Friday, May 8, 2015

Case Study No. 1946: Staff of Gopher Prairie Library

Main Street By Sinclair Lewis Book {Book Summary}
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Main Street is a satirical novel written by Sinclair Lewis, and published in 1920.

Plot summary
Carol Milford is a liberal, free-spirited young woman, reared in the metropolis of Saint Paul, Minnesota. She marries Will Kennicott, a doctor, who is a small-town boy at heart.

When they marry, Will convinces her to live in his home-town of Gopher Prairie, Minnesota (a town modeled on Sauk Centre, Minnesota, the author's birthplace). Carol is appalled at the backwardness of Gopher Prairie. But her disdain for the town's physical ugliness and smug conservatism compels her to reform it.

She speaks with its members about progressive changes, joins women's clubs, distributes literature, and holds parties to liven up Gopher Prairie's inhabitants. Despite her friendly but ineffective efforts, she is constantly derided by the leading cliques.

She finds comfort and companionship outside her social class. These companions are taken from her one by one.

In her unhappiness, Carol leaves her husband and moves for a time to Washington, D.C., but she eventually returns. Nevertheless, Carol does not feel defeated:

"I do not admit that Main Street is as beautiful as it should be! I do not admit that Gopher Prairie is greater or more generous than Europe! 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." (Chapter 39)



By 1920 a librarian was to appear as the central character in a major literary work. Carol Kennicott is the focus of Sinclair Lewis's novel Main Street. This is a story of life in a small midwestern American town, modelled on Lewis's own homeotwn, Sauk Center. Carol seeks work as a librarian in the hope of releasing the town from its stifling dullness: "I know I can be an influence in library work. Just suppose I encourage some boy to become a great artist."

She is soon arguing wit hthe town librarian, Miss Villets, who sees the role of the library as being simply to preserve books, typifying a town in which nothing is ever meant to change. Later in her dealings with the town's elders:

"She found that for all their pride in being leading men ... [They] had no conception of making the library familiar to the whole town. They used it, they passed resolutions about it, and they left it as dead as Moses ... They had no tenderness for the noisiness of youth discovering great literature."

One other aspect of librarianship appears in the novel:

"After worrying about it for two or three years, he decided that this was one of the Funny Ideas which she caught as a librarian and from which she would never entirely recover."

The opposing ideas of libraries as instruments of social control and as a force for change are to keep appearing in many of the books that are discussed below. Lewis went on to be awarded the Nobel Prize for literature, while Main Street (of which Lewis expected to sell 10,000 copies) sold 180,000 in its first edition and continues to be read. Sauk Center, after initially banning the book (perhaps proving Lewis's points about small towns) now trades on its featuring in the novel.



Vida Sherwin came in after school, with Miss Ethel Villets, the town librarian. Miss Sherwin's optimistic presence gave Carol more confidence. She talked. She informed the circle "I drove almost down to Wahkeenyan with Will, a few days ago. Isn't the country lovely! And I do admire the Scandinavian farmers down there so: their big red barns and silos and milking–machines and everything. Do you all know that lonely Lutheran church, with the tin–covered spire, that stands out alone on a hill? It's so bleak; somehow it seems so brave. I do think the Scandinavians are the hardiest and best people—"

"Oh, do you THINK so?" protested Mrs. Jackson Elder. "My husband says the Svenskas that work in the planing–mill are perfectly terrible—so silent and cranky, and so selfish, the way they keep demanding raises. If they had their way they'd simply ruin the business."

"Yes, and they're simply GHASTLY hired girls!" wailed Mrs. Dave Dyer. "I swear, I work myself to skin and bone trying to please my hired girls—when I can get them! I do everything in the world for them. They can have their gentleman friends call on them in the kitchen any time, and they get just the same to eat as we do, if there's, any left over, and I practically never jump on them."

Juanita Haydock rattled, "They're ungrateful, all that class of people. I do think the domestic problem is simply becoming awful. I don't know what the country's coming to, with these Scandahoofian clodhoppers demanding every cent you can save, and so ignorant and impertinent, and on my word, demanding bath–tubs and everything—as if they weren't mighty good and lucky at home if they got a bath in the wash–tub."

They were off, riding hard. Carol thought of Bea and waylaid them:

"But isn't it possibly the fault of the mistresses if the maids are ungrateful? For generations we've given them the leavings of food, and holes to live in. I don't want to boast, but I must say I don't have much trouble with Bea. She's so friendly. The Scandinavians are sturdy and honest—"

Mrs. Dave Dyer snapped, "Honest? Do you call it honest to hold us up for every cent of pay they can get? I can't say that I've had any of them steal anything (though you might call it stealing to eat so much that a roast of beef hardly lasts three days), but just the same I don't intend to let them think they can put anything over on ME! I always make them pack and unpack their trunks down–stairs, right under my eyes, and then I know they aren't being tempted to dishonesty by any slackness on MY part!"

