“Main Street” by Sinclair Lewis
S5 Ep 4
Host: Frank Lavallo
Readers: Katie Smith and Peter Toomey
Author: Sinclair Lewis
Year of Publication: 1920
Plot: Main Street relates to the life and struggles of Carol Milford Kennicott in the provincial town of Gopher Prairie, Minnesota, as she comes into conflict with the small-town mentality of its residents. She moves to the town with dreams of transforming it into a sort of modern utopia. But there's just one problem... everyone else in Gopher Prairie likes the ugly old town just the way it is.
Frank: Hello and welcome. I'm Frank Lavallo and this is Novel Conversations, a podcast about the world's greatest stories. For each episode of Novel Conversations, I talk to two readers about one book; and together we summarize the story for you. We introduce you to the characters, we tell you what happens to them, and we read from the book along the way. So, if you love hearing a good story you're in the right place.
This novel conversation is about Main Street by Sinclair Lewis, published in 1920. With that said, I'd like to introduce and welcome my guest readers this episode is Katie Smith and Peter Toomey. Katie, Peter, hello.
Katie: Thank you.
Peter: Hi Frank.
Frank: Written by Sinclair Lewis in 1918 and published in 1920 Main Street is the story of Carroll Milford. It is the story of her marriage to Dr. Will Kennicott of Gopher Prairie Minnesota. And it is essentially the story of Gopher Prairie. Gopher Prairie is Sinclair Lewis's any small town America with a population of about 3000 citizens. It's made up of a small downtown with its Main Street and residential area surrounded by tenant farms run by the newly immigrated Swedes and Germans. How Carole reacts to Gopher Prairie and just as importantly how Gopher Prairie reacts to Carroll make up the bulk of our story, Main Street.
Frank: Was this the first time you read Main Street?
Katie: It was it was not only the first time but I vaguely knew of Sinclair Lewis but did not know Main Street.
Frank: Peter you knew of Sinclair Lewis but what you knew was wrong wasn't it?
Peter: That's right. I confuse Sinclair Lewis with Upton Sinclair and I had read some Upton Sinclair and I didn't particularly care for it. So I had never read any Sinclair Lewis and it was interesting as I was reading the book and telling people what I was reading. Almost without fail everyone I spoke to had the same reaction. Oh right, he wrote The Jungle and reeled off these books by Upton Sinclair. So I had to quickly disabuse him of that idea and I really enjoyed reading the book. His style was very clear and concise and I really enjoyed it.
Katie: Almost newspaper style.
Frank: So you enjoyed it as well Katie?
Frank: Now Katie, Peter I know that three paragraphs can't really sum up a 39 chapter story. So let’s talk a little about the characters. As far as I'm concerned this novel really has three main characters Carroll, the man she marries Dr. Will Kennicott, and Gopher Prairie Minnesota. But first let's talk about Carroll. We meet her in the first page of the first paragraph. Katie, tell us a little bit about Carroll.
Katie: We meet Carroll as she's graduating from college. We quickly learned that her parents died quite a few years ago and she knows that she has to go out in the world and make it on her own. But she has no idea how she's going to do that.
Peter: She wants to be a sociologist. She wants to be a lawyer. She wants to be a screenplay writer you get no solid feeling about Carol when you first meet her.
Frank: There was a passage where she's living in Chicago for about a year after she graduates from college. She's walking through Wilmette at Evanston. She was looking at the suburban architecture and all the sudden she remembered, she remembered her desire to recreate villages. She decided that she would give up library work and by a miracle whose nature was not very clearly revealed to her turn a prairie town into Georgian houses and Japanese bungalows. And then the next day in library class she had to read a theme on the use of the cumulative index.
Frank: And she was taken so seriously in the discussion that she put off her career of town planning. And she was right back in the library work again.
Peter: Yeah we should say that when she finally does make a decision about a career she picks library science.
Katie: I think I’m gonna have to start defending Carol right away. I don't know how many people today know what they want to do with the rest of their life the day their graduating from college.
