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Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Middle America, Core Values And The Idea Of Place - Sinclair Lewis, Thornton Wilder, And Eudora Welty

Sinclair Lewis is best known for Babbitt, a harshly satirical novel about a businessman from a small Midwestern city, a man for whom only money, business, and boosterism have meaning.  He is a champion of American enterprise, spirit, and moral leadership.  America has no equals in the world, and Zenith is the best example of the American ethos of hard work, discipline, camaraderie, and institutional strength. While Lewis admires this entrepreneurial spirit, optimism, and enthusiasm, he also criticizes how it has become the be-all and end-all of an American life empty of any higher intellectual aspirations, culture, or art.   it is bad enough, writes Lewis, that such communities are without sophistication, worldliness, and knowledge; but worse still that they are proud of their ignorance.  There is something un-American, fey, improper about the arts – something effeminate, gay, dangerous, and corrosive to community purpose and spirit.

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All the towns of Lewis’s major novels – Babbitt, Main Street, Arrowsmith, and Dodsworth – suffer from the same social malignancy, a refusal to accept any deviation from the norm, challenge of received wisdom, intellectual enterprise, or creativity.  The conservative doctors of Arrowsmith are suspicious of Arrowsmith’s scientific research.  The chide him for his use of ‘variables’, ‘constants’, and ‘controls’.  Their decisions on disease and public health are made more out of concern for business and the reputation of their towns, then the truth.  Nothing should be done to disturb the careful sanctity of community.  The more that Arrowsmith demands scientific method and rejects the simple but false preventive measures bandied about by his director, the more suspect he becomes.

The immorality of such deliberate dismissal of the facts is the theme of Ibsen’s The Enemy of the People in which he introduces the theme of individual moral responsibility and how it squares with the venal demands of society.  Stockmann, the main character of the play,  believes it is his duty to expose the contamination of the town’s baths, thus saving its citizens from disease and death; but he finds that few people support him.  The Mayor is concerned about the economic damage to the town by shutting the baths and as importantly the damage to his reputation. The newspaper which prided itself on aggressive journalism, capitulates quickly to the power of the Mayor and the town council. Stockmann refuses to budge, but as the threats and intimidations become more serious, he considers recanting, withdrawing his scientific paper, and saving himself and his family from humiliation and disgrace.  Eventually his moral drive is restored, and he vows to fight to the end.

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Martin Arrowsmith has the same moral and ethical principles. His decision to tear down epicenters of infectious disease - dark, airless, crowded slum dwellings whose residents are tubercular – is rejected because of the political pressure put on city officials by slumlords.  His insistence that diphtheria can only be controlled through rigorous public health measures, quarantines, and evacuations is met with the same vigorous opposition.  The health of the citizenry is but one ‘variable’ in a more general equation describing urban well-being.

This small-town mental parochialism is described by Lewis less virulently and without the serious moral implications in his other books.  In Dodsworth Samuel Dodsworth is a captain of industry, the owner of a motor car factory, an industrial innovator, and a wealthy businessman.  He is proud of his achievements, has no interest in looking beyond his factory, his town, his church, and his home.  He is Babbitt but with a soul and a good heart, a man intellectually limited but happy in his ignorance.  He like his comrades see no point in going beyond their town or exploring intellectual avenues of no practical, immediate use.  if it weren’t for Dodsworth’s ambitious wife, he would forever remain a businessman, a well-known and respected citizen of his community.  Fran wants nothing more to do with this narrow, ignorant, bourgeois life and she convinces her husband to go on an extended trip to Europe. to find real culture. 

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Lewis accomplishes both a harsh criticism of America and a praise for its fundamental values through the character of Fran.  She is the culturally ignorant, social-climbing, American woman of wealth determined to become sophisticated, worldly, and cultured simply by being in Europe, embracing it without reserve, and rejecting all that is American.  Lewis pillories her for being a typically bourgeois, arriviste, superficial American woman, raises legitimate questions about small town insularity and enforced probity, but sympathizes with Dodsworth, a man of principle and goodness, a man of traditional Midwestern values whose life ends tragically.

Lewis creates the same social dynamic in Main Street. Will Kennicott is a small town doctor, a good, honest, and principled man who has never looked outside Gopher Prairie nor felt any need to.  He is happy with his life, friends, profession, and community; and never realizes the insularity and intellectual airlessness of the town until he marries his wife who sees her husband’s town as a sorry, desperate place – a dull, featureless, ingrown, self-satisfied, place without culture or a trace of culture.  She, unlike the callously indifferent Fran who simply wants done with America, Carol Kennicott sees room for improvement.  She persists in her attempts to create a real library, a dramatic association, and an appreciation for art, literature, and culture.   She is defeated, leaves the town and her husband, only to return at the end, herself reformed, and if not a convert to then an admirer of her husbands community spirit and the conservative social values of the town.,

As in Dodsworth, Lewis shows both sides of American small town life in Main Street.  Through the eyes of Carol, like Fran Dodsworth, he shows it for all its insularity, smugness, and indifference; and through the eyes of Will Kennicott, he shows it for the solid, essential principles of family, work, and faith that are the very core of American life.  Lewis is unsparing in his criticism, but clear and convinced of the fundamental rightness of such small town, Midwestern life which represents the best of America.

