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Harry Sinclair Lewis was born February 7, 1885, in the small Minnesota town of Sauk Centre, which would ultimately provide the model for the town of Gopher Prairie in Main Street. An awkward youth, Lewis did not have a very happy childhood. His father, a physician, led a strictly disciplined life, and his mother died when he was six. The dreamy Lewis cared for books more than sport and felt limited by his rural hometown. He attended Yale University where he became an editor of the college literary magazine, but he fared little better in Yale than he did in Minnesota. He remained unpopular and was distinguished only by his unattractiveness as a result of a skin disease.
After college, Lewis became a reporter and freelance writer and married his first wife, Grace. His first novel, Our Mr. Wren was published in 1914. Five more novels followed in the next five years, but each failed to attract critical or public attention. The publication of Main Street in 1920, however, secured Lewis's literary reputation. The book was a runaway bestseller, with millions of copies flying off the shelves in one of the biggest publishing events in American history up to that point. Virtually overnight, Lewis became a wealthy, internationally recognized celebrity.
While many of Lewis's other novels are written in an optimistic tone, Main Street is a bit darker, satirizing small-town life of early twentieth- century America. Lewis criticized the complacency, restrictive conformity, and narrow-mindedness of small-town life. While such accusations about small towns limiting individuality may seem natural to us today, criticism of small-town America was not common before Lewis's novel appeared. Rather, the American reading public frequently mythologized and felt nostalgia for the goodness of small town life—romantic myths and traditional values that Lewis sought to mock. Main Street is written in the same vein as Sherwood Anderson's novel Winesburg, Ohio (1919) and Edgar Lee Masters' poem collection Spoon River Anthology (1915), both of which also sought to attack the romantic myths of small-town life.
Main Street is seen through the eyes of Carol Kennicott, a young woman from Minneapolis who marries a small-town doctor and settles in his hometown. In many ways, Carol's desire for social reform and individual happiness reflects her particular era, when labor movements grew and women at last achieved the right to vote in 1920. However, much of the power of the book transcends its period, stemming from Lewis's careful rendering of local speech and customs. While the author attacks his small town locale, his satire is double- edged—directed against both the simple townspeople and at the superficial intellectuals who look down on them.
Lewis followed Main Street with a string of successful novels, including Babbitt (1922), Arrowsmith (1925), Elmer Gantry (1927), and Dodsworth (1929). These novels established his reputation as witty satirist of American culture. In Babbitt, Lewis attacked middle-class American values through his satirical portrait of a big-city businessman. In 1925, he rejected the Pulitzer Prize for Arrowsmith because he felt that he had deserved the prize for Main Street. Throughout the rest of the 1920s, Lewis remained one of the best-known and most controversial American authors. In 1930, he became the first American ever to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. Ironically, Sinclair Lewis did not achieve much creative success after winning the Nobel Prize. While he continued to write prolifically, his later work did not have the same critical and popular appeal as his earlier novels. In 1928, he divorced his first wife to marry Dorothy Thompson, a well-known journalist. Their marriage ended in 1942. In his later years, he became increasingly reclusive. He spent the last years of his life in Europe, separated from his friends and family. Lewis died in 1951 in Rome.
Ace your assignments with our guide to Main Street!