"How much do the maids get here?" Carol ventured.

Mrs. B. J. Gougerling, wife of the banker, stated in a shocked manner, "Any place from three–fifty to five–fifty a week! I know positively that Mrs. Clark, after swearing that she wouldn't weaken and encourage them in their outrageous demands, went and paid five–fifty—think of it! practically a dollar a day for unskilled work and, of course, her food and room and a chance to do her own washing right in with the rest of the wash. HOW MUCH DO YOU PAY, Mrs. KENNICOTT?"

"Yes! How much do you pay?" insisted half a dozen.

"W–why, I pay six a week," she feebly confessed.

They gasped. Juanita protested, "Don't you think it's hard on the rest of us when you pay so much?" Juanita's demand was reinforced by the universal glower.

Carol was angry. "I don't care! A maid has one of the hardest jobs on earth. She works from ten to eighteen hours a day. She has to wash slimy dishes and dirty clothes. She tends the children and runs to the door with wet chapped hands and—"

Mrs. Dave Dyer broke into Carol's peroration with a furious, "That's all very well, but believe me, I do those things myself when I'm without a maid—and that's a good share of the time for a person that isn't willing to yield and pay exorbitant wages!"

Carol was retorting, "But a maid does it for strangers, and all she gets out of it is the pay—"

Their eyes were hostile. Four of them were talking at once. Vida Sherwin's dictatorial voice cut through, took control of the revolution:

"Tut, tut, tut, tut! What angry passions—and what an idiotic discussion! All of you getting too serious. Stop it! Carol Kennicott, you're probably right, but you're too much ahead of the times. Juanita, quit looking so belligerent. What is this, a card party or a hen fight? Carol, you stop admiring yourself as the Joan of Arc of the hired girls, or I'll spank you. You come over here and talk libraries with Ethel Villets. Boooooo! If there's any more pecking, I'll take charge of the hen roost myself!"

They all laughed artificially, and Carol obediently "talked libraries."

A small–town bungalow, the wives of a village doctor and a village dry–goods merchant, a provincial teacher, a colloquial brawl over paying a servant a dollar more a week. Yet this insignificance echoed cellar–plots and cabinet meetings and labor conferences in Persia and Prussia, Rome and Boston, and the orators who deemed themselves international leaders were but the raised voices of a billion Juanitas denouncing a million Carols, with a hundred thousand Vida Sherwins trying to shoo away the storm.

Carol felt guilty. She devoted herself to admiring the spinsterish Miss Villets—and immediately committed another offense against the laws of decency.

"We haven't seen you at the library yet," Miss Villets reproved.

"I've wanted to run in so much but I've been getting settled and—I'll probably come in so often you'll get tired of me! I hear you have such a nice library."

"There are many who like it. We have two thousand more books than Wakamin."

"Isn't that fine. I'm sure you are largely responsible. I've had some experience, in St. Paul."

"So I have been informed. Not that I entirely approve of library methods in these large cities. So careless, letting tramps and all sorts of dirty persons practically sleep in the reading–rooms."

"I know, but the poor souls—Well, I'm sure you will agree with me in one thing: The chief task of a librarian is to get people to read."

"You feel so? My feeling, Mrs. Kennicott, and I am merely quoting the librarian of a very large college, is that the first duty of the CONSCIENTIOUS librarian is to preserve the books."

"Oh!" Carol repented her "Oh." Miss Villets stiffened, and attacked:

"It may be all very well in cities, where they have unlimited funds, to let nasty children ruin books and just deliberately tear them up, and fresh young men take more books out than they are entitled to by the regulations, but I'm never going to permit it in this library!"

"What if some children are destructive? They learn to read. Books are cheaper than minds."

"Nothing is cheaper than the minds of some of these children that come in and bother me simply because their mothers don't keep them home where they belong. Some librarians may choose to be so wishy–washy and turn their libraries into nursing–homes and kindergartens, but as long as I'm in charge, the Gopher Prairie library is going to be quiet and decent, and the books well kept!"

Carol saw that the others were listening, waiting for her to be objectionable. She flinched before their dislike. She hastened to smile in agreement with Miss Villets, to glance publicly at her wrist–watch, to warble that it was "so late—have to hurry home—husband—such nice party—maybe you were right about maids, prejudiced because Bea so nice—such perfectly divine angel's–food, Mrs. Haydock must give me the recipe—good–by, such happy party—"

She walked home. She reflected, "It was my fault. I was touchy. And I opposed them so much. Only—I can't! I can't be one of them if I must damn all the maids toiling in filthy kitchens, all the ragged hungry children. And these women are to be my arbiters, the rest of my life!"

