Main Street by Sinclair Lewis – Literature Essay
Evil and corruption can lurk just below the surface where we least expect it, the intensity and fever of living in places one might propose as perfect and peaceful can drive people to act in very disturbing ways. Main Street by
Sinclair Lewis is the tale of a woman from the city who marries a small town man and moves into that town with him. As the book discusses, it has always been an American myth that the small towns were idealic, prosperous and peaceful. “This is how people keep up the tradition of the perfect home-town, the happy boyhood, the brilliant college friends. We forget so.”1 However, the picture that Lewis paints of the small town is one of racism, fear, and hatred. One where hate crimes are readily accepted so long as done in the name of the Republican Party and what they view to be biblical. Where neighbors spy on each other, watching for anything to gossip about, and use this gossip to destroy people’s lives. Where women are held to an unrealistic standard while men are allowed to do as they please, so long as what they please does not involve socialism. But perhaps most dangerous of all, it is an environment that slowly absorbs those who come to it and bite them with the “Village Virus” until they become as twisted and wicked as those around them. Yet, from non-fictional sources it appears as though Lewis was not exaggerating his case at all. That in fact, these attitudes and these acts were embraced, where performed and the Gopher Prairie that Main Street resides within is not even the worst of all possible cases.
One of the biggest topics the villagers of Gopher Prairie talk about with a sense of fear is that of Socialists. The town lives off of milking the farmers, if the farmers were ever to organize then those of the small town would lose quite a bit of their wealth. As put in the words of the character Jack Elder “Lord knows what’s come over workman, nowadays- don’t appreciate a good job… What they ought to do is simply to hang every one of these agitators, and that would settle the whole thing right off.” 1 Although Jack Elder’s suggestion of hanging is said in frustration rather than a declaration of real intent, in reality there were such an attitude in the United States in those days and sometimes those words were acted upon. Fredrick Lewis Allen in his book Only Yesterday describes an event where “the patrioctic citizenry took out of the jail a member of the I.W.W- a white American, be it noted- and lynched him by tying a rope around his neck and throwing him off a bridge.” 2 Although this was a single event, it certainly showed that socialists in general were being targeted and summarily executed by mobs. This seems to be a strange contrast, mobs of the lower classes attacking and killing those who would work for the good of the lower class. However, business men have the ability to speak much louder than a ragtag group of political uprisers and can stir up quite a bit of fear and discontentment. The citizens often stood not so much against what the socialists wanted for fear of their own loss of profit like Jack Elder, but often because of fear of their own safety. The socialist movement in Russia had taken off and was quite successful. It seemed to many Americans that socialism would sweep across Europe and jump over the Atlantic. “They seriously thought- or at least millions of them did- that a Red revolution might begin in the United States the next month or next week, and they were less concerned with making the world safe for democracy than making America safe for themselves.” Thus the American people as a whole quickly turned on and viciously assaulted those amongst them who would stand up against their oppressors and try to create a better world for them and their children.
During World War I, the difference between a socialist and a German could hardly be understood by the average American citizen. Despite the fact that the Germans were in an imperialistic system that put them directly at odds with the Socialists, the average citizen was ignorant enough of the world to not be able to understand the difference. Further, any American with German descent would be targeted and attacked as they were expected to be a German sympathizer regardless of what else their family had done. This is illustrated very blatantly in Main Street when it states “Cy got much reputation by whipping a farm boy named Adolph Pochbaur for being a ‘damn hyphenated German’… This was the younger Pochbauer, who was killed in the Argonne, while trying to bring the body of his Yankee captain back to the lines.” 1 Thus the village cheered on the brattiest child in all their midst for beating a very patriotic and heroic American citizen simply for his racial heritage. However, a person with a different heritage and who would be critical of the United States in time of war may well have been considered to have a death sentence on their head. In Only Yesterday it mentions an event where “a jury in Indiana took two minutes to acquit a man for shooting and killing an aien because he had shouted ‘To hell with the United States’” 2 German descendants were not only attacked and beaten, but often they were forced to buy war bonds even if they could not afford to do so. This too is illustrated in Main Street when after his wife dies a near-penniless Sweedish Socialist leaves town and it is said of him, “the citizens’ committee ought to have forced him to be patriotic- let on like they could send him to jail if he didn’t volunteer and come through for bonds and the Y.M.C.A. They’ve worked that stunt fine with all these German farmers.”1 Thus the anti-German fever was at such a high point that they were considered to be freely open to be beaten while at the same time expected to prove themselves to be more patriotic than any of the Yankees would themselves.
