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Never did she feel like she was living

Lewis, S 1999 [1920]. Main Street. Edited Julie Nord. Mineola, New York: Dover Publications, INC.

‘Conformity in democratic America’ Wrote Henry Seidel Canby, ‘is the price of  respectability, and eccentricity is the deadly sin.’ Canby, editor of the Saturday Review of Literature and chair of the board of judges of the Book-­of­-the-Month Club, invites the implication that being unique harboured unpleasant consequences in post-War America. Putting cultural life at the centre of this discussion, Sinclair Lewis’s episodic novel Main Street explores provincial life in the infancy of twentieth-century America. The narrative centres on Carol Kennícott and her attempts to alternately ‘cure’ and adapt to the town. The nature of her discontent sterns from the residents of Gopher Prairie and their unwillingness to transcend the banalities of small-town life. Lewis challenges the widely held view of the 1920s as a flux of excitement and breakdown of social norms by exposing another arena where some older ideas persisted. Characters in the novel habitually indulge in ‘middlebrow’ pursuits. This piece will examine how Main Street engages with the term ‘míddlebrow’, how it simultaneously acted as a platform for growth and the preservation of genteel values. A brief description of the socio-economic factors which created the ‘middlebrow’, along with a clear definition of the term will be first be introduced.

Sociologists Robert and Helen Lynd argued that Americans in the 1920s were ‘living in one of the greatest eras of the greatest rapidity of change in the history of modern institutions.’ While it is undeniable that the country altered considerably throughout the decade, the process of ‘change’ and enlightenment was far from complete. There remained an insular attitude. Between 1850 and 1900 ‘culture’ was defined as high culture and ‘sacralized’; it was a concept that was exclusive to a select few. War in Europe acted as a catalyst in boosting the financial climate and this resulted in a new consumer economy. A mass culture with a disposable income produced, what Janice Radway describes as a ‘new social mediation’ The developing connection involving mass and cultural elite manifested itself in a new medium that entered the public sphere. Middlebrow culture synthesized nineteenth­century values and materialism of newly affluent peoples. As the critic Malcolm Bradbury has noted, the burgeoning of bohemia did not alter the fact that ‘the Twenties was a conservative decade’ In Main Street, Lewis uncovers the dichotomy between mass and elite culture by exposing the characters’ reliance on material goods as a source of identity.

‘Middlebrow’ first appeared in a 1925 Punch article. It was a rather disparaging that married the term with an element of philistinism. According to Punch, the middlebrow is made up of people who are sustained by the belief that ‘someday they will get used to the stuff they ought to like.’ Middlebrow culture thrived in the twentieth century and took the form of movies, avid consumption, Book-Of-The-Month Clubs and advertising. Advertising was a powerful element in relating middlebrow aesthetics with a mass audience. By fixing the principles of advertising and the new consumer economy onto the traditional World of culture, figures such as John Erskine (an educator at Columbia who helped inspire the ‘Masterworks of Western Literature’ Programme and Harry Scherman (founder and president of the Book-of The-Month club) developed a catalogue of characteristics of acceptable literacy that the average American could absorb. Both Erskine and Schaum’s Work was based on the main tenets of Victorian sensibilities. Older understandings of self­reliance, discipline and refinement as well as an opposition to modernism and commercialism were the sort of qualities that Erskine and his ilk conveyed through their work. As virtues of the latter half of the nineteenth century faded out and commercial interest of the 1920s progressed, middlebrow culture came to occupy a transitional role. The historian Joan Shelley Rubin finds that the two contrasting persuasions seemed to blur. As she writes, ‘the history of middlebrow culture provides a powerful illustration of the shift from producer to consumer values in America.’

This period marked the move from the term ‘character’ to the ‘self’ or ‘personality.’ Advertising became a legitimate frame of reference for the self. Radway adds ‘it transformed the notion of the self by producing an individuality defined by a kind of diacritical difference rather than an ontological essence.’ Therefore, consumer culture enabled the promotion of items to act as a prop for enhancing personality. Lewis takes this idea and amplifies it. By remaining in the town Carol is entrenched in the domestic. Goods don’t inform her personality, they overtake it:

She was better acquainted with the utensils in the kitchen than with Vida Sherwin or Guy Pollock. The can-opener, whose soft gray metal handle was twisted from some ancient effort to pry open a window, was more pertinent to her than all the cathedrals in Europe; and more significant than the future of Asia was the never-settled weekly question as to whether the small kitchen knife with the unpainted handle or the second-best buckhorn carving-knife was better for cutting up cold chicken for Sunday supper

The above passage follows Carol in her kitchen, fleshed out by her musings on life. A ‘can-opener’ takes her on a mental assessment of places in Europe, Asia and back to ‘the small kitchen knife’ all in the space of two sentences. Treating the accoutrements as if I they are sources of mediation suggests a reliance on items that borders on obsession. The notion that an inanimate object can tease out such substantive thoughts hints at the narrowing of human ‘culture’ into the range of the material. To ensure that Carol doesn’t get lost in these minutiae she uses objects as a map of her life. Her attachment to these goods offers a subversive take on the destructive effects of embracing míddlebrow life.

