Main Street

by Sinclair Lewis

Other authorsGrant Wood (Illustrator)
Hardcover, 1965





Easton Press, 1965.Reprint. Leatherbound.


Carol Milford, educated, sophisticated, and energetic, has ambitious plans for her life. Her studies have prepared her to join an enlightened, progressive society. But after she becomes Carol Kennicott, the wife of a small town physician, she quickly learns that she is to be nothing more than a gracious wife. Frustrated and torn between the challenge of social change and the comfort of personal security, she begins to understand the cost of conformity--and rebellion.

Media reviews

Ninety years after publication, Sinclair Lewis’s Main Street still resonates with readers ... The book became an immediate sensation. Biographer Mark Schorer called its publication “the most sensational event in twentieth-century American publishing history.” ... Lewis found a way to appeal to both those who were nostalgic for small town America and those who were dissatisfied with it.

User reviews

LibraryThing member jmchshannon
In Main Street, Sinclair Lewis provides a crystal-clear picture of small-town living during the early part of the twentieth century. The result is a charming, honest look at one small, Midwestern town and all of its inhabitants. While the language, mode of dress, and popular activities may be antiquated now, the interactions and struggles remain as true today as they did in the 1910s. More importantly, through Carol's fight to accept her lot in life, Lewis presents a study of humanity that never ages.

Much of what is fascinating about Main Street is the intimate look at small-town life in the 1910s. The language is quaint and full of forgotten expressions. Societal teas, drama clubs, buggies versus cars, new suits purchased once a year - these are all things which are intriguing from a purely historical perspective. Lewis was writing based on his own personal experiences, which lends credence to his narration and brings history to life. However, a modern-day reader can easily imagine how uncomfortable a reader of Lewis' era would be at reading Main Street, as it is a no-holds-barred satire on the minutiae of daily small-town living.

Speaking of which, many of the difficulties of Main Street and its impact lie in how much life and society has changed in 100 years. Carol's life as a housewife, complete with servant, would be drastically different today, as her freedom to do as she pleases, to work, to form committees, is so much greater than the time period in which the story takes place. The reader has to ignore the differences and get to the heart of Carol's struggles for happiness to be able to detect why Main Street is relevant today. Carol's happiness does not depend on her status as a wife or her inability to make changes in her adopted town, but rather stem from her inability to find inner peace. It isn't until she makes peace with her life and dreams where she finally finds the contentment she so desperately seeks. This need for inner peace is something to which any reader can relate and proves that humans everywhere have been searching for their own inner peace for ages.

Overall, one can look at Main Street as an excellent historical reference for those interested in discovering what life was like in a frontier town back when the U.S. still had frontier towns. The power of Lewis' satire, though, has been lost over time as the world has evolved and changed in ways unimagined by Lewis or anyone else in the 1900s. Main Street is still enjoyable but not quite as effective a social commentary anymore.
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LibraryThing member cbl_tn
Carol Milford, college graduate and librarian, thinks very highly of herself and her abilities. When she receives a proposal from Dr. Will Kennicott of Gopher Prairie, Minnesota, she accepts since it will allow her to fulfill her aspiration of being a big fish in a small pond. She plans to single-handedly “improve” the small Midwestern town to fit her image of beauty and refinement. To her surprise and dismay, the town resists all of her efforts.

I had little sympathy for Carol. She thinks so highly of herself, yet she behaves as a dilettante. She tries to force her will on her husband and neighbors without making an effort to get to know them as individuals. Her only admirable quality is her acceptance of other outsiders in the community. If only she could have extended the same generosity to her husband and his friends. In the end, it isn't the town that changes. It's Carol. I wouldn't call this conformity or resignation. I'd call it maturity.

Lewis's characterizations seem exaggerated and heavy handed, and the tone is too “preachy” for my taste. Lewis seems to treat his readers the way Carol treats the citizens of Gopher Prairie, trying to force them to accept his view of the world without respecting any opinion but his own.
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LibraryThing member MeditationesMartini
Well, he's got their number, all right. This is almost a book that I'd call something like a "gray masterpiece," if that weren't so manifestly grandiloquent for a story like this one (Lewis tries to cover this with all that "Sam's store is every store" crap at the beginning, but he is wrong. This book is really good, but it is small). But it approaches "masterpiece" in places, if only the whole weren't less than some of its wrenchingest parts.

And it is gray.

And it really, truly does belong to it's historic moment, doesn't it? Thirty years later Carol would have been a firebrand, and this would have been a novel of rebellion and easier to love for me here in 2008, instead of so . . . pathetic. Thirty years earlier and there'd have been no story. She'd have been bored but content. In a French town she'd have been Madame Bovary.

