As a noun, "an invented prose narrative that is usually long and complex and deals especially with human experience through a usually connected sequence of events." As an adjective, "original or striking especially in conception or style."
Combining these dictionary definitions, an insightful writer might weave a story about the era's defining issues, like a pandemic. Or race relations, religious or political demagoguery, or the deepening divide between rural and urban America.
One totemic tome about just one of these themes would be significant.
Writing about all of them? Extraordinary.
Yet one Minnesotan did. Only his seminal sentences weren't written amid today's turbulence but beginning a century or so ago. Or 1920, to be exact, in the case of "Main Street," a searing satirical depiction of small-town Midwestern life. Actually, small-town life in Minnesota, to be more pointed — which writer Sinclair Lewis clearly was, spearing his hometown of Sauk Centre in the unsparing classic.
His protagonist (and antagonist to the locals in Gopher Prairie, "Main Street's" stand-in for Sauk Centre) is Carol Kennicott, a college grad who leaves St. Paul to marry the town doctor. Her aspiration to bring beauty and culture to the hamlet becomes desperation as some of the small town's small minds resent, and reject, her repeated attempts at improvement.
The novel was a literary sensation. Its author became one, too, winning a Pulitzer Prize before becoming the first American to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. Lewis wasn't just a literary figure, but a cultural one, captured on the covers of Time (twice) and Newsweek, with the headline: "Sinclair Lewis: Out to Jolt the Nation."
Not surprisingly, some in Sauk Centre were jolted, if not jilted, by the native's narrative. "Initially, I think they were hurt by this fiction," said Patrick Coleman, acquisitions librarian at the Minnesota Historical Society.
Coleman, who curated the Minnesota History Center's "Sinclair Lewis: 100 Years of 'Main Street'" exhibit that opens on Saturday, said that Lewis' "intent in everything he wrote was to make things better; to see people who weren't living up to expectations, a country not living up to expectations, and prompt it to do better.
"A satirist has only so many arrows in the quiver, so he exaggerated."
But to some, it may have not been such an exaggeration — in and beyond Sauk Centre.
In fact, it struck a chord across the country, and even the world. Including with at least one world leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, who was given a rare first edition of "Main Street" by former Gov. Rudy Perpich when the Soviet leader visited Minnesota in 1990.
The chord can still strike. Especially because the enduring differences between rural and urban living, and values, have such social, and thus political, consequence.
"The incidence of urban-rural divide is very much a factor driving people's vote choice and political predilections," said Kristin Lunz Trujillo, a visiting assistant professor of political science at Carleton College.
Lunz Trujillo, a political science Ph.D. student at the University of Minnesota whose academic focus includes the role of rural identity, listed a litany of differences between rural and urban America: Age, race, religion, education and others that make demography destiny (if not a dynasty) for Republicans.
It's "politically consequential not just because there is a divide, but also because there is in our system a bias toward rural areas," Lunz Trujillo said, speaking of the disproportionate density between big and small states that's amplified in electoral votes and in the U.S. Senate, where each state gets two senators regardless of population.
Beyond demography, Lunz Trujillo points to scholarship from professors like the University of Wisconsin's Katherine Cramer, author of "The Politics of Resentment: Rural Consciousness in Wisconsin and the Rise of Scott Walker," in saying that "some of it is psychological," this "feeling of the two different Americas where rural areas differ in values in terms of what they perceive as important."
A 2018 Pew Research Center poll quantifies how these different, divergent Americas have separate perceptions. Seventy percent of rural respondents, for instance, said "most people who live in different types of communities don't understand the problems they face" (a sentiment echoed by 65% of urban residents and 52% of suburbanites). Conversely, 73% of rural residents believe people in rural areas have values that are similar to theirs.
These data points, and the striking divide between urban and rural responses in many Minnesota Polls in recent years, suggest these feelings have only amplified, especially during the polarizing 2020 election.
There's been a shift from economic to social issues, said Lunz Trujillo. The difference is seen in "Main Street's" emphasis on economic issues that create, and cement, class divides. An antihero, the "Red Swede," is befriended by Carol but rejected by Gopher Prairie's establishment because of his "socialism," a term that resurfaced as a code word 100 years hence in the 2020 election.
Lewis was a supporter of left-leaning economic reform rooted in the Midwest, where the Nonpartisan League and progressives like Robert La Follette challenged the political-economic order. "In Lewis' day, the radicalism was in middle America, and now it is 100% the opposite," Coleman said. "It was the cities that were pushing back on a lot of progressive issues of the day, especially with regards to the agricultural movement."
This shift is multifactorial, Lunz Trujillo said. But it's reinforced by "smaller communities having more social influence on one another; more social pressures because there is a smaller bubble."
But bubbles exist in big cities, too, as Carol learns when she flees to Washington, D.C.
Lewis "found Gopher Prairie in Washington, D.C., and New York," Coleman said.
"Main Street" wasn't just a novel, but became a definition, if not a pejorative. But Carol's crusade against what she perceived as Gopher Prairie's sociopolitical conservatism was viewed as condescension by many residents (and likely readers), in a theme that seems eclipsed in how the novel is quickly characterized. A century later, this disconnect helps explain the enduring divide between today's Main Streets and the better-known boulevards and avenues of major cities.
Lewis' renown led him to these boulevards, in American and European cultural capitals that were looked at longingly by Carol and suspiciously by her neighbors. But on his own terms he bridged the urban-rural divide he depicted, returning to Sauk Centre throughout his life and, in 1951, death: He's buried there.
Indeed, unlike "Main Street's" main character, "there was never any doubt about his roots or who he was," Coleman said.
"More than half of his novels take place in the Midwest or some fictional Minnesota town, and this is where he ran to, where he felt like he was at home."
John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 8:10 a.m. Fridays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport.