“I bet Harry Haydock’s never seen the City like this! Why, he’d never have sense enough to study the machinery in the mills, or go through all these outlying districts. Wonder folks in Gopher Prairie wouldn’t use their legs and explore, the way we do!”
~ From “Main Street,” by Sinclair Lewis (1920)
Using your legs to explore the City on foot is the principal aim of this column, but let’s be reasonable: That can be a tough business in the winter. I’m not a cold weather naysayer at all; I love stomping around in the snow and walking around in a flurry more than many people. But even I have my limits.
Numerous times in the past week I looked out the window of my apartment, or the bus, or the back of a car, and saw the mountains of snow piled up on the side of the roads, and thought, “I don’t know if I want to get out there.” No matter how many interesting murals or architectural motifs there may be to see. They’ll still be there in the spring.
Fortunately, we can occasionally elect take a stroll though the Cities using a literary, artistic, or cinematic proxy, and that’s just what I am doing this week. Sinclair Lewis’ famed account of the endless disappointments and miseries of 1910s small-town living in “Main Street” gives one of the most wonderful walking tours of the city in the annals of literature.
Here’s the thing you never hear people say about “Main Street”: Sure, it makes small prairie towns sound awful, and it irritated a lot of Minnesotans who felt that its portrayal of the ugliness, hypocrisy and reactionary shrillness of heartland folks was unfair. But that’s no skin off the Twin Cities’ noses; Minneapolis itself comes off as great! There is perhaps no other book in the canon where the City is as admired by its protagonist, where it’s described in such wide-eyed detail.
If you don’t remember it from high school, the basic plot is this: Carol, idealistic, artistic, and dreamy graduate of Blodgett College “on the edge of Minneapolis,” marries a small-town doctor named Kennicott who takes her back to his hometown of Gopher Prairie, which bears a suspicious resemblance to Lewis’ hometown of Sauk Centre. There, she pushes up constantly against the closemindedness of her neighbors in her efforts at community engagement and socialization — notably in her attempt at organizing amateur theatrical productions. It’s her interest in drama that, in Chapter XVII, compels her and her husband to take a “run down to the Cities” to see some theatrical productions of some modern Irish and Austrian playwrights at the “Cosmos School of Music, Oratory and Dramatic Art.”
In the few days they’re in the city, Kennicott and Carol explore neighborhoods, take streetcars, stay in hotels, see plays, eat oysters in the half-shell, go shopping, and have “all the experiences of provincials in a metropolis.” The chapter is short, so we can follow their footsteps fairly easily. Like much of Minneapolis, the specific spots they visited are long gone. But we can retain the spirit of the trip by substituting current day equivalents where we’re able, and by thinking about how such sites might look to visiting “provincials.”
Carol and Kennicott arrive, as people did for almost a century, in the Great Northern Depot, located on Hennepin Avenue roughly where the Federal Reserve building is today. Here is the scene:
In the Minneapolis station the crowd of lumberjacks, farmers, and Swedish families with innumerous children and grandparents and paper parcels, their foggy crowding and their clamor confused her. She felt rustic in this once familiar city, after a year and a half of Gopher Prairie. She was certain that Kennicott was taking the wrong trolley-car. By dusk, the liquor warehouses, Hebraic clothing-shops, and lodging-houses on lower Hennepin Avenue were smoky, hideous, ill-tempered. She was battered by the noise and shuttling of the rush-hour traffic.
Hard to imagine that sort of clamor in the sleepy environs of the Whole Foods and Gateway Park now, isn’t it? Moreover, it’s a shame the term “lower Hennepin” has fallen out of favor. There aren’t many lumberjacks, farmers or Swedish families to be seen downtown these days (not to mention “Hebraic clothing shops” – perhaps this is a reference to something like Nate’s Clothing Company, founded by Nate Witebsky in 1916 at 4th St. and 1st Ave. N., and closed in 2008). However, you could move this scene a few blocks away to the Greyhound bus depot or the Northstar Target Field Station and Rail Platform, and get a sense for a highly heterogeneous group of travelers – including a few farmers – disembarking and emptying out into the First Avenue nightclubbing crowd. That might present an equivalent level of clamor and shuttling.
