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Monday, October 8, 2012

Main Street: 100 Year Old Satire Still Makes Me Die

Wow. Main Street kind of kicked the tar out of me, something that I did not expect even halfway through my read. I've been sputtering and wailing around the house since I finished a couple of days ago, trying to get my thoughts in order. I should have seen this coming for a thousand reasons, but probably the biggest reason is that this is a satire about my own people, and it's gotten me where I live. It's also gotten me, which is maybe the worst thing about it. Good satire doesn't play nice. It eats babies and butchers the sacred cows, and this is some of the best satire I've ever had the discomfort to read. 

The narrative starts cheerfully, with Carol, or protagonist, marrying a small town doctor, a one Mr. Kennicott, and stumbling from St Paul into the inbred, gossipy community of Gopher Prairie, Minnesota. Lewis is quick-witted and dry, and every page seems to have some sort of wry observation about America and its people, about the sexes, about education. On Mrs. Bogart, the most virulent of the town gossips:

She was a widow, and a Prominent Baptist, and a Good Influence. She had so painfully reared three sons to be Christian gentlemen that one of them had become an Omaha bartender, one a professor of Greek, and one, Cyrus N. Bogart, a boy of fourteen who was still at home, the most brazen member of the toughest gang in Boytown.  

Mrs. Bogart was not the acid type of Good Influence. She was the soft, fat, sighing, indigestive, clinging, melancholy, depressingly hopeful kind. There are in any chicken yard a number of old hens who resemble Mrs. Bogart, and when they are served at Sunday noon dinner, as fricasseed chicken with thick dumplings, they keep up the resemblance.

Ha! I mean, calling gossips hens is maybe nothing new, but the way he takes it to this extreme conclusion, the capital letters – this is all funny to me. The beginning is thickly adjectival; some sections only long descriptions of place with bending semi-colons between them; a sort of Epic catalog of the armaments of small town. I laughed along with it, because he's funny, just objectively, but then also because I was substituting the name Sauk Centre - where Lewis is from – for Gopher Prairie, pretending that what happens in Gopher Prairie stays in Gopher Prairie, willfully ignoring that this is not some grudge-match between Lewis and his home town, but a smarter, more encompassing indictment of whatever was passing for the “real America” of his day. 

I'm going to tell several hundred off-topic stories here, so gird your loins, folks. I hale from the proud state of Minnesota, and my folks were heavy into Sinclair Lewis when I was growing up. So much so that we visited Sauk Centre, Minnesota multiple times as a child, because Sauk Centre was Lewis's hometown and the model for the satirical town of Gopher Prairie in Main Street. I've gone to his grave, walked through his house, and know all kinds of random trivia about him. Mum has the bed he owned when he lived in Duluth. (Duluth, MN being another town he took apart in his novel Babbitt. Also, hey, did you know that the name babbitt – from the eponymous character of Lewis's book - became a common noun, meaning a self-satisfied middle-class materialist? Or babbittry, which may be an even better word, which refers to this kind of person's actions? You didn't? Philistine.) During the last half of my read, I was staying with my Grandma, who came from a town much like Gopher Prairie. “Oh, you're reading that?” she said, with one of her enigmatic laughs. “I re-read Babbitt last year.” I asked her what she thought. “Yep, I knew a lot of people like him,” was her only reply. I tried to get more out of her, but she just shook her head. I don't know if this kind of terseness means anything to other people, but coming from Grandma, it spoke volumes to me.

All this Lewis mania happened when I was very young though, and part of the fun of reading this book has been pestering my folks for stories about Lewis and Sauk Centre and all the weird stuff they know about him, and correcting my fuzzy drifting memories of that time. I remember standing in the museum – or maybe the hotel? - looking at the drawings local school children had done of his books, and feeling weird about the pictures for Arrowsmith that depicted an anvil and some arrows. That can't be right. It amuses the crap out of me that these kids lauded the Famous Native Son of Sauk Centre, Minnesota with absolute ignorance. I think Lewis would be pleased, in a perverse way. When his brother went to bury the urn containing Red's remains – Lewis was called Red by his friends – in an act of great satire if it were done by a character - his brother balked at burying the urn itself. Maybe you could use it again or something? Too nice to bury, anyhow. It was a calm, windless day, the kind of deep cold, high pressure system that sits still and echoing over Minnesota in the dead of winter. His brother decided to dump the ashes, and at the moment he did, the wind picked up out of nowhere and scattered Red all over the graveyard. It got so cold that night, that many of the windows up and down Main Street cracked. The Palmer House, where Lewis worked as a youth, is haunted, or so they say – though not by Lewis - and when I stayed there as a kid, it sparkled with drama and danger. 

I have no idea why I'm telling all these Middlewestern Gothic tales, because Main Street is not Gothic, but parts of it were scary as shit, for me. Published 90 years ago, this satire nails the ever-loving crap out of so much of American culture, culture that has remained disturbingly similar for nearly 100 years. So, yeah, the parts about semi-English speaking Scandinavian/German rurals maybe would only work for someone whose ancestors were exactly that, but Lewis's portrait of emerging (sub)urban plutocrats and their petty, depressing babbittry (see what I did there?) was both gleefully accurate and, well, horrifyingly accurate. The satire is also deft because it's aimed in two directions: at his main character, a somewhat flighty reform-minded housewife, and at the town she so ineffectually seeks to reform. 

