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Pilgrim’s Progress

Sinclair Lewis: Arrowsmith, Elmer Gantry, Dodsworth

edited by Richard Lingeman
Library of America, 1,346 pp., $40.00(to be published in September 2002)


Sinclair Lewis, with a crumpled face, red hair, manic zest, and manic writing, came forth from Sauk Centre, Minnesota, the year of his birth, 1885. His father was a doctor and after the death of his mother he had a kind, ambitious, ever-onward stepmother. The young man was not a hick, although he could pose as one when it suited him; nevertheless his gift for the language and the posturings of a country boy lead one to speculate that the tangled roots of provincialism still sprouted within him. On the other hand, he was as mobile as a hardy cormorant who by gluttonous study and preparation made his way to Yale and then off in the blue. After college, he will alight in Greenwich Village; Carmel, California; Washington; and Long Island; later, with his marriage to the famous columnist Dorothy Thompson, he more or less hitched a ride with her to London, Berlin, Vienna, and Moscow.

From the days of his youth, Lewis seems to have been writing, writing in a fevered marathon race. Mark Schorer, in his large, suitably so, biography (1961), prints a checklist that begins with many publications in the Yale Courant and rolls down the page to stories everywhere, especially in The Saturday Evening Post, the editor urging more and more, until later there was a break or a breach apparently owing to Lewis’s intrepid radicalism.

Along with the tornado of short works, the rampaging Sinclair Lewis published six novels before 1921, widely reviewed with the usual mixture of response, but none quite a commercial success. Among the forgotten titles: Trail of the Hawk, The Job, Free Air, and so on. Lewis was early on a professional writer; it was what he did, what he lived on, and with the worldwide success of his first major novel, Main Street, more novels, and some continuing hack work, Sinclair Lewis was famous and rich. He showed a similar energy in spending, buying a handsome old house in Williamstown, Massachusetts, staying in the best hotels in America and Europe, leasing the grandiose Mussolini-style Villa la Costa in Florence, taking on another fascist-period marble and gold flat in Rome, and dying there in a clinic at the age of sixty-six. Perhaps he had a good time and perhaps not since he died of the complications of alcohol, delirium tremens, a bad heart, and bronchial pneumonia. It’s a pilgrim’s progress with many deceivers on the way.

Main Street, for all its popularity, was a strain on Lewis’s rambunctious, aggressive imagination because the figure to be dissected with his knives of disappointment is an airy, misplaced woman, Carol Kennicott, to be dropped down in a Midwestern village bearing the name of Gopher Prairie. A gopher is a large rodent to be found in our western states and the name alone is an affront to Carol’s demure aestheticism. With her bad luck, she is first seen as a student in Blodgett College, a denominational school somewhat raw-boned as a setting for her “thin wrists, quince-blossom skin, ingénue eyes, black hair.” But as ever in the most benighted schools there will be a teacher to beam the lights of “general culture” which will give Carol her badge of identity. She goes on to Chicago for a degree in library science and to a position in St. Paul, Minnesota. There she will meet and marry Dr. Will Kennicott of Gopher Prairie, a downright medical practitioner, strong, plausible as a decent, laid-back, conventional fellow without much “taste” and a professional concern with the unpaid bills on his desk.

Gopher Prairie—best to keep going straight on by:

The fields swept up to it, past it. It was unprotected and unprotecting; there was no dignity in it nor any hope of greatness…. The houses on the outskirts were dusky old red mansions with wooden frills, or gaunt frame shelters like grocery boxes, or new bungaloes with concrete foundations imitating stone…the Seventh-Day Adventist Church—a plain clapboard wall of a sour liver color; the ash-pile back of the church; an unpainted stable; and an alley in which a Ford delivery wagon had been stranded.

Carol, whose theme, in the manner of Lewis’s fiction, will be to “turn a prairie town into Georgian houses and Japanese bungaloes,” inspects the streets and business places. The drug- store offers “pawed over heaps of toothbrushes and combs…noxious mixtures of opium and alcohol”; the grocery has “black, overripe bananas and lettuce on which a cat was sleeping”; a clothing store is displaying “ox-blood shade Oxfords with bull-dog toes”; at the general store there are “canvas shoes designed for women with bulging ankles, steel and red glass buttons upon cards with broken edges, a cottony blanket, a granite-wear frying pan reposing on a sun-faded crepe blouse.”

Carol is “sweet” and friendly to the town folk and agreeable at evening parties where a lady recites her specialty, “Old Sweetheart of Mine,” and the men tell Jewish and Irish jokes. When she tries to elevate the conversation by asking businessmen what they think of unions and profit sharing, one gentleman says they ought to hang the agitators and Dr. Kennicott agrees. It’s not quite serious, just men-talk, and the author knows all about it including what’s on the table. Perhaps he is not altogether secure in the refinements of Carol’s redecoration of her husband’s old prairie home: but he lines up the “appointments” as a rebuke to sagging chintz sofas and ottomans for sore feet.

