thumbnail of Sinclair Lewis' Minnesota: A State of Mind; 2; The Village Virus
Hide -
If this transcript has significant errors that should be corrected, let us know, so we can add it to FIX IT+
The St. Cloud State College broadcasting service under a grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting presents Sinclair Lewis is minister of state of mind. You can't escape your. Escape. It was. Your. Job. This. Was written by Dr James Lunn with. Native Minnesotan. An author of several articles and a book on this. Sinclair first became famous and infamous. For his depiction of
small town Minnesota in his novel Main Street. This attack on the humdrum life in American villages. Both makes us a successful writer and forever linked him with an attitude toward his own background. That has given him in the eyes of many. The role of image smasher and myth debunker. Just what to do in Main Street to bring so much attention on himself and his idea. To me. Main Street such a tiny label. What kind of picture did Louis draw of his Minnesota environment. These topics are all part of this. The second of our presentations in the series by the US is Minnesota. Here is our narrator Les Davis on the subject. Iris. And Carla. And the small town. In the fall of 1920 when Main Street first appeared Sinclair Lewis was known to the
American public as the author of Fast reading but paper A stories that appeared in such slick magazines as the Saturday Evening Post. But he was already a novelist and had published in fact six frisky and somewhat promising books. Within a few months after the October publication of Main Street however writing Lewis had previously done was permanently obscured the date of publication October 23rd turned out to be one of the most significant dates in publishing history no previous publishing event was more explosive and no subsequent marketing of a novel has had quite the same reaction. Lewis had hoped that Main Street would have a sale of 10000 copies. His publisher Alfred Harcourt thought that it might sell 20000. And as Lewis later wrote the sales manager E.H. care's went mad and believed he could call 25000 given a couple of years but often I smiled and let him rave. All three estimates were conservative to the point of ridiculousness in the
first six months of 1921 the novel sold one hundred eighty thousand copies and the total is now a matter of millions. It soon became the book that everyone was reading. It served to usher in the mood of skepticism and revolt that became characteristic of the 20s in America. It brought Lewis the highest praise of reviewers who began to call him the greatest living novelist and almost immediately Main Street a foxtrot song with lyrics by Vincent share would became popular. The name of sock setter was his hometown and a model for the village of Gopher Prairie and Main Street. For a time became as much of a byword in jokes about small towns as those other infamous Metropolis says Mudville Hicksville already worth more than one stock setter housewife remarked. If that good for nothing red Luas ever comes back here. Well have a lynch rope waiting for him in a bucket of tar and some feather pillows too. For almost half a year the Sox center Herald refused to make any comment about the
book and in the neighboring town of Alexandria Main Street was banned from the public library. What was there so one flam authority about the story that Lewis tells on Main Street. It is after all a straightforward narrative about a girl in her 20s an ex librarian named Carol who leaves St. Paul to marry Will Kennicott of Gopher Prairie Minnesota physician. When she gets to go for Perry Carroll is shocked to learn that life in a small town is at best a drab round of gossip repetitive ladies club meetings and dull domesticity. Carroll hungers for culture for good music good books painting architecture intelligent conversation but she finds none of this. She would like to believe that a small town is a better place in which to live than a city she would like to believe with Sam Clark the proprietor of the hardware store and Gopher Prairie that you don't get any of the poverty that you find in the cities. Always plenty of work no need of charity. Man got to be blame shiftless if he don't get ahead. But she
discovers that Gopher Prairie has its slum of sweet hollow where the washer woman Mrs. Stan off works all day and gray steam for a pittance while her six year old boy chops wood in a torn jacket. His hands covered with red mittens through which protruded his chapped and raw knuckles. Carol would like to believe that Gopher Prairie is a place where people are free to think and speak as they wish. It is Carol's discovery that small towns are not often pleasant places in which to live but made mainstreet such a scandalous book. But what Lewis wrote about small town life violated a body of highly treasured American myth literature in the United States and maintained for years that God made Hicksville Sattar and the devil made New York Zona Gail's Friendship Village published in 1908 and Meredith Nicholson's the valley of democracy published in 1918 were but two of the many books written in praise of village life. Even though the American small town had already entered the period of decline brought on by the
migration of young people to the city the centralization of farming and industry and the displacement of farm labor by machinery. The myth of the small town was very much a part of American consciousness even in 1920. And to some extent still lives are one of the present day suburbs but rather grotesque attempts to preserve the small town environment of wide tree shaded streets and private homes and gardens. Sinclair Lewis stated in the preface he wrote for the 937 Limited Editions Club publication of Main Street with illustrations incidentally by Grant Wood. His own disillusionment with small towns led him to make Main Street a pointed and intentional attack on what had been an American sacred cow for too long. Back in 1905 in America it was almost universally known that those cities were evil. And even in the farmland there were occasional men of Wrath. Our villages were approximately paradise. They were always made up of small white houses under large
