The More Things Change…

One benefit of spending a lot of time lying down waiting patiently for your back to feel better is that you get a lot of reading done. I just polished off the novel Main Street by Sinclair Lewis, published in 1920. (Short review: Enjoyable, but not as good as Elmer Gantry.) Anyway, the main story follows Carol Kennicott, a city-girl who finds herself living in the small town of Gopher Prairie, MN, after marrying the town’s doctor. She finds it hard to adjust to the insularity of her new home.

The following paragraph jumped out at me as being pretty timeless. Carol is at a family gathering, and has been a bit too outspoken about her liberal opinions. Remember, this was written in 1920:

In the manner of one who has just beheld a two-headed calf they repeated that they had “never heard such funny ideas!” They were staggered to learn that a real tangible person, living in Minnesota, and married to their own flesh-and-blood relation, could apparently believe that divorce may not always be immoral; that illegitimate children do not bear any special and guaranteed form of curse; that there are ethical authorities outside of the Hebrew Bible; that men have drunk wine yet not died in the gutter; that the capitalistic system of distribution and the Baptist wedding-ceremony were not known in the Garden of Eden; that mushrooms are as edible as corn-beef hash; that the word “dude” is no longer frequently used; that there are Ministers of the Gospel who accept evolution; that some persons of apparent intelligence and business ability do not always vote the Republican ticket straight; that it is not a universal custom to wear scratchy flannels next the skin in winter; that a violin is not inherently more immoral than a chapel organ; that some poets do not have long hair; and that Jews are not always pedlers or pantsmakers.

“Where does she get all them the’ries?” marveled Uncle Whittier Smail; while Aunt Bessie inquired, “Do you suppose there’s many folks got notions like hers? My! If there are,” and her tone settled the fact that there were not, “I just don’t know what the world’s coming to!”

Anything in that sound familiar?

However, for a succinct summary of the less savory side of small-town life, I doubt if Victor Hugo’s blunt statement, from the opening pages of Les Miserables (published in 1862) has ever been topped:

M. Myriel had to submit to the fate of every new-comer in a small town, where there are many tongues to talk, and but few heads to think.


  1. #1 Bilbo
    November 26, 2012

    Baptists wedding ceremony? Must not be in Lake Wobegone, dude.

  2. #2 Eric Lund
    November 26, 2012

    @Bilbo: Not everybody who settled in Minnesota came from immigrant stock. I would assume that some Americans moved there from points east, and some of them would be Baptists.

    Yes, much of that is familiar. After my parents retired they moved to a medium-sized town in eastern Washington state, which politically is like Oklahoma with better scenery (the state’s liberal reputation is due to Seattle and other populated areas west of the Cascades). The bit about flannel is new to me, but I recognize the rest of it as still being part of small town life in much of the US generally, and eastern Washington in particular.

  3. #3 Lenoxus
    November 26, 2012

    It’s even true that people say “dude” less now than, say, thirty years ago. Yet I can’t help but assume that it wasn’t used in the modern sense in 1920.

  4. #4 Lenoxus
    November 26, 2012

    One noticible difference is that teetotaling isn’t part of mainstream conservative Protestantism anymore. Indeed, one minor obstacle for the Romney campaign was that his “weird” and “unchristian” religion would forbid him from having a beer with voters.

    Meanwhile, I don’t know of anyone who thinks out-of-wedlock kids are somehow “cursed” or in any way to be despised. Modern conservative Christians usually just lament divorce and teen pregnancy rates (rwhile signifigantly contributing to both) and that the kids are just worse off, not supernaturally marked with evil.

    The bit about capitalism and Baptist ceremonies in Eden struck me as so much satiric hyperbole; what does it even mean to descirbe the economics of two people?

  5. #5 RBH
    November 26, 2012

    I grew up in a tiny village in Minnesota not unlike Gopher Prairie. Lewis wrote truth.

  6. #6 Blaine
    November 27, 2012

    My father came from such a town. His parents divorced when he was a child( This was in the late ’20s ). Of course, a divorced woman automatically became a person of ill-repute and so none of the local kids were allowed to play with my dad…only those of the wrong sort did.

  7. #7 Sean T
    November 27, 2012


    I might be wrong about this, but at one time the term “dude” was used in the late part of the 19th century in the Western and Midwestern US for a person who was young and inexperienced, ie the new guy at the ranch would have been a “dude”. I’m guessing that the usage of the term as an informal greeting or synonym for man had not yet developed by 1920.

  8. #8 Eric Lund
    November 27, 2012

    @Sean: According to Wikipedia, the term “dude” was applied in the early 20th century to Easterners seeking to work as ranch hands (often temporarily) in the West. This usage survives in the term “dude ranch” (which is what I Googled to get the Wikipedia link)–such ranches still exist, if the search results are to be believed, in places as far east as New Hampshire as well as the West. This usage may have evolved from the usage you suggest: such people were more likely to be called “greenhorns” by the early 20th century, which may be what Lewis was referring to in the quoted passage.

    I can see a reasonably straightforward evolution which converts the early 20th century usage to the modern usage, but I don’t know if that is what actually happened.

  9. #9 footface
    December 1, 2012

    Much of Sinclair Lewis’s stuff seems timely even today. For a really modern-feeling scare, read his “It Can’t Happen Here.”

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