Fall is always the best time to meander around the country. Across the Midwest the corn is being harvested. The browns and golds of stubble and still-standing stalks warm those vast flat or slightly undulating vistas.
In Chicago, in Danny Postell's and Tom Petratis' nice apartment in Rodgers Park — $600 a month, a pleasant mixed ethnic neighborhood, small lakeside park and public beach available for dips in Lake Michigan, which I took. We looked at the map. The decision, as always, is whether to head southwest along old 66, or straight west through Iowa and Nebraska, or take the northerly routes through the Dakotas. This time we aim to go along upper Missouri, right under the Canadian border, maybe go through Glacier National Park. The old Lewis and Clark route, more or less. (One of the local papers had a story about new efforts to find their camp sites. It seems that some of the men on the Lewis and Clark expedition had syphilis, which they treated with mercury. The mercury hangs around in the soil, and so now the researchers run around with sensors and locate the sites.)
About 100 miles along 94 from Minneapolis we came to Sauk Center, and espied a sign for the Sinclair Lewis Interpretive Center. Lewis was born in Sauk Center, which he offered to the world as Gopher Prairie in Main Street, the novel published in 1920 that made his name.
Fortunately the Info Center has not yet found the money to transform itself into an interactive learning experience in the modern manner, replete with audio-visual aids and the indispensable computers. In fact, the “center” is an old-fashioned small museum with fading photographs and photostats of Lewis's working manuscripts. Some of these were detailed plans Lewis drew of his fictional towns, plus his real estate maps of the inhabitants' precise locations and their family histories. Every time he visited a graveyard, he'd take down names for future use.
The Center, unsurprisingly, presented Lewis as a Man of Letters, gravely posed in tweeds. The only indication that he might have been somewhat of a rip-snorter was a photograph of Marcella Powers, the young aspiring actress with whom Lewis began a five-year relationship in 1939, when she was 18 and he was 54 and still married to Dorothy Thompson. From her later letters, Marcella, who died in 1975, seems to have been a lively and intelligent person. My father, who met Lewis in Berlin in the late 1920s, recalled “Red” Lewis as a boozer of formidable proportions.
I'd forgotten how good a writer Lewis was. “This is America,” he wrote in the epigraph to Main Street. “Main Street is the climax of civilization. That this Ford car might stand in front of the Bon Ton Store, Hannibal invaded Rome and Erasmus wrote in Oxford cloisters. What Ole Jenson the grocer says to Ezra Stowbody the banker is the new law for London, Prague, and the unprofitable isles of the sea; whatsoever Ezra does not know and sanction, that thing is heresy, worthless for knowing and wicked to consider.”
To give some longer sense of perspective, the interpretive Center also has an interesting photograph of a Viking Altar stone into which Norsemen, wandering across the prairie, drilled four holes to support a canopy under which a priest had celebrated mass in 1362. Bishop George Spettz rededicated the stone in 1975.
We left the Interpretive Center and headed for Sauk Centwr's greatest pride, Main St., though the citizens were naturally furious when the novel was first published. Now the banner on Main St. says, “A View of the Past, A Vision of the Future.”
What stores now line the prime block of what Lewis called the “climax of civilization”? On the east side, going from south to north are: Sauk Center Eye Clinic; P's and C's Computing; John W. Meyer, Attorney at Law; Hidden Treasures Christian Books and Gifts, with a pretty young woman presiding over appalling kitsch including a brown t-shirt with JPS on the front and the slogan Jesus Delivers; the Heartland Gallery, more kitsch, and upstairs Sherry Olsen's Therapeutic Massage; empty store and an old sign with the false promise “coming soon”; Blue Sky Satellite; Main Street Cinema featuring Wesley Snipes in Blade; bakery with empty trays in window; J&J Custom Printing, with more kitsch; Main Street Video; Real Estate Income Tax Preparation; State Farm Agency; Evelyn's Beauty Salon; Main Street Cafe; Hair and Body Connection.
On the west side of Main Street, going north to south: Photo X-Press; dentist; Mead's Department Store; Jimmy's Pizza; Martin's Jewelry; vacant; Larson, Optometrist; Center Floral, desolate kitsch; Treonne's Clothes; Ben Franklin Drug; Cobblestone Gift Shop, a holocaust of kitsch, small carved wooden things and everywhere the stench of scented lamp oil and potpourri; Legend Insurance.
Lewis's eyes would have surely gleamed more happily at the signage along Sinclair Lewis Ave., running west from Main St., starting with the handsome Palmer House, where he once worked as a night clerk. On the north side of the street, the Red Carpet Bar and Grill; Unger Furniture; Sportsmen's Lights, a saloon; Beste's Bar. On the south side, the TicToc Bar and the Mustang Bar.
So much for Main Street today, and as Lewis wrote of Main Street back then, you will find the same shops and stores from Ohio to the Carolina Hills, plus the WalMart is never far away. There too they were all enjoying themselves over the Lewinsky scandal. Lewis would surely have found that heartening.