Frank: Let's be fair to Carol. All women at that time really had limited choices.
Katie: Here's a quote from the book “daily on the library steps or in the hall of the main building the coeds talked of what shall we do when we finish college. Even the girls who knew that they were going to be married pretended to be considering important business positions even they who knew they would have to work hinted at fabulous suitors. As for Carol she was an orphan and she was not in love. That is not often or ever long at a time. She would earn her living.” So, she was very clear headed about her choices
Frank: Correct. But as we said Carroll does make a decision. She decides to become a librarian. Three or four years later she's a working librarian in St. Paul I believe. And a man comes into her life. Peter you want to tell us a little bit about Dr. Will Kennicott.
Peter: Dr. Kennicott is a friend to a friend of Carol's a couple that lives in St. Paul. Carol is a regular dinner guest of theirs and it becomes apparent that on this night they've sort of arranged for Carol and Dr. Kennicott to meet at their house. Dr. Kennicott is about thirty six years old. He's a doctor in a small town, Gopher Prairie, a few hours train ride from Minneapolis.
Frank: This is how Carroll remembers her first sighting of Dr. Kennicott “a thick tall man of thirty six or seven with stolid brown hair, lips used to giving orders, eyes which followed everything good naturedly and clothes which you could never quite remember.”
Katie: Carroll also saw in Kennicott someone who was sophisticated yet lived in one of these small towns which she was starting to believe was her destiny to go and beautify and Metropolize.
Frank: Carroll does marry Dr. Will Kennicott. They go on a whirlwind honeymoon. Eventually they do have to come to Gopher Prairie and it starts with a long and agonizing train ride
Peter: And it's full of all the people who she is going to meet in Gopher Prairie.
Frank: These are gonna be her neighbors?
Peter: Not specifically but the types. Poor farmers, poor Scandinavian immigrants and as they pass through every small dusty depressing town
Frank: They're small and depressing to Carroll. Right.
Peter: She keeps asking Will well what do you think about this town as compared to Gopher prairie. And he says oh well that's not such a bad town. And she becomes a little bit alarmed. He say Oh, but Gopher Prairie we've got our seven miles of cement sidewalks and we have a longer Main Street. And she starts to become concerned that Gopher Prairie is just like these dozens of small dusty depressing towns that they're passing.
Frank: And in fact Gopher Prairie is one of these small dusty depressing towns.
Katie: By the time she gets to Main Street she's almost in a full blown panic. “She was here. It was the end the end of the world. She sat with closed eyes longing to push past Kennicott. Hide somewhere in the train. Flee on towards the Pacific something large arose in her soul and commanded Stop it. Stop being a whining baby. She stood up quickly she said ‘Isn't it wonderful to be here at last.” See so you've got to remember the people on the train and we'll all they heard was. ‘Isn't it wonderful to be here at last.’ They didn't know what was going on inside.
Frank: We do have to make sure that that's clear. The whining and the complaining
Katie: And there'll be a lot of that
Frank: And there will be a lot of that is really all in her internal thoughts.
Frank: And let's also be clear that Dr. Will is not completely blind to the shortcomings of Gopher Prairie. He knows it's a small town. He knows it's different from what Carroll is used to. In fact he implores her to come to town and to make some changes and to make this a better place to live.
Peter: He says “Come on. come to go for Prairie show us make the town well make it artistic go to it. Make us change.”
Frank: But once she is brought to her new home and is somewhat terrified by that prospect she decides she needs to go and explore this town that's about to become her home. And she heads down Main Street.
Katie: Yes she does.
Frank: Tell me how Sinclair Lewis writes it.
Katie: “When Carol had walked for 32 minutes she had completely covered the town, east and west, north and south and she stood at the corner of Main Street and Washington Avenue and despaired.”
Frank: And while Carol is standing at the corners of Main Street and Washington and despairing, Sinclair Lewis uses a neat little author's technique and he introduces another character basically a minor character but this character is also a new arrival to Gopher Prairie. And she sees things a hundred and eighty degrees differently than Carroll does.
