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Modern Library Top 100 Novels of the 20th Century (68)

        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 continuation of Main Streets
        everywhere. The story would be the same in Ohio or Montana,
        in Kansas or Kentucky or Illinois, and not very differently
        would it be told Up York State or in the Carolina Hills.
                -Author's Preface

As all of us know, Sinclair Lewis was the great liberal critic of small town, bourgeois Middle America.  His novels demonstrated the small-minded conformity of the conservative folk of the MidWest, content to wallow in smug self-righteous ignorance.   This at least is the common understanding of Lewis.  But I found this book to be somewhat more nuanced.  The satire extends not just to the townfolk of Gopher Prairie, but to the city folk of Washington too.  Thus, when Carol Kennicott decides to return home, I did not see it as necessarily a surrender.  She notes several times that noone in Washington cares about her, the way the townspeople back in Minnesota did.  This seems to me to be the fundamental dilemma that Lewis sets up:  Main Street requires conformity to tradition and social standards in exchange for recognition, respect and love from one's neighbors, the City offers freedom and individuality precisely because there's noone there who cares about you or what you do.

Instead of flatly condemning small town America, Lewis seems to have had a more limited goal in mind.  When Carol is planning to return, a leader of the suffragettes tells her that she need not heroically assault Gopher Prairie and the attitudes she finds there:

    There's one attack you can make on it, perhaps the only kind that accomplishes much anywhere:
    you can keep on looking at one thing after another in your home and church and bank, and ask why
    it is, and who first laid down the law that it had to be that way.  If enough of us do this impolitely
    enough, then we'll become civilized in merely twenty thousand years or so, instead of having to wait
    the two hundred thousand years that my cynical anthropologist friends allow.  ...Easy, pleasant,
    lucrative home-work for wives: asking people to define their jobs.  That's the most dangerous
    doctrine I know!

Dangerous it may be, but it is also pretty conservative, shockingly so for a Socialist.  What is spelled out there is a program that would allow for gradual reform of egregious wrongs, without tossing out what is good.  It is the exact opposite of what actually occurred over the next 70 years of New Deal hegemony.  This excellent message is obscured somewhat because the section that takes place in the city is pretty brief, while the town life portion goes on interminably.  But it does redeem the book, which I sort of expected to just be just a hysterical screed.  It's too bad that there's not more focus on this aspect of the novel.  It offers constructive criticism and gives the book some universal significance, rescuing it from just being a slice of a life at a limited time and place in our history.


Grade: (C)


Sinclair Lewis Links:

    -WIKIPEDIA: Sinclair lewis
    -ESSAY: The Novelist Who Saw Middle America as It Really Was: Sinclair Lewis captured the narrow-mindedness and conformity of middle-class America in the first half of the 20th century. On the 100th anniversary of his best-selling novel “Babbitt,” Robert Gottlieb revisits Lewis’s life and career. (Robert Gottlieb, 1/01/22, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of Library of America--Sinclair Lewis Novels (Steve Vineberg, Boston Phoenix)

Book-related and General Links:
    -ENCYCLOPAEDIA BRITANNICA : "sinclair lewis"
    -Sinclair Lewis (kirjasto)
    -ETEXT : Babbitt (1922) (Bartleby)
    -Nobel Prize in Literature 1930: Sinclair Lewis (Nobel E Museum)
    -Sinclair Lewis, Winner of the 1930 Noble Prize in Literature (Nobel Internet Archive)
    -Sinclair Lewis Society
    -Sinclair Lewis: As Only His Home Town Could Know Him (Sauk Centre Herald)
    -Sinclair Lewis (1885 - 1951) (The Internet Public Library, Online Literary Criticism Collection)
    -Sinclair Lewis (1885-1951) (New Grub Street)
    -Lewis, Sinclair  Writer (1885-1951) (American History 102)
    -Chapter 7: Early Twentieth Century - Sinclair Lewis (1885-1951) (PAL: Perspectives in American Literature:  A Research and Reference Guide  An Ongoing Online Project © Paul P. Reuben | EMail: |)
    -ESSAY : `No Decent Man Would Accept a Degree He Hadn't Earned' (P. J. Wingate, Christian Science Monitor)
    -ESSAY : MY SUMMER JOB WITH SINCLAIR LEWIS  (John Hersey,  May 10, 1987, NY Times Book Review)
    -ESSAY : Prescribing 'Arrowsmith'  (Howard Markel, September 24, 2000, NY times)
    -ESSAY : The Western Writings of Sinclair Lewis (GLEN A. LOVE, Literary History of the American West)
    -ESSAY : The Romance of Real Estate (Judith Shulevitz,  February 25, 2001, NY Times Book Review)
    -ARCHIVES : "Sinclair Lewis" (NY Review of Books)
    -ARCHIVES : "Sinclair Lewis" (Find Articles)
    -ONLINE STUDY GUIDE :  Babbitt  by Sinclair Lewis  (Selena Ward, Spark Notes)
    -REVIEW : of Arrowsmith (Henry Longan Stuart, March 8, 1925, NY Times)
    -ANNOTATED REVIEW : Lewis, Sinclair  Arrowsmith (Felice Aull, Medical Humanities)
    -REVIEW : of IF I WERE BOSS: THE EARLY BUSINESS STORIES OF SINCLAIR LEWIS Edited by Anthony Di Renzo (Linda Laird Giedl, Christian Science Monitor)
    -REVIEW : of SINCLAIR LEWIS : Rebel From Main Street. By Richard Lingeman (Jane Smiley, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of 'Sinclair Lewis: Rebel From Main Street' by Richard Lingeman (Jonathan Yardley, Washington Post)
    -REVIEW : of 'Sinclair Lewis: Rebel From Main Street' By Richard Lingeman (Martin Rubin, SF Chronicle)
    -REVIEW : of Sinclair Lewis by Richard Lingeman (Martin Bucco, Special to The Denver Post)

    -FILMOGRAPHY : Sinclair Lewis (
    -INFO : Elmer Gantry (1960) (