Saturday, January 13, 2024

D.W. Buffa

D.W. Buffa's new novel is Lunatic Carnival, the tenth legal thriller involving the defense attorney Joseph Antonelli. He has also published a series that attempts to trace the movement of western thought from ancient Athens, in Helen; the end of the Roman Empire, in Julian's Laughter; the Renaissance, in The Autobiography of Niccolo Machiavelli; and, most recently, America in the twentieth century, in Neumann's Last Concert.

Here is Buffa's take on Sinclair Lewis's Main Street:
At the beginning of his novel, Main Street, Sinclair Lewis insists that Gopher Prairie, Minnesota, the town he writes about, is like every other small town in America, its Main Street “the continuation of Main Streets everywhere.” Halfway through the novel, he tells us that Main Street is what, at the beginning of the Twentieth Century, American civilization has become, everything standardized, speech and manners sluggish, the desire to appear respectable the only desire publicly allowed, and the satisfaction anyone feels the contentment of “the quiet dead.” Lewis goes even further in his condemnation of the commercial society brought into being by the forces of industrialization:

“It is the prohibition of all happiness. It is slavery self-taught and self-defended. It is dullness made God.” The United States has taken as its principle mission to succeed Victorian England as the “chief mediocrity in the world.” It has done this extremely well; it “functions admirably in the large production of cheap automobiles, dollar watches, and safety razors.” But it wants more than this; it wants the whole world to agree that the purpose of human existence, the highest achievement of man, is to ride in cars and make advertising pictures of dollar watches, and “in the twilight to sit talking not of love and courage, but of the convenience of safety razors.” What the country has come to prize, to consider of preeminent importance, “is not the grand manner, the noble aspiration, the fine aristocratic pride, but cheap labor for the kitchen and rapid increase in the price of land.” Life has become prosaic; the poetry of life has disappeared.

Gopher Prairie, like all the other Midwestern small towns, is itself the creation of this new large scale production, “staked out on barren prairies as convenient points for future train halts….” These small towns are all the same, so much alike “it is a complete boredom to wander from one to another.” And yet that is what a fair number of those who live in these places do, exchange one same looking town for another, moving always in the same direction. “The citizens of the prairie drift always westward.” The jeweler in Gopher Prairie “sells out, for no discernible reason, and moves on to Alberta or the state of Washington, to open a shop precisely like his former one, in a town precisely like the one he has left. There is, except among professional men and the wealthy, small permanence either of residence or occupation.”

One of the professional men who will never leave Gopher Prairie is the phyisician, Will Kennicott, who brings his young new wife, Carol, to live there. She hates Gopher Prairie the moment she sees it. The town was ugly, and the people who lived in it were “as drab as their houses, as flat as their fields.” There is no conversation. People, when they talk at all, talk in hackneyed phrases and inarticulate half sentences. There is a public library, but the town librarian thinks her job is to make sure no one damages the books, not that anyone should read them. The common response to any suggestion that something might be worth reading is, as one of the more important local officials put it, “I’m so damn busy I don’t have much time to read.” In fairness, his response did not suggest there was actually anything wrong with reading, and he did not complain, as did one of his neighbors, that a novel by Balzac should be removed from the shelves because the story was about a woman who did not live with her husband, and because “the English was real poor.”

Everyone, or almost everyone, in Gopher Prairie, thinks alike. The town leaders, who repeat and help enforce the town’s shared beliefs are unashamedly conservative, which meant, at the beginning of the 20th century, against everything government might think to do. Welfare of any kind, old age pensions, profit sharing, trade unions, anything that would limit the freedom of an employer to deal with his employees as he saw fit, were not only wrong, but an attack on the bedrock principles of American life, and anyone, any agitator, who tried to convince people otherwise should be hanged. As one of the few people who seemed to have a mind of his own, a Scandinavian immigrant, explained to Carol: “Everybody who doesn’t love the bankers and the Grand Old Republican Party is an anarchist.” The only thing anyone really cares about is money. “The dollar sign has chased the crucifix clean off the map.”

