again acting in a Hollywood movie, much to Carol’s chagrin:

(Page 340) On the screen, in the role of a composer, appeared an actor called Eric Valour.
She was started, incredulous, then wretched. Looking straight out at her, wearing a beret and a velvet jacket, was Erik Valborg.
He had a pale part, which he played neither well nor badly. She speculated “I could have made so much of him – “ she did not finish her speculation.
She went home and read Kennicott’s letters. They had seemed stiff and undetailed, but now there strode from them a personality, a personality unlike that of the languishing young man in the velvet jacket playing a dummy piano in a canvas room.
Again, Carol Kennicott fails – and sees that the things she wished to “reform” – including her husband – mean more to her, have more to them than she ever supposed, than the reformed, the artistic, the phonies who feel they’re free but are playing dummy pianos in a canvas room.
The only character who succeeds at reform in Gopher Prairie is the luckless Miles Bjornstam, who defied everything held holy in the town and dared to live the life he wanted to live. He succeeded by reforming himself. So he says:
(page 108)I never thought I’d be agreeing with Old Man Dawson, the penny-pinching old land-thief – and a fine briber he is too. But you got the wrong slant. You aren’t one of the people – yet. You want to do something for the town. I don’t! I want the town to do something for itself. We don’t want old Dawson’s money – not if it’s a gift, with a string. We’ll take it away from him, because it belongs to us. You got to get more iron and cussedness into you. Come join us cheerful bums, and some day – when we educate ourselves and quit being bums – we’ll take things and run ‘em straight.
He had changed from her friend to a cynical man in overalls. She could not relish the autocracy of “cheerful bums.”

Bjornstam found joy in his “reforms” – a wife and a child, a growing, prospering dairy – for which he did not exchange a single cent of his cynicism, his freedom. He found defeat not from the town, but from the deaths of his wife and child from typhoid. The town gloats in his defeat, but it is not their defeatism that sends him packing – it is the thought of looking at his house, the little chariot he built for his son, and seeing only memories, memories the ugliness of Gopher Prairie could not take form him, nor ease.
And Carol – Carol learns she doesn’t have the patience to get more iron and cussedness – the same virtues Vida Sherwin says she lacks – in order to run things straight. She can’t get educated and stop being a bum – for doing that is simply too hard, or too hard for her yet.
Need more evidence? Consider Will Kennicott’s speech to Carol after he catches Carol and Erik out for a soggy walk:
(Page 312) Wait, wait, wait now! Hold up! You’re assuming that your Erik will make good. As a matter of fact, at my age he’ll be running a one-man tailor shop in some burg about the size of Schoenstrom.
He will not!
That’s what he’s headed for now, all right, and he’s twenty-five or –six and – What he done to make you think he’ll ever be anything but a pants-presser?
He has sensitivities and talent –
Wait now! What has he actually done in the art line? Has he done one first-class picture or – sketch, d’you call it? Or one poem, or played the piano, or anything except gas about what he’s going to do?
She looked thoughtful.
Then it’s a hundred to one shot that he never will. Way I understand it, even these fellows that do something pretty good at home and get to go to art school, there ain’t more than one out of ten of ‘em maybe out of a hundred that ever get above grinding out a bum living – about as artistic as plumbing. And when it comes down to this tailor, why, can’ t you see – you that take on so about psychology – can’t you see that it’s just by contrast with folks like Doc McGanum or Lym Cass that this fellow seems artistic? Suppose you’d met up with him first in one of these reg’lar New York studios! You wouldn’t notice him any more ‘n a rabbit!
This is preceded by a plea from him to recognize him for his skills, his science – (Page 311)  “You that ‘re always speiling about how scientists ought to rule the world, instead of a bunch of spread-eagle politicians – can’t you see that I’m all the science there is here?” Carol Kennicott can’t see the trees of competence, of skill, of artistry, for the forest of inadequacy she populates in Gopher Prairie, and with which Gopher Prairie is rightly populated.
It’s interesting that so many people say Main Street is a novel without a plot – but to me, the plot is clear: Witness the life of Carol Kennicott, would-be reformer, too lazy to become educated enough to be an effective reformer, because she’s too lazy to put in the work.

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