Carol arrives in Gopher Prairie with the vague aspiration to have ‘a career of town-planning.’ Newly married and a self-confessed ‘book-worm’ she struggles to adapt to her new surroundings, where social meetings consist of regurgitating anecdotes and songs. Carol’s plight seems to parallel the Way middlebrow culture mutated from gentility to consumerism. Her acts of contrivance correspond to the middlebrow idea of the ‘self’ as an elaborate public perfomance. Naturalism and spontaneity are stifled to achieve acceptance. The critic James Gilbert concurs stating, ‘Personality as a value. . .did triumph over character as even the experts in genteel culture began to adopt the exterior polish.’

 While others drifted to her group, Carol snatched up the conversation. She laughed and was frivolous and rather brittle. She could not distinguish their eyes. They were a blurry theater­audience before which she self-consciously enacted the comedy of being the Clever Little Bride of Doc Kennicott.  For fifteen minutes Carol kept it up. She asserted that she was going to stage a musical comedy, that she preferred cafe’ parfait to beefsteak, that she hoped Dr. Kennicott would never lose his ability to make love to charming women. . . But she could not keep it up. She retired to a chair behind Sam Clark’s bulk. The smile-wrinkles solemnly flattered out in the faces of all the other collaborators in having a party, and again they stood about hoping but not expecting to be entertained.

The juxtaposition of the verbs ‘snatched’ and ‘retired’ conveys the many times Carol tries and fails to waken her neighbours’ lifeless stupor. Initially full of promise and enthusiasm she becomes physically drained by the others’ apathy. The inhabitants of the town are viewed not as potential friends, but as a ‘theater-audience’, a scrupulous presence. Lewis captures the mediocrity evident in their lives by showing a lack of initiative on their part. They make no real effort to cultivate their own entertainment but wait in the anticipation that someone else will provide it for them. The resulting blandness can be seen as the unappealing residue of a cultural movement that possessed uneven variables, As Gilbert elaborates, ‘it grew out of an uneasy dialect between nineteenth-century codes of gentility persevered in the modern period, shaded by growing consumerism and ideas of democracy.’ Transporting an archaic type of conduct into a social milieu that cannot accommodate it inevitably brings about confusion. Lewis depicts the ‘blurry’ natives as living in a kind of vacuum, struggling to fully embrace either genteel or modem culture.

This conflict is crystallísed in the book by the Thanatopsis club It represents a musty, unfashionable sort of fiction. It anticipated the Book-Of­The-Month Club, an institution that is synonymous with middlebrow culture. Lambasted as being dull and pretentious, it was said that such programmes commodified reducing, ‘a diverse collection of exceptional objects to a serial string of repeated instances.’ The women within the group certainly turn a task that had the potential to be compelling into an exercise in drab repetition. Their analysis lacks introspection. lt ceases to occur to them that by ‘reporting the birth and death dates of Byron, Scott, Moore, Burns’ they fail to extract any significant interpretation. Gilbert argues that literature was ‘instrumental’ in educating the masses but more importantly was a Way for the midd1e­classes to seek solace in the escalating changes that were taking place in 1920s America:

To provide succor for the uneasy, unsure, and anxious middle-class modern. Confronted with mass culture, immense social and economic change, and Challenges to traditional American identity mounted by growing immigration, many middle-class readers became. .. a Willing audience and clientele for books to enhance the mind and soul, Not that one, individual book could cure the anxieties of the modern age. Rather the assurances provided by experts.. .heartened the wary who faced a rapidly changing World in which standards of morality and behaviour were shifting.

Lewis is aware of the tenuous position that literature holds in middlebrow life. Rather than a key for unlocking the imagination it is a sign of status masquerading as culture, exposing the shallow elements inherent amongst the Gopher Prairie locals. The ‘Culture Hints’ magazine is less a hint and more a set of explicit instructions fuelling the illusion that ‘it puts you in touch with all the intellectual thoughts that are going on everywhere.; At the same time, Carol’s forays into a higher calibre of reading failed to amount to liberation. Before her marriage, ‘she read scores of books unnatural to her’ but ‘never did she feel that she was living.’ Similarly, when she briefly associates with ‘Bohemian life… She was awkward with them, and felt ignorant, and she was shocked by the free manners which she had for years desired.’ It appears as though Carol treasures, not the reality of intellectual discourse, but what it represents. Main Street demonstrates the inevitable drawbacks that occur when failing to view literature independently; using it instead as the sole instrument of identity renders the rniddlebrow readers dependent on the views of others and without a voice.

Lewis is adept when capturing the omnipresent quality of middlebrow culture; it justifies his critique on provincialism that deplores its mediocrity and conservative taste. In Main Street his characters’ behaviour is marred by the principles of middlebrow aesthetics. Lewis never resolves the question of how Carol reacts to Gopher Prairie in the end. It is not this ambivalence that dominates the text, but the grafting status onto cultural pursuits rather than appreciating it as a value in and of itself. An apparent lack of internal adjustment proves to be Gopher Prairie’s downfall. Culture is only useful in the changes it makes, hence the static nature of the town and its occupants.


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