The Legacy of Main Street as a Bestseller
In 1920, Sinclair Lewis transformed himself from a somewhat known writer of several novels to a renowned illustrator of contemporary small town America. It was in that year that Harcourt, Brace and Howe released Lewis's Main Street. The introduction to the novel proclaimed, "This is America-a town of a few thousand, in a region of wheat and corn and dairies and little groves. The town is, in our tale, called 'Gopher Prairie, Minnesota.' But its Main Street is the continuation of Main Streets everywhere. The story would be the same in Ohio or Montana, in Kansas or Kentucky or Illinois, and not very differently would it be told Up York State or in the Carolina hills." Lewis intended for the novel to be 'American,' and the popularity of the story stemmed from his conscious effort.
Main Street teaches many lessons about bestsellers in general. Sinclair Lewis, a writer who was not a household name when Main Street debuted, managed to sell 295,000 copies of his novel in its first year, taking it to the top spot on the bestseller list for 1921. The novel's success shows that a relatively obscure writer may explode into wide readership almost overnight through the good marketing of a good story. Furthermore, the novel shows that the fast fame of a phenomenon like Lewis can then lead to even greater reception of a novel. The novel also shows that stories that touch the public mood on current affairs are quite successful. Along the same lines, Main Street shows that books that differ greatly from one another can be bestsellers at the same time.
I. A Good Book
First of all, Main Street was a fairly well written book. As stated earlier, Lewis had produced five novels prior to Main Street with mild success. Critics and readers alike seemed astounded by Lewis's story. Harcourt's own promotional advertisement in Publisher's Weekly boasted John Peter Toohey's remark, "[If] it isn't the best novel written in these United States in a decade, I'll eat my hat" (11/13/20). The reception to Main Street was overwhelmingly positive. As shown in earlier sections, everyone from H.L. Mencken to the average reader attested to their enjoyment of the novel. Stanley Coblentz remarked on the impressiveness of the universality of this "tragedy of the denizen and factory and apartment house; the tragedy of the decay of youth and of youthful aspirations; the tragedy of the all-consuming drabness of life; of the normal, the conventional, and the commonplace"(A Shelf of Recent Books, 1/21). Coblentz's commentary leads into the next apparent reason for Main Street's success; the novel addressed many of the thoughts of the general American public.
II. A Good Pitch
Lewis participated closely in the plans to market the novel critics and the general public. To avoid a lackadaisical reception to the novel, Lewis encouraged Harcourt to campaign heavily with critics to ensure a fair assessment of Main Street. Lewis made a strong effort to have Harcourt convince critics that Main Street was "far more serious and important" than anything that he had written before (Pastore 92). It is difficult to say whether critics would have responded any differently to the novel without these efforts. It was nonetheless regarded as a fairly well written novel, but it seemed as though the novel was all the more important because it addressed the concerns of many people in the country at that time. Harcourt boasted that the novel would be advertised heavily, and it might have had as much of an effect as the positive reviews. Especially due in part that the book would not sell on Lewis's then unknown name, the advertising certainly shows that bestsellers can rely on effective advertising to sell copies. The overarching positive for the great sales of Main Street was that the story was not only well written but also spoke to many readers that no other book had in recent times.
III. A Good Time
Many felt that the story had arrived at just the right time for the American consciousness. The end of the First World War and difficult economic conditions of the previous decade wore heavily on the American spirit. Famed journalist Walter Lippmann wrote, "Lewis was in a position to supply the demand. For he too had outlived his political illusions, having passed beyond the socialist idealism?At the moment when he sat down to please himself by writing Main Street, in the heroic mood of one who abandons the quest of money and applause, a vast multitude was waiting for him with more money and applause than he ever dreamed about" (Schorer 85).
Every junior high school student knows that the World War One sparked a great debate in the United States about the role of the country in the rest of the world, manifested through the efforts to establish the League of Nations after the war. The nation seemed to rush to assert its American identity in respect to the outside world. In the postwar nation, many Americans were driven to identify themselves as 'Americans.' Some expressed their American-ness through the culture of the Jazz Age, as embodied in the novels of F. Scott Fitzgerald. Others found this identity in the expatriate world of the so-called Lost Generation characterized by Ernest Hemingway and Gertrude Stein. Nonetheless, none of the novels of these sub-cultures were bestsellers at this time. In fact, the bestseller lists of the 1920s were dominated by the books of Lewis, Zane Grey, A.S.M. Hutchinson, and Booth Tarkington-all of whose novels often dealt with the same type of people and issues.
Lippmann confirmed that Main Street appealed to what the American public wanted. John Flanagan further asserted the appropriate timing of Main Street. He wrote, "The novel appeared at the precise hour when readers suddenly freed from the tensions of a world war and conscious of the need for self-examination were willing and almost avid to learn the truth about themselves?In 1920 Lewis's reportorial skill, his gusto, his grand scorn, and his intimate knowledge of the small town persuaded people to read Main Street even though it mirrored their own banalities" (Bucco 83). So, Main Street shows that bestsellers may become such because they do reflect the thoughts and feelings of a great portion of the public. As the post-war nation paused to reflect on its own identity, Publishers Weekly wrote positively of Main Street's central character, Carol Kennicott, who learns "the great secret of life in being content with the real world in which it is never possible to create an ideal setting"(11/6/20). Stemming out of this connection with the public mood, Main Street shows that an appealing way of looking at things can become inseparable from the writer, and hence produce even further embrace of the novel.
