Main Streetby Sinclair Lewis
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Sinclair Lewis’s Main Street, published in 1920, was not expected to be a commercial success. Lewis felt it would sell 10,000 copies, and his publisher predicted a run of 20,000 would be adequate. In the first six months of 1921, it sold 180,000 copies.
The novel is set in Gopher Prairie, roughly based on Sauk Centre, Minnesota, Lewis’s hometown. In his article from the Boston Globe, “Dropping by Main Street 60 Years Later,” Charles E. Claffey writes: Main Street at first evoked wrath in this town and its environs. In nearby Alexandria it was banned; the Sauk Centre Herald kept editorial silence for five months before noting in its edition of March 13, 1921: "A perusal of the book makes it possible for one to picture in his mind's eyes local characters having been injected bodily into the story."
Sinclair Lewis became persona non grata in Sauk Centre for many years, but gradually, the town forgave him, and he remains a cottage industry. Lewis, however, never really came to terms with the town of his youth. After he died in Rome, his brother Dr. Claude Lewis decided to use Lewis’s funeral urn as a memorial rather than bury it in the ground. As he opened the urn, a gust of wind sent the ashes flying. According to town lore Charles Corrigan, the mortician, commented, "Well, Lewis got away from this town after all."
The novel examines the homogenizing influence of small town life, how it kills cultural diversity, and how hunger for money prevents its residents from pursuing insider interests. Main Street also deals with the struggles in developing a new relationship – whether private as in a marriage or public as with society – and the compromises necessary to adapt an individual personality to make the relationship successful. Adolescents can relate to the idea of being outsiders and should enjoy responding to changes in the main character. Because of the mature nature of the novel’s themes as well as its parallels to the struggles of early 20th-century America, Main Street is recommended for students of American Literature in senior high school or college.
About This Teacher's Guide
This guide contains four sections: Before Reading the Novel, While Reading the Novel, After Reading the Novel, and a Bibliography. The pre-reading activities involve and engage students, preparing them to read this mature work. “While Reading the Novel” guides students during their reading. Organized by chapters, it provides questions, historical notes and allusions, vocabulary study, quotations, and assorted activities. Although every chapter does not necessarily incorporate each of these features, there are ample suggestions to encourage reading and to enhance understanding. Numbers in parentheses refer to the page number in the Signet Classic edition of Main Street.
Questions may be used for whole-class discussion, for individual writing, or group activities. Historical Notes/Allusions can aid understanding of matters that are generally remote for today's readers. Vocabulary Words are listed with the page number of their first use in the text. Many of these words are slang from the 1920s. When possible, students should ascertain definitions through context. Less able students may benefit from a review of these words prior to their reading of the respective chapters, while more able readers may be able to handle them when encountered in context. Quotations, like the Questions, may be discussed by the whole class or handled in small groups or individually. Activities are suggested from which the teacher or students may choose. It would be too time-consuming to use all the activities. Also, some may be delayed for use as part of the post-reading experiences. After Reading the Novel helps pull together the reading experience through an examination of themes. Finally, a bibliography assists those who wish to pursue interests more extensively.
List of Characters
Characters of Main Street
Carol Milford Kennicott: central character of the novel; determined to change Gopher Prairie into the small town of her dreams despite the wishes of the townspeople
Will Kennicott: young town doctor; Carol’s husband
Bea Sorenson: Scandinavian housekeeper for the Kennicotts; marries Miles Bjornstam Sam Clark: president of the school board
Raymie Wutherspoon: war hero who is considered “artistic” by other Gopher Prairians
Vida Sherwin: “old-maid schoolteacher” who had a brief affair with Kennicott; marries Raymie Wutherspoon
Guy Pollock: described as “gray”; Carol’s first flirtation
Mrs. (Ma) Bogart: Carol’s nosy, gossipy neighbor
Miles Bjornstam: town rebel, also known as “The Red Swede”
The Jolly Seventeen: exclusive women’s club in Gopher Prairie
Juanita Haydock: a gossipy busybody
The Thanatopsis: a study group for women in Gopher Prairie
Miss Villets: the town librarian
Mrs. Leonard Warren: the president of Thanatopsis
Mrs. Dave Dyer (Maud): woman who has an affair with Will Kennicott
Mr. and Mrs. Champ Perry: town establishment; an older couple who remember the pioneer days of Gopher Prairie
Mrs. Lyman Cass: established townswoman who finds local gossip more interesting and taxes too high already to improve the city hall building
Mr. Dawson: town millionaire who sees no reason to change the town; plans to move to Pasadena
Hugh Kennicott: Carol’s first baby
Aunt Bessie and Uncle Whittier: Will’s relatives who come to live in Gopher Prairie and are immediately accepted into the town
Olaf Bjornstam: Bea’s and Miles's son, voted "Best Baby" in Gopher Prairie by Carol, despite their blue-collar status
Cy Bogart: Ma Bogart's mean-spirited teenager who ruins Fern Mullins's reputation
Percy Bresnehan: former Gopher Prairie resident, now millionaire president of Velvet Motor Car Company of Boston
Oscarina: the Kennicotts' maid after Bea gets married
Mrs. Swiftwaite: new seamstress and target of gossip
Mrs. Flickerbaugh: eccentric town curmudgeon who is alienated by the town, in whom Carol can see her own unhappy, lonely future
Erik Valborg: new tailor, mocked and called "Elizabeth" by townspeople for his snappy dress and extravagant behavior; Carol's most serious flirtation
Fern Mullins: new young schoolteacher whose reputation is ruined by Cy Bogart and who is run out of town
Mrs. Westlake: woman who befriends Carol then betrays her confidence by relaying their conversations to others
Myrtle Cass: young woman whose father owns a flour mill; Carol is jealous of her flirting with Erik Valborg
James Blausser: land speculator and recent transplant, who volunteers to head the campaign to promote Gopher Prairie.
1. Research the slang of the 1920s. How is it similar to today's slang? Which words or expressions do we still use? Why have they endured? How does it differ? How does slang reflect its culture?
2. Make a list of today's slang expressions. Which will still be used in 50 years? Why will they last? Of those that will not endure, why?
1. Research the women's suffrage movement. How did it change how women were regarded by society? How did it affect the way women thought about themselves? How did it affect the American family structure?
2. Research the major political, intellectual, and social figures of the first decade of the twentieth century. How do these people reflect values of the era? How do those values differ today?
3. In the Introduction to the novel, Thomas Mallon asserts, "Calvin Coolidge presided over the Roaring Twenties like a Latin teacher manning the punch bowl...a Puritan in Babylon." First, determine the meaning of his analogy. Then, research Calvin Coolidge and the 1920s to support or refute his analogy.
4. Research socialism of the early 1900s. Why were Midwesterners afraid of socialism?
1. You have a friend who is moving to a small town in another state. What will your friend need to do socially to become a part of that town? What advice will you give?
2. How do you decide whether or not you like an individual after an initial meeting?
3. If you could change one thing about your home town, what would it be? How would you get others interested in helping? How would you implement that change?
4. Develop a brochure to interest people in moving to your home town. Highlight its most positive features. Also, acknowledge its problems.
5. Design your ideal town. First, decide what businesses, organizations, and services your town will need. Design the town layout, creating street names and locations. Write the town history and illustrate the architecture of buildings.
6. Listen to the "Lake Wobegon" portion of A Prairie Home Companion, Garrison Keillor's NPR radio program. How does he portray its citizens, culture, and mores?