Yeah, you should probably read this. It's fucking good. It's just hard to love.

Oh, PS: How can everybody call this book "satire"? Satire implies exaggeration, and if there's anything in the WORLD this book is, it's accurate. At least, if it doesn't underestimate Williams Lake in 2001 and Weitensfeld in 2008, I don't see how it can underestimate fucking Gopher Prairie, Minnesota in the WWI era. Yes. Depressingly accurate and not funny. Biting, but not satirical.
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LibraryThing member ursula

Carol is a university student in St. Paul, Minnesota in the early 1900s. She doesn't want to just settle for getting married to some boring guy who won't understand her desire to do something, to make a mark. (She reminded me a bit of George Bailey from It's a Wonderful Life here in the beginning.) She meets Dr. Will Kennicott, and they seem to have a meeting of the minds. He lives in Gopher Prairie, a small town, but surely being a doctor's wife will be fulfilling? All that prestige and excitement, and then their good conversations at home?

Gopher Prairie could have been any town in the US at the time the book was written - towns with a railroad station and sturdy unimaginative buildings, filled with sturdy and unimaginative people. It could still be many towns across the country today, and a lot larger ones these days, as they have become interchangeable plots of mini-malls that blend into each other along the highway. Is this the chain coffee shop/grocery store/sandwich shop complex in my city, or yours? Some aspects of the issues that Carol faces are dated, but I thought that far too many of them were just as relevant now, unfortunately. If you live in a small enough town, people still notice where you go, who you talk to, and they gossip about it when you fail to meet some standard of town behavior - those aspects of human nature will probably never change. Carol's attempts to convince the townspeople, to rebel against them, to ignore them, to make nice, all have a sort of futility that anyone can understand who's ever been in a difficult situation where every effort to create a sustainable change in either your environment or your own attitude about it seems to fail.

In many ways, I felt like what made this a difficult read was the feeling that all of this was new when Lewis was writing about it, and now we are just that much further down the path. Not only has not much changed, most of it has only intensified.

Recommended for: people from small towns, square pegs.

Quote: "The universal similarity - that is the physical expression of the philosophy of dull safety. Nine-tenths of the American towns are so alike that it is the completest boredom to wander from one to another. Always, west of Pittsburgh, and often, east of it, there is the same lumber yard, the same railroad station, the same Ford garage, the same creamery, the same box-like houses and two-story shops. The new, more conscious houses are alike in their very attempts at diversity: the same bungalows, the same square houses of stucco or tapestry brick. The shops show the same standardized, nationally advertised wares; the newspapers of sections three thousand miles apart have the same "syndicated features"; the boy in Arkansas displays just such a flamboyant ready-made suit as is found on just such a boy in Delaware, both of them iterate the same slang phrases from the same sporting-pages, and if one of them is in college and the other is a barber, no one may surmise which is which."
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LibraryThing member Schmerguls
On 27 Oct 1946 I said: "Started Sinclair Lewis' Main Street. Interesting in a way, though not good." On Nov 3 I said: "Finished Main Street. Not much good--written like a novel of the 'teens."
LibraryThing member NoLongerAtEase
Main Street has some absolutely brilliant moments of satire. In fact, at it's best it offers spot on cultural criticism that resounds well into the 21st century. That said, the somewhat scandalous elements are dated and the motif, although maybe not dated at the time, has been so often repeated in film and literature that one can't help but feel like they've heard it all before. Again, I think what shines are individual moments, pieces of prose where Lewis just perfectly captures certain archetypal characters (and their utterances) and experiences.

Now, if Lewis had let Carol Kenicott evolve into a slightly more unsympathetic character, if he had taken a more critical, even handed eye to his protagonist it might have been a truly great work. I couldn't help thinking that in some of the more heavy handed moments Lewis must have been trying to do just this, but if so it doesn't come across clearly. While he beats us over the head with the narrowmindedness of the provincials, Lewis, it seems to me, spares the rod in Carol's case and ultimately spoils what could be a much better critical work. I say this because certainly for all their huffing and puffing the Carol Kenicotts of the world are really no more interesting and less hackneyed than the Sam Clarks. Had he subjected Carol to a bit more roasting Lewis might've better captured the underlying spirit of malaise and hopelessness.

Finally, at times the novel reminded me of a funnier but less brilliant Winnesburg, Ohio. I guess given the subject matter this shouldn't be surprising, but that aside, thematically this notion of hopeless searching that Carol Kenicott takes on seems to have strong parallels in Anderson. In fact, the careful reader will notice that Lewis actually name drops Anderson when composing in a list of fiction Carol has been reading.

