main street 1

I have long been attracted to the 1920s, something I principally owe to the works and life of F. Scott Fitzgerald. To that end, for the whole of 2013 I’ve decided to immerse myself in the culture of that period, starting with Main Street (1920) Sinclair Lewis’ critique of small towns. (It’s not that I purposely try to alienate myself from my generation by undertaking things as this, it’s just that I find most of their interests so patently uninteresting.)

I have not lived in small towns like the novel’s Gopher Prairie,  but rather grew up in Chicago suburbs and, after finally escaping to the city, currently (much to my dismay) find myself  in a suburb of Orlando, Florida.  Reading Sinclair’s work I am again and again reminded of the suburbs and find Carol’s longing for city life (and for something, anything not routine, to happen) mirroring my own. The suburb I find myself in is a subdivision that has “nice” big houses, many with fences (re: walled in yards to protect their walled in lives – there are no friendly white picket fences here). The inviting front porch has been replaced by the hidden back porch.

It was a veritable scandal when my mother changed part of her yard, putting in some plants and woodchips where the HOA decided she wasn’t supposed to. Neighbors who watched this 68 year old woman work on this over a period of weeks and never said anything were the same who complained about it, leading to threats of legal action if she did not change it back. The HOA has never taken any action that would foster community, but did recently decide association fees should be raised in order to pay for a $40,000 fountain/sign. Comfort and predictability above all, everything, everyone, else stay out.

Exchange between Carol and Guy Pollock, from Chapter 13 of Main Street:

He made conversation: “I didn’t know you were a bosom friend of the Perrys. Champ is the salt of the earth but somehow I can’t imagine him joining you in symbolic dancing, or making improvements on the Diesel engine.”

“No. He’s a dear soul, bless him, but he belongs in the National Museum, along with General Grant’s sword, and I’m——Oh, I suppose I’m seeking for a gospel that will evangelize Gopher Prairie.”

“Really? Evangelize it to what?”

“To anything that’s definite. Seriousness or frivolousness or both. I wouldn’t care whether it was a laboratory or a carnival. But it’s merely safe. Tell me, Mr. Pollock, what is the matter with Gopher Prairie?”

“Is anything the matter with it? Isn’t there perhaps something the matter with you and me? (May I join you in the honor of having something the matter?)”

“(Yes, thanks.) No, I think it’s the town.”

“Because they enjoy skating more than biology?”

“But I’m not only more interested in biology than the Jolly Seventeen, but also in skating! I’ll skate with them, or slide, or throw snowballs, just as gladly as talk with you.”

(“Oh no!”)

(“Yes!) But they want to stay home and embroider.”

“Perhaps. I’m not defending the town. It’s merely——I’m a confirmed doubter of myself. (Probably I’m conceited about my lack of conceit!) Anyway, Gopher Prairie isn’t particularly bad. It’s like all villages in all countries. Most places that have lost the smell of earth but not yet acquired the smell of patchouli—or of factory-smoke—are just as suspicious and righteous. I wonder if the small town isn’t, with some lovely exceptions, a social appendix? Some day these dull market-towns may be as obsolete as monasteries. I can imagine the farmer and his local store-manager going by monorail, at the end of the day, into a city more charming than any William Morris Utopia—music, a university, clubs for loafers like me. (Lord, how I’d like to have a real club!)”

She asked impulsively, “You, why do you stay here?”

“I have the Village Virus.”

“It sounds dangerous.”

“It is. More dangerous than the cancer that will certainly get me at fifty unless I stop this smoking. The Village Virus is the germ which—it’s extraordinarily like the hook-worm—it infects ambitious people who stay too long in the provinces. You’ll find it epidemic among lawyers and doctors and ministers and college-bred merchants—all these people who have had a glimpse of the world that thinks and laughs, but have returned to their swamp. I’m a perfect example. But I sha’n’t pester you with my dolors.”