“On a hill by the Mississippi where Chippewas camped two generations ago, a girl stood in relief against the cornflower blue of Northern sky.” The first sentence is brisk; it places us in time—reminds us that this was Indian territory a half century ago, and so the white man is new to the scene, and his towns are still raw. “Cornflower” is Saturday Evening Post. “Corn” itself is a bit dangerous, as in corny. “Blue” isn’t all that good either. Yet, paradoxically, Lewis had a lifelong hatred of the cliché in prose as well as a passion for sending up clichés in dialogue: this can cause confusion.
Anyway, he has now begun the story of Carol Milford, enrolled at Blodgett College, a girl full of dreams even more vivid than those of Emma Bovary—dreams rather closer to those of Walter Mitty than to Flaubert’s Emma, though, in practice, as it later proves, Carol has more than a touch of Bouvard and Pécuchet in her when she takes to the field with one of her projects to bring beauty to a drab world. Lewis maintained that, as of 1920, he had read neither Madame Bovary nor Edgar Lee Master’s Spoon River Anthology, whose set of arias from the simple dead folk of a small-town cemetery inspired a generation of writers, achieving a peak, as it were, in Thornton Wilder’s Our Town.
Carol is involved in the “tense stalking of a thing called General Culture.” Ostensibly on her behalf, Lewis drops Culture names all over the place. First, Robert G. Ingersoll, the nineteenth-century agnostic, and then Darwin, Voltaire. One can’t really imagine her liking any of them—she is too romantic; she dreams of truth and beauty. Ingersoll is a hardbitten, dour free-thinker. The other two are outside her interest. Later he tells us that she has read Balzac and Rabelais. Since she becomes a librarian, the Balzac would be inevitable but neither Carol nor Sinclair Lewis ever read Rabelais. There are some things that an experienced dispenser of bookchat knows without any evidence.
At a Minneapolis party, Carol meets Dr. Will Kennicutt, a doctor in the small town of Gopher Prairie. He is agreeable, and manly, and adores her. In a short time: “He had grown from a sketched-in stranger to a friend.” Will is “sincere” (a favorite word of Carol’s is “insincere”). Carol meanwhile (as a result of Mrs. Wharton on interior decoration and Italian Gardens?) has dreamed that “what I’ll do after college [is] get my hands on one of those prairie towns and make it beautiful. Be an inspiration. I suppose I’d better become a teacher then…. I’ll make ‘em put in a village green, and darling cottages, and a quaint Main Street!” Hubris is back in town. One doubts if the worldly Grace Hegger Lewis ever thought along those lines in Sauk Centre in 1916. But Lewis has got himself a nice premise, with vast comic potentialities. But instead of playing it for laughs and making satire, he plays it absolutely straight and so achieved total popularity. Irony.
In 1912 Carol and Will get married. They take the train to Gopher Prairie. It is all very much worse than she expected. But Will exults in town and people. Although Lewis is noted for his voices, the best of the novel is the description of things and the author’s observations of the people who dwell among the things.
The train was entering town. The houses on the outskirts were dusky old red mansions with wooden frills, or gaunt frame shelters like grocery boxes, or new bungalows with concrete foundations, imitating stone. Now the train was passing the elevator, the grim storage-tanks for oil, a creamery, a lumber-yard, a stock-yard muddy and trampled and stinking.
They are met by Will’s friends, the elite of the village. There is a lot of kidding. Mock insults. Ho-ho-ho.
Main Street with its two-story brick shops, its story-and-a-half wooden residences, its muddy expanse from concrete walk to walk, its huddle of Fords and lumber-wagons, was too small to absorb her. The broad, straight, unenticing gashes of the streets let in the grasping prairie on every side. She realized the vastness and emptiness of the land.
This is “home.” She is in a panic. She notes “a shop-window delicately rich in error” (this is worthy of Wharton), “vases starting out to imitate tree-trunks but running off into blobs of gilt—an aluminum ash-tray labeled ‘Greetings from Gopher Prairie.”’ And so she makes her way down Main Street, all eyes, later ears.
Carol entertains the village magnates, only to discover “that conversation did not exist in Gopher Prairie….they sat up with gaiety as with a corpse.” Nothing stirs them until one says, “‘Let’s have some stunts, folks.”’ The first to be called on is Dave, who gives a “stunt about the Norwegian catching a hen.” Meanwhile, “All the guests moved their lips in anticipation of being called on for their own stunts.” A stunt was usually an imitation or ethnic joke. One can imagine Lewis’s own lips moving as he would prepare to hold captive some party with a monologue in a character not his own. As it turns out, there is conversation in Gopher Prairie—about “personalities,” often in the form of lurid gossip, usually sexual. Carol is not happy.
Lewis is good at tracing Carol’s ups and mostly downs. She puts on a play. Everything goes wrong. She joins the Library Board to encourage reading, only to find that the librarian believes that their function is not to lend but to preserve books. This, of course, was the ancestor of today’s Sauk Centre Library where Lewis’s books are preserved but not read. Carol joins the Jolly Seventeen, the fashionable young matrons of the village where bridge is played and personalities dissected. Carol is thought a bit too citified and definitely stuck-up when she tries to talk of General Culture and town improvements. She does her best to fit in but she “had never been able to play the game of friendly rudeness.”
