Creating Main Street

Article excerpt

IN DECEMBER 1930, Sinclair Lewis became the first American to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature. The award cited "his vigorous and graphic art of description and his ability to create, with wit and humor, new types of characters," among them George Follansbee Babbitt, Martin Arrowsmith, and Elmer Gantry. But the new direction in characters began with a woman, Carol Kennicott, and the citizens of Gopher Prairie. MAIN STREET, he said "may, perhaps, be the real beginning of my career as a writer."

"I'm obsessed with a novel. I've sent my wife and son out of town. I get my own breakfast and lock myself in a stifling room on the top floor of a rooming house till nine at night to finish the damn thing. Then I probably can't sell it, and if I do it probably won't make a cent," Sinclair Lewis told a friend as he was writing Main Street. He later wrote, "I have never worked so hard, and never shall work so hard, again."

The writing of the book had really begun after Lewis visited the novelist James Branch Cabell in August 1919. At Alum Springs in Virginia, the two discussed Lewis's plans.

Cabell candidly told Lewis that the novel was too programmatic. It teemed with panaceas on town planning, architecture, and cultural reform, as advocated by the heroine, Carol Kennicott, and its solutions "blunted the book's edge." Cabell also suggested that Bea, the Swedish maid, marry the radical handyman, Miles Bjornstam, and that the school teacher, Vida Sherwin, be paired with the effete shoe salesman, Raymie Witherspoon. The changes allowed Lewis to explore intolerance and sexual frustration.

Lewis wrote Cabell the following January: "I have destroyed all but a few pages of the 30,000 words I have written of 'Main Street,' in complete dissatisfaction. Have started it up again.... The former 30,000, which you saw... struck me as incomparably clumsy-and at times vulgar when I read it. It was off on the wrong foot."

Lewis's practice was to retype his drafts himself because he felt that he could better "feel" the flaws in the writing. The 271 pages of typescript that survive are a thicket of interlinings, strikeouts, and handwritten inserts.

One of Lewis's substantive changes was to soften the character of Carol Kennicott, making her more palatable to readers. In presenting Carol's emotions when she is pregnant, he originally made her reflect his own view, scoffing at "all the fond traditions she had ever heard about mother-love, mother-devotion, mother-instinct." As revised, Carol finds joy in motherhood.

For all his revisions, Lewis's basic story line remained: a young city woman with lofty ideals attempting unsuccessfully to change the narrowminded small town that becomes home after she marries.

On a Saturday morning in July 1920, Lewis brought the final manuscript to Alfred Harcourt, his publisher, who read it over the weekend. "This is the truest book I have ever read," he told Lewis. "I have been deeply moved by it."

Lewis's reply was, "Do you think it will sell, Alf?"

Lewis had been anxious about the book's impact on his career. He had been making a lucrative living writing for magazines such as The Saturday Evening Post, and he worried about challenging the middle-American patriotic values of George Horace Lorimer, the magazine's editor. Lorimer had been on a loyalty crusade, determined to root out subversives of all sorts, and Main Street was a conscious attack on what Lewis called "100% Americanism & God's countriness."

Harcourt predicted it would do as well as The Old Wives ' Tale, Arnold Bennett's novel of English provincial towns, which had sold forty thousand copies in America. However, Harcourt, who was a new publisher, cautiously ordered a first printing of ten thousand.

On Lewis's part, there were financial concerns. The Lewises had run through their savings. He was maintaining a costly establishment. His wife Grace itemized their expenses: "sizable rent, a car, garage extra, an outside workroom, a cook, a nurse, a laundress, a furnace man, and feeding some of these people, a fair amount of entertaining," and, for Lewis, a "suit made to order by an English tailor for $145. …