Next, they’re off to the hotel, complete with …
… the onyx columns with gilt capitals, the crown-embroidered velvet curtains at the restaurant door, the silk-roped alcove where pretty girls perpetually waited for mysterious men, the two-pound boxes of candy and the variety of magazines at the news-stand. The hidden orchestra was lively. … A woman with a broadtail coat, a heavy lace veil, pearl earrings, and a close black hat entered the restaurant. “Heavens! That’s the first really smart woman I’ve seen in a year!” Carol exulted. She felt metropolitan.
Probably this would have been one of the city’s classic hotels, like the Leamington or Dyckman. All of those are long gone, but we can imagine that today an aspiring aesthete like Carol would check into the Chambers Hotel, on Hennepin at 9th. I have personally seen some really smart women in the lobby myself.
Next, to the hotel restaurant:
While Kennicott labored over ordering it was annoying to see him permit the waiter to be impertinent, but as the cocktail elevated her to a bridge among colored stars, as the oysters came in — not canned oysters in the Gopher Prairie fashion, but on the half-shell — she cried, “If you only knew how wonderful it is not to have had to plan this dinner. … Oh, this is a great moment for me!”
Marin, the restaurant adjoining the Chambers, doesn’t have oysters, but it does have scallops with artichoke-fingerling hash and truffled parsnip puree. If you prefer to think Carol and Kennicott would have stayed at the Graves 601 Hotel instead, their adjoining restaurant, Cosmos, has on its menu a seafood dish of steelhead trout with French green lentils, cauliflower, golden raisins, and Vadouvan curry.
The next day:
After breakfast Carol bustled to a hair-dresser’s, bought gloves and a blouse, and importantly met Kennicott in front of an optician’s, in accordance with plans laid down, revised, and verified. They admired the diamonds and furs and frosty silverware and mahogany chairs and polished morocco sewing-boxes in shop-windows, and were abashed by the throngs in the department-stores, and were bullied by a clerk into buying too many shirts for Kennicott, and gaped at the “clever novelty perfumes — just in from New York.” … Kennicott went from shop to shop, earnestly hunting down a felt-covered device to keep the windshield of his car clear of rain.
This passage makes me think that the Minneapolis of a century ago was perhaps a little more cosmopolitan than the one we live in today. Macy’s is about the last of the downtown department stores, a zombie version of Dayton’s, and I am not sure you’d find mahogany chairs or polished morocco anything in there. (This goes double or maybe triple for the downtown Target.)
However, if we move this scene up to the North Loop, there are plenty of chic storefronts to dazzle our protagonists – Montaggio, Martin Patrick 3, Ribnick Furs. Fortunately for Kennicott, if they make it down to Lake Street, he’ll be able to easily find the windshield device he’s looking for at an Auto Zone. There’s like three within a mile of one another between Bloomington Avenue and the river.
The next day, the couple stays out late once again, eating at a “Chinese restaurant that was frequented by clerks and their sweethearts on pay-days. They sat at a teak and marble table eating Eggs Fooyung, and listened to a brassy automatic piano, and were altogether cosmopolitan.” This is probably an anachronistic reference to the famous Nankin Café on 7th Street a block east of Hennepin (which opened in 1919), but we can maybe move the scene today to a place like Barrio or Pizza Luce – lively, inexpensive, sort of hip downtown places, with a DJ instead of an automatic piano, and frequented by clerks (or however one might refer to contemporary low-level white collar workers) on their pay-days.