Overall: not merely "good" but not good enough to be great
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LibraryThing member Kryseis
Main Street is about an educated, intelligent woman, Carol, who married the town doctor of a little village called Gopher Prairie, whose intelligence and opinions constantly breaks against the general feeling of the sleepy town like waves against resolute rocks.

The town is politically conservative - to the point where the sheriff led the townspeople to beat up and drive out a suspected socialist speaker who wanted to speak to an assembly of speakers. Carol is liberal. The main entertainment to be had at dinners or social gatherings is petty gossip and that neighbours should spy upon each other for gossip fodder is the natural order. Carol likes to read books - Shaw, Romain Rolland, etc. company. Carol wants to enact many reforms on the town such as a new town hall, but they are all rejected and laughed off by the town.

In contrast to Carol, Carol's husband has no appreciation for any of the things that Carol holds so dear, like art music or literary books or poetry - he has vague memories of having studied them in university but had no real appreciation for them, calling them "high-brow stuff". He had hoped that Carol would "settle down" and forget all that high-brow stuff and be a wife in the style of the stolid, gossiping way of Gopher Prairie women.

Carol stews in this oppressive environment for most of the book.

Overall, even though I didn't enjoy reading it, I think it was a very good book and very influential; the dialogue and representation of village life are all very realistic. It eloquently points out all the oppression of village life and village thought and ridicules country folk as well as de Maupassant or Flaubert. However, it can't be forgotten that this is a satirical work. Sinclair Lewis shows the foibles of every character, especially Carol and it is difficult to connect with the story. It's entirely unsentimental and a bit pessimistic. None of the characters are particularly sympathetic. Carol is the main character and is a great reader so the reader might relate to her. However, as Carol stays longer in Gopher Prairie, she unwittingly becomes like them. She acquire their way of thinking. When she goes to Minneapolis for a visit, she think and behaves just the people of Gopher Prairie would - she thinks of what the other housewives would say if they say her eating at a fancy restaurant, in a fancy hotel and other typical big city experiences. Her individuality, for lack of a better word, is being worn down by the oppression of Gopher Prairie and this process is highlighted by Lewis's narration and is quite depressing.
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LibraryThing member Lisa.Johnson.James
This being a classic, & also being a satire, I expected it to be funny. It wasn't. It was painfully slow in places, & I could have done without it deviating from the story every so often. Other than that, it wasn't a bad story. I didn't know whether to like Carol, feel sorry for her, or to be annoyed by her overall, but I was all of these in turn. The way I see it, she probably never should have married Will at all, & he was the character I felt the most sympathy for. He was an honest country doc, hard working, with simple pleasures, his car, hunting, fishing, & his family.

The rest of the cast of characters are a bunch of small town stereotypes brought to life, & anyone who reads this & lives in or grew up in a small town will probably recognize the characters in their own towns.
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LibraryThing member Saieeda
A literary read with a vapid protagonist. But the writing is beautiful and offers delicately cutting critique of American small town society and some very interesting points to ponder
LibraryThing member ladycato
I set a goal to read at least one classic book each month. This was my choice for July, as it overlapped with research interests in the period.

Carol is a liberal, proudly-literate young woman of Minneapolis who marries a doctor and ends up in the small town of Gopher Prairie. She thinks she's going to reform and enlighten the entire town--indeed, even raze Main Street to the ground and rebuild it Georgian-style. Young and naive as she is, she is genuinely shocked and hurt by her reception by the town's well-established cliques who have zero desire to change. Again and again, she tries to make friends and to fight through the enraging mindless boredom of what it means to be a doctor's wife in a small town, where she's supposed to be satisfied with her life of comfort and strain neither her body or mind. Again and again, she fails, becoming increasingly dissatisfied in her marriage and everything that is embodied by Main Street.

My gosh, but Lewis can write. His Babbit impressed me, but Main Street delves deep into the very psychology of a small town. He shows the full ranges of personalities, the social stratification, and the petty, horrible gossip that is the primary hobby for many. Even more, he goes deep into Carol's psychology. He totally gets how it feels to be a woman stuck at home, bored mindless, and afraid of staying in that dread loneliness forevermore; many modern male writers can't do justice to that despair, but Lewis did, and in the 1920s. I also appreciate how his nuanced portrayal doesn't make Carol into a martyr (though she does feel like that at times). Quite often, Carols brings trouble upon herself, but by keeping the point of view with her the majority of the time, we can still sympathize (even if we kinda wanna slap her).

