Is “Main Street” Relevant Today?

Is “Main Street” Relevant Today?

[amazon_link id=”1619491516″ target=”_blank” container=”” container_class=”” ]Main Street[/amazon_link]In 1920 Sinclair Lewis published what would be his most famous work, “Main Street.”  I must admit I have had this book sitting on my shelves for years and have never read it.  Just prior to my holiday vacation in December, I was looking for something to read for the plane ride to Europe and I thought I would give this a shot.  After reading the first 100 pages or so, I started thinking that this book could have been written today because many of the issues it deals with haven’t change much in the last 100 years.  By the time I finished, I definitely felt that way.

The story of “Main Street” seems rather simple on its face.  The heroine Carol, is introduced as a college student in the mid-west in approximately 1910.  After graduation, she spends some time in Chicago before heading back to Minneapolis.  While working as a librarian in Minneapolis, she meets Will Kennicot, a doctor from Gopher Prairie, a small fictional northern town in Minnesota.  They court and marry.  She moves to Gopher Prairie and is immediately horrified and disillusioned by small town life.  Her goal, for a major portion of the book, is to change the town to what she thinks is better.  That includes dealing with the gossips and mores that go along with small life.  In a small sense, the book is the conflict that we currently have between Main Street and Wall Street.

As the book continues, the themes are expanded to include the marital discourse between Carol and Will such that she exhibits more and more symptoms of what would now be called clinical depression.  She is frustrated in the lack of change on “Main Street.” She is frustrated that her husband doesn’t back her up in the changes she wants to make in the town.  She is frustrated that he is happy and content with his life.  Basically, she is a cannon with no ammunition and it is killing her.  It is stifling all of her creative juices and making her very unhappy.

Nobel Prize Winning Author Sinclair Lewis

In response to her marital problems, she latches onto a few characters for support and almost has extramarital affairs with three of them.  She retainers her virtue, but is still unhappy.  In the end, she leaves her marriage for the big city of Washington D.C. with their only son and after almost two years realizes that life isn’t that bad on “Main Street.”  She returns knowing she will never achieve what she wants and needs, but that her newborn daughter might be able to by the end of the century.  At this point, the year is 1920 and the novel has covered the intervening ten years with some emphasis on the period of World War I and the women’s suffragette movement.  It touches on the beginning of prohibition, but doesn’t get into this as much as the other intervening historical events.

What struck me about the book is that the conflicts between main street and urban areas and the conflicts between women’s rights and traditional values are just as relevant today as when the novel was published in 1920.  In fact, the progressive movement during the presidency of Woodrow Wilson and the neo-progressives during the presidency of Barack Obama are very similar.  Both Wilson and Obama favor a world view over the importance of what is now called American Exceptionalism.

The conflicts that Carol, the urbanite, faces with the residents of Main Street are very similar to many of the issues we have now with the opposing forces of the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street.  Carol wants to change Main Street to her utopian view of the world just like the neo-progressives.  She wants Main Street to conform.  The residents on the other hand see it differently.  They are quite happy with the way things are and do not need the change Carol feels necessary for both herself and the town.  The residents represent many of the issues that are being tackled by the Tea Party movement today.  Carol represents change, whether it be for good or otherwise.  In that sense, she is not a direct follower of what would now be the Occupy Wall Street movement, but she represents them in the sense that they do not want things to stay the way they are.

The 1918 Carol represent the beginning of the women’s movement.  She is frustrated with being the mother and housekeeper, but doesn’t know what she needs to relieve the frustration.  She knows she needs something, but isn’t sure what.  Carol in 2012 would be part of the women’s movement too.  However, the issues we face today, are different, but really the same.  Would she rebel against the pro-choice movement or would she accept things the way they are and continue to be frustrated and depressed.

At the end of the novel, when she goes to Washington D.C. and works with the war effort, she realizes Washington D.C. has many of the same problems and issues she had with Main Street.  In fact, she feels it is just a larger collection of individual Main Streets all put together.  It is then she realizes that maybe Gopher Prairie wasn’t that bad.  And, that maybe change will come, albeit at a slower pace.

Interesting parallels to a book that was written almost 100 years ago.  However, far too many to cover in a short column like this.

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