the vivacious newlywed Carol Kennicottnmoved to Gopher Prairie with her stolidnhusband Will, a country doctor, thenMinnesotan Lewis was working within anregional realist field plowed years ago bynGadand, Joseph Kirkland, Mary WilkinsnFreeman, Edgar Ward Watson Howe,nHarold Frederic, and others. What setnMain Street apart from its predecessorsnwas its astringent humor; earlier novelsnhad measured the spiritual poverty ofnfrontier villages, but never with Lewis’sntartness. Hamlin Garland hated thenbook for “belittling . . . the descendantsnof the old frontier.”nThere are passages of pure vitriol innMain Street, though the bitterest observationsnare usually attributed to the foolishnCarol. She sees in Gopher Prairien”an unimaginatively standardized background,na sluggishness of speech andnmanners, a rigid ruling of the spirit bynthe desire to appear respectable. It isncontentment. . . the contentment of thenquiet dead, who are scornful of the livingnfor their restless walking. It is negationncanonized as the one positivenvirtue. It is the prohibition of happiness.nIt is slavery self-sought and self-defended.nIt is dullness made God.”nHarsh, yes, but even the most slobberingnValley of Democracy sentimentalistnmust recognize the ring of truth.nIf one really belongs to a village, is a partnof the corporate whole, then all sorts ofncrotchets and queer behavior are permittedn(“Aww, that’s just Joe; he’s likenthat”). But if, like Carol, one is fromnoutside—and if the outsider is “notional”—thennlife can be miserable, and thenwitches of every American GophernPrairie will sneer: “Who does she thinknshe is?” Lewis claimed that his novelnwas an act of fealty; he wrote it, he said,nfrom “a love of Main Street, from a beliefnin Main Street’s inherent power.”nHis next novel—Babbitt (1922), Lewis’sngrandest achievement—validated thisnclaim.nOur guide through the city of Zenithnis George Babbitt, real-estate boosternand incorrigible joiner, the finest characternLewis ever created. Babbitt is thenapostle and the apotheosis of the StandardizednAmerican Citizen. He is bullynfor progress: Zenith has “the finestnschool-ventilating system in the country,”nhe brags; her outstanding flaw is hernslowness in “extending the paving ofnmotor boulevards.” He extols the new,nthe big, the efficient, yet in his truestnheart he is loyal to the smallest andnhomeliest piece of his world: his familynand his friends.nWith the publication of Babbitt, ancritical refrain began to be heard: all ofnLewis’s Midwestern characters talk alike.nThat’s the highbrow line, and say,nmaybe fer once them Greenwich Villagenbirds are posolutely, absotively right.nDarned if a reg’lar captain of industrynlike Sam Dodsworth don’t talk an awfulnlot like that dub Lowell Schmaltz andnthat four-flusher Elmer Gantry and evenna real he-American like George Babbitt,nyessirree!nWas Lewis lazy, or was there anmethod to this sameness? In his unpublishednintroduction to Babbitt, Lewisnnoted, “Differences [between cities]nhave for a long time now tended to decrease,nso powerful is our faith in standardizationn. . . Hartford and Milwaukee—thencitizens of those two distantncities go to the same offices, speak thensame patois on the same telephones, gonto the same lunch and the same athleticnclubs, etc.”nZenith had joined the mad scramblento imitate the big cities; it was losing itsnprovincialism—and Lewis, contrary tonmyth, was a provincial of the first water.nThe disease of universal culture wasnspreading even to the Gopher Prairies.nSmall towns “all want to be just likenZenith,” Vergil Gunch crowed tonGeorge Babbitt over a poker pot.nZenith, in turn, wanted to be just likenChicago . . . which wanted to be just likenNew York. {Babbitt’s original title wasnPopulation 300,000; Lewis hoped to inspirenrude young bards in Omaha,nRochester, Cincinnati, Louisville. . . .)nBabbitt is a kind of regionalist dystopia.nThe sons of the pioneers had traded inntheir buckskins for the drab dress greysnof conformity. George is a fool not becausenhe is provincial but because he hasnbought into the lie of mass culture.nLewis walked it like he talked it. Henused his fame to promote fellow novelistsnof place. Besides Willa Gather, henwhooped it up for Booth Tarkington, thengentleman from Indiana, and RuthnSuckow, with her German Iowa farmers.nHe urged young writers to stay put andnto avoid New York City at all costs. Hencracked: “America—the literary map ofnit, apparently, shows three cities. NewnYork, Chicago and New Orleans; then anstretch inhabited by industrious Swedesnwho invariably (after an edifying struggle)nbecome college professors or richnfarmers; then a noble waste still popu­nnnlated by cowpunchers speaking thenpurest 1870; finally, a vast domain callednHollywood. But actually there are portionsnof the United States not includednin this favorite chart.” America deservedna “literature worthy of her vastness,”nLewis declared in his 1930 Nobelnacceptance speech. (This fine addressnwas marred by an unfair swipe atnWilliam Dean Howells for having “thencode of a pious old maid whose greatestndelight was to have tea at the vicarage.”nFunny, but unfair. Howells was HamlinnGarland’s mentor and rather an enthusiastnfor the Midwestern realists sonadmired by Lewis.)nHis vagabondage carried him acrossnthe American vastness many times. AlthoughnLewis’s happiest adult yearsnwere spent on his Vermont farm, hentried to come home to Minnesota in then1940’s. He spoke to numerous civicngroups: “Stay West, Young Woman,” henurged the University of Minnesota’s coeds,nand he earnestly promised the citizensnof Duluth his “help in setting up anfew stones in what may be a newnAthens.”,nHe became—no, he always was—anbooster par excellence. He memorizednMinnesota’s 87 counties and countynseats, alphabetically, just like theneponymous hero of Cass Timberlane.nLewis’s friend, the artist Adolph Dehn,nrecalled, “He looked at all my Minnesotanscenes but wasn’t interested innlandscapes outside the state, or picturesnof anything non-Minnesota.” As onenappalled Duluth matron said, “The mannwho wrote Babbitt actually loved Babbitts.”nLike other independent Americannwriters (Jack Kerouac the Catholic TaftnRepublican, Hamlin Gadand the Jefferson-Jacksonndemocrat. Gore Vidal thenpatrician republican), Lewis befuddlednthe literary mafia with his polities.nDorothy Thompson called him “an oldfashionednpopulist American radical”nwith “a deep feeling for tradition,” Henwas a cultural and political AmencanFirster: part Upper Midwest maverick,npart George Babbitt Rotary Republican.n”Intellectually, I know America is nonbetter than any other country,” he wrotenin 1930.”Emotionally, I know she is betternthan every other country.” A story isntold of Lewis attending a magic show innEngland in 1921. When the magiciannmade a snide crack about America,nLewis stood up and shouted, “Take thatnback! Take that back!” The flusterednAUGUST 1992/31n