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Main Street | Context

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American Snapshot: The Midwestern Small Town

America in the early 20th century was midway through a dramatic transition. After the American Civil War (1861–65), the country had entered a period of accelerated urbanization and industrialization. The majority of the population still lived in rural areas by the turn of the century, but cities were growing rapidly. Caught between the farms and the expanding urban centers was the Midwestern small town.

For many of those who lived in the booming cities and were dealing with poverty, government corruption, and labor issues, the rural small towns took on a sort of mythological quality. They represented an earlier, simpler, and more untroubled way of life. Midwestern writers, such as Meredith Nicholson, presented these small towns as quaint, and with a sort of pastoral beauty—oases of respectability and morality. The reality, however, was very different.

Small towns, also called rural towns or prairie towns, were defined as those having fewer than 2,500 residents. Lewis's own hometown of Sauk Centre had a little over 1,000 people, and some towns were little more than villages with several hundred residents. Most functioned as the hub of larger rural communities. In the Midwest, these peripheral communities were often composed of Scandinavian and German immigrants who were treated poorly by the residents of the town and often lived in substandard conditions. Even the towns themselves were often not nearly as attractive as the literature of the times would have readers believe. Most had a water tower, many of which are still standing, and there was always some sort of "Main Street" with an assortment of shops and businesses. Houses—if one could afford one rather than rent a room—were often purchased through catalogs. The bungalow, a one-story building with a front porch, was the most popular.

But residents, sensitive to the fact that larger cities were drawing people away from rural communities, increasingly made efforts to "boost" their towns' attractiveness for new business. In an attempt to appear more cultured and modern, they also founded groups that mimicked those of the big cities. Sauk Centre, for instance, had the Gradatim Club (a ladies' club that met monthly for refreshments and book discussions and the model for Main Street's Thanatopsis Club), the Monday Musical Club, and the Order of the Eastern Star, an extension of the Masons, a fraternal organization, that organized social and charitable events. But the reality of these towns is that they were relatively unsophisticated and provincial, although the people who lived there were often not aware of this fact or simply denied it.

Despite the efforts of its residents, the small town ceased to be an important part of the American economy by around 1920, becoming a quaint relic of the past. Thousands of young people began fleeing to the cities. Those who could not were frustrated by what they perceived as the backward nature of their hometowns. For those who left and those who remained, Main Street perfectly captured the decline of small-town life.

Main Street as Satire and Social Criticism

Literary critics have said that Main Street was published at exactly the right time for it to be a success. The United States in the early 20th century was in transition. The population was moving from farms and small towns to the larger cities, which were experiencing tremendous economic and cultural growth. Small towns, on the other hand, were viewed as the epitome of mediocrity, provincialism, and hypocrisy. During what one writer later called the "revolt from the village," those who remained in small towns began to have what could only be called an inferiority complex. Many fought against it by resolutely hanging on to their beliefs and traditions, blindly proclaiming superiority over the cities, and attempting to look cultured. It is this attitude that Lewis chronicles and satirizes in Main Street.

Satire is an artistic form—most often literary and dramatic—used to call attention to human shortcomings and vices. Authors utilize particular literary devices to make their points and to inspire social reforms:

  • irony: contrast between what is expected or understood and reality
  • parody: imitation of an existing literary work for comic effect
  • exaggeration: act of increasing information beyond the truth
  • caricature: act of distorting certain traits or characteristics

With Main Street, Lewis hoped to call attention to what he considered the most egregious problems of small towns: the use of religion or "morality" to suppress progressive thinking; exploitation of farmers by the townspeople; a caste or social class system that treated immigrants and those from a lower social class as less than human; antagonism toward the labor movement and woman suffrage; and the zealous patriotism that accompanied the war.

To make his points, Lewis created a collection of characters who, with a few exceptions, represented the attitudes and institutions Lewis wanted to criticize or who were the victims of those institutions:

  • Mrs. Bogart, hypocritical Christian
  • Miles Bjornstam, rebel, atheist, and socialist
  • Juanita Haydock, vicious town gossip
  • Cy Bogart, town bully
  • Guy Pollock, defeated liberal
  • Vida Sherwin and Maud Dyer, sexually and intellectually repressed women
  • Sam Clark and Percy Bresnahan, believers in materialism as a religion

Through these characters, as well as through the observations of people like Carol and Will Kennicott, Lewis is able to present multiple points of view, both positive and negative. Then, by exaggerating the negative characteristics of many of the townspeople—or by turning them into humorous caricatures—he is able to make some of these convictions appear ridiculous or absurd. But perhaps the most powerful moments in the novel come when the attitudes of the townspeople result in unspeakable cruelty. The death of Bea Sorenson condemns the viciousness of the caste system, and the destruction of Fern Mullins's reputation shows the dangers of both unchecked morality and small mindedness.

