Sinclair Lewis's Main Street was something of a literary phenomenon when it was first published in 1920, the book rather daringly satirising good wholesome smalltown values that were very much in vogue at the time. While it is therefore very much of its time in its theme, and certainly old-fashioned in its writing style, the manner in which Main Street depicts American traditional social values and attitudes in tremendous detail, showing where they derive from and how they persist, means that the novel still has a great deal of relevance.
Lewis more or less states his purpose in a brief introduction where he sets out that he is going to examine the proposition that the Main Street of small mid-western towns represent "the climax of civilisation". That's certainly not the view of liberal and cultured Carol Milford of Minneapolis, who is proud of her heritage and sees America as "a glorious country; a land to be big in", but fears that the blissful stagnation and "dullness made God" in the peasant population of smalltown America rather lets the side down. And really, do the Main Streets of such towns have to be quite so ugly?
Her dream of planting "a seed of liberalism in the blank wall of mediocrity" is put to the test when she marries Dr. Kennicott, 13 years her elder, and moves to Gopher Prairie, believing she can made a model town out of it, seeing it as an empire to conquer. Gopher Prairie however is a hopeless backwater, whose peasant population is made up principally of German, Dutch and Scandinavian immigrants, with a social hierarchy of professionals and traders that is unwarrantedly proud and self-satisfied of their mediocre little town and their modest achievements. Feeling somewhat out of place, Carol has difficulty adjusting - or rather lowering - herself to what passes for culture and society among the women folk, organising dinner parties and starting up a dramatic society, but she is continually disillusioned with the lowbrow entertainment, the dreary conversations, gossip and obsession with mundane trivialities.
Inevitably, since there is a necessity to fit-in and adjust, Carol comes to appreciate the qualities she sees around her in the simplicity of the good, honest, hardworking folk, as well as their fortitude in dealing with deprivations and hardship. Dealt with in such length however, the novel has a tendency to also dwell on the minutiae of dreary domesticity, and there is the danger that the novel will also succumb to the Village Virus, but Carol is determined to resist, and the novel does well to do likewise, being psychologically accurate and fascinating in how it observes and identifies the underlying characteristics in the division of the classes and the sexes.
Swaying between eulogising and satirising the qualities of the small town and the people within it, the novel captures the true dynamic in America society at a crucial period in its development. More than being a historical record then, one that is recounted in fabulous and no doubt realistic detail, it's clear that the same social attitudes and values persist to a large degree in modern-day America and the world, becoming a "force seeking to dominate the earth" and bully other civilisations into its standardised, mediocre view of the world. Main Street consequently still has a great deal of interest and relevance today.