green trees. There was no poverty no toil worth mentioning. Every Sunday sweet tempered silvery pastors poured forth comfort and learning and while a banker might be pretty doubtful dealer he was inevitably worsted in the end by the honest Yeomanry. But it was neighborliness that was the glory of the small town in the cities nobody knew or cared. But back home the neighbors are one great big jolly family. They lend you money of that question and you send it to Business College and they soothe your brow and sickness dozens of them twenty four hours a day kept charging in and soothing your brow without a moment's sensation. And when you have nevertheless passed beyond they set up with your corpse and your widow invariably they encourage you to go to bigger and nobler things. And in 1995 I returned to my own Minnesota village for a vacation after my sophomore year and Yale and after two months of it after two months of overhearing the village's nun does awfully wonder why don't doc Lewis make harry get a job on a farm instead of letting them sit around reading and reading a lot of fool histories and God
knows what all. I was converted to the faith that a good deal of this neighborliness was a fake that villages could be as inquisitorial as an army barracks. So on the third month of vacation 15 years before it was published I began to write Main Street. The novel that resulted was designed by Lewis to give a picture of a representative small town picture that he outlined not without considerable irony in the forward to Main Street. This is America a town of a few thousand and a region of wheat and corn and berries and little groves. The town is in our tail called Gopher Prairie Minnesota but its main street is the continuation of main streets everywhere. The story would be the same in Ohio or Montana in Kansas or Kentucky or Illinois and not very differently would be told up York State or in the Carolina hills. Main Street is the climax of civilization at this Ford car might stand in front of the Bon Ton store Hannibal invaded Rome and harassments road in Oxford cloisters
but only Jensen the grocer says as Risto body the banker is the new law for London Prague and the unprofitable isles of the sea whatsoever as it does not no one sanction that thing as heresy. Worthless or annoying and what could be considered a railway station is the final aspiration of architecture. Sam Clark's annual hardware turnover is the envy of the four counties which constitute God's country in the sensitive art of the Rosebud movie palace there's a message and humor strictly moral. Such as a comfortable tradition and sure fate would he not betray himself an alien cynic who should otherwise portray mainstreet or distress the citizens by speculating whether there may not be other faiths. But however much Lewis tried to make Gopher Prairie representative and however much he denied that the characters in the book are not patterned on real people on Main Street nevertheless has a Minnesota flavor to it. Gopher Prairie is not literally Sox center but it is more like Sox center than any other small town.
Sinclair Lewis could no more write Main Street without drawing on his Sox center background than Mark Twain could write Tom Sawyer without drawing on his boyhood in Hannibal Missouri. In the same way then Main Street provides us with Lewis's conception of what life in a Minnesota small town was like early in the 20th century. It was a kind of life maintains Lois that did not have an altogether good influence on those who were forced to live in it. It was a kind of life that satisfied a good many of the inhabitants of Gopher Prairie to be sure but for others it meant frustration and reaction. Reaction against not only the social attitudes but against the physical environment as well. However that is Carol Kennicott story and perhaps we should let her tell it herself. With. My life I've been a student. It's strange that the most important thing I've learned.
Is not about literature or history or politics. What I've learned best is the nature of the small town. You might say I've become an authority on the subject especially on the subject of Minnesota small towns not only because I've lived some years in one with my husband Dr. Will Kennicott but because I've done some reading as well. Of course I didn't always think this way about small towns and I'm not so certain that I still do now that I'm older and my children are growing up. It seems easier to take Gopher Prairie on its own terms. I suppose if I knew now what I knew when I first met wil I would never have come to Gopher Prairie. But he was so persuasive. I was working as a librarian in the St. Paul Public Library when I met Will at a dinner party some friends were giving. He became a persistent suitor and I guess his ability as a physician served him well because he diagnosed my acute case of idealism very perceptively.
I remember vividly how he got me to accept his proposal. One day we walked from St. Paul's down the river to Mendota. I was wearing a tam o'shanter of mole velvet and a blue serge suit with an absurdly and agreeable broad turned down collar. We went through the Sibley house then crossed the Minnesota River in a rowboat. We climbed the hill to the round stone tower of Fort Snelling and there looking out over the junction of the Minnesota and Mississippi will turn to me. This block has made me realize more than ever. Minnesota's a quickstep. Good country. And I'm proud of it. Let's try to improve it like all those old boys like General Sibley dreamed about us. Come on
then come to Gopher Prairie. Show us. Make the town well. Make it attractive. I would like to someday. Now you'd love Gopher Prairie. We've been doing a lot of the lawns and the gardening the past few years and it's so homey. The big trees are the best people on earth and keen. I bet Luke Dawson has got more money than most of the swells on Summit Avenue. And if you want culture besides be to sure when the teacher who reads Latin like I do English there's Reverend Warren the Congregational preacher and Guy Pulok the lawyer. I say he writes regular poetry and and Raymie Witherspoon. He's not such an awful boob when you get to know him. And there's plenty of others homey Of course none of them have you often as you might call it. But they don't make them any more appreciative and so on. Come on the Gopher Prairie with me.
