Sinclair Lewis in late October 1920, it hoped for sales of 25,000. But the novel’s reception by critics and readers exceeded even the publisher’s fondest expectations. Buoyed by widespread attention arising from outrage over its attack on small-town life, Main Street sold 180,000 copies within the first six months of 1921 and narrowly missed being awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.
The novel lifted Lewis—a janitor at Upton Sinclair’s utopian socialist community, Helicon Hall, in Englewood, NJ, 14 years before, and for the past five years author of five novels that, he said, were “dead before the ink was dry”—into the front ranks of American literature. It began a decade that represented his creative zenith, securing for him the Nobel Prize in Literature—the first time that an American had received this honor.
The qualities on display in Main Street—especially, a realistic depiction of everyday life backed by extensive research, and an uncanny “ear” for dialogue—became the hallmarks of Lewis’ style. But much of the attention accorded the novel derived from his willingness to attack a sacred cow—a tendency that made him a favorite of intellectuals and skeptics such as H.L. Mencken but also the bane of more tradition-bound figures such as Columbia University President Nicholas Murray Butler.
Since the founding of the republic, small-town/rural life had been regarded as an antidote to the multiple evils perceived in cities. In contrast, Lewis—who had loathed his childhood in Sauk Centre, Minn.—depicted fictional Gopher Prairie as a generator of vapidity and conformity. It is entirely too set complacent, provincial, even bigoted to be moved when Carol Kennicott, the idealistic young wife of the town doctor, decides to raise its cultural awareness. Gopher Prairie residents, he noted acidly, were:
“staggered to learn that a real tangible person, living in Minnesota, and married to their own flesh-and-blood relation, could apparently believe that divorce may not always be immoral; that illegitimate children do not bear any special and guaranteed form of curse; that there are ethical authorities outside of the Hebrew Bible; that men have drunk wine yet not died in the gutter; that the capitalistic system of distribution and the Baptist wedding-ceremony were not known in the Garden of Eden; that mushrooms are as edible as corn-beef hash; that the word ‘dude’ is no longer frequently used; that there are Ministers of the Gospel who accept evolution; that some persons of apparent intelligence and business ability do not always vote the Republican ticket straight; that it is not a universal custom to wear scratchy flannels next the skin in winter; that a violin is not inherently more immoral than a chapel organ; that some poets do not have long hair; and that Jews are not always peddlers or pants-makers.”
The three-judge panel to select the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction was so taken with Lewis’ devastating satire that they recommended him for the award. Butler’s reversal of that decision and present the award instead to The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton was greeted with howls of protest (as was the panel’s decision two years later to overlook Lewis again in favor of Willa Cather’s One of Ours).
Contemporary critics are more likely than those of a century ago to praise Wharton’s anatomization of New York’s 1870s aristocracy: Feminist scholarship has opened many eyes to the precarious position of women years ago, and Wharton’s graceful prose style has worn better than Lewis’ blunter presentation.
In the end, much of this reappraisal is ironic: though the social circles examined by Lewis and Wharton could scarcely be more different, they both feature protagonists who, restlessly eyeing their dutiful but dull romantic partners, are easily maneuvered into compromise and defeat by their community. (Wharton herself felt that, in praising her book’s “wholesome” character, Butler had fundamentally her artistic purpose.)
Since the 2016 Presidential campaign, interest has peaked in a dystopian 1935 novel of Lewis’: It Can’t Happen Here. Already, the novelist’s alcoholism was undermining his creative power. But, for one brief moment, the specter of European-style Fascism being imposed on the U.S. roused Lewis to something like a return to the creative form he enjoyed with Main Street.