The passages describing their next day’s walk, in the areas south of downtown, speak for themselves and, unlike downtown, present a vision of the city that is still largely familiar today:
They looked across Loring Park and the Parade to the towers of St. Mark’s and the Procathedral, and the red roofs of houses climbing Kenwood Hill. They drove about the chain of garden-circled lakes, and viewed the houses of the millers and lumbermen and real estate peers — the potentates of the expanding city. They surveyed the small eccentric bungalows with pergolas, the houses of pebbledash and tapestry brick with sleeping-porches above sun-parlors, and one vast incredible chateau fronting the Lake of the Isles. They tramped through a shining-new section of apartment-houses; not the tall bleak apartments of Eastern cities but low structures of cheerful yellow brick, in which each flat had its glass-enclosed porch with swinging couch and scarlet cushions and Russian brass bowls. Between a waste of tracks and a raw gouged hill they found poverty in staggering shanties.
The only thing to note here is the use of the term “Procathedral” for the Basilica of St. Mary’s; the pope didn’t make that a basilica until a few years after Main Street was published. And of course the shanty towns are gone, but there certainly remain pockets of poverty north of the Chain of Lakes.
Lastly, the two drag themselves up the “brownstone steps of the converted residence which lugubriously housed the dramatic school” for the theatrical production they’ve come to see.
Here, they’d see a series of plays by contemporary playwrights Arthur Schnitzler, William Butler Yeats, George Bernard Shaw, and Lord Dunsany. That’s an interesting spread; Yeats and Shaw are still very well-known, and time has dulled the shock of their work, though in the 1910s both were still generally on the cutting edge of culture. Dunsany’s work was very traditional, but Schnitzler was quite an avant-garde figure, though his best-known plays were already a decade old by 1910. (It’s in this scene that Lewis the writer tips his hand a little bit; even in “cosmopolitan” Minneapolis, the most radical fare offered is still a good 10 years out of date.)
There was no Cosmos School of Dramatic Arts in 1910s Minneapolis that I know of, but the descriptions of the performances are familiar to anyone who’s seen avant-garde theater:
They were in a long whitewashed hall with a clumsy draw-curtain across the front. The folding chairs were filled with people who looked washed and ironed: parents of the pupils, girl students, dutiful teachers. … On the stage they saw nothing but long green curtains and a leather chair. Two young men in brown robes like furniture-covers were gesturing vacuously and droning cryptic sentences full of repetitions.
There remain plenty of options for seeing theater not far from their hotel, avant-garde or otherwise. Kenicott isn’t impressed with the work; though he’s been enjoying his time in the city, he complains endlessly, sounding exactly like the sort of rube Carol has worried thoughout that he is (“Gosh all hemlock! What the dickens was all this stuff about, Carrie? … If that’s highbrow drama, give me a cow-puncher movie, every time!”).
Re-reading this chapter, I kept imagining the Red Eye Theater, off of Nicollet near Loring Park. Not because the quality of their productions resembles the stiff, “droning” work presented by the troupe at Cosmos – everything I’ve seen there has been top-notch – but because it’s a forward-thinking, interesting theatrical venue located near downtown that I could imagine Carol wanting to see in person, walking down Nicollet past Loring Park from a hotel in downtown Minneapolis.
The scene ends on a bit of down note, with Carol looking “doubtfully at the impenetrable reality of yawning trolley conductor and sleepy passengers and placards advertising soap and underwear,” as she and Kennicott head back to the hotel, and back to Gopher Prairie. There, she’ll take some of her ideas about theatrical production gleaned from the trip back to the local theater group, to a predictably lukewarm reception.
But the visit to Minneapolis stands out in the book – the physical landscape of Gopher Prairie and surrounding, similar farming communities is relentlessly described as ugly and bleak. Minneapolis as presented is lush, multifaceted, complex, and rewarding. It’s not often heard in the traditional American cultural narrative: the city as an oasis, as an escape, a respite from and alternative to the provincial ugliness of the small town.
Thanks to MinnPost reader Jill Coyle, who initially suggested a “Main Street” walkthrough.