Much of this book reminds me of Austen, but I don't want to say that too loudly lest people misunderstand. Especially at the beginning, it is very domestic, and centers on the social lives of a very large cast of characters. Carol is an Emma Woodhouse of sorts, though more a middle-class version, if such a thing is possible (and I think it is.) There's lots of social burlesque and cringe-inducing missteps both by Carol, and by everyone around her. Carol's also not far from Catherine Moreland from Northanger Abbey  (maybe my jump to Gothic wasn't so far off) in that she says incredibly revolutionary things, really critical things, and no one much pays her mind because she's just some girl. Lewis also has an incredibly touching sensitivity to women's experience, one that I didn't expect from a male writer of this era. An argument with her husband:

“Let me tell you a fable. Imagine a cavewoman complaining to her mate. She doesn't like one single thing; she hates the damp cave, the rats running over her bare legs, the stiff, skin garments, the eating of half-raw meat, her husband's bushy face, the constant battle, and the worship of spirits who will hoodoo her unless she gives the priests her best claw necklace. Her man protests, 'But it can't all be wrong!' and he thinks he has reduced her to absurdity. Now you assume that a world that produces a Percy Breshnahan [a famous Son of Gopher Prairie] and a Velvet Motor Company must be civilized. I suggest Mrs. Bogart as a test. And we'll continue in barbarism as people as nearly intelligent as you continue to defend things as they are because they are.” 

“You're a fair spieler, child. But, by golly, I'd like to see you try to design a new manifold, or run a factory and keep a lot of your fellow reds from Czech-slovenski-magyar-godknowswheria on the job! You'd drop your theories so darn quick! I'm not any defender of things as they are. Sure. They're rotten. Only I'm sensible."  

He preached his gospel: love of outdoors, Playing the Game, loyalty to friends. She had a neophyte's shock of discover that, outside of tracts, conservatives do not tremble and find no answers when an iconoclast turns on them, but retort with agility and confusing statistics.

This all goes down mid-book, and I was still rah-rah-ing and sighing along with Carol, even as Lewis skewered her as the parlor radical, the armchair revolutionary, comfortable, beholden to the system, part of the system, inextricable, hypocritical. Ha ha! Look at Carol make an ass of herself in front of a bunch of asses! Ha ha! Carol is treated badly, shunned, brought into line by the gossiping cruelty, but she's insulated and made ineffectual by her money, her status. She's the doctor's wife. Her ideas are eccentricities and not threats. 

Then the hammer drops. There are two episodes in the middle half of the book – spoilers ahead, although I will try to be as non-specific as possible – that clove me in two, and dealt with how terrible this bourgeois decorum can be. One was about the town Socialist, a personable logger-tinkerer, who blows into and out of town through the first part of the book. (I know this guy; I work with him. Like Carol, I've always been fond of how outside society my colleague is, how modular his life. He can pick up and go, while the rest of us are bolted down.) The plutocrats like scoring points off of The Red Swede, but he's cheerfully impervious. But then he settles down into a really wonderful marriage to Carol's maid, and Carol defies the town in continuing to associate with the maid, and him, even though she mostly does it on the sly. Then, oh God....I kind of don't want to talk about it. I'll just say that however bad it gets, it can get logarithmically worse when people demand obeisances for kindnesses that should be a requirement if you want to call yourself human. And then punish you for calling them out. God help my friend if he ever has anything to lose. 

Then a girl goes to a dance with Cy Bogart, Widow Bogart's son, narrowly avoids being raped, and is run out of town for her trouble. Cy brags and blames, and gets in good with the corner-chatting men of the town. Widow Bogart goes screaming to the school board. Carol tries her hardest to help the girl, and everyone knows that Widow Bogart is a sanctimonious bitch, and that Cy is trouble, but it doesn't matter. The girl is ruined. She leaves under a cloud. 

Her letter to Carol, a little later:
...& of course my family did not really believe the story but as they were I must have done something wrong they just lectured me generally, in fact jawed me till I have gone to live at a boarding house. The teachers' agencies must know the story, man at one almost slammed the door in my face when I went to ask about a job, & at another the woman in charge was beastly. Don't know what I will do. Don't seem to feel very well. May marry a fellow that's in love with me but he's so stupid that he makes me scream.”

It's so awful it makes me die. It's more awful because I identify with Carol, possibly in a way that Lewis never intended. I'm a Midwestern housewife type. I am comfortably Liberal, while languishing in a life that is incredibly conservative: marriage, monogamy, children, mortgage, &c &c. It's real nice of me to espouse my little ideas over coffeecake, but it doesn't actually get anything done, and it sure doesn't undo all the damage done by the Widow Bogarts of the world, and their sons. Lewis's portrait of Carol is affectionate, more affectionate than his portrait of the town of Gopher Prairie, but it's still like hugging one of those wire mommies in that horrible experiment. 

I don't know that I can go on with this review, because I don't want to fall into a bunch of self-pity and hand-wringing. Lewis has already satirized that, so it would be mawkish and redundant. Satire is depressing, when it's done well, because it's true. It's even more depressing when a satire from a century ago can feel fresh and current. I'm definitely going to read more Lewis, but not until I heal up a bit.




As side note: Sinclair Lewis, people, not Upton Sinclair. Upton Sinclair wrote The Jungle, a socialist indictment of the treatment of labor in America, which has been somewhat mistakenly remembered as a gross-out about meat packing*; Sinclair Lewis was a satirist who was the first American to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. I've had to make this distinction too many times when I told people I was reading this book.

*I mean, it is a gross out about meat-packing, but I think Upton was trying more to galvanize people about the treatment of people. 

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