This marks an essential difference between the Main Street of Sinclair Lewis and the New England settlement of Nathanial Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. Hester Pyrnne was persecuted, forced to wear the scarlet letter for adultery, her sin against God. Carol Kennicott, the doctor’s wife, is not persecuted, but is considered different, unreliable, because she does not believe that money is the only real measure of achievement. Hawthorne’s New England thought life should be judged, had to be judged, by what heaven required; the citizens of Gopher Prairie thought that heaven could be made here on earth, and that, with all the progress being made through science and technology, it was already almost close enough to touch. If everyone still went to church on Sundays, their real religion, because it represented what human beings could do, what they could build for themselves, was the automobile. For Will Kennicott, “motoring was a faith not to be questioned, a high-church cult, with electric sparks for candles and piston- rings possessing the sanctity of altar-vessels.”

It is now, more than a century later, difficult to appreciate how dramatic, how revolutionary, were the changes that had taken place. The automobile meant you could now go wherever you wanted to go, whenever you wanted to go, wherever there was a road to take you. Everything drew closer together. Distance was measured by time. And what you did not have time to see for yourself, you could now see through the lens of a motion picture camera. “The movies were almost as vital to Kennicott and the other solid citizens of Gopher Prairie as land- speculation and guns and automobiles.” Everyone went to the movies; some went almost every night. Carol often went with her husband. Once, watching a scene in which someone dumped spaghetti down the front of a woman’s dress, she laughed along with the rest of the audience, and for “a second loathed her laughter.”

She loathed her laughter because she wanted something better, finer, in her life. She joins a theatrical group, and after a performance hears the local banker remark, “What I like is a good movie, with auto accidents and hold-ups, and some git to it, and not'this talky-talk.” She starts reading Sherwood Anderson, Anatole France, Shaw and Wells, “and all the other subversive philosophers and artists whom women were consulting everywhere.” She becomes a member of a women’s study group where, she is told, “We’re learning all of European literature.” It won’t not take long. One member will lecture on “Shakespeare and Milton,” and, the week after that, someone else will talk about “English Fiction and Essays.” A paper on Tolstoy concentrated on how all his “silly socialistic ideas failed.” Chautaugua promised culture outside the limitations of the town’s own residents, but, as Carol discovers when it comes to Gopher Prairie, it is really not much more than a week-long carnival, “a combination of vaudeville performances, Y.M.C.A. lectures, and the graduation exercises of an elocution class.”

The question Carol is always asking, the reason for her discontent, is what does she really want? It is the question, it seems to her, that every woman in America is asking herself. Her answer, as she understands, is no answer at all: “I think perhaps we want a more conscious life. We're tired of drudgery and sleeping and dying. We’re tired of always deferring hope till the next generation….We want our Utopia now and we’re going to try our hands at it….We want everything.” She wants everything, but she is not sure which things she wants more than others. “I want nobility and adventure, but perhaps I want still more to curl up on the hearth with someone I love.”

She does not love her husband. She hates him, and thinks she must have been insane to marry him. But then, a little while later, she goes with him through a blinding snow storm to save a dying patient, and he becomes a hero in her eyes. She convinces herself that she is “gloriously content in her career as a doctor’s wife,” and when she gets pregnant in the summer of 1914, the summer the Great War begins in Europe, she knows nothing more of discontent. She loves her newborn son “with all the devotion and instinct at which she had scoffed.” Her thoughts, however, do not remain for very long solely on her child. While she is bathing him, she begins to picture herself living with a young artist, building a house in Virginia or the Berkshires, “reading poetry together, and frequently being earnest over valuable statistics about labor.”