The roles of men and women were kept very separate and stringent as well. While the walls preventing a woman from going to college had been broken down, a woman was expected to dress a certain way and was immediately to blame if anything should happen to her. In the clothing area, one area that seemed to have obsession in the early years of the twentieth century was a woman’s ankles. When Cy is speaking of Carol early in the book he says “some ankles she’s got, heh?” 1 which causes Carol in turn to feel like “she was being dragged naked down Main Street” 1 Later it is spoken about the new dances and clothing, “We used to waltz and dance contra dances. None of these new jigs and not wear any clothes to speak of. We covered out hides in those days; no tight skirts like now.” However, if they did not like the cut of Carol’s dresses then, they would be appalled at what could come shortly later. In Only Yesterday it says “a fashion-writer reported in the New York Times that “the American woman… has lifted her skirt beyond any modest limitation,” which as another way of saying the hem was now all of nine inches above the ground” 2 The skirts continued to go higher and higher during the twenties. However, the fashions of men were similarly held in check. When a Swedish tailor comes into down they speak of him “isn’t he the perfect lady though! He talks so refined, and oh, the lugs he puts on- belted coat, and pique collar with a gold pin, and socks to match his necktie” 1 They refer to this boy, Erik, as ‘Elizabeth’ for the rest of his stay in town. However, he is soon chased away only to end up becoming a movie actor later. Only Yesterday states that “Short-haired women, like long-haired men, are associated with radicalism, if not with free love.” 2
Actions of women were similarly held in check. In Main Street, it tells of the town school teacher who is escorted to a dance by one of her students. The student gets drunk and then tries to molest her as he drives her back home. Yet, despite that she did everything as she should have as soon as rumors surface she is fired from her job and finds it impossible to get work elsewhere. It is said by the most sympathetic party, “Not any of us would believe a word Cy said, not if he swore it on a stack of bibles, but still, after all this gossip, Miss Mullins wouldn’t hardly be the party to chaperon our basket-ball team” 1 Thus gossip itself would prove to be a woman’s undoing. These acts were brought to light through the small town tradition of watching one’s neighbors looking for anything that could be construed against them. Carol feels in the book as if “Enemies leered through the windows, stole on her from the hall.” 1 Only Yesterday says that the code of the day was that “
“Women were the guardians of mortality; they were made of finger stuff than men and were expected to act accordingly. Young girls must look forward in innocence (tempered perhaps with a modicum of physiological instruction) to a romantic love match which would lead them to the alter and to living happily ever-after; and until the “right man” came along they must allow no male to kiss them. It is expected that some men would succumb to the temprations of sex, but only with a special class of outlawed women” 2
A good deal of this break-down was from those who has returned from war. “In France, two million men had found themselves very close to filth and annihilation and very far from the American moral code and its defenders; prostitution has followed the flag and willing mademoiseels from Armentieres had been plentiful; American girls sent over as nurses and war workers had come under the influence of continental manners and standards… It was impossible this generation to return unchanged when the ordeal was over.” Thus the very war that those of the old ways had encouraged and shouted on, the war they had attacked and killed dissenters over became the wooden stake to end the old ways themselves, or at least put them under for a time.
However the most insidious thing about small town life that Main Street speaks of is that which it calls the Village Virus. “The Village Virus is the germ which- it’s extraordinarially like the hook-worm- it infects ambitious people who stay too long in the provinces.” It goes on to describe that the virus cuts people off from the literary and political world until they have found that they have become as small-minded and simple as the people they looked down upon.
Those who lived in the town of Gopher Prairie always spoke of it as if it, and they in turn, were perfect. It would seem as though from looking at Only Yesterday as though all contained within the pages of Main Street was not at all an exaggeration of the situation. The people of the town were so caught up in mob mentality while watching to make sure no one else strayed from the flock, that they were completely oblivious to their own problems and short comings. But while they professed all was perfect in their town, none were truly very happy. When asked for help to fix up the town, one of its oldest residents unknowingly lets out his true opinion, “I’ve had people that have traveled all over the world tell me time and time again that Gopher Prairie is the prettiest place in the Middle-west. Good enough for anybody. Certainly good enough for Mama and me. Besides! Mama and me are planning to go out to Pasadena and buy a bungalow and live there.” 1