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Thornton Wilder in Our Town looked at small town life differently.  He saw no disgrace in the perennially same, predictable, ordinary world of Grover’s Corners.  On the contrary, life there was no different than any other life – to be appreciated for what it is, not what it should be.

There is no culture in the town, says Mr. Webb, a character in Our Town.  It is just a plain, practical, hardworking place with nothing in particular to distinguish it.

No, ma'am, there isn't much culture; but maybe this is the place to tell you that we've got a lot of pleasures of a kind here. We like the sun comin' up over the mountain in the morning and we all notice a good deal about the birds. We pay a lot of attention to them. And we watch the change of the seasons; yes, everybody knows about them.

For Wilder place is not important, despite his creation of the seemingly idyllic world of Our Town. The events of the town have been repeated millions of times, and it is the tragedy of their repetition and the perpetual confinement of those who are fated to repeat them which disturbs him.  The Stage Manager says:

The cottage, the go-cart, the Sunday afternoon drives in the Ford, the first rheumatism, the grandchildren, the second rheumatism, the deathbed, the reading of the will….”

Before you know it, says Wilder, life has come and gone.  We remember only shards and fragments of “the row of stores, hitching posts and horse blocks in front of them…the grocery store…and Mr. Morgan’s drugstore.  Most everyone in town manages to look in those stores once a day.”

Wilder’s play is about the parochial self-satisfaction of Grover’s Corners, but is never critical of it.  A predictable, similar life without incident can be beautiful, he says; and the sadness of those who died and look down upon the town’s simplicity and familiarity, in inconsolable.

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The end of Act III is one of the most moving and powerful in modern drama.  Emily, who has just died and greeted the dead members of Our Town is reluctant to leave the living.  She begs for permission just to go back for a day.  She is warned against it, but she persists. She is unsettled to see “how troubled and how….in the dark live persons are…Look at [Father Gibbs].  I loved him so. From morning till night, that’s all they are – troubled.” But the worst part of her return is to see the past and people as they were – young, optimistic, and full of promise – but from a time when she and they are dead.

I can’t bear it.  They’re so young and beautiful.  Why did they ever have to get old?  Mama, I’m here.  I’m grown up.  I love you all, everything – I can’t look at everything hard enough.

Oh, Mama, just look at me one minute as though you really saw me. Mama, fourteen years have gone by. I'm dead. You're a grandmother, Mama. I married George Gibbs, Mama. Wally's dead, too. Mama, his appendix burst on a camping trip to North Conway. We felt just terrible about it—don't you remember? But, just for a moment now we're all together. Mama, just for a moment we're happy. Let's look at one another.

At the end of the Act, Emily says, “They don’t understand, do they?”; and her mother replies, “No, dear, they don’t understand”.  The Stage Manager then describes the town going to sleep.  No one can figure out the universe, he says, but one thing is sure, here on earth everybody is straining so hard to make something of themselves for sixteen hours a day, that they have to lie down and sleep.

Eudora Welty’s Delta Wedding is also about small-town America and the life of a post-Civil War family in Mississippi.  The sense of place is really what gives her later works distinction; and that novels like Delta Wedding were examples of how the ‘place’ of the Delta and the Fairchild plantation is a metaphor for place and family. As in Our Town there are no tales to tell, no family secrets, no plots, deceits, or jealousy.  The aunts, uncles,and cousins have no issues.  The wedding is not an event where old scores are settled, nor are there any reconciliations, angry fights over long-hidden resentments, flirtations, or shows of temper.  In fact nothing at all happens; and that is the point

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Place is vitally important to Welty as it is for Wilder. She believed that place is what makes fiction seem real, because with place come customs, feelings, and associations. Place answers the questions, "What happened? Who's here? Who's coming?" Place is a prompt to memory; thus the human mind is what makes place significant.  The actual place doesn’t matter, the idea of place does.

Faulkner also wrote about Southern, Mississippi small town families; yet Absalom, Absalom is a complex story in which character, personality, history, culture, and society are interwoven.  Thomas Sutpen comes out of the Virginia hills to build Sutpen’s 100 – one hundred square miles of Delta cotton plantation.  It is a story of personal will and ambition, a story of American enterprise and desire for wealth and status, a drama of race, sexual demand, and a tale of a man who was brilliant in business and management but ignorant of women, sons, and family.  The Sutpen family comes apart just as tragically as O’Neill’s Mannons but without the melodrama. Both Faulkner and Welty write about place, but Welty is content to describe its philosophical dimensions while Faulkner sees it as a crucible if tragedy.

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Small town life has been portrayed, limned, and criticized in both serious and popular literature. Peyton Place, a television series set in small town America in the 60s, was one of the most popular in America. It captured in exaggerated soap opera melodrama, the same conflicts and aspirations described by Lewis.  Thomas Hardy, Flaubert, Lawrence, and Balzac described the same social propriety, anxiety, and ingrown defensiveness as their American counterparts.  The essence of small town life – its values and its corrosive demands – are part of the history of human settlements.  The stories of these authors are particularly important as modern society becomes more atomistic, divided, and culturally untethered.  Life without a small town ethos is one adrift, subject to mass influence and hysteria.  The small town has always been harsh, intrusive, and self-centered but also hard-working, religious, respectful of institutions, optimistic, and enduring.

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