You know I'm in love with you Tara. There's no use saying and saying things. My arms talk to you. Please will you give are you going to help the town. Or you could help me in my work. I would like to would like to see Gopher Prairie. Trust me here she has brought some snapshots down to show you. And so I said I'd marry Will Kennicott. But the real Gopher Prairie was not quite honestly portrayed in Will's snapshots as I was to learn when the train bringing us to Gopher Prairie. After our honeymoon in the Colorado mountains near the town that was to become my home it was a front here camp. It was not a place to live in. Not possibly not conceivably.
And then there was the greeting I received from Sam Clark who was at the station to meet us. I'm Sam Clark dealer in hardware sporting goods cream separators and almost any kind of heavy junk you can think of. You can call me Sam. Anyway I'm going to call you Carrie. Seems you've been and gone and married this poor fish of a bum medic that we keep around here. Fat cranky lady back there beside you was pretending that you can hear me giving her away. Is Mrs. Clark in the hungry looking squared up here beside me is Dave Dyer who keeps his drug store running by not filling your husband's prescriptions right back you might say he's the guy that put the
shonen prescription I. Am going to limit so I am well. Leave us take the body ride home. Community of course was I was to learn Sam Clarke's conversation was both terribly witty and lively for Gopher Prairie. I learned to appreciate Sam Clark when I had to listen to people like Dave Dyer the druggist talk about his carefree adventures on the open road. But a week ago I motored down to new work and that's going to create. It. Seventeen miles to Bellevale. About six and three quarters called Seven to certain places. And one thousand miles from there to new work Berga seventeen thousand seventy. Six. That makes. Seventeen and seven twenty four plus 19
20. Well anyway about 43 or 44 miles from here to work and we got started about 7:15 probably 720 because I had to stop the radiator and we ran along just keeping up a good steady gait. Mr. Dyer did indeed. After another 10 minutes or so that he actually reached new Wernberg in time to turn around and drive back to go for a curry the same day. As for Gopher Prairie itself. I soon became if disgruntled resident. Will took me home to our house. As square smug round house. Rather damp with a narrow concrete walk up to it. Sickly yellow leaves in the window. A screen porch with pillars of sand Painted Pine surrounded by scrolls and brackets and bumps of jugs. We know shrubbery to cut off the public gaze. A bay window to the right of the porch window curtains of starched cheap lace revealing a pink marble table with a conch shell and a family Bible.
But I got used to it. After all it was my home. The rest of the town was not so easy. I remember my first observant walk down Main Street and what I saw. I glanced through the fly specked windows of the most pretentious building in the M. Masseron. Hotel. It's a tall and shabby structure in the hotel office I could see a stretch of bare unclean floor. A line of rickety chairs with brass cuspidors between the dining room beyond was a jungle of stained tables and ketchup. I move onto Dyer's drug store a corner building of regular and unreal blocks of artificial stone. Inside the store greasy marble soda fountain with an electric lamp of red and green and purple yellow. Pawed over heaps of toothbrushes shelves of cartons teasing
rings patent medicines in yellow packages notorious mixtures of opium and alcohol above the drug store in the second story window is the sign W. P. Kennicott physician and surgeon next to the drugstore. The small wooden motion picture theater called the Rosebud movie palace lithographs announcing a film called fatty in love. Then on to Holland and Guilds grocery in the display window black overripe bananas and lettuce on which a cat was sleeping. DAHLAN Olson's meat market a reek of blood a fly buzzing saloon was a brilliant golden enamel sign across the front a stink of stale beer. Voices strolling up to the song. Then the Bon Ton store the largest shop in town and claimed. The first story of frontal glass a window of excellent clothes for men.
