For the past five years Minnesota has ranked in the top three of the most literate cities in the United States. We also buy more nonfiction books about our state than people do about any other state in the country. We Minnesotans love to read! In fact, you’re reading right now. Congratulations — you’re part of the literary class.
This year I’m on a mission to read books written by Minnesota authors with Minnesota settings. It turns out there are so many books that fit this description that I needed to refine my criteria to get the list to a manageable size. So I looked up the definition of fiction in my dictionary to see if it helped: a literary work whose content is produced by the imagination and is not necessarily based on fact. So with that as my guide I decided to concentrate on novels.
To inaugurate my Minnesota Literature Year, my friend “the Percolator” and I went to Sauk Centre, birthplace of author Sinclair Lewis. Born on Feb. 7, 1885, Sinclair Lewis was the third son of the town’s doctor. His mother died when he was 6 years old. He was a bookish, nerdy child often teased by his classmates. He wrote 23 novels and in 1930 was the first American to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature.
We started reading our copies of “Main Street” about a week before the trip (mine, a 1970s hardcover with illustration by Grant Wood; his, a Library of America double-volume with ribbon bookmark). The book’s main character, Carol Kennicott, was educated in Chicago and living in St. Paul when she married a doctor from Gopher Prairie. She had lofty ideas of bringing culture and city planning to what she assumed to be a naive prairie town. She was met with resistance and was continually disappointed. It’s not exactly a happy read, but Lewis’s realistic portrayal of Midwestern characters landed this book on the 1920 bestseller list.
The Lewis family home is open for regular tours in summer, but we got in by special arrangement through the Chamber of Commerce. Sauk Centre is about 100 miles west on 94. We pulled off the highway onto the Original Main Street then turned left on Sinclair Lewis Avenue. Just like in the book, the Lewis home is a small woodframe house with a separate servant’s quarter and is located a few blocks from the town’s major commercial intersection. The very friendly tour guide pointed out several artifacts that belonged to the Lewis family and told us stories in nearly every room. An interpretive center near the interstate exit also has exhibits including first-edition books; edited manuscript pages; a writing desk; and a cigarette lighter engraved with Sinclair’s nickname, “Red.”
When Lewis was home from Yale University one summer he worked at the Palmer House Hotel as a night watchman. Apparently he wasn’t very good at it and was fired within a few weeks. His grudge against the hotel is apparent in “Main Street.” The hotel is still in business and we had to stay there. Thankfully, the rooms were updated in the 1990s and now have their own bathrooms; many still have the original hotel writing desks. As usual, we brought our own coffeepot, which was a good thing because they don’t have coffee in the rooms, but breakfast is served in a quaint soda fountain cafe and dinners are available in the cozy bar.
We spent the next day wandering the shops and trying to see the town through Lewis’s eyes. While the length of Main Street is a National Historic District, most of the buildings are rather plain. The bank Carol refers to in the book is definitely the most ornate building and it’s easy to spot the doctor’s office over what was a pharmacy until WalMart arrived a few years ago. Everyone we met was very friendly. We had lunch at a busy Chinese restaurant and talked with the owner who had just moved there from Manhattan only six months ago.
Though Sinclair Lewis criticized and satirized his hometown, he ultimately wanted to return there. When he died in Italy on January 10, 1951 he requested his ashes be buried in Sauk Centre.
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