by Dan D5/6/16

I’m currently working my way through Sinclair Lewis’ Main Street. I’m a little ashamed to admit that I was inspired to read it by Internet commenters: I’ve been conducting research into the experiences of fellow Minnesota “transplants” who have had difficulty making social connections since relocating to the North Star State. Several pointed at the novel as a fairly accurate portrait of the region’s insular mentality, embodied by “Gopher Prairie”, a fictional small town in Minnesota in which the novel is set.

I was somewhat familiar with Sinclair Lewis. By “somewhat familiar”, I mean that I had him confused with the guy who wrote The Jungle (I suppose I was right to have not pursued that M.A. in English Lit program I was admitted to some years ago). That’s less to do with his work being irrelevant and everything to do with my own ignorance.

Anyway, I’m not entirely sure what search query I used, but I dug this up. It’s a response by Garrison Keillor to a Prairie Home Companion listener who wanted to know why Sinclair Lewis had not enjoyed much recognition on Keillor’s program and why he was not well remembered as a significant part of Minnesota literary history.

Here are what I consider to be the most instructive quotes from the piece. They’re annotated so as to allow me to address them in due fashion.

“Sinclair Lewis has been in eclipse since even before he died sixty years ago, Ed, for the simple reason that he is no longer widely read.” (1)

“He was a satirist, Ed, and satire usually fades, and Lewis was not a great stylist, as Fitzgerald was.” (2)

“I’m glad you love Lewis’s work. He did good work and it deserves readers. But people read what they want to read and they don’t turn to him.” (3)

“Not so many people read Anatole France these days, nor Carl Friedrich Georg Spittele, nor Romain Rolland or Carl von Heidenstam, Rudolph Eucken, Frederic Mistral, or Sully Prudhomme.” (4)

“All those books we worked on so hard, that in a few years will be dusty tomes in library sub-basements. Why? why? why? Because people like what they like and not what they don’t. Simple as that.” (5)

OK, so:

(1)  I learned about Main Street via a medium that’s generally considered to be the lowest-of-the-low intellectually. If WhitesnakeRoolz69 and CreedLoverStappHeart can point me in the direction of a work of classic literature, I’d say Lewis’ reputation is doing just fine.

In addition, I wonder if Garrison Keillor recognizes the irony in his declaration. I don’t have Prairie Home Companion‘s listenership data in front of me, but I can’t imagine a lot of young people forgoing the latest episode of Hollywood Handbook to hear about Clint Bundsen’s adventures cleaning an Edsel V-8 on top of a frozen lake in flyover country.

(2) Satire fades? How do you explain the continued relevancy of A Modest Proposal, Candide, or Dr. Strangelove?

Now, if Keillor was using this maxim to illustrate the idea that satire fades because the subject of its scorn has disappeared into the mists of history, perhaps there’s a point there. Then again, what makes an effective satire is its ability to connect with truths that are universal throughout human history, yes? Candide still works as a criticism of heedlessly optimistic worldviews and unchecked ambition. Strangelove remains a cautionary tale about the need to regulate male chauvinism and humans’ tendency to let their emotions get the better of them.

(3) I didn’t realize Garrison Keillor had his finger on the pulse of contemporary American literary trends. What exactly is his argument here: Things are good because they are popular? There are already hordes of people who don’t “turn” to Garrison Keillor’s work, does that make him irrelevant (and is he really talking about himself here)?

(4) Actually, I started reading Penguin Island recently, thanks to Hearty White’s wonderful radio program on WFMU. Otherwise, see (3).

(5) Kinda just sounds like Garrison using Sinclair Lewis’s legacy as a proxy to talk about himself again.

I don’t hate Garrison Keillor. I generally prefer Todd, his weirder North Dakotan counterpart. I tune in to the News from Lake Wobegon podcast from time to time and chuckle occasionally. I’m reading a book penned by a Prairie Home writer at the moment and am mostly enjoying it.

To dismiss Sinclair Lewis as irrelevant, however, simply because his contemporaries possessed a more distinctive and/or palatable writing style is misguided. It’s an elitist way to basically say “meh, I don’t like this”.

Reading Keillor’s response to the listener’s query, I begin to wonder if he’s really projecting his fears about his own work not lasting the test of time. I’d argue his eventual cultural irrelevance is not for lack of  distinctive style – no one wheezingly laments the bygone days of barn dances and 4-H gatherings quite like Garrison Keillor – but that his work ultimately is devoid of substance. Are we supposed to laugh at Wobegonians for being a bunch of rubes, or are we supposed to hold them up as ideals of American behavior? Is Garrison Keillor’s aim to champion Minnesotan values and scorn coastal elitism a la F. Scott Fitzgerald’s condemnation of New York City in The Great Gatsby, or is he a modern Lewis, criticizing the petty small-mindedness of the Midwestern mindset as in Main Street?*

I can’t answer that, but I do know that I am thoroughly enjoying Main Street thus far. In my experience, Sinclair Lewis’ observations of  Midwestern insularity are as relevant in 2016 as they were in 1920. The satire certainly hasn’t faded, but I wish the values would.




*Sam Anderson does a great job further exploring Garrison Keillor’s contradictions in this 2006 Slate piece.