The partition between the front and back parlor is torn out, making a long room

on which she lavished yellow and deep blue; a Japanese obi with an intricacy of gold thread on stiff aquamarine tissue, which she hung on a panel against the maize wall; a couch with pillows of sapphire velvet and gold bands…a square cabinet on which was a squat blue jar between yellow candles.

She gives an evening party in which the locals take off their shoes and put on sheets of paper with designs of lotus blossoms and dragons: “real Chinese masques…from an importing shop in Minnesota. You are to put them on…and turn into mandarins and coolies….” For dinner, “blue bowls of chow mein, with lichee nuts and ginger preserved in syrup.” A divertissement to replace fun evenings of Musical Chairs and Spin the Bottle.

Lewis’s picture of Gopher Prairie and all American small towns:

The other tradition is that the significant features of all villages are whiskers, iron dogs upon lawns, gold bricks, checkers, jars of gilded cat-tails…standardized background, a sluggishness of speech and manners, a rigid ruling of the spirit by the desire to appear respectable…the contentment of the quiet dead…. It is slavery self-sought and self-defended. It is dullness made God.

Carol Kennicott is not a scourge; she wishes to get along, joins the clubs, learns to play bridge badly, but her local uplift is rebuffed at every turn, especially by her enlightened friends. The city hall with “piles of folding chairs” and skeletons of “Fourth of July floats covered with decomposing plaster shields and faded red, white, and blue bunting” she imagines transformed into a “Georgian city hall: with warm brick walls, with white shutters, a fanlight, a wide hall and curving stair.” On her way about town, like a petitioner for the Red Cross, she meets laughter, scorn, and the vivid claims of practicality. Indeed, it’s a misfortune that Carol did not live to read of the pleasures of the “shanty aesthetic.”

Her home life, her marriage: it is love, off and on, good days swimming in the lake, times when the rude expanse of the prairie is filled with golden light, “red-winged blackbirds chasing a crow.” The landscape is not the murmuring pines she longs for, but she takes heart from “dipping rolling fields bright with wheat.” Will Kennicott and his wife have richly convincing arguments of the Who do you think you are? sort on his side and I’m just a person trying my best on her part. She complains about one man or another smoking a filthy cigar and spitting on her carpet and Will insists he’s the best fellow on earth and I won’t have you snubbing him.

As the novel goes on, for some readers the sympathy will shift to husband Will. He goes out in the dead of night to deliver babies, to save a life by hacking off a bleeding smashed arm; sometimes the snow is so deep and fierce a motorcar can’t get through and the horse and buggy has to be hitched up for him to make a call in the darkness. When Carol mourns the ugliness and mediocrity of Gopher Prairie, Will thinks he’d better go and look after the storm windows.

The novel offers more illustrations, one might call them, of the point; the complacency, the fatuity, the narrow views and general lumpiness of the villagers. Carol: “Damn all of them! Do they think they can make me believe that a display of potatoes at Howland & Gould’s is enough beauty and strangeness?” In the end there is a speed-up, a crash of defiant activity like that of Ibsen’s Nora, except that Carol does not abandon little Hugh, the son who has entered the Kennicott family. She packs up and settles in Washington, the capital, a company town with the sacred monuments splitting the sky like the grain elevators of the Middle West. Carol takes a position with the Bureau of War Risk Insurance; some tedium, but a routine more worthy than “the putative feminine virtues of domesticity, that cooking and cleaning,” which she had done little of with her girl from the country on hand. In Washington’s clean-swept bright streets there is pleasure; there are concerts and museums and the bold activities of the suffragettes. But flee it as she will, Gopher Prairie pursues her still. Southern girls in the office are in no way free from the tyranny of hairdos, boyfriends, inspirational beliefs in the next step, marriage.

Carol is in Washington for almost two years, an unusual abandonment of her husband honored as due cause in divorce cases. But Lewis has in a way abandoned the manly, realistic Will Kennicott, who sends money to his family but seems to fall into a lonely yearning for reconciliation without believing in his claims. Shyly, apologetically, he visits Carol in Washington, fearing to be an imposition. Carol will return to Gopher Prairie, her rather grave independence and refinement defeated. And Dr. Kennicott, bolting wife back in the parlor, can visit his patients, chat on the front porch with his old friends, and polish his fishing rods. Carol’s last thoughts:

But I have won in this. I’ve never excused my failures by sneering at my aspirations, by pretending to have gone beyond them. I do not admit that Main Street is as beautiful as it should be! I do not admit that dish-washing is enough to satisfy all women! I may not have fought the good fight, but I have kept the faith.

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