Peter: Bea Sorensen is a Scandinavian immigrant and she's leaving her farm somewhere in Minnesota and coming to the big city, Gopher Prairie, and she's gonna look for work there. And as it happens she gets off the train at the same time as Carroll and they're both walking down Main Street at the same time and Bea is just amazed at this metropolis. “Bea stood on the corner of Main Street and Washington Avenue. The roar of the city began to frighten her. There were five automobiles on the street all at the same time.”
Frank: “As she marched up the streets she was meditating that it didn't hardly seem like it was possible there could be so many folks all in one place and all at the same time. My it would take years to get acquainted with them all and swell people too. A fine big gentleman in a new pink shirt with a diamond. A lovely lady in a lingerie dress. But it must be an awful hard dress to wash.” Now of course the lovely lady that Bea sees is actually Carol Milford on her first tour of Gopher Prairie as well.
Frank: Now these two are destined to have a bit of a relationship together.
Katie: Well simply Bea becomes Carroll's maid and Bea actually becomes Carroll's best friend in Gopher Prairie. Bea is very open enthusiastic and eager to learn and Carol's very receptive someone like that. The other people in Gopher Prairie don't quite have such open mind.
Frank: They object to Carroll paying Bea six dollars a week when they're only paying they're helping girls 550 or even five dollars a week. So this is not going to sit well with the established ladies of Gopher Prairie.
Peter: Right. And that attitude is something that's carried over to all the businesses and professions that operate in Gopher Prairie.
Frank: They begin to see her as this girl from the big city come to a small town to look her nose down at them. She's even buying couches from out of town. She won't go and shop at the local stores and now she's paying her helping girl an exorbitant weekly rate. But things are gonna get worse aren't they.
Peter: Will may have said come to Gopher Prairie and boss us, but I don't think he was speaking for most of the women in the Jolly 17
Katie: No, which is a group of women who meet for lunch and cards on a weekly basis. But we're giving the impression that there's trouble right from the beginning. Everybody is very polite and they're excited to have somebody new in town. Her next door neighbor is a woman named Mrs. Bogart.
Peter: The widow Bogart.
Katie: She comes over to be friendly to Carroll and this is their definition of friendly. “Well I hope you and your husband won't have any of the troubles with sickness and quarrelling and wasting money and all that. So many of these young people do have and but I must not be running along dearie. It's been such a pleasure.”
Frank: You know what Katie I'm glad you brought up Mrs. Bogart because I have a great quote that describes her and it's actually one of my favorite quotes from the novel. Let me just read that for you. “Mrs. Bogart lived across the alley from the rear of Carol's house. She was a widow and a prominent Baptist,” prominent Baptist in capital letters, “and a good influence,” good influence in capital letters. “She had so painfully reared three sons to be Christian gentlemen that one of them had become an Omaha bartender, one a professor of Greek, and one Cyrus Bogart a boy of fourteen who was still at home the most brazen member of the toughest gang in boy town.”
Frank: Now a little later in our novel both Mrs. Bogart and Cyrus play a rather important role. But we're going to put them on hold for a little while and get back to talking about how Carroll and Gopher Prairie get along. Comes a point where Carroll decides she's gonna give a party but she's been to one or two of these Gopher Prairie parties and she wants to make some changes. First though Peter tell me a little bit about what she encounters at these Gopher Prairie parties.
Peter: Usually the host will come out and say Okay folks let's have some stunts.
Katie: Which gets Carrol'ls hopes going how exciting these people do fun and interesting things at their parties.
Peter: And stunts range from somebody reciting some poem to somebody singing a song repeated ad nauseum.
Frank: Every party she goes to the same characters come out with the same stunts but Carroll's gonna change that she's gonna throw a party and she's not going to have stunts. Well she's gonna have stunts but they're gonna be new stunts.
Katie: Carroll presents a Japanese themed party. When it's time for games she has new, fun, interesting games planned.