In time, Carol flirts with the lawyer, Guy Pollack. He loves literature and disdains the town and one can see that Lewis had it in mind to bring them together but Guy is too damp a character. She drops him; then she goes off in two unexpected directions. A beautiful young Swedish tailor has come to town, Erik Valberg. A townswoman soliloquizes: “They say he tries to make people think he’s a poet—carries books around and pretends to read ‘em, says he didn’t find any intellectual companionship in this town…. And him a Swede tailor! My! and they say he’s the most awful mollycoddle—looks just like a girl. The boys call him Elizabeth….” Plainly, the influence of Willa Cather’s curiously venemous short story “Paul’s Case” of 1905 was still strong enough for Lewis to ring changes on the sissy boy who dreams of art and civilization and beauty.2
As it turns out, Erik is not hot for Will but for Carol. They talk about poetry; they lust for each other. They are two against the town. He is randy Marchbanks to her Candida. But nothing happens except that everyone suspects, and talks; and Lewis is at his best when he shows Carol’s terror of public opinion in a place where it is not physically possible to escape from eyes at windows. This sense of claustrophobia and of no place to hide is the heart of the book. Even the metaphor of the unending “grasping” prairie contributes to the stifling of the individual.
Erik is a farm boy turned tailor turned autodidact: he has got the point. “It’s one of our favorite American myths that broad plains necessarily make broad minds, and high mountains make high purpose. They do just the opposite.” Carol’s attempts to integrate him in the town fail. Will observes them walking together at night. There is no scene, but it is clear that Erik must leave town, which he does.
The other counterpoint voice to Gopher Prairie is Miles Bjornstam, unfondly known as “the Red Swede.” He is a self-educated laborer; he cuts wood, does odd jobs, lives in a shack like Thoreau. He reads Veblen. Reading lists of the characters are all important to Lewis. Carol has not only read but bought “Anatole France, Rolland, Nexe, Wells, Shaw, Edgar Lee Masters, Theodore Dreiser, Sherwood Anderson, Henry Mencken.” Of those on this list, three subsequently gave Lewis blurbs. Ambitious pen-persons take note.
Daringly, Carol pays Miles a call; he shocks and delights her by putting into words her own thoughts about the village. Then he goes into business for himself; prospers with a dairy; marries Carol’s best friend, her maid-of-all-work, Bea Sorenson, who comes from the hinterland and though she speaks with a comic Scandinavian accent her heart is gold. Earlier, the village was scandalized that Carol had treated her as an equal. Now, although Mr. and Mr. Bjornstam are hard-working and prosperous, they are still shunned, partly because of their foreignness and low class but mostly because the agnostic Miles has been “lippy” about the greatest nation in the country and the most perfect of its Main Streets. With the arrival of the First World War everyone is now a super-American, busy demonizing all things foreign—like Miles and Bea. But Carol continues to see the Bjornstams and their child. She, too, has a son.
It is during these scenes that Lewis must do a fine balancing act between melodrama and poetic realism in the Hardy vein (sometimes Hardy, too, lost his balance). The Bjornstams are the only people Carol—and the reader—likes. But the villagers continue to hate them even though Miles has done his best to conform to village ways.
Bea and her child get typhoid fever, from the bad water that they must drink because the neighbor with the good water will not share. Will Kennicutt does his best to save Bea and her child but they die. Carol is shattered. Miles is stoic. When the ladies of the village unexpectedly call with gifts, not knowing that mother and child are dead, Miles says, “You’re too late. You can’t do nothing now. Bea’s always kind of hoped that you folks would come see her…. Oh, you ain’t worth a God-damning.” Like Erik, he, too, leaves town.
Set piece follows set piece. There is a trip to California where Will searches for fellow villagers and, unhappily for Carol, finds them. She is now ready to leave Gopher Prairie, “Oh, is all life, always an unresolved but?” She resolves the “but.” She will get out into the world, any world but that of the claustrophobic censorious village folk. Will accepts her decision even though he continues to be In Love With Her. (Rather unlikely this.) Carol and son set out for Washington, DC—the city from which we locals used to set out for New York as soon as we could. On the train east, the boy asks where they are going and Carol says, “We’re going to find elephants with golden howdahs from which peep young maharanees with necklaces of rubies, and a dawn sea colored like the breast of a dove…” John Cheever would, years later, redo this bit of purple most tastefully.
For a brilliant analysis of Cather's sexual and social confusions read Claude J. Summer's Gay Fictions (Continuum, 1980): he believes that in "Paul's Case" Cather was reacting fiercely against the aestheticism of Oscar Wilde (condemned ten years earlier); for her, the young Paul is a Wilde in ovo, and doomed. She herself liked men to be men, and women to be men, too. She seemed unaware of the paradox.↩
For a brilliant analysis of Cather’s sexual and social confusions read Claude J. Summer’s Gay Fictions (Continuum, 1980): he believes that in “Paul’s Case” Cather was reacting fiercely against the aestheticism of Oscar Wilde (condemned ten years earlier); for her, the young Paul is a Wilde in ovo, and doomed. She herself liked men to be men, and women to be men, too. She seemed unaware of the paradox.↩