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Short stories about Minnesotans from the 1910s through the early-1940s
Jul 16, 2012 (Updated Jul 15, 2013)
by Stephen Murray
a Very Helpful Review
by the Epinions community
Pros:introduction, “He Loved His Country,” "Tamarack Lover," "Rose," "Things," "Nobody"
The Bottom Line: There's love in these stories, and political commitments, but also attention to making livings
I retain a special affection for the first American to win a Nobel Prize for Literature, Sinclair Lewis (1885-1951) from feeling that I grew up in a small Minnesota “city” not very different from the Gopher Prairie of his 1920 mega-best-seller Main Street. I don’t think one needs to have grown up in Minnesota or the Upper Midwest to feel spiritual kinship with Carol Milford (who, like me, was born in St. Paul, though she did not find herself in Gopher Prairie until after she married, and had also lived in Washington, D.C., so that she had a firmer basis than I did for knowing that there are alternatives to places like Gopher Prairie and its model, Lewis's birthplace of Sauk Centre, Minnesota) and to resonate with her frustration at the smugness and backbiting gossip of small-minded small-town residents. In fact, I know that one doesn’t, because a substantial share of those making pilgrimages to Lewis’s birthplace and the hotel (the Palmer House) where he worked as a boy are Japanese.
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In the decade before the Swedish Academy conferred the Nobel Prize on him, Lewis published a string of novels either set in Minnesota (Main Street, Babbit, Elmer Gantry, The Man Who Knew Coolidge, Dodsworth) or with a Minnesotan going out into a larger world (Arrowsmith). The Minnesota Stories collected and insightfully introduced by Sally E. Parry are mostly set in Minnesota with one O. Henry-like story, “The Hack Driver,” involving a Minnesota native in New England. Original publication dates range from 1906 to 1943.
The post-Nobel Prize novels Lewis wrote, including the only one that seems to be read any more, It Can't Happen Here (1935), are inferior to the string of 1920s novels (though there is one from then, Mantrap (1926), that I have not read or read about, and I keep meaning to read the 1947 Kingsblood Royal of which I own a copy). I was, therefore, surprised that the two stories in this collection that I thought were the best (liked the most?) were two published in 1943, both in Cosmopolitan, a woman’s magazine: “All Wives Are Angels” and “Nobody to Write About.” Both are written from a male perspective though primarily about women: a tamed harridan in the former and an untamed one with delusions of being a novelist in the latter.
I’ve always found it odd that Lewis sold plots (to, among others, Jack London) when he was young, since his novels and stories are character-driven rather than plot-driven. The endings may be a bit pat, but unlike the typical New Yorker story, Lewis’s stories have endings. Well, most of them do, though the radio play set it Gopher Prairie during WWII and the two pseudo-reports for The Nation, “Main Street’s Been Paved,” “Be Brisk with Babbit”) on the 1924 presidential campaign (which, in Gopher Prairie and George Babbit’s Zenith Prairie seem to have been between Republican Calvin Coolidge who had become president when Warren Harding died, and Wisconsin Progressive US Senator Bob La Follette (who received 17% of the popular vote in that election). The Southern (West Virginia) candidate, John W. Davis (who carried all the states that seceded plus the adjacent ones of Arkansas and Oklahoma, and no others, not even his native West Virginia) appears to have had no supporters.
Lewis satirized small-town prejudices of various sorts and the pretensions of the nouveau riche in them (nouveau being the only kind of riche around; in an essay printed first in Minnesota Stories, he noted that it took only one and a half generations to rise economically and start putting on airs). Parry says that Lewis softened his social criticism for the magazines that paid him (and fellow Minnesota native, Scott Fitzgerald) well, but I don’t find them going any easier on prejudices and pretensions than his novels of the 1920s. Maybe the one about a Confederate veteran organizing a Decoration Day parade of GAR (Grand Army of the Republic) veterans (and Boy Scouts), “The Kidnapped Memorial,” but I read it as genial rather than defanged.
Though too late to do any good, the 1926 “He Loved His Country,” about a German-born GAR veteran who is dismayed by the rising tide of anti-German sentiments, even before Woodrow Wilson (against the objections of Bob La Follette, btw) joined the senseless “war to end all wars” (WWI), was critical of bigotry and showed the loyalty to the Wifeland of Hugo Bromenshekel and others who found they were “German-Americans,” having thought they were Americans and had fought under “Old Glory.”
I don’t know that some of the others qualify as “feminist,” but they certainly are sympathetic to independent women condescended to and/or gossiped about in “The Tamarack Lover,” “A Woman by Candeleght,” “A Rose for Little Eva,” and “Things,” while adumbrating Betty Freidan in portrayals of domestic entrapment in “Things” (though a suddenly rich man whose wife wants him to join the leisure class is also involved in that novella-length story). I found “A Rose for Little Eva” (1918), which covers the visit of a troupe that has been traveling through the Midwest with a version of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” to which Hawaiian music and dance has been grafted to Gopher Praririe convinces them to retire. They had been finding it hard to compete with motion pictures (silent ones), but have a disastrous second night in Gopher Prairie, followed by the self-interested aid of a local self-style thespian.
None of the stories offers competition for the best Faulkner or Hemingway stories, but are as good as the rest (and at lest as good as most of Fitzgerald’s magazine stories). As with Faulkner’s, I find the occasional dialect (Scandinavian here) trying, but it only pops up in three of the stories (if memory correctly serves me). The just short of mock-heroic voice sometimes seems hectoring to me, but Lewis not only hits his targets, but hits targets with which I am familiar. And his stories show greater understanding of class differences and the import of class differences in America (a country in which noticing egregious differences in life chances is derided by those profiting from the status quo as “class warfare,” now, and as suspect “bolshieness” in Lewis’s day).
©2012, Stephen O. Murray
The very long title story of Charles Jackson's collection of stories set in the small upstate New York in which he grew up during the 1910s, "The Sunnier Side" also first appeared in Cosmopolitan. I think Lewis's German-descent townsfolk during WWI story is better than Jackson's. Jackson was more directly critical of the mix of gossip and refusal to act (to protect boys from a serial predator who was not a Catholic priest) in "Palm Sunday" and "Rachel's Summer."
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