Peasant and Cockney

H.L. Mencken

Baltimore Evening Sun/January 3, 1921

The extraordinary success of Sinclair Lewis’ novel Main Street is hailed by many of the intelligentsia as proof of a new and gratifying interest in beautiful letters in America. It is actually nothing of the sort. Main Street is being vaselined by the newspaper Brander Mathewses and pawed by the women’s clubs, not simply because it happens to be a very competent piece of writing, but  because it presents an extremely acidulous picture of human existence in a small American town, and thus caresses the vanity of all those who are able to thank God that they do not live in such a town, and are not as Dr. Lewis’ folks are. In brief, its popularity rests upon malice far more than on anything properly describable as aesthetic appreciation. It is a big-city success, and so, since nine-tenths of all novel readers live in big cities—the norm is a fattish and somewhat oxidized woman in a faded kimono, lying on a chaise-lounge on a rainy afternoon reading, smoking Camel cigarettes and dreaming of love—it is also a great financial success.

Here, of course, I do not sniff at Herr von Lewis’ achievement. On the contrary, I seize the opportunity to say again, as I said a good while back, that Main Street  is a very excellent piece of work, boldly imagined and often brilliantly executed. Some of its scenes—for example, the scene of the banquet of town boomers and that of the sermon by the Methodist dervish—combine a Dreiserian ruthlessness of observation with a Cabellian-Rabelaisian richness of humor—a truly amazing combination, goodness knows. But what I maintain is this—that the average reader of the book does not admire and enjoy this capital writing, he (or she) simply laughs at the monkey-shines of the Lewison poor fish and scaramouches, as a Presbyterian laughs at the Old Testament syntax of a Yiddish zanie in a vaudeville show.

II

This, alas, is not quite as it should be. There should be more aesthetic understanding in the land. Books as good as Main Street should be admired on a plane above mere prejudices, as the Parthenon and Heart of Darkness and Brahms’ fourth symphony are admired. More books that are better than Main Street—for example, Willa Cather’s My Antonia and Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio—should be admired a great deal more, which is assuredly not the case. Again, the cockney should not be so ready to laugh at the poor yokel; he is quite as thumping an ass himself.

Consider our own imperial town, great Baltimore. Is its average citizen more civilized ad intelligent than the average citizen of Gopher Prairie, as depicted by M. Lewis? I presume to doubt it. We have dervishes here who are fully as idiotic as the holy clerk in Main Street; we have had town boomers quite as noisy and hollow as Gopher Prairie’s; we have women’s clubbers, uplifters, bridge-players, neighborhood doctors, storekeepers and other such fauna who might be brothers and sisters to Lewis’ poor mimes. Moreover, we have many more of them than Gopher Prairie has, and they are far more pretentious, and hence far more preposterous. There is nothing in his book so magnificently imbecile as the Merchants and Manufacturers’ Association as it was in the palmy days of resoluting and honorary pallbearing. He describes no intelligentsia so laughable as those who lately confessed that they had never heard of Lizette Woodworth Reese. He mentions no public building so inconceivably hideous as the Mulberry Street home of the Enoch Pratt Library, or, for that matter, the bastile of the Sunpaper.

Two things surely lift this Dr. and Mrs. Kennicott far above the Baltimore level of mammalian life. One is that Dr. Kennicott, though a Philistine and a Knight of Pythias, is also a genuinely competent operative surgeon, with even a few glimmerings of pathology. The other is that Carol Kennicott, despite her reading of Maeterlinck, is really a very pretty and charming gal—one that any man might kiss behind the door without loss of self-respect. I invite you to contemplate the average Baltimore saw-bones-and the average Baltimore lady uplifter and yearner.

III

Alas, that no Baltimore novelist has ever put this town into a vast tome, as Lewis has put Gopher Prairie! Nyburg has nibbled around the edges of the subject, but he has never attempted it headlong, and with all arms. The tale would cover all other second-rate American cities, as Main Street covers all the Gopher Prairies between Salisbury and the Pacific Coast. They are all pretty much alike—huge, overblown villages run by lodge-joiners and green-grocers, some of them disguised as bankers, publicists and pedagogues. It is flattering to such folks to call them materialists, for a materialist is at least one who appreciates sauce Hollandaise. One grasps, perhaps, what is in their minds when one reflects that they are in favor of having a municipal symphony orchestra on the ground that it advertises the city. Imagine it! Beethoven as a sandwich man!

But the field remains strangely unworked. There are many American novels dealing with city life, and some of them tackle it on a large scale, but I can think of none that actually depicts the general life, the communal life; they all deal with some narrow circle, high or low, or with politics. The thing ought to be done in the manner of Arnold Bennett—which manner Lewis frankly borrowed for Main Street. Bennett sees everything, but he knows how to pick and choose; his story is never drowned in detail. Moreover, he knows that devastating satire is not enough; there must also be some feeling. Lewis gets that feeling into Main Street. His satire is uproarious, but it is never merely ill-natured. He is artist and humanist enough to see what Thackeray always forgot: that there is a man beneath the flunky’s plush. One parts from Dr. Kennicott with something strangely resembling respect for him. He lies in the gutter with hogs, boomers, grand archons, poker­players and life-long Republicans, but his soul has caught a vision of the eternal stars.

IV

The idle reader, sweating through Main Street pleasantly, as through an agreeable game of tennis, will perhaps underrate it as a literary event. It is actually a phenomenon of the first order, and vastly more significant than a dozen books by Edith Wharton. What it represents is the first successful revolt of an inmate of the Saturday Evening Post seraglio. For years Lewis has been a popular and prosperous manufacturer of conventional fiction. He knows how to produce such stuff with an almost infallible art. He can concoct what looks to Gopher Prairie to be romance. He can arrest and enthrall the literary shoe-drummer in the Pullman smoking room. He has a fine talent for intriguing the melancholy housewife in her spotty kimono. His gift is one that is hugely rewarded in the republic. He gets more for one bad short story than Moses got for the whole Pentateuch.

Nevertheless, he gagged and revolted. Nevertheless, he felt the stirring of strange desires within him. Nevertheless, he turned his back upon all that easy money, spat homerically upon his hands, and set out to write a novel that should be genuinely good. Curiously enough, it is bringing him in more mazuma than even his shockers for shoe-drummers. For the first time, perhaps, in human history, virtue is actually its own reward.

The works of H.L. Mencken and other American journalists are now freely available at The Archive of American Journalism.