The old urge comes back, the need to escape, to find something better than this place that knows, “Neither heroic faith nor heroic guilt. Peeping at love from behind lace curtains - on Main Street!” She tells her husband that she is leaving, but Will Kennicott does not want to lose her. With feelings perhaps deeper than her own, he tells her that she is still his soul, that she is all the things he sees in the sunset when he is driving home from the country, “the things that I like but can’t make poetry of.” Then he tells her what it is like to be him. “Do you realize what my job is? I go round twenty-four hours a day, in mud and blizzard, trying my damnedest to heal everybody, rich or poor.” He can do this, he tells her, only because he knows she is there, waiting for him when he comes home.

They try for a second start. They go away together for three and a half months, traveling west to California. Once, walking alone on a beach, Carol found an artist who looked up to her and said, “Too damned wet to paint; sit down and talk.” And so, “for ten minutes she lived in a romantic novel.” When they finally go home, they arrive in the middle of a sleet storm. The trip has done nothing to change Carol’s habitual discontent. Finally, she leaves, and with her small child goes to Washington D.C. where, with the war still on, she finds work in a government bureau. “She had her freedom, and it was empty.” But things get better, and she begins to feel that instead of “one-half of a marriage” she is “the whole of a human being.”

Will writes to her and tells her how welcome she would be if she were to come back, but that he is not asking her to do so. After she has been gone a year, he goes to Washington to see her and his son. They have been living separate and apart long enough that she now sees in both their lives what she had not seen before. “She had fancied that her life might make a story,” but it “had not occurred to her there was also a story of Will Kennicott, into which she entered only so much as he entered into hers; that he had bewilderments and concealments as intricate as her own, and soft treacherous desires for sympathy.”

Her hatred of Gopher Prairie had run out. But what was it that made her hate it as much as she had? What was it that made her so discontent, so eager to make things different than they were? Before she left, Will had told her what he thought was wrong, not with Gopher Prairie, but with her. He had thought that after she became acquainted with “a lot of good decent farmers,” she would “get over this high-art stuff, but you hang right on.” There was, he informed her, “just three classes of people: folks that haven’t got any ideas at all; and cranks that kick about everything; and Regular Guys, the fellows with sticktoitiveness that…gets the world’s work done.”

That was the solid, stubborn fact that, ultimately, Carol could not resist. Will Kennicott was someone who did the work, someone who, while others complained, took care of things. He was the one, she would remember, who, driving through a snow storm to help a patient, she never doubted would get to where he had to go. “He always got through things.” He was, in that sense, the quintessential American, the American we once looked up to, the one you knew you could always trust, the one who might never be able to tell you anything you did not know, but somehow knew things you could only hope you would one day learn yourself.
Visit D.W. Buffa's website.

Third reading: The Great Gatsby

Third reading: Brave New World.

Third reading: Lord Jim.

Third reading: Death in the Afternoon.

Third Reading: Parade's End.

Third Reading: The Idiot.

Third Reading: The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.

Third Reading: The Scarlet Letter.

Third Reading: Justine.

Third Reading: Patriotic Gore.

Third reading: Anna Karenina.

Third reading: The Charterhouse of Parma.

Third Reading: Emile.

Third Reading: War and Peace.

Third Reading: The Sorrows of Young Werther.

Third Reading: Bread and Wine.

Third Reading: “The Crisis of the Mind” and A Man Without Qualities.

Third reading: Eugene Onegin.

Third Reading: The Collected Works of Thomas Babington Macaulay.

Third Reading: The Europeans.

Third Reading: The House of Mirth and The Writing of Fiction.

Third Reading: Doctor Faustus.

Third Reading: the reading list of John F. Kennedy.

Third Reading: Jorge Luis Borges.

Third Reading: History of the Peloponnesian War.

Third Reading: Mansfield Park.

Third Reading: To Each His Own.

Third Reading: A Passage To India.

Third Reading: Seven Pillars of Wisdom.

Third Reading: The Letters of T.E. Lawrence.

Third Reading: All The King’s Men.

Third Reading: The Roman History of Ammianus Marcellinus.

Third Reading: Naguib Mahfouz’s novels of ancient Egypt.

--Marshal Zeringue