She ignored Bea's call from the kitchen; she ran up–stairs to the unfrequented guest–room; she wept in terror, her body a pale arc as she knelt beside a cumbrous black–walnut bed, beside a puffy mattress covered with a red quilt, in a shuttered and airless room.



In writing Main Street, Sinclair Lewis paid little attention to formal plot development. Consequently the narrative presents a series of episodes rather than a tightly constructed plot.

Carol Milford Kennicott, a graduate of "sanctimonious" Blodgett College, with a year of additional study in a Chicago library school, works as a librarian in St. Paul (Minnesota) for three years before her marriage to Dr. Will Kennicott, of Gopher Prairie. She is a rebel against ugliness and conformity, and one factor in her decision to accept Kennicott is the opportunity to make over a planless middle west prairie town.

The story proper begins when, after a honeymoon in the Colorado mountains, the Kennicotts approach Gopher Prairie on the train. In the drab town are three thousand dull people, in a social strata ranging from Swede farmer to bank president. Main Street has two-story brick shops flanked by Fords and lumber wagons. There is no park to rest the eyes. The Kennicott family home is outdated and stuffy. The prairie, vast and empty, stretches away on every side.

Dreams end and realism begins when Carol takes a thirty-minute walk, inspecting the town, north and south, east and west. It is then that she realizes the shabbiness surrounding her. Her first social evening is also a disappointment, for she finds the conversation of both men and women personal and trivial. She tries to introduce something different. On the way home, however, she is lectured by her husband on the danger of shocking people.

As time goes on, Carol makes one attempt after another to enlist the help of others in uplifting Gopher Prairie. An early project is the formation of a dramatic club, which functions just long enough to present one mediocre production, The Girl from Kankakee. Carol becomes a member of the Jolly Seventeen, a bridge club composed of an elite group of young married women. She also joins the Thanatopsis Club, a literary organization, and tries to change the club programs, which are stilted and superficial. Her suggestions make little headway. Her appointment to the library board gives her a chance to express her opinions about books and reading, but her ideas are not welcomed by the local librarian, whose policy is to keep books clean by discouraging readers.

After the Kennicotts' child, Hugh, is born, Carol feels that her motherhood hems her in more than ever. The Smails, relatives of Dr. Kennicott, come to live in Gopher Prairie and are a constant irritant because of their critical attitude toward Carol and their interference with her household affairs.

Parallel with the story of the Kennicotts is that of Bea Sorenson, who becomes the wife of Miles Bjornstam, a free-thinking Swede. Their wedded life ends in tragedy, for Bea and her child, Olaf, both die of a fever. The townspeople blame Miles for their deaths. Still cynical, he leaves Gopher Prairie for Canada.

Carol's closest woman friend is Vida Sherwin, a high-school teacher, who later marries Raymond Wutherspoon. Vida is as domestic and conservative as Carol is nonconformist. Raymond, largely because of Vida's influence, blossoms out after marriage. He returns from the army to become manager of the Bon Ton, the highest-class store in town.

Carol is attracted to Guy Pollock, a lawyer who has ideas similar to hers, though he has waited so long to express them that he is now a victim of "Village Virus." Fearing that the same fate may be hers, Carol attempts one improvement project after another, all of them ending in failure. Percy Bresnahan, Gopher Prairie's multimillionaire native son, comes home for a visit and makes advances to Carol. She repels him with disgust.

The only serious extra-marital love affair in Main Street is that between Carol and Erik Valborg, a tailor's assistant five years younger than she. Dr. Kennicott puts a stop to the romance and makes plain to his wife the kind of life she would lead if married to the son of a Swedish farmer. Erik abruptly leaves Gopher Prairie on the Minneapolis train.

Still another episode is that introducing Fern Mullins, a young high-school teacher, who becomes involved with a pupil, Cy Bogart, at a barn dance. She is the center of a storm of disapproval and intolerance. Like Bjornstam and Valborg before her, Fern leaves town on the train. Finally Carol takes the train herself. She leaves Kennicott and spends almost two years working in Washington during World War I. She enjoys the cultural opportunities of the city but is willing after a time to return to her husband and Gopher Prairie. Their second child, a daughter, is born. Carol realizes that she has raged at individuals when institutions are really to blame and that although she is beaten, she has kept the faith. She predicts changes yet undreamed of if the baby lives out a normal lifetime. Dr. Kennicott's final remarks reveal that he is more concerned about the immediate present than the remote future. The reader realizes that the gap between wife and husband is still wide and that the novel really ends in an impasse.

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