Monday, August 10, 2009

Main Street

I've been reading Sinclair Lewis's Main Street and I am totally into it. For the first time in a long time all I want to do is read the book. I look forward to each episode and description. And so I was really excited when Steve suggested a trip to Sleepy Eye, Minn., to see his parents yesterday. I was really up for a Sunday car ride through small towns of Minnesota, driving straight south through Luxembourg, Kimball, Hutchinson, Brownton, Winthrop, Lafayette, Klossner, New Ulm, and then west to Sleepy Eye. We stopped in Hutchinson to eat lunch, and that was a town much like Sauk Centre and the fictional Gopher Prairie. A good-sized town in the middle of prairie and farms, with several Protestant churches, a Catholic church, and a downtown area with a mix of chains-- Quiznos and a very large, shiny Dairy Queen and even a Dunn Brothers coffee shop, and a grimy lunch counter with a for sale sign in the window called Janousek's ("Best in Food" in neon), Bavarian Haus and my favorite, a totally garish fake facade on an old brick bank building that drew people into the Gold Coin, a Chinese restaurant. None of the "joints" were open, since it was Sunday afternoon, so we had a Quiznos sub and went on our way.

We had a good visit with Steve's parents and his Aunt Frances, a businesswoman who is 81 and keeps a very nice house on the far side of Sleepy Eye lake adjacent to a walking path. We took a little walk with her down a ways to see a Catholic retreat house and small chapel maintained by a conservative, cloistered order of 5-6 nuns from Germany. But the world of Sinclair Lewis is most revealed in the story of Steve's grandparents. His Grandpa Martin, who Steve resembles in looks and temperament, was hailed as an entrepreneur and Catholic intellectual. In town he ran a hardware store, but he also was a playwright for The Catholic Dramatic Movement, and those plays paid for his house. He wrote several, which Catholic churches would purchase/rent for the price of $10 for each night's staging. That's quite a good royalty for the 1920s and '30s. The plays were known to be "clean," and Steve's father Phil let me know that when he last read them, "They were terrible." I said I wasn't interested in the quality so much as the world they came from. The world of the Thanatopsis societies and attempts at moral improvement, with those efforts directed through culture and most definitely through the churches.

Phil promised to give me the full packet next time, with the plays and some of the royalty slips and the scrapbook of letters from parishes all over the country -- and Canada -- who wrote to tell Martin how much they enjoyed the play. Their main virtue is that they were "clean," Steve's mother Betty said. This is a term I recognize from Lewis's book -- the criticism of Hollywood was its dubious morals and lack of clean and uplifting moral content. The play I brought home is Gilded Youth (1926), one of his three best. The others are Where's My Hat, and a third whose name we have sadly forgotten. But need I say more? I promise to give more details, with excerpts and character descriptions. And keep your eye out for stray copies in bookshops of the works of Martin Heymans.

My own family history is vague. On my father's side there's the constant hint of scandal, somewhere in the mix is Seesaw Kelly, a boxer in Philadelphia in the teens and '20s, not Irish but fighting as an Irishman. I don't know his real name. There's John O'Donnell, who was a weaver in Philadelphia, and married the more aristocratic Margaret Dearnley, who was not so aristocratic that she escaped working as a weaver in the sweatshops of Philly, and was romantic enough to marry an Irishman (and become Maggie O'Donnell) and get herself disowned completely by her family. My family tree just ebbs out into tenements and barrooms and the Pine Barrens of New Jersey. I'm proud of it in my way, but there's something more solid about Steve's background. The elders worked hard, took risks and were successful, morally upright. They raised their families with children who honored them and cared for them in their old age and passed down the plays and scrapbooks in all their glory.

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