Frank: New and fun for her.
Katie: Well apparently the people there enjoyed them too. One involved everybody taking off their shoes the shoes being hidden in a room all the lights being turned off and people crawl around the room and find the shoes. At some point the joke of the game is the lights get flipped back on and you see everybody in these ridiculous positions and it just makes everybody laugh and loosens everyone up and they did they laughed and had a great time.
Frank: And it was so different, Carroll thinks she's made a hit maybe made a small contribution to change in Gopher Prairie. However about a week or two later there's another party and..
Katie: then the one man stands up and says his poem and the other man sings a song and food is served and they go home.
Peter: “The circle of mourners kept its place all evening and Dave Dyer did the stunt of the Norwegian and the hen.”
Frank: Carroll realizes she hasn't made a change at all.
Peter: They've endured her.
Katie: Yes they have.
Frank: And unfortunately this party is gonna be about the highlight of her stay in Gopher Prairie.
Peter: Well winter sets in after this party and she enthusiastically tries to organize bobsledding and outdoor activities which the women smile and they say Oh Carroll this is wonderful but they're not going to do it again.
Frank: And there's also another one time attempt she tries to start a little drama club. She again thinks she's starting to make a contribution to Gopher Prairie and this also fails miserably.
Katie: Although they do get a play performed.
Peter: But she quickly realizes that they're all out there just sort of hamming it up for their friends and neighbors in the audience.
Katie: They're not in it for personal growth.
Katie: But all these things are after Carroll has tried to bring about real reform in town.
Frank: Even in Gopher Prairie you can't fight city hall.
Peter: And Sinclair Lewis says throughout the book that there's nothing special about Gopher Prairie. It's no worse than any other small town anywhere in the world.
Katie: He even goes beyond small towns. He says this’ll happen in the big cities as well.
Peter: These behaviors are products of human nature.
Frank: And it's about this time that Gopher Prairie is gonna get two new citizens and these two people and what happens to them really precipitate all the rest of the actions that Carroll's going to take. And these two citizens are, Fern and Eric. Peter, tell us more about these two.
Peter: Eric he's a tailor. He's come to work in one of the shops in town and he's described as a bit of a dandy.
Frank: They don't really know what to make of an 18 year old kid off the farm who's dressing in suits and ties and spats. And he dreams of being a designer of women's dresses.
Peter: Exactly so that doesn't go over too well for a farm boy in Minnesota in the turn of the century.
Frank: But for Carroll she sees a kindred spirit here. She sees someone who is interested in reading who's interested in poetry
Peter: And he is looking for somebody to mentor him a little bit. Which Carroll sort of enjoys but at the same time wishes she could be at that point in her life again.
Frank: She wishes she maybe had had a mentor when she got to Gopher Prairie and she wouldn't be so unhappy there as she is now. Katie you want to tell me a little bit about Fern?
Katie: Well Fern came to town to be a teacher. Fern was well-read not overly...
Katie: And excited about having fun parties and making life enjoyable.
Peter: And alike Carroll, she was a little apprehensive once she got to Gopher Prairie.
Frank: But what's important Carroll, is like her, they're not willing to give up parts of their own personality to get along in Gopher Prairie. So let's talk a little bit about what happens to Eric in Gopher Prairie. He's never accepted.
Katie: No. People just think he’s kind of odd. But to Carroll he's such a light of the big world out there that she tries to mentor him. She tries to convince herself that she's in love with Eric and that they might embark on an affair.
Frank: But we never buy it as readers and she actually never buys it herself does she?
Katie: No. As we've said we've got a lot of her interior thoughts and just when she thinks she really does love Eric another thought comes in her mind, why?
Frank: And how does Dr. Will take to her having a new relationship with this 18 year old dandy?
Peter: Well that's one of the problems for Carroll is he doesn't pay any attention to it at all. He doesn't play his role of the outraged husband. He sort of ignores them.
