Easy Chair — From the December 2017 issue

On the Corner of Myth and Main

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About ten years ago, I spent a couple of weeks in Minnesota with my mother, a Middle American who read the Bible daily — not, as Tomasky might suspect, so she could know the literal word of God but so she could write acerbic, blasphemous comments in the margins. (Her literary hero was Mark Twain.) One evening, I needed a break from my family and went to the Mall of America for supper. I realize that this choice makes me suspicious to those who are profoundly conflicted about sprawling mega-malls with unabashedly patriotic names. I understand such qualms. I sometimes share them. But I was hungry, and biology trumped ideology that night.

As I chatted with the young woman who served my burger, I found out that she hailed from Sauk Centre, Minnesota. If you majored in English, you know the town. Sinclair Lewis, America’s first Nobel laureate in literature, was born in Sauk Centre, which he transformed into Gopher Prairie for Main Street, his first great novel. Main Street was a bestseller when it was published in 1920, but its influence can’t be measured in mere numbers, since it also gave us one of the earliest depictions of Middle America.

Gopher Prairie, in Lewis’s telling, is a suffocating, benighted little town full of dumb hicks and pious busybodies — bigoted and backward and utterly self-satisfied. When the book’s liberal, do-gooding heroine, Carole Kennicott, tries to construct a refined life for herself there, the puffed-up yokels drive her out. In light of this portrayal, many locals came to regard Lewis as an ingrate. My server’s grandparents had known Lewis, she told me, so naturally I asked if they, too, disliked him. No, she told me, they’d liked Old Red just fine. (Lewis was nicknamed Red for the color of his hair.)

Lewis’s bleak vision of small-town life was reprised nine years later in Middletown: A Study in Modern American Culture, a sociological treatise by Robert and Helen Lynd. Like Lewis, the couple were Midwesterners who had moved away and settled among the coastal elite. Robert went to Princeton and taught at Columbia. Helen went to Wellesley and Columbia and taught at Sarah Lawrence. But the work that made them famous centered on Muncie, Indiana, a medium-size city that they believed would yield insights about the country at large. The Lynds were interested in the majority experience, so they left Muncie’s black population (which, at 6 percent, was proportionally larger than New York’s at the time) out of the book.

Muncie, they concluded, was socially stagnant, culturally superficial, and economically divided. The business leaders were Republicans and the working class had little hope of improving their prospects. Residents prized education, or said they did, but the town didn’t pay its teachers all that well. Teenagers, now that cars had made them mobile, were increasingly rebellious. Married women tended to stay at home, and couples were expected to have kids out of moral duty. There was rampant anxiety among the older folks about the baleful influence of popular culture. Such findings may sound unremarkable today, but to a contemporary reader they told a story of decline — agricultural America was starting to lose its bearings to consumerism.

In 1935, during the Depression, the Lynds visited Muncie again, for Middletown in Transition: A Study in Cultural Conflicts, and found that nothing much had changed in the city where nothing much had happened in the first place. This seems to alarm them; their commentary strikes a frankly ominous note, warning that Muncie’s narrow-mindedness might aid the rise of future demagogues. If “the right strong man” could emerge in “a country as geographically diffuse as the United States,” they write, “one wonders if Middletown’s response from both the business class and working class will not be positive and favorable.”

 

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