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Excruciatingly dull novel that has notabel literary merit, July 18, 2000
on 8 January 2012
[NOTE: I am reissuing my Amazon.com reviews on Amazon.co.uk. This review was originally published on Amazon.com 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.
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.