Frank: We keep calling it the affair or an affair, but there was no physical intimacy. However the town they are also using the word affair aren't they.
Katie: Absolutely. Carroll's using it because there is a disloyalty going on.
Peter: And when Will calls her on it's not as a jealous husband. It's almost like a fatherly attitude he takes with her. You know you have to put this silliness aside and he's sort of above it all.
Frank: Basically his attitude towards Carroll is I know nothing's going on. But think of how this looks to the town. All right now let's get back to Eric. He's not long for Gopher Prairie. He leaves within about 24 hours. Not to be seen again.
Frank: All right Katie, Peter while this was going on with Eric, Fern Mullins was also having some drama of her own. And this is how Sinclair Lewis gets us to it “through early autumn Fern Mullins was the only person who broke the suspense the frivolous teacher had come to accept Carroll as her own youth. And though school had begun she rushed in daily to suggest dances, Welsh rabbit parties. Fern begged her to go as chaperone to a barn dance in the country on a Saturday evening. Carroll could not go. The next day, the storm crashed.” Katie you want to tell us a little bit about that barn dance and the storm?
Katie: This was a party outside of town. Fern desperately wanted to go. She asked Carroll to go. Carroll didn't go, but Cy Bogart was willing to go. Now Cy is one of her students Cy is also the son of
Frank: The widow Bogart
Katie: The widow Bogart and
Peter: Her landlady.
Katie: So Fern knew maybe this isn't such a great idea...
Frank: And that's why she asked Carroll to go as a chaperone.
Katie: Absolutely. But she was so desperate to go to Sinclair Lewis says she had gone to the party not quite liking Cy but willing to endure him for the sake of dancing. And Cy promised to be good.
Peter: And of course Cy is not good.
Peter: He steals a flask of whiskey from a farmers coat, he gets drunk he misbehaves with Fern tries to kiss her and then gets sick and Fern has to drive him home back to Mrs. Bogart's. All the while fending off his clumsy advances.
Katie: And she says “I felt quite heroic while I was driving the buggy back that night and keeping Cy away from me. I guess I expected the people in Gopher Prairie to admire me. They didn't.”
Frank: And this is where the storm crashes.
Frank: We really find out the story the next day the widow Bogart comes crashing into Carroll and Dr. Will's house and proceeds to relate this entire story about this barn dance and what happened with Cy and Fern.
Peter: Well according to Mrs. Bogart Fern took him up to this barn dance got him drunk and…
Frank: Tried to take advantage of him.
Peter: Right exactly. And of course Mrs. Bogart has thrown her out of the House and has now made the rounds of all the prominent people in town.
Frank: But the story she spreads continues to grow and grow. At one point it goes from being a flask to a bottle of whiskey to three bottles of whiskey
Peter: Two cases
Frank: Two cases of whiskey.
Peter: And who knows how many boys were corrupted and the whole town knows Cy better than Mrs. Bogart knows him
Katie: And when Bogart has come to tell the story to Carroll and Will, Will is willing to say that to Bogart.
Peter: “Oh for God's sake quit it. You haven't any idea what happened. You haven't give us a single proof yet that Fern is anything but a rattle brained youngster.”
Frank: Took Dr. Will and Carrol don't believe her from the get go.
Katie: But it makes no difference to Mrs. Bogart or pretty much anybody else in town.
Peter: Because it’s appearances. Mrs. Bogart is the prominent Baptist..
Frank: With capital letters
Peter: With capital letters.
Katie: Fern is run out of town.
Frank: The school board votes and she doesn't get a single vote even though they know what the true story is
Peter: And Will knows that and that's why he doesn't do much more than he does.
Frank: Sure he knows what Gopher Prairie is like and
Frank: As he tried to warn Carroll and this whole thing with Eric doesn't really matter what the truth is it matters what the people believe and so therefore now Fern and Eric are gone from Gopher Prairie. Then things are now gonna go from bad to worse for Carroll.
Katie: So Carroll pretty much states she's leaving town. She's not saying that she's leaving Will or anything, she just needs to leave town...
