She had found only two traditions of the American small town. The first tradition, repeated in scores of magazines every month, is that the American village remains the one sure abode of friendship, honesty, and clean sweet marriageable girls The other tradition is that the significant features of all the villages are whiskers, iron dogs upon lawns, gold bricks, checkers, jars of gilded cat-tails, and shrewd comic old men who are known as "hicks" and who ejaculate "Waal I swan."
This important passage occurs in the beginning of Chapter 22 as Carol absorbs herself in reading in an attempt to escape Gopher Prairie. Though Lewis satirizes small-town America throughout his novel, he also satirizes the prevailing depictions of small-town life in popular literature of his time. He attempts to realistically portray small town America in the early twentieth century; to him, Gopher Prairie represents a microcosm of America, and the characters found in the Gopher Prairie can be found in all cities. It is important to note that Lewis dismisses not only the unrealistically rosy pictures of small-town life but also disdainful depictions of small towns as communities of uncivilized "hicks." Lewis's satire is, then, double-edged, as it is directed against those who romanticize small-town life and those who haughtily ridicule small-town life.
The publication of Main Street in 1920 created a literary commotion, as the novel was unlike anything anyone had ever written. At the time, many Americans were upset by Lewis's portrait of small-town life. Before Lewis's novel appeared, many Americans still viewed the small town in an idealistic light, as a place where good people lived and good morals prevailed. In Main Street, however, Lewis exposes this myth of the goodness of small town life as a falsehood, portraying the narrowness of small-town life in its rigid demand for conformity, its interest only in material success, and its lack of intellectual concern. The people do not offer warm friendship but rather chilly suspicion.
In the early twentieth century, the American novel seemed to be written in two sharply opposing ways: the dark realism and naturalism of authors like Theodore Dreiser (whom Carol reads) or the sentimentality of authors like Booth Tarkington (who wrote popular rags-to-riches stories that the people of Gopher Prairie admire). Lewis attempted to bridge this literary gap by portraying small town America satirically but realistically.