And then on to Axel and his general store. Billy's lunch at the Ford garage with the implement warehouse the feed store the barber shop the pool hall Nashik tailor shop the red brick Catholic Church the post office the yellow brick school building the State Bank the Farmers National Bank. Behind the houses in all the town not one building save the ionic structure of the Farmers National Bank gave me any pleasure. I was overwhelmed by the unapologetic ugliness. But as Veda sure one the school teacher told me I'm a born reformer. So I set out to change the town and its people. My most grandiose scheme was to redesign the town completely to remake it after a Georgian motif to remake it somehow. It didn't take me long to lower my sights. I realized that I could never rebuild the town by myself
but I hoped that I could change it culturally. But lowering my objectives didn't improve my score any. I tried to get my husband to appreciate poetry. After I'd read some Tennyson and then some Kipling to him he suggested that we go to the movies. I tried to get a fan at Thompson's club. Our local literary society to study literature and more Depp's the other ladies agreed to devote to meetings instead of just one to the study of the English poets. All the English poets. I formed a little theatre group thinking that for our first production we could compromise between seriousness and comedy by doing shock. We compromised on the girl from Canada. My defeats might not have been so hard to take. Had I not learned that I was becoming the talk no was a laughing stock of the town. One day I overheard two boys both about 14. Sam Bogart and Earl haddock talking about me. They had made the loft of our
garage into the headquarters of their secret society. I went into the garage to look for something. When I heard sighs voice. Gee. Let's go down to the lake and swipe some marsh rats out of somebody's trying to get out here is hit. There's cigarettes. Remember when we were just kids and used to smoke corn silk and hayseed. How is she House who you know who I mean smarty and Mrs. Kennicott. Oh she's all right I guess. But Ma says she stuck up as hell. Ma is always talking about yeah my ma was always talking about her took. So says she almost bust every time she see Miss Kennicott parading down the street with that to take a look at. I was swell skirt way she's got to say some good looker just the same and glad rags you musta bought her way. Ever notice those low cut dresses and those thin shimmies shirts you wears.
I had a good squint at them when they were out on the line with the wash and some ankle she's got a. That is Carol Kennicott story a story that took place in a small town on the Minnesota prairie and a story that has become etched on American consciousness through the sale and circulation of Sinclair Lewis's Main St. Louis is novel is at once a graphic attempt at depicting life in this Minnesota small town and an indictment of the quality of life. Some years after Main Street
appeared it was once recollected that when he was writing the book he felt that the ghetto like confinement of small towns could be. Not always was but so easily could be a respectable form of hell. Only a few critics have noticed the dawn test quality of Main Street. But Carol kind of God's greatest moment of despair is when she realizes that she is damned that she will never escape from the circle of dullness in which she finds herself. And it comes as nothing less than a shock to the Minnesota reader of Lewis to realize that the Minnesota landscape in the US his novels is somewhat like the landscape of hill. But Minnesotans should not be too offended. There is comfort in Lewis's qualified use of the word Hell he stated after all in his characteristic slyness that it is after all a respectable form of hell.
In our next installment of Sinclair Lewis is Minnesota we'll tell you about what we learned when we walked down the original main street and down Sinclair Lois haven't you. You have been listening to Sinclair Lewis is Minnesota. A state of mind. This 12 program series has been produced by the St. Cloud State College broadcasting service under a grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Her exposed. Display he. Doesn't match with what we say Never do you speak
with. Him. You cannot hide. I know. That. This series was written by Dr James Lundquist of the St. Cloud State Department of English a music composed and performed by Lowell psyche. This program was produced and directed by Gary Hawkins. He's got right. To.
Sinclair Lewis' Minnesota: A State of Mind
Episode Number
The Village Virus
Producing Organization
St. Cloud State College
Contributing Organization
University of Maryland (College Park, Maryland)
If you have more information about this item than what is given here, or if you have concerns about this record, we want to know! Contact us, indicating the AAPB ID (cpb-aacip/500-rx93d15f).
Many readers consider Sinclair Lewis' "Main Street" an attack on American villages and on his own background, giving him the role of both an image smasher and a myth debunker. This episode explores what made "Main Street" such a timely book as well as the picture he drew of his Minnesota environment.
In 1920, Minnesotan Sinclair Lewis published his novel "Main Street," an inciteful analysis of the American small town. This radio series, produced five decades after the novel was published, explores whether "Main Street" still holds true of small towns.
Asset type
Media type
Embed Code
Copy and paste this HTML to include AAPB content on your blog or webpage.
Producing Organization: St. Cloud State College
AAPB Contributor Holdings
University of Maryland
Identifier: 71-9-2 (National Association of Educational Broadcasters)
Format: 1/4 inch audio tape
Duration: 00:30:00?
If you have a copy of this asset and would like us to add it to our catalog, please contact us.
Chicago: “Sinclair Lewis' Minnesota: A State of Mind; 2; The Village Virus,” 1971-00-00, University of Maryland, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC, accessed September 21, 2021,
MLA: “Sinclair Lewis' Minnesota: A State of Mind; 2; The Village Virus.” 1971-00-00. University of Maryland, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Web. September 21, 2021. <>.
APA: Sinclair Lewis' Minnesota: A State of Mind; 2; The Village Virus. Boston, MA: University of Maryland, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Retrieved from