Peter: Get out of town for a while.
Katie: I'd also like to add a son has been born to Carroll and Dr. Will and that's pretty much all we know about this child that supposedly they both love.
Frank: And actually it's just as abrupt in the novel as we just made it in our conversation?
Frank: All right so Carroll got to leave she's gonna go with or without doctor Will. Where did they decide to go and what did they decide to do?
Katie: California and the doctor will goes with her. We don't hear much about the trip overall except they have a lovely time and they see all sorts of wonderful things and Carroll sees Will interested in architecture interested in some of the theater that they go to and thinks this is what she needed. Now he'll help me when we come back.
Frank: Turns out they're gone for three and a half months.
Peter: And Carroll is a little uneasy during their trip because while Will does take some interest in the architecture and the sights his conversation also seems to be about the color of the cars out here in the West. They have different colors for their cars.
Katie: And if he runs into somebody from any small town like theirs they want to talk about if the hunting is good there?
Frank: And the weather. The conversation about the weather is just this present during their trip in California as it was during their entire stay and Gopher Prairie.
Katie: And that hasn't changed too much. That's what we all use to try and get through conversations with at least strangers.
Frank: I will grant you that. But for Carroll it's an indication that maybe things aren't as changed as she had hoped they would be.
Frank: Dr. Will's not back a half hour from California. And what does he start talking about with the neighbor. The cars and the weather. “You should have seen the cars we saw out in California.” Carol immediately knows nothing's changed nothing. And so because nothing's changed Carol goes back to her house kisses her baby, thanks the aunt for babysitting and makes the most important decision of her life.
Katie: She's leaving and she's leaving without Doctor Will.
Peter: She decides to go to Washington ostensibly to get a job in the war department somewhere. Unfortunately for Carroll or fortunately the wars we're talking about the first world war here is just coming to an end. But she does take Hugh the baby and head east
Frank: And she does find a job clerking job in one of the official war offices
Peter: A war insurance
Frank: And tries to create a life for herself and doesn't do a bad job of it, does she?
Peter: No, she's rooming with several other girls.
Frank: She starts to go out to some restaurants. She goes out a couple evenings to different concerts. Now she's doing for herself. She doesn't have to get the 20 dollars allowance from Dr. Will every week. If she wants to go out and buy a dress or she wants to go to a new restaurant she can do it. She doesn't have to ask anyone's permission. She doesn't worry about what the town's people think. She's living the life she had hoped she would find for herself in Gopher Prairie.
Katie: Good point.
Frank: So Katie is it happily ever after for Carroll?
Katie: Of course not. About 13 months after she's in Washington her husband comes to visit her and we should note that they've never talked of divorce. That's not what's going on here. She just wanted to spread her wings a little bit. So he comes to see her she's confused about her feelings about seeing him.
Frank: He's come to town and he's making an effort. This is how it's described in the novel. “She realized in the taxicab that he was wearing a soft gray suit a soft easy hat a flippant tie like the new outfit got him in Chicago. Gosh I hope they're the kind you like. They spent half an hour or so at the flat with you as he moved about the small room. She realized that he had had his new tan shoes polished to a brassy luster. There was a recent cut on his chin. He must have shaved on the train just before coming into Washington. It was pleasant to feel how important she was how many people she recognized as she took him to the capital as she told him how many feet it was to the top of the dome as she pointed out Senator LaFollette and the vice president.” So he's come to town and he's making an effort. Is she smitten again.
Peter: Well she's interested anyway but true to his character Will is very clear eyed about what he's there to do and what he needs from Carroll. He suggested sort of second honeymoon and then says well maybe not a honeymoon but a second wooing as if they're trying to start all over again. And they actually leave Washington and go down to the Carolinas for a week or two and he comes out flatly and says to her that he's not going to ask Carroll to come back to Gopher Prairie with him. He woulda liked that but he's not going to ask her to do that because he tells her he realizes that you have to want to come back to Gopher Prairie.
