Sinclair Lewis and the American 1920s: Main Street, Babbitt and Arrowsmith
To me, the American 1920s is an exciting and fascinating period. It is in many ways a transitional period, as it would be possible to argue that the world as we know it today started taking shape during that decade. Prior to World War I the United States was to a large extent a predominantly agricultural nation, even though society was becoming more and more industrialized. During the first decades of the twentieth century, the country had to face many changes. The transition from a pioneer society to a modern society was not always a painless one, as many people struggled to come to terms with a new way of life. Old values no longer seemed adequate to provide people with a framework for their lives. The younger generation of Americans who came of age during World War I strongly felt that the values, ideas and standards of the parent generation did not suit them. As migration from the country to the cities escalated, many Americans were thrown into a life they were not completely prepared for. Many were reluctant to accept all this change, and clung to their old beliefs and values, trying to retain a sense of stability and order in an otherwise seemingly chaotic world.
When first approaching Sinclair Lewis, my main interest was in the period and not in his novels. I was hoping that reading these three novels would give some kind of rare insight into what it was like to live in the 1920s. However, I soon realized that Lewis did not have any intention of drawing an objective and accurate map of his contemporary American society. Rather, he seemed intent on exposing a condition he did not find satisfactory. He feared that in American society the individual is molded into conformity and deprived of its freedom. He saw that standardization had far more sinister consequences than mass production. Standardization per se was not a bad thing, as it enabled people to buy relatively good products at a low cost. What he was really opposed to was the standardization of mind. He flinched at the idea that everyone should subscribe to the same values, standards and rules. He advocated the individual’s right to choose. In Main Street, Babbitt and Arrowsmith, Lewis describes the maladjusted individual whose rising discontent causes him or her to rebel, to challenge the conventions of society and to challenge his or her community. In the end, the fight is lost even before it has started. The forces of standardization and conformity suppress any attempt to break free. This becomes the focus of my thesis: the tug-of-war between the individual and society. Lewis perceived that society places many obstacles before the individual, preventing it from choosing freely. The individual’s pursuit of personal fulfillment, of his or her own interests, often clashes with the demands of society. Thus, my thesis mainly deals with the social criticism inherent in Lewis’s writing. My task has been twofold: I have both looked at the way he develops characters and how he portrays society.