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on 9 October 2000
Carol Milford, an enlightened, beautiful, young woman gets married. She thinks she is marrying Dr. Kennicott, she doesn't know that she is also marrying his town, Gopher Prairie. She tries to love the town and tries hard. She wants to improve things, change, reform. She is faced with stone walls. And ugly ones at that. They resent her, they don't take her seriously, they call her crazy, flippant, foolish, snobbish, arrogant, silly, light woman, bad woman and a lot of other things. She alternates between wanting to give up and to continue. At times she is lazy, diligent, hopeless, hopeful, resigned, rebellious and often lonely. I read Carol's story as if I was living it. Half way through the book, I was giving her advice: "Run for your life!" or "Hang in there!". Sinclair Lewis is a brilliant narrator. He tells the story of Gopher Prairie with wit, charm and sarcastic humour. I believe that he was the first male feminist of America. The next book I'll be reading is Babbitt.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 27 October 2010
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.
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on 3 January 1999
Sinclair Lewis's "Main Street" deals honestly with the negative aspects of small town life. In the book, Carol Kennicott, a big city girl marries Dr. Kennicott, and they move to the small town of Gopher Prarie. Carol is an idealist, but her efforts to reform the town are met with ignorance. The citizens of Gopher Prarie are convinced that they lead a utopian life, and that poverty and ugliness does not exist in their town. Carol is subjected to gossip, greed, and dullness in her journey through Gopher Prarie. I think this book is an accurate description of many small towns, but it deals too negatively with small towns. I have visited many times Lewis's hometown of Sauk Centre, after which Gopher Prarie was modeled, and found none of the drab buildings and narrow minded people that Lewis described. Howver, this novel is a classic example of how our own ignorance prevents us from seeing our true surrondings. This book is a real eye opener.
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on 2 May 2016
Although it is the story of one woman's struggle for a life of meaning in the early 1900s, this is not so much a feminist novel as a humanist one, in the sense that Lewis explores the urge to the full realisation of human potential against the crippling effects of social conformism. Main Street is his shorthand for the small minded, hypocritically puritanical and extremely conservative spirit that he identifies with the small town of Gopher Prairie. He forensically examines the workings of this mind set, while detailing how the apparently petty citizens of GP are themselves victims, making the best of life as they find it within their narrow horizons. Here, it seems to me, are the social roots of the American Christian Right, the Tea Party, Ted Cruz and Donald Trump. Lewis's plea, through Carol Kennicot, for an expansive, hopeful, inclusive, and progressive engagement with the world, is still relevant.
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on 11 May 2014
Don't start this book if you're feeling a little down. The weight of oppression it evokes is so real. In some ways the characters are very modern, in others very much not so. The social pressures in a small town are brought to life and every word builds the pressure. The heroine is an outstanding creation. She is so right and yet so wrong in her approach to her new life with her new husband in a new small town. The townsfolk and her husband are equally both right and wrong in their approaches to her. As a reader I constantly wanted them all to see what they were doing to one another. It was with a sense of relief that I finished it because I was so drawn into it all. Great writing.
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For Sinclair Lewis, his country is `a hope that is boundless. What is its future? A future of cities and factory smut? Homes universal and secure? Or placid châteaux ringed with sullen huts? Youth free to find knowledge and laughter? Willingness to sift the sanctified lies? The ancient stale inequalities?'

The answer to these questions lies in the fate of the main character of this book, Carol Milford, a seed of liberty, `a rebellious girl eager to conquer the world - almost entirely for the world's own good.'
But her dreams are blocked by a wall of Puritanism, conservatism, conformism, hypocrisy and egoism, by the Tribal God of Mediocrity, by the arrogance of the power of `Main Street'.
Who occupies `Main Street'? The Churches, `the real heart of the community, the proper center for all educational and pleasurable activities'; also the bankers and the Grand Old Republican Party (`Everybody who doesn't love (it) is an anarchist').
Main Streeters are all those wanting to appear respectable, showing `poverty and chastity in the matter of knowledge.'