IV. A Good Writer
Lewis was a mid-west man. His novel was about what he knew. Gopher Prairie was not that different from his own home of Sauk Center, Minnesota. The initial popularity of the novel led to great curiosity about Lewis himself. Lewis's novel gained popularity because it included so many growing familiarities of middle-class, small town America-cars, radios, The Saturday Evening Post, etc. Lewis recognized that these were the things that characterized much of American society. In reference to the aforementioned forward to the novel, Lippmann also commented, "Now a writer without this dogmatism of the practical man, and with a greater instinct for reality, could not have written these words"(Schorer 85). Lewis did not seem afraid to deal with issues that were previously not dealt with, namely sex. Theodore Dreiser's Sister Carrie had dealt with some of the same issues, but years before when the public was not quite ready. Biographer Stephen Pastore asserted, "Lewis was the first to deal with sex and the middle class woman in a way that the public could accept and incorporate into its national consciousness"(91). Lewis's success shows that books that deal with subjects such as sex in a way not previously attempted become bestsellers. This sort of success with straightforwardness is seen with later bestsellers involving relationships and sex, such as Thornton Wilder's Heaven's My Destination (1937) and Grace Metalious's Peyton Place (1956).
Main Street's popularity rose as Lewis's own celebrity gradually increased. Indeed, as the 295,000 copies of the novel sold around the country, Lewis traveled and lectured to audiences eager to hear his assessment of the nation's state. Critic T.K. Whipple embodied the sentiments of many readers when he wrote, "Lewis is the most successful critic of American society because he is himself the best proof that his charges are just"(Bucco 46). America regarded Lewis as the ambassador of the small town. Other best selling authors have also seen success =due to the public's association between their stories and themselves, i.e. John Grisham and law, Robin Cook and medicine, Jackie Collins and Hollywood. The public seemed to simply take Lewis at his word on issues facing American society, i.e. geographical growth of towns and cities, economic improvement for some as well as hardship for others, and newfound and potentially daunting role of America in the international community.
V. A Good Run
The success of Main Street asserts yet another facet about American bestsellers, which is that the initial success of an author can lead to a string of bestsellers. Babbitt was on the top ten list in both 1922 and 1923, Arrowsmith in 1925, Elmer Gantry in 1927 and Dodsworth in 1929. As stated in the earlier section, Mencken found Babbitt to be an even better novel than Main Street. With the successes of Main Street and Babbitt back-to-back, Lewis's subsequent successes prove that an author can have continued successes with novels that might not be as favorably received by critics and the general public. People will still buy and read the books based on the author's name. Today's most prevalent examples of this are of course Grisham and Stephen King. Readers do not even wait to hear if the newest book is any good, they buy it on faith.
When Lewis received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1930, the first American to do so, he commented that someone had commented "in awarding the Nobel Prize to a person who has scoffed at American institutions as much as I have, the Nobel Committee and the Swedish Academy had insulted America?I don't know whether?he intends to make an international incident of it, and perhaps demand of the American Government that they land Marines in Stockholm to protect American literary rights, but I hope not"(Maule 5). In all, Lewis's Main Street shows that books that speak to the public mood and are not afraid to candidly address topics that may have been taboo certainly have potential to be bestsellers. Furthermore, when the author of such books becomes a persona in his or her own right, then the book has even greater sales potential.
Bloom, Harold, editor. Modern Critical Views: Sinclair Lewis. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1987.
Buoco, Martin, editor. "The Quixotic Motifs of Main Street" Critical Essays on Sinclair Lewis, 1986.
"Main Street" A Shelf of Recent Books, Vol. LII, No.5, January, 1921. pp.357-358.
Maule, Harry, editor. The Man From Main Street:Essays and Other Writings, 1904-1950. New York: Random House, 1953.
Pastore, Stephen. Sinclair Lewis: A Descriptive Bibliography. New Haven: Yale Books, 1997.
Schorer, Marc, editor, "Portrait of an American Citizen" Sinclair Lewis: A Collection of Critical Essays, 1962.
Van Doren, Carl. Sinclair Lewis: A Biographical Sketch. New York: Doubleday, 1933.
Not cited in this section but useful:
Schorer, Mark. Sinclair Lewis: An American Life. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1961.
"Sinclair Lewis" The Nation, Vol.172, No.8, February 24, 1951, pp.179-80.
"Sinclair Lewis and the Nobel Prize" MidAmerica. Vol. VIII, 1981. pp. 9-21.
" 'A Scarlet Tanager on an Ice-Floe':Women, Men, and History on Main Street." Sinclair Lewis: New Essays in Criticism, ed. James Hutchisson. 1997.
"Return to Main Street" Sinclair Lewis:New Essays in Criticism, ed. James Hutchisson. 1997.