When the novel was published shortly after the end of World War I (1914–18), post-war cynicism had reached its peak. Society was more than ready for a book that skewered the smug and hypocritical attitudes of small town life, and readers devoured the portrait created by Lewis.

Realism

One of Lewis's goals in writing Main Street was to capture what he found most disturbing about the American small town: its shallow culture, its materialism, its contentment with mediocrity, and its hypocrisy. One of the ways he accomplished this was through the deft use of realism. Realism, in the arts, is the use of meticulous detail to present subjects as they really are and not in an idealized or romantic fashion. It is often employed when an artist or author wants to portray a subject in harsh or unflattering terms.

Realism, therefore, was a perfect choice for Lewis's novel, since he wanted to present the antithesis—or opposite—of the idealized small town. Thanks to the romantic portrayal of small towns in dozens of novels, plays, and movies, those who didn't live there were under the illusion that they were havens of peace, beauty, and propriety. Lewis turned this image upside down. Lewis's Main Street is so painstakingly detailed, in fact, that many critics have argued that more can be learned about small towns in America in the early 20th century from Main Street than from the studies of professional sociologists.

Perhaps because of his background as a journalist, Lewis was able to home in on details that provide almost photographic images of the town. One of the most celebrated examples of his sensory skill is when Carol takes her first walk down Main Street. In Dyer's drugstore, she sees "a greasy marble soda-fountain," and a green and red lamp with a "curdled-yellow mosaic shade." She notes "pawed-over heaps of toothbrushes" and "shelves of soap cartons, teething rings, garden seeds and patent medicines in yellow packages."

The detail is not only visual. Lewis also includes spot-on examples of the dialects and affectations in people's speech, as when Sam Clark greets Carol by saying "I'm going to call you Carrie, seein's you've been and gone and married this poor fish of a bum medic." He also describes behaviors. In front of a bar, for example, farmwives are "sitting on the seats of wagons, waiting for their husbands to become drunk," so they will head home. The detail enables the reader to envision the town, and to be as put off by it as Carol—and Lewis himself—certainly was.

The Progressive Era

Lewis entered his 20s just as the Progressive Era in the United States was at its height. This period, which lasted from approximately the 1890s to the early 1920s, was a time of widespread social activism and political reform. A number of different movements began during this period. The main objectives were to eliminate the problems caused by the rapid industrialization and urbanization that followed the Civil War and to address issues caused by immigration and corruption in government. The woman suffrage (right to vote) movement also became prominent during this time, as did Prohibition (the ban on alcohol), attention to race relations, and social reform agencies concerned about the poor and underprivileged. Lewis himself became an advocate for many of these causes, and his support for them is reflected in the pages of Main Street, often through the thoughts of Carol Kennicott.

The progressives, as they were known, were drawn primarily from the middle class and tended to be college educated. Supporters included lawyers, teachers, physicians, ministers, and businessmen. All of them believed the old ways of doing things were inefficient and sometimes even dangerous. Some reformers focused on scientific, medical, and engineering solutions they hoped would modernize the country. Others worked to expose corruption in government and targeted the powerful political machines that ran some of the big cities. Still others worked for social reform to address race relations and to improve the lives of the poor and marginalized.

Poor conditions in the workplace were of particular interest to many progressives, and the labor movement became a force during this time. Its supporters worked to regulate business practices, address health hazards on the job, and improve working conditions. They fought against the exploitation of child labor and advocated for a fair wage. At the other end of the workplace spectrum, rural reforms were also underway as reformers sought to improve the poor living conditions of America's rural residents, many of whom were immigrants.

Women became very involved in many of these movements. Many believed they had a "special mission" and a responsibility to reform American society. Not only did they support the suffragist movement (which led to the 19th Amendment in 1920, giving women the right to vote), but they also focused on key areas of social reform. These included Prohibition, child welfare, public health, and the needs of immigrants and the poor. Jane Addams, who is known as the "mother of social work," founded one of the first settlement houses to help the poor gain skills, and many women lent a powerful voice to the movement. All of these reformers, however, had one ultimate goal: to remind the country what democracy was all about.

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