I was dimly aware of Sinclair Lewis but completely unfamiliar with his work when I read John Steinbeck’s “Travels with Charley: In Search of America” a couple of years ago. Steinbeck, who admired Lewis, wanted to find his way from St Paul to Sauk Centre, Lewis' Minnesota hometown and the town on which the fictional location of this novel, Gopher Prairie, is based. He recounts his conversation with a waitress in a diner who gave him directions to the town: "They got a sign up. I guess quite a few folks come to see it. It does the town some good." The diner's cook volunteered that he didn't think "what's-his-name" was there anymore. Steinbeck recollected how negatively Sauk Centre had reacted to Lewis and to "Main Street" when it was published in 1920 and commented "Now he's good for the town. Brings in some tourists. He's a good writer now." The way Sauk Centre embraced Sinclair Lewis is similar to the way in which the Salinas Valley embraced Steinbeck, after its initial hugely negative reaction to the publication of “The Grapes of Wrath”.
A reader's response to this novel and in particular to its main character will depend to a large extent on their experience of and feelings towards life in a small town. Did you grow up in a small town or now live in one and absolutely love it? Then you'll probably dislike Carol Kennicott, a young librarian who marries a doctor in 1912, goes to live in Gopher Prairie and wants to change it and the people who live there. Can you imagine nothing worse than living in a place where everyone knows and judges everyone else? Then you'll understand Carol and feel for her, even if she also frustrates and annoys you. Having spent most of my life in a large city, I'm in the latter camp. Although I didn't find Carol particularly likeable - at least not all the time - I responded sympathetically to her. Had I been in her situation, I would probably have reacted as she did.
Lewis captures all that he saw as negative in small town life and called it Main Street: narrow-mindedness, provincialism, bigotry, hypocrisy, self-satisfaction and resistance to change. However, his portrayal of those who encapsulate those characteristics is not exclusively negative. Nor is his portrayal of Carol Kennicott overwhelmingly positive. The plot may be rambling, the style uneven and the satire and social commentary broad and unsubtle, but Lewis' rendering of his central characters is not without nuance. In my view, that's where much of the strength of the work resides. This is one of those works which I'm glad I've read, even if it hasn't left me particularly anxious to read more of its writer's work. A 3.5 star literary experience with a few 5 star moments.