The book also acts like a camera to depict life in a small town on the Minnesota prairie through the 1920s. That means camaraderie, at times, but it also means outright sexism and racism. While minstrel shows and playing at being Chinese get brief mentions, the most blatant racism throughout is the social and racial line between the Anglo-Saxon town elite and the Nordic and Germanic people who make up the common laborers and farmers. Carol is the only one willing to cross those lines--becoming friends with 'the help'--because of her deep loneliness, and it sadly perpetuates the cycle for her. Her efforts to stand up for the newly-arrived artistic sissy--so derided by the manly-men of town, they call him by a woman's name--don't end well, either.

This is truly a masterful read, a rare classic that holds up due to the skill of its writing. I don't often like literary fiction, and many of the subjects here would immediately make me stop reading other books. But Lewis handled everything with such a deft hand, I felt as anxious at times as I might if I read a modern thriller. Mind you, other readers might not feel that way, but I strongly related to Carol in her isolation, and that made this a surprisingly quick read for me.
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LibraryThing member silva_44
Sinclair Lewis was seemingly unafraid to simultaneously bash small towns in the midwest, as well as religious ideals and republican tenants. I found Carol to be a character with whom I wanted to sympathize, but couldn't fully. She seemed affected and artificial, as did many of the other characters in the book. They seemed to be nothing more than the mouthpieces whereby the author voiced his opinions about the downfalls of religious, rural life, while building up the supposed beauty and nobility of the city. The story itself was fairly interesting, but I think that Lewis went too far in depicting a town of exceedingly ugly architecture as well as exceedingly ugly personalities. His liberalism, despite its being the liberalism of the 1920's, was over the top, even for this modern-day reader. And the ending, if it can be called that, was a complete cop-out - Carol should have been forced to make an irrevocable decision. Overall, I was not overly impressed.… (more)
LibraryThing member Jthierer
I love books where I'm not sure how I'm 'supposed' to feel about a character, because that usually means the characters are fully realized creations and not stereotypes. It also often means I have some examining of my own personality and choices to do.... In Main Street, I found myself simultaneously irritated by, sympathetic to and identifying with Carole as she struggles to adapt to life and marriage in a small Minnesota town. Even though this was set around 100 years ago, there was much to recognize of today in the attitudes of the main characters. The reformer who doesn't bother to learn about the place she's trying to reform, the small town gossip who provides a sympathetic ear and then repeats everything you say, the parent who refuses to believe a single bad word about her baby...the list goes on. While this probably isn't the book you'd turn to if you're looking for a ripping plot (very little really happens) its a slice of life from the past that still resonates today.… (more)
LibraryThing member Cecilturtle
I must admit to having trouble seeing this book through. Although I identified Carol's struggles, her socialist and feminist ideals, her inner and personal battles, I found the novel slow, even sluggish - which I suppose was the point. Main Street has an inertia, resistance to change and conformism which swallows and engulfs... for nearly 500 pages. Miles' defeat and Valborg's success are foils that show just how deeply Carol has been enveloped to the point that she wasn't even able to rebuild her life in Washington. The last lines are so pathetic that there's nothing left but to pity Carol. A harsh critique which does not leave much room for hope.… (more)
LibraryThing member CatieN
The main street of the title is in Gopher Prairie, Minnesota, in the late 1940s and early 1950s. The main character, Carol Milford, moves there from the big city (St. Paul) with her new husband, Dr. Kennicott. Carold finds the town ugly and boring and proceeds to try to change things with mixed results. The story is good, but it is a slow read because of the dense but realistic dialogue. Definitely a classic and an excellent representation of the times.… (more)
LibraryThing member chrystal
in this classic satire of small-town America, beautiful young Carol Kennicott comes to Gopher Prairie, Minnesota, with dreams of transforming the provincial old town into a place of beauty and culture. But she runs into a wall of bigotry, hypocrisy and complacency. The first popular bestseller to attack conventional ideas about marriage, gender roles, and small town life, Main Street established Lewis as a major American novelist.… (more)
LibraryThing member aketzle
You'd think a 400+ page book about the tedium of small town life would itself be tedious, but it actually wasn't. I was engrossed! And so happy my small(ish) town is nothing like the one described in this book!
LibraryThing member TheLoisLevel
One of the most developed stories I've ever read about marriage...I'm glad I finally discovered it.
LibraryThing member jmoncton
Carol Kenicott makes the move from the big city of St. Paul to the small farm community of Gopher Prairie when she marries Will, one of the town's doctors. At the beginning of her marriage, Carol has grandiose ideas of transforming this small simple town into a beautiful artistic community. She tries to redecorate, create a community theater and bring her big city life style to this town, but faces resentment and opposition. Although the immediate target of this satire is the narrow minded attitudes of small midwest towns, but much of the personalities quirks and conflicts of Main Street are found in every community, from the big city to the rural country. I thought I would find Carol's life suffocating and depressing, but I didn't find this to be a downer at all. Surprisingly good and insightful!… (more)
LibraryThing member BryeWho
A bit heavy-handed, true, but still a beautiful dissection of small town American faults and foibles. To appreciate it today requires only the least bit of imagination to transfer the setting from town and rural to towncenter and suburban sprawl. In the end it was delightful.
LibraryThing member thornton37814
Carol, from St. Paul, meets Dr. Will Kennicott who is a physician in Gopher Prairie. She goes to the town expecting to "reform it" and change it. She struggles with adapting to the life there. While aspects of the novel have applicability today, others do not. I seriously doubt that if Lewis had lived a century later that the outcome would have been the same. The book was a bit longish and tended to bog down in places. Carol and I would not have been kindred souls. Her story never resonated with me.… (more)
LibraryThing member sweetiegherkin
This book tells the story of a young woman who gets married and moves to her husband’s small home town. There she finds that her “liberal” ideas (including that domestic help should get fair wages and that poetry and literature are appropriate topics of conversation at a gathering rather than gossip and conjecture) make it hard for her to fit in. She also disappointed that the town doesn’t live up to the pastoral ideal she had in mind, so she sets about on a number of reforms, which inevitably fail. I cannot help but admire the mind of Sinclair Lewis – he clearly shows in this book that he is both perceptive and visionary. He took a good hard look at what was wrong and what was right in America at his time and held nothing to be a given – whether it was the virtue of the small town over the big city or the traditional roles of masculinity and femininity (particularly in terms of their obligations to home and work). Some of his comments look to a future that has now been achieved (suffrage and space travel, for example). However, I must admit that I was not in love with this novel. Despite the interesting themes explored, I had two major problems with this book. The first was the main character, Carol Kennicott. She was rather wishy-washy, which I suppose humanized her (hey, I can’t make up my mind half the time either), but it made her a character very hard to feel strongly about and want to root for, particularly because the reader doesn’t know what to be hoping Carol will obtain in the end. Secondly, large portions of the book seemed repetitive (Carol tries some type of reform and fails, Carol tries some type of reform and fails, Carol tries some type of reform and fails, and so on). I suppose in part this may have been to get the reader to feel a bit of the oppression that Carol feels living this mind-numbing existence, but I found it difficult to not get bored with this tactic.… (more)
LibraryThing member Ameise1
This was a very interesting reading. I love Lewis' strong spelling style, his fierceness and his foresight because a lot of things he had written came true. He wrote about philistinism and hypocrisy of a small town life. But to be frank, was this only 100 years ago the case or isn't it still so?

