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  • Pioneers of Main Street
  • James Marshall (bio)

"The days of pioneering, of lassies in sunbonnets, and bears killed with axes in piney clearings, are deader now than Camelot," Sinclair Lewis writes on the beginning page of his classic Revolt-from-the-Village. The sentence that follows suggests his intent to transform the cultural symbol of the pioneer into a satirist's political allegory of the frontier cultural promise, one that nevertheless remains a legacy of individual and communal independence. He visualizes the rebellious twentieth-century woman as a type whose revolt against the ugliness of village life will transvalue the pioneer symbol into her protest as the new "spirit of that bewildered empire called the American Middlewest" (1). At first Carol Kennicott, his heroine, is helplessly naive, but with the maturity of increasing restraint her articulate outcry against land speculation, one of the Populist Party's anathemas in the 1883 election to which the mortgaged frontier farm had contributed, invokes a [End Page 529] cultural promise that the homestead West once represented—an opportunity for economic independence and resultant freedom on the land.1 Carol's rebellion—a concealed allegorical shadow play of twentieth-century pioneering, so to speak—occurs within Lewis' unrecognized political context that enables his brilliantly executed satirical vision of cultural sterility. Critics have neglected this rewarding aspect of Main Street.

Lewis' political vision originates in Hamlin Garland's Main-Travelled Roads. As Mark Schorer suggests, Garland's bleak lives with their anguished pioneer hope echo loudly against the rubble hills of failed cultural promise on his desolate farms and in his cruel villages. The mortgage-ridden farmers, the Haskins family in "Under the Lion's Paw" and the destitute Smiths of "The Return of a Private," for instance, suggest Garland's (and the Populist's) frontier heritage (287-288).2 In addition, David D. Anderson has suggested that Lewis' major characters are driven by psychic wolves of fear, namely, fear of failure inherited from the terror and collapsing idealism of the prairie frontier; they dream big dreams, as Carol does in her town planning, but suffer the cost: of their idealism, voicing needless self-justification. Even Babbitt finds the Maine woods to be merely his own fantasy of frontier (manly) life, free and independent, which seems the genesis and enabling metaphor of his abortive rebellion as a liberal and hip-flask bohemian and which troubles his surrender and return to the conventions of Floral Heights, to family, and to friends. Lewis read Garland during the summer of 1905 when home from Yale in Sauk Centre. Young Hal's listless days of trivial conversation and mindless commercialism must have crystalized in his reading of Garland's book (Schorer 286). Like Garland, although for different reasons, Carol is preoccupied with mortgage-owning land speculators: Rauskukle, Luke Dawson, "Honest Jim" Blausser, and Dr. Will. Kennicott, her husband [End Page 530] for whom land speculation is at first merely a hobby, an activity like hunting, golf, and, for the practical Will, his marriage as well. Appropriately, she becomes a friend of Miles Bjornstam, the "half-Yankee, half Swede," as he describes himself, Lewis' free spirit and sociologically fated pioneer redivivus. Carol's rebellion is intended to suggest Lewis' transformation of the mythic pioneer into his allegory of twentieth-century political and personal freedom from the tyranny of Main Street, a thematic transvaluation that Garland's stories suggested to him. If Carol generates no reform, she finds a renewal that implies Lewis' allegory of the modern independent spirit, or pioneer. In sum, this article will suggest that Carol's rebellion, which reaches fruition in Washington, D.C, during her separation from Will, activates Lewis' framework of political allegory, Jeffersonian in nature.

In addition, Lewis' framework of idealism was influenced by the aspirations of a rising new literary generation. Like his friends, Lewis explored the socialist ideologies of his generation as a source of political allegory. Its promise of intellectual renewal and equal-itarian government obviously interested the satirist of Main Street. Lewis' letter in November, 1920, to Floyd Dell, author of Moon-Calf, another novel of revolt from the village published just months previous to Main Street, suggests his stance toward...


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pp. 528-545
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