Frank: So Katie he's not really sweeping her off her feet?
Katie: No and he knows that won't work with her now. But this is where Carroll recognizes her responsibility to her child. So it takes her about five more months but she accepts that her life is going to have to be in Gopher Prairie.
Frank: Is this a maturing for Carroll.
Peter: I think she's come to realize that she has to find in herself what's going to make her happy and what she's going to do.
Katie: I also think that she recognizes that her happiness is not everything.
Frank: As I was reading this novel I kept waiting to see how Carroll was going to change Gopher Prairie. Turns out really that it's Carroll that changes not Gopher Prairie.
Peter: There are changes in Gopher Prairie though and we find out while she was in Washington a new school was being built. Now that was one of the projects early on that was talked about but of course the more sober minds in town said well it's going to take some time. People don't want to be taxed to build new city hall or new school. But of course Carroll doesn't want to wait for anything she wants to fly into town and had this new building up overnight. But persistent hard work has started to cause some of the changes that she wanted to make in Gopher Prairie without her.
Katie: And I believe that Sinclair Lewis is hinting at when Carroll goes back she will make more effective change because she's calmer because she recognizes that's going to have to come in smaller spurts and she's going to have children that are part of the community.
Frank: I’m glad you brought up the fact that Sinclair Lewis is making these hints because what I want to do now is talk about what Sinclair Lewis is saying in this novel. Couple of the things that I think Sinclair Lewis wanted us to get out of this novel are first of all your perspective determines how you feel about things too perfect example that he uses in the novel are Carroll and Bea coming to town on the same day. To Carroll it's small it's desolate it's dirty. She doesn't think she's ever gonna be happy here. Bea walks down the same main street can't get over how big this town is. It's got a movie theater with new movies every day.
Katie: And Bea's story is heartbreaking. Bea comes this town so excited. And despite the way people treat her she loves it. She's going to make the best of it. And she does until a very sad and Bea so be sure to pay attention to Bea when you read the book.
Frank: Katie you're right obviously in an hour's conversation we just can't touch on everything that's in this novel. This is a quite extensive novel. As we said it goes from St. Paul to Gopher Prairie to California to Washington D.C.. There's lots of characters we can't talk about everything that happens but in the time remaining what I really want to get to is what Sinclair Lewis was trying to tell us about small town America.
Peter: There is a passage where he addresses this narrow mindedness of small towns. CAROLYN WHEELER sitting at dinner with Will's aunt and uncle. Really sort of an older insufferable couple…
Katie: Would like to stress in sufferable.
Peter: Right. Here's the passage “with a loose lipped superior village smile Uncle Whittier hinted What's this I hear about you're thinking Gopher Prairie ought to be all tore down and rebuilt, Carrie. I don't know where folks get these newfangled ideas,” and then a little later on “in the manner of one who had just beheld a two headed calf. They repeated that they had never heard such funny ideas. They were staggered to learn that a real tangible person living in Minnesota and married to their own flesh and blood relation could apparently believe that divorce may not always be immoral, that illegitimate children do not bear any special and guaranteed form of curse, that there are ethical authorities outside of the Hebrew Bible that men have drunk wine yet not died in the gutter. That the capitalistic system of distribution and the Baptist wedding ceremony were not known in the garden of Eden, and that there are ministers of the Gospel who accept evolution, that there is not a universal custom to wear scratchy flannels next to the skin in winter. Where does she get all them theories marveled Uncle Whittier. While Aunt Bessie inquired ‘Do you suppose there's many folks got notions like hers. My if there are and her tone settled the fact that there were not. I just don't know what the world is coming to.”
Frank: Sinclair Lewis doesn't stop there it's not only in small towns that you find small mindedness. Here's a quote from Carroll that Sinclair Lewis uses I think to show us that this kind of attitude can be found anywhere. This is Carroll, “Oh if she was to perceive in Washington as doubtless she would have perceived in New York or London a thick streak of Main Street the cautious dullness of a Gopher Prairie appeared in boarding houses where Lady-like bureau clerks gossiped polite young army officers about the movies a thousand Sam Clarks or a few Widow Bogart's were to be identified in the Sunday motor procession in theater parties and at the dinners of state societies small mindedness will be found anywhere.”
