…but there are also hundreds of thousands, particularly women and young men, who are not at all content. The more intelligent young people (and the fortunate widows!) flee to the cities with agility and, despite the fictional tradition, resolutely stay there, seldom returning even for holidays. The most protesting patriots of the towns leave them in old age, if they can afford it, and go to live in California or the cities.
This is from Main Street, the 1920 classic by American Nobel Prize winner Sinclair Lewis. Lewis won his Nobel Prize for his 1925 work, Arrowsmith, and was so upset about not winning the Prize for Main Street that he refused his award for Arrowsmith and publicly complained that he should have won the award for Main Street rather than Arrowsmith (he eventually accepted his prize, years later).
Main Street is a mean book about small town life (Gopher Prairie, Minnesota) in the United States of America. It’s mean because it’s true. It’s amazing and worth reading and blogging about nearly 100 years later because it still resonates powerfully with today’s reader. The more things change, technologically, the more they stay the same, sociologically.
Lewis was a dissatisfied left-liberal who never quite could make the transition over to socialist, though he was sympathetic to their views and aims. In Main Street, in fact, he lambastes the dissatisfied rural gentry (left-liberals, all) for their condescending dismissal of socialist arguments without ever actually considering them fully. Lewis grew up in a small town in Minnesota, where the majority of the plot of Main Street takes place, and was the son of a country doctor. His privileged, rural upbringing no doubt weighed heavy on his mind when he attacked the American small-town way of life.
He (Lewis) wasn’t an America hater, and neither are most left-liberals. Their conservatism betrays their progressive senses. They don’t want or desire revolution, they want change, and they believe the founders, most of whom were slaveholders, instituted a government that could be run by the people. Left-liberals often come across as bitter and hate-filled, and this essence can seem especially true when contrasted with the thoughts of a conservative-liberal. Lewis was certainly a bitter man (he died of alcoholism in Rome in the 1951), but his mean-spirited attacks on American society were, to him and his fans, the work of a patriot (that most conservative of citizen).
If you haven’t read Main Street yet, I recommend doing so. It’s nearly 100 years old now, a fact that made me smile to myself as I realized I was reading a 98-year old novel. (Sinclair Lewis is somewhat fashionable again due to the popular quote “if fascism comes to America…” being misattributed to his name. The freshness of seeing his name on a bumper sticker just makes the reality of how old his works are that much more interesting.) If you don’t, at some point in your life, read one of Lewis’ major works (Babbitt, Main Street, or Arrowsmith), you will die a philistine.
I finally read Main Street after years of it taunting me on the bookshelf. It was worth it, all the more so because I am dissatisfied with where I am at in life. I don’t quite live in a small town, but I do live in a college town after spending the last 7-8 years or so of my life in major American cities that also happen to be sexy American cities, and the culture shock has been hard to confront. Contrary to popular belief, college towns don’t have all that much “culture” in them. Instead, you have a small population of seasonal migrants and a larger (but still small) population of “locals” who live off of the migrants and off of the few industries that have manged to take root in the community. In order to have any sort of leisure in the American college town you must be either a professional or a shopkeeper. Otherwise, you’re shit out of luck.
Main Street reminded me of the streak of dissatisfaction that runs deep in American society. There’s a plan in motion, here in Waco, that involves professionalizing my wife, so I cannot be bitter, but I am dissatisfied. The large Baptist university here is too practical. Its students (Rand Paul is an alum) are dull, and most are philistines, replete with all the usual stories about traveling “abroad” (to western Europe, where the drinking age is 18…) and not knowing a lick of the region’s rich history. There are no Jews, no Koreans, no South Asian Muslims, and few homosexuals. There is a relatively large black population here, but it is, alas, just as conservative as the white one.
Naturally, Californians are reviled. As are college graduates. As are liberals of any kind.
One bright spot here is, of course, the food. Bar. Bee. Q. Even this, though, the one lone bright spot so far, is brought down despairingly by the fact that pants in my size are rare, if you get my drift. My inner celebration of the stereotype of the parochial and bumbling Southerner, now reinforced by real life, coupled with Main Street‘s piercing insights, have provided me solace in an otherwise empty period of intellectual stimulation in my life.