The Un-Wholesome Character of Main Street by Sinclair Lewis


Main Street is the novel that was supposed to win Sinclair Lewis the Pulitzer Prize in 1921. Widely popular in its day, it was recommended for the Pulitzer Prize by the selection committee (the Pulitzer “novel jury”), however the award was overturned by the Pulitzer Advisory Board at Columbia University. The Board controversially changed the language of Mr. Pulitzer’s bequest to Columbia University by shifting the criteria in order to novels representing the “wholesome” character of American life, rather than the “whole” character of American life. In other words, the new criteria added a moral element to the selection process. It was a deliberate attempt to snub Sinclair Lewis and his blistering brand of satire. The Board of Trustees at Columbia University awarded Edith Wharton the prize in 1921, leaving Sinclair Lewis furious (a man already known for his tempestuous personality). He was overlooked again in 1922 for Babbitt, a satire of American middle class materialism. He was eventually awarded the Pulitzer Prize (perhaps as an apology from Columbia University) for his lengthy satire of American medicine, Arrowsmith (read my reflections on Arrowsmith here) but by that point Lewis rather loudly declined the prize while decrying the whole process.

This issue of the “wholesome” character of American culture is at the heart of themes raised in Main Street. In the novel, we discover simple-minded middle class people living in dreary small towns, like “Gopher Prairie,” sprawling throughout the Mid-West. Residents are portrayed as silly and even ignorant, while Carol, a young city-girl who has been cultured by her University education, feels out of place when she becomes the town’s newest housewife. She soon discovers the spread of gossip and judgment burns through the town like a prairie-fire as her every manner and faux pas is meticulously examined. All the additional characters of the town are wooden and hollow, they are straw-men created by Sinclair Lewis to be toyed around with, while Carol is unique, creative, imaginative, and full of depth. Her politics and feminism, as well as her interest in culture and art daringly fly in the face of everything Gopher Prairie holds dear. Carol’s internal conflict is caught between needing to “reform” the town or else simply allowing the town to pitifully exist in its backwards ways.

While in his lifetime Sinclair Lewis eventually did leave Sauk Centre for Yale (never to return), in Main Street Carol leaves Gopher Prairie for a short time only to return in defeat. Any lingering romantic notions about small town life in America are tragically shattered in Main Street.

A photo of the “main street” in Sauk Centre where Sinclair Lewis was raised.

Sinclair Lewis comes to light as a somewhat belligerent satirist of all things held dear in American culture; he is a slayer of sacred cows. His lifelong alcoholism can be seen splashed haphazardly across the pages of his novels. He hurriedly pokes fun at American virtues (as well as vices), though his satires rarely raise audiences to the point of laughter. They are, instead, austere and grave, yet fast-paced and one-dimensional. His novels are long, meandering, and incomplete, though they are certainly compelling in their varying vignettes (such as in the case of Carol’s first party she throws in Gopher Prairie). One has to wonder if Lewis would continue lambasting small town American life had he survived into the present-day wherein many “main streets” have struggled almost to the point of non-existence. Would he, instead, look back fondly on a former age in which people once came together out of a shared goal of mutual prosperity to build little towns and main streets across the nation?

Here are a few memorable passages from Main Street:

“On a hill by the Mississippi where Chippewas camped two generations ago, a girl stood in relief against the cornflower blue of Northern sky.” (-opening lines which introduce Carol Milford as a student in St. Paul, Minnesota).

“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 continuance of Main Streets everywhere.” (a segment from the author’s dedication at the outset).

“‘That’s what I’ll do after college! I’ll get my hands on one of these prairie towns and make it beautiful. Be an inspiration. I suppose I’d better become a teacher then, -but I won’t be that kind of a teacher!” (pg. 6; Carol in school fantasizing her future while in college).

“Towns as planless as a scattering of pasteboard boxes on an attic floor” (pg. 22).

“When Carol had walked for thirty-two minutes, she had completely covered the town, east and west, north and south; and she stood on the corner of Main Street and Washington Avenue and despaired” (pg. 38).

“She could not escape asking (in the exact words and mental intonations which a thousand million women, dairy wenches and mischief-making queens, had used before her, and which a million million women will know hereafter), ‘Was it all a horrible mistake, my marrying?’ She quieted the doubt – without answering it'” (pg. 122).

“Early May; wheat springing up in blades like grass; corn and potatoes being planted; the land humming. For two days there had been steady rain. Even in town the roads were a furrowed welter of mud, hideous to view and difficult to cross. Main Street was a black swamp from curb to curb; on residence streets the grass parking beside the walks oozed gray water. It was prickly hot, yet the town was barren under the bleak sky. Softened neither by snow nor by waving boughs the houses squatted and scowled, revealed in their unkempt harshness” (pg. 160).

“In the prairie heat she trudged along unchanging ways, she talked about nothing to tepid people, and reflected that she might never escape from them” (pg. 264).

“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” (pg. 520).

“But I have won in this: I’ve never excused my failures 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 dish-washing is enough to satisfy all women! I may not have fought the good fight, but I have kept the faith” (pg. 521).

Lewis, Sinclair. Main Street. New York, Bantam Classics, 1996.

Click here to return to my survey of the Pulitzer Prize Winners.

4 thoughts on “The Un-Wholesome Character of Main Street by Sinclair Lewis

  1. Pingback: The Age of Innocence on Trial | Great Books Guy

  2. Pingback: Arrowsmith: A Pulitzer Controversy and A Satire of American Medicine | Great Books Guy

  3. Pingback: Love and War In For Whom The Bell Tolls | Great Books Guy

  4. Pingback: Babbitt: A Satire of Middle Class Complacency – Great Books Guy

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