In fact Sinclair Lewis also has one of his other characters state that even in a big city you're only going to know a few hundred people and for all intents and purposes you could be living in a small town.
Katie: Actually that's Carroll that says that at one point she recognizes in Gopher Prairie, she really only knows 50 people or so and there are three thousand.
Peter: Another element of viciousness in the novel is Lewis's sense of humor. His writing has a very cutting edge to it and there was another passage also with Will and Carroll sitting at the dinner table and the insufferable Uncle Whittier is launching into another story with the words that I think we've all heard at one point or another, why when I was his age. And then as Uncle Whittier starts to go on. “Carol reflected that the carving knife would make an excellent dagger with which to kill Uncle Whittier it would slide in easily.The headlines would be terrible.” And then as Uncle Whittier finishes up his story which he'd probably told a thousand times “Carol again studied the carving knife blood on the whiteness of a tablecloth might be gorgeous.”
Frank: That's a great line.
Katie: But I think the biggest problem for care about living in small town life is that they didn't see that and they didn't know how dull it was she says. “It is an unimaginably standardized background a sluggishness of speech and manners a rigid ruling of the spirit by the desire to appear respectable. It is contentment the contentment of the quiet dead who are scornful of the living for their restless walking. It is slavery self sought and self defended a saviour list people gulping tasteless food and sitting afterward coatless and thoughtless in rocking chairs prickly with inane decorations listening to mechanical music saying mechanical things about the excellence of Ford automobiles and viewing themselves as the greatest race in the world.”
Frank: And that's really the issue isn't it. We all have these foibles. We all have these prejudices. We all have these moments of narrow mindedness. But Sinclair Lewis is telling us it's our egos that get in the way we think we're the best. No matter how small we may appear we always think we're doing things for the right reasons. Sometimes with disastrous results.
Peter: And Carroll seems to be the only character in the book that is able to see outside of herself and even recognize those qualities in herself.
Katie: Actually there are a couple other characters who used to have ideas used to have dreams but they got the village virus.
Peter: Right. And she speaks to one who says I came to town with enthusiasm and ideas and I slowly over time got the village virus
Katie: And I have that quote she's talking to a lawyer in town.
“She had this sense that he had bigger dreams…”
Frank: Once had had bigger dreams..
Katie: Right. And he said the “village virus is the germ which infects ambitious people who stay too long in the provinces. You'll find it epidemic among lawyers and doctors and ministers and college bread merchants all these people who have had a glimpse of the world that thinks and laughs but have returned to their swamp. I'm a perfect example.”
Frank: Well that begs the question then at the end of the novel is Carol going back to that swamp. Has she caught the village virus.
Katie: No she's going back clear eyed and prepared to deal with it as it comes not necessarily become one with the town.
Frank: So maybe not happily ever after but contentedly ever after.
Frank: But I gotta tell you there's one line that I don't even have to read, but I will always remember it, it's a description of Carroll. She was a woman with a working brain and no work. And I think that really was a part of her problem and really a big part of America's problem during this time. All right. As I said before there's far too much in this novel to get in in one hour. But we are going to stop here.
Frank: I want to thank my readers today. Katie Smith and Peter Toomey.
Katie: Thanks Frank. I'm thrilled to be on this show with you.
Frank: You've been listening to Novel Conversations.
Novel Conversations a production of The Front Porch People.
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Novel Conversations was produced by Julie Fink and engineered by Sean Rule-Hoffman, Eric Koltnow and Dave Douglas. And a special thanks to our Executive Producer, Katie Andrews. I'm your host, Frank Lavallo, until next time, I hope you find yourself in a Novel Conversation.
Researchers: Joan and Patrick Andrews