Book Review: Main Street by Sinclair Lewis

I read this book for my Back to Classics Challenge of 2019. It falls under the category of Classic from a place you’ve lived. This book takes place in a small town in Minnesota in the early 20th century. I read the first few chapters and I immediately knew I would hate it. However, it was not because it is a bad book, but because it epitomizes all the things I came to dislike in Minnesota when I lived there.

How do I describe Minnesota? There is a reputation small towns garner of being filled with gossipers and being a close-knit community with an intense dislike for “the other” (or anyone who hasn’t lived in the town for at least fifty years). The only way I can describe Minnesota is that it is one giant small town, only ten times worse. There is a term in Minnesota called “Minnesota nice.” And it is the exact opposite of nice. It refers to a person who is nice to your face, but then goes behind your back and is cruel and vindictive. People rarely say what they mean in Minnesota, instead expecting you to pick up on hints. I hate that about MN. Saying that, there are so many things to love about the state. Beautiful lakes and parks. An interesting history. One of the best library systems in the US are Hennepin County Libraries in the Twin Cities (you can see my priority).

But one of the main reasons I struggled with reading this book is that it seemed too real to what Minnesota is still like, even a century later. Still, I will try to give an unbiased review.

Release: 1920

Synopsis: The classic novel documents the life of Carol, a young woman who marries a doctor and goes to live in the tiny town of Gopher Prairie, Minnesota, only to find herself in conflict with the townspeople.


This book, according the Wikipedia, is a satire, which amazes me, since Sinclair Lewis captures the reality of Minnesota people so well it seems he is less mocking and more observing reality. He captures perfectly the ideals, cruelties, and life of the people in Gopher Prairie and though I was not fond of any of the characters, I could not help but be entranced with the realistic hilarity of the scenes filling this book.

Carol is an extreme idealist, believing she can bring the “backward” people of Gopher Prairie into the future, only to realize her idealism will be her own undoing. I wasn’t a fan of her character, but I could understand where she was coming from. She was close-minded herself towards the beliefs and values of these people, although she would often comment about the other townspeople being the ones not willing to try new things.

The book itself is extremely long, around five hundred pages depending on the edition. And it feels like it. Lewis will spend pages and pages discussing Carol and her new friends throwing a small play performance in town, or the arguments between Carol and her husband Kennicott (can’t remember his first name). It is an extremely tedious book to read, and I would not fault anyone for lacking patience to finish this book.

But I rather enjoyed it, even if the characters are a bit negatively portrayed (which seems typical in satires) and the themes few and far between. Most of the book just seems to look at the weaknesses common in small towns and large cities. People in small towns (at least in Minnesota) are often unfriendly and close-minded, whereas people in cities look down on others and believe themselves as being open-minded, when they aren’t. I can understand why, when this book came out, it upset many people in small towns.

This book won’t be ending up on my favorite books of all time, but it was an interesting read, especially if you’ve lived in Minnesota for any amount of time.

Have you heard of this book or read it? What are some negative stereotypes from the area you come from? Let me know your thoughts down in the comments, follow my blog for more musings and, as always,

Best wishes in your life full of adventure,

Madame Writer

9 thoughts on “Book Review: Main Street by Sinclair Lewis

  1. Such an excellent review and commentary!
    I read this book many years ago and it certainly left me disillusioned about small town life. My mother grew up in a small town and was happy to leave, even if she only moved to a small city. Now I live in a very large city that sometimes can feel like a smaller town but in a good way. Again, thanks for the review and how is Ohio?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Great review and it is really interesting for me to read this info about Minnesota. I have always been curious about life in the US. You refer to people there “who [are] nice to your face, but then go behind your back and… are cruel and vindictive. People rarely say what they mean…, instead expecting you to pick up on hints”. I have always thought that was the description of some “nice” British people and their behaviour 🙂 Now, I think it may be more universal behaviour. I can completely sympathise and empathise. I may look up this book, I love a good satire.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Interesting…I’ve never been to England, but I know there are many people all over the world who are “nice” to a certain extent. But in Minnesota it’s like an entirely different language. Everyone learns to speak it, as opposed to just a few people you try to avoid in other places. I would love to hear your thoughts on the book, if you ever end up reading it!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yes, since British are “too polite” (consider themselves), they will not say to you what they really mean. That is known and accepted. They are afraid to offend, but there is another, darker side to that and they can stretch that behaviour to some extreme where the behaviour becomes passive bullying, avoidance and all sorts of other nasty things. I do not want to generalise, of course, but that is something everyone here expects at some point in their lives, if I can put it that way.

        I think I will read this book at some point. I will add it to be TBR, thanks!

        Liked by 1 person

  3. So basically Minnesota is great if you’re super introverted, avoid people at all costs, and love books? 😀 The caricature person where I’m from doesn’t talk to anybody, never smiles, and never goes anywhere – they’re basically a hermit crab deep inside their shell. Thankfully, though, I find that the caricature doesn’t match reality!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Super introverted, avoids people at all costs, and loves books…you just explained my life perfectly! I’m always glad when caricatures don’t match reality, but you’ll always meet those people who fit into the stereotype and it’s surreal!

      Liked by 2 people

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