It's the story of a Carol Kennicott who grew up in a 'city' and after her marriage with the local doctor is ambitious to turn upside down the life of a provincial town. She has a lot of plans how this little town could improve but is always turned down by the local prominence. She turns her back to Gropher Prairie to go back to a city. After two years she comes back and sees the little town much calmer because she learned that there are Gropher Prairie everywhere.

There was only a minor point I struggled with. Sometimes I had the feeling Something similar I've already read. and that made the story too long, but luckily every time I had that feeling a new subject turned up.
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LibraryThing member athaena
Found this book to be heavy going at first, but it was well worth sticking with!
LibraryThing member ErnestHemingway
"Buddenbrooks is a pretty damned good book. If he were a great writer it would be swell. When you think a book like that was published in 1902 and unknown in English until last year it makes you have even less respect, if you ever had any, for people getting stirred up over Main Street, Babbit and all the books your boy friend Menken [H.L. Mencken] has gotten excited about just because they happen to deal with the much abused Am. Scene."
Letter to F. Scott Fitzgerald, 1925
Selected Letters, pg. 176
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LibraryThing member tjsjohanna
I first read this as a sophomore in high school. I said this about Sinclair Lewis: "I absolutely adore his writing". Really?? While this book has much to say about a lot of things, I had a hard time relating to Carol. I never could figure out what exactly it was that she wanted. The character I ended up liking the most was Kennicott - although he certainly had his obtuse moments. It is true that some of humanity's worst qualities hide behind piousness and financial security and reputation. But I think that is true no matter where you go. In the beginning of the novel Carol seems to be overly concerned with how things look - she dislikes Gopher Prairie because it's not planned and beautiful. I think in the end, since the only person you can really change is yourself, Carol misses the point. Lewis makes it when he states the only real reaction you can make to smallness is laughter. But Carol seems to always have to have a cause. In the end, I'm not sure she was any better than "Main Street". Interesting commentary going on in this story… (more)


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