Here — she meditated — is the newest empire of the world; the Northern Middlewest; a land of dairy herds and exquisite lakes, of new automobiles and tar–paper shanties and silos like red towers, of clumsy speech and a hope that is boundless. An empire which feeds a quarter of the world — yet its work is merely begun. They are pioneers, these sweaty wayfarers, for all their telephones and bank–accounts and automatic pianos and co–operative leagues. And for all its fat richness, theirs is a pioneer land. What is its future? she wondered.
Sinclair Lewis’s Main Street was published on October 23, 1920. Lewis’s satiric portrayal of middle-class Midwestern life in Main Street and its sequel, Babbitt (1922), is the cornerstone of his Nobel Prize-winning career — and of his embattled relationship to his hometown of Sauk Centre, Minnesota.
Gopher Prairie, Minnesota, the fictional setting of Main Street, is inspired by Sauk Centre, but Lewis saw his hometown as representative of the kind of Middle America that in the early decades of the century could be found in “ten thousand towns from Albany to San Diego.” When Lewis’s protagonist, the city-born Carol Kennicott, arrives to Gopher Prairie, she is appalled by its blinkered, small-minded ways and unable to find many encouraging answers to her question about the Midwest’s future. Viewed throughout the region not as a challenge but a condemnation, Lewis’s novel was banned by some libraries, but after his rise to fame, and after small-town life was treated reverentially by others — in the paintings of Norman Rockwell, for example, and the movie It’s a Wonderful Life — views began to change. Outside the Sauk Centre library today, a plaque describes how the book that had at first brought ridicule, making Sauk Centre “synonymous with narrow-minded, small-town provincialism,” eventually conferred on the town “a special dignity” as an embodiment of Middle America’s “virtues and simplicity.”
Almost 100 years after Main Street, with small-town America now besieged on all sides, many are again asking, “What is its future?” In Caught in the Middle: America’s Heartland in the Age of Globalism, Richard C. Longworth returns from an 11,000-mile tour of Iowa, his home state, with a discouraging answer:
I found dying farm villages and crumbling old factory towns, which may not survive. I found once great cities that have become empty shells, and I found displaced farmers and workers, adrift in communities consumed by denial and bitterness and a real political anger. I found inadequate schools and a political system that seems almost designed to fail. I found people left behind by a new economy for which nothing prepared them.
Longworth is adamant that the current instability and bitterness throughout the Midwest must be channeled toward a new future rather than allowed to retrace a simplified, make-America-great-again past: “The first era of Midwestern history is over. The next one has begun. We can make of it what we will.” In Remaking the Heartland, the eminent Princeton sociologist (and small-town Kansas native) Robert Wuthnow says that Middle America’s midcentury golden years are a myth anyway, and that an improved Midwest, one better adapted economically and socially to an inevitable future, is already in sight:
Thirty miles from where I was raised, a massive wind farm has emerged with more than a hundred towering machines that produce energy free of ill effects to the environment. Nearby is a new ethanol plant that has weathered uncertain government policies and is bringing new jobs to the area. My hometown recently celebrated the construction of a new hospital that dramatically improves its medical capabilities. There is a small industrial park and a new community center. At the high school, where nearly 100 percent of the students used to be white Anglos, 30 percent are now Hispanic.