Carol Milford `felt that she was being dragged naked down Main Street'. She was `surrounded by wolves, fangs and sneering eyes.' `They beat me with rods of dullness.'
Is her fight for `liberty' successful or will she be beaten ... keeping only the faith?

Read this exemplary US novel about the power of the Moral Majority and its `public opinions'.
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When idealistic young graduate Carol Milford - disenchanted with her career in a city library - consents to marry Dr Kennicott and move out to the small town of Gopher Prairie, she imagines she will be able to use her taste and education to 'improve' her dull and unattractive new home. Lobbying for better buildings; starting a drama group; mixing with the lower classes... But people don't always want to be patronised and improved; indeed many (including the Doctor) are perfectly content with life as it is.
The reader increasingly feels Carol 'champing at the bit' in her provincial home:
'Gopher Prairie with its celebrated eleven miles of cement walk...I wonder how much of the cement is made out of the tombstones of John Keatses?'
Whether Carol can accept smalltown life for what it is or continues to fight against it made for a highly readable novel.
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on 24 October 2015
I'm newly discovering a rich seam of American literature. Loved the book from the start; it feels like a novel written before its time, and yet timeless in its handling of subject matter. Character and place are beautifully constructed. Wonderful.
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VINE VOICEon 31 August 2009
I bought this novel after reading Sinclair Lewis's gripping story of a fascist takeover of the US, `It Can't Happen Here'. I'd been struck by Lewis's interest in feminism, and his sympathy for the novel's independent, rebellious women, so I decided to read `Main Street', where such issues are obviously much more central. The heroine of `Main Street' is Carol Milford, a lively, intelligent young woman from Minnesota who takes a job in a library in St Paul after graduating from college. She has highbrow tastes and a mildly Bohemian streak, but she's quite ready to settle down when a pleasant young doctor, Will Kennicott, proposes marriage. He lives in a midwest town called Gopher Prairie, and the rest of the novel (which manages to be intensely absorbing even though not much actually happens in it) charts her growing dissatisfaction with the narrowness and cliquiness of small town life.

Another reviewer (on briefly mentions links with George Eliot's `Middlemarch' and that connection struck me too. Carol's enthusiasm for architecture links her with Middlemarch's heroine, Dorothea Brooke, who is interested in designing better houses for her neighbours' tenants. Carol is equally full of ideas for improving the buildings of Gopher Prairie, none of them terribly practical. But Carol is not like Dorothea in every respect. She may be intelligent, earnest, keen to help others - and to improve their houses. However she is also rather vain, very interested in clothes, enjoys being the centre of attention, and is married to a youngish doctor rather than to an elderly clergyman. In other words she is as much like Middlemarch's anti-heroine, selfish, frivolous Rosamond Vincy, as she is like Dorothea.

Carol is all the more convincing - and more human - for not being too perfect and saintly, and Sinclair Lewis manages to make us sympathise with her frustration and boredom at her life in Gopher Prairie, while also allowing us to feel rather sorry for her husband at times - particularly when Carol drags him to see a quadruple bill of experimental drama performed by amateur actors. Although Lewis clearly sympathises with Carol he doesn't always see things quite her way. His depiction of small town life may be devastatingly satirical at times- but it's not without warmth. There are also interesting comparisons to be made between [Main Street and Marilyn French's `The Women's Room', which paints a similar (though more depressing and less tolerant) portrait of a clever woman who is stifled by marriage to a doctor and by small town American life.
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on 8 January 2012
[NOTE: I am reissuing my reviews on This review was originally published on July 18, 2000]

MAIN STREET is considered Lewis's Song of Songs, or his masterpiece. Being a writer, if this was my ultimate achievement, I would be thoroughly depressed and forsake writing and take up something more worthwhile to humanity, and not torture college and highschool students with this book (because those will be the only ones reading this -- them, or some other student of literature that feels like wading and enduring through this haliaetus novel). However, when it was first published in 1920 it sold over 500,000 copies. That was very significant back in those days. Lewis won the Nobel Prize in 1930. His acceptance speech, now called "The Fear of American Literature", is considered one of the most important essays on the topic. It dealt with other writers who should have been given this award, most notably William Faulkner.

