Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Books: Main Street

The 2014 Summer Reading Classic Film Book Challenge is an event in which the goal is to read and write about a variety of books related to classic film, hosted by Out of the Past. For a complete list of the rules, visit the website.

When I first saw the movie Dodsworth, it genuinely moved me in a way that movies sometimes do. In time, I learned that it was based on a book by a writer named Sinclair Lewis, whom I had never heard of. When I saw a later movie also base don one of his books, Elmer Gantry, I found I recognized it as being of a piece with Dodsworth; that is, I could imagine it as also being based on a work of his, even though Gantry was made later, by different people. (No, you didn't miss anything; I never wrote about Gantry. I don't write about every movie I see.)

I knew then that I had to seek out one of Lewis' books. Instead of Dodsworth or Gantry, however, I picked a novel I was completely unfamiliar with: Main Street, one of his earliest. Lewis was born in Minnesota, attended Yale, and moved to New York for awhile where, after several preceding novels, his professional literary career took off. Main Street came out in 1920 and was his first big hit. Subsequent books included Babbitt, Elmer Gantry, Dodsworth, and the Pulitzer Prize-winning Arrowsmith, which made him the first American to win the Prize for literature.

Main Street was made into a movie twice: a silent version in 1923 and a talkie in 1936, with the unfortunate title I Married a Doctor. (You'd think it was a 50s horror movie with a title like that.) I know this because of a Twitter conversation I had months ago with fellow film bloggers Page and Cliff. Cliff, you see, had just written a post on his blog about Doctor, which led to an extended chat about the works of Lewis.

Sinclair Lewis
 In Main Street, Carol and Will are newlyweds living in Gopher Prairie, a tiny Minnesota town. He's a doctor, she's a housewife. Carol is new to Will's hometown, having come from the much bigger St. Paul, and she wants it to be a little livelier. She wants to bring culture and class to a community that prefers a more laid-back and insular vibe, and this longing leads to conflicts between her husband and the residents of her new home.

My attitude towards Carol kept changing. At first she came across as stuck up and judgmental for looking down her nose at Gopher Prairie. After awhile, though, she was much more sympathetic because I could easily imagine wanting the same things if I were in her shoes. The residents of GP aren't necessarily bad people, but they are provincial and set in their ways, and if I were forced to live among them every day, I'd get bored after awhile too. Carol does her best to try and fit in, but many (not all) of her neighbors don't make it easy for her.

The story is long - over 500 pages - and I thought it really dragged in the middle. It reached a stage where we just kept seeing, over and over, variations on "Carol tries to liven up Gopher Prairie," "Carol doesn't feel close to Will anymore," "Carol can't relate to other people in Gopher Prairie," etc. 

'I Married a Doctor,'
w/Pat O'Brien & Josephine Hutchinson
Near the end, she makes an important decision and I thought that would be the finish, but the story goes on, past the point where I thought it was really necessary. Without getting too spoilery, I thought the simple fact that she found the strength to make this decision was enough, given what she had gone through to that point. What came afterwards seemed a little anticlimactic, leading to a slightly unsatisfying (for me) ending. 

Still, it's a decent book, and Carol is a strong character. Main Street is insightful as a time capsule of the early 20th century. Lewis works cultural references into the story, and in the copy I have, the Barnes & Noble Classics edition, footnotes are provided explaining their significance. Lewis captures the fictitious town of Gopher Prairie well, including lovely descriptions of the surrounding countryside. I'd be willing to sample another one of Lewis' novels, though not just yet.

Look for more entries in this series throughout the summer.


  1. Rich, I probably enjoyed the book more than you, but all of your criticism is definitely valid. What kept me entertained throughout Carol's ups and downs--and downs was the large number of very vivid characters Lewis surrounded her with. The ending, yes, I think it's either going to work for you or it's not, though I preferred it greatly to the movie which basically has her getting on and off a train and leaving out all that happens in between just to get to the inevitable embrace between stars Pat O'Brien and Josephine Hutchinson! I still haven't started my copy of Dodsworth, but it remains in the plans. I really liked Lewis' writing, which I know is old-fashioned (but I like old-fashioned!) and I think his greatest strength is painting an overall portrait of the people of his era. Great review, glad to have semi-shared this experience with you, until now at 140 characters at time!

  2. I'm currently reading "Dodsworth". I read "Babbit" years ago and often meant to get around to "Elmer Gantry", but "Main Street" never made my short list. Maybe I'll go straight to the movies.

    1. The used bookstore I bought 'Main Street' from had 'Gantry' too, and I almost went with that instead. I guess I wanted a Lewis book unfiltered by an accompanying movie that I'd seen.

  3. Thanks! You're right about the cast - there are characters who don't fit the GP mold, and they're important parts of the story too, but over the long course of the story, they come and go, but Carol's problem remains. This might not have been a problem for me if the story were shorter. I'm glad you liked what I had to say, though.


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