The main problem with this novel is it encapsulates everything wrong with a small town, but by doing so makes itself very dull. The main conflict is Carol Kennicott trying to bring culture to an otherwise boring town. Because of that, Lewis spends some 400 pages (depending on your edition of course) detailing this conflict. The book is dull beyond comparison. At about page 250 to 300 you're wishing it was over. It just drags on and on and on and on. Everything that is wrong with the small towns (in the book) is wrong with this novel. That does not happen very often where what the theme is saying "correct this about society" the reading public is saying "correct this about this novel". Lewis is a literary anomaly, and his success rides largely on what era he is from - people read a lot more back then, and if this was published now, although of high literary merit this would not be successful at all.

It would have made a great short novel. It would be far more tolerable, and probably much more read. I respect what it did, showing what is wrong with small towns (although it is not a balanced portrait - the towns are not as horrible, and there is some redemptive qualities. But Lewis does pretty much hit everything on the head).

The style Lewis employed reads rather stodgy. There have been critical attacks on his style, while respecting his work. People say (this is the only work I have read by him) that all of his stuff is like this, as far as attacking different areas. MAIN STREET is directed to the small towns, ARROWSMITH to the profession of Medicine, ELMER GANTRY about the superficiality of some preachers and how they can be robbers as well as men of God, and then there's BABBITT, which is about the small time business man who has no moral scruples. DODSWORTH is also listed as a major work, though I don't know that one. BABBITT influenced Tolkien on his children's masterpiece THE HOBBIT and I've been meaning to read it for years, but I won't be able to wade through another Sinclair Lewis novel for quite sometime (BABBITT and MARVELOUS LAND OF THE SNERDS [SNERDS some type of fantasy book] are both 'source books' for THE HOBBIT, which makes them notable) . After finishing this, I daren't look at another Sinclair Lewis novel for at least a few years. I can barely stand to pick my own copy up of MAIN STREET and look at it, because I had to read it in a shortly compressed time and I was so ready for it to end. Someone said in a previous review Lewis cut 20,000 words from it - he should of cut half the novel and slim it down to maybe 150 or 200. It would also make an excellent story. Lewis researched his stuff meticulously, and he does deserve merit for his realistic portrayal of his chosen subjects. It is right on about the problems of a small town.

Notable scenes:

The train ride up to Gopher Prairie. Very nice descriptions and fully realised scene. My personal favorite.

Belle (a Swede) and Carol look at Main Street for the first time. We get both their contrasting perspectives. Belle comes from an even small town thinks its great, Carol hates it.

Washington, when she leaves.

Unfortunately, the first two occur at the first, this at the last. Very dull and boring. Would like to see this theme used for a short story or a novel (it would make a great short story or novella). About the most interesting thing in between all of that is Miles Bjornstam and Belle, which is Carol's maid. Guy Pollack and Vida Sherwin are also are interesting. Raymie the artist is supposedly based from Lewis's own life. Dr. Kennicott is very well realized, and very patient with "Carrie", as he calls her (I prefer that over Carol - I don't like the name Carol, and do Carrie.). But these characters are not enough to redeem this from a pleasurable reading session. It is the one of the numerous obligations of the writer to entertain his/her readers (of course, it is the lowest purpose). But there must be entertainment value to the novel to get on past that and into the themes and what the writer is trying to say. Bestsellers are out of balance - all plot and entertainment with no real high theme they wish to make, and this is out of balance too with all high qualities and ideals and yet no entertainment value at all, with most people wanting to give up in the middle, which I certainly did (someone said they think Lewis is one of those writers if you read one of his books you've pretty much read all of his books, and they're all the same, which is probably true). Lewis seems to have forgotten that in this excruciatingly dull novel.

3 stars just for the sheer impact of the novel. Personal taste, 1 star, so give 2 stars, though probably deserves higher than that.
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