Some notes from a library during a centennial
OUR land is bereft after the harvest, the children have been returned to school, and the population is settling in as we should. Squanderers and procrastinators alike will have to become as practical as squirrels for the seasons ahead. But even in the heaviest of winter snows, our janitor keeps a wide corridor cleared in front of our 80-year-old Carnegie library on Main Street. And, once inside, the patron finds it as pleasant a place as might be hoped for. By February the sun is much warmer and some believe the hump of winter has passed. It's the beginning of the mating season for the horned owl, but the deep hoots could not be heard this year because of the bitterly cold days. Yet a surprising number of news gatherers arrived last Feb. 7, in deference to the 100th birthday of Sinclair Lewis, driving or being driven the last laps over frozen highways to the Palmer House, a hotel that has become a sort of unofficial centennial headquarters for reporters an d visitors.
Warmly clad, wearing even caps and mufflers one observed, the members of the press were at City Hall that day to see the unveiling of the life-size bronze of Lewis -- his jutting nose, receding chin intact -- and a new Lewis postage stamp that could not be a better likeness. Some of the townspeople find it exasperating that these occasions are not always newsworthy; worse yet, those oddballs with the skewed views of the town are more likely to be written about than centennial events like the auto races and the cake-decorating contest.
Mercifully, less is being written about boors, gossips, and thwarted lives. Friendlier sketches are appearing in print about our everyday citizens, their concerns about the present, the future, and especially for their grown children, many of whom leave to find better work opportunities. Reporters find, if they perambulate, that towns have more than one face, that our largely German ethnic origins and predominantly Catholic population, are more apt to give the town its characteristics than any set of va lues attributed to small towns. And they discover that most of us are not metaphors for small towns, anymore than the town is a living memorial to certain values.
This is a town where one feels a mixture of surprise and pleasure when a man on the sidewalk, looking as if he dropped from a Bruegel canvas, doffs his hat and says, ``Good morning, ma'am.'' Or one is cheerfully amazed at the ubiquity of red pants worn by women of all ages, up and down The Original Main Street. And bemused that walking is considered somewhat suspect. Joggers with their no-nonsense pace are unquestioned, as we all know what they're up to. (Think of the energies these kinetically minded i ndividuals might bring to a scheme for the beautification of the downtown!)
One thinks, too, of Lewis walking these streets, a lonely dreamer among passers-by (who are often no dreamers) and of his leaving this town early in life, insignificant, returning years later on visits after becoming a somebody.
Ever since the publication of ``Main Street'' in 1920, Sauk Centre has been a kind of laboratory for writers, whose recent appearances, however, do not stir the few remaining old-timers, some of whom might have had a nodding familiarity with Lewis. It's the ``ship-ins,'' as folks who have been here less than 30 years have been dubbed by a local businessman, who are enjoying much of the fuss being made over a man most of us never met. But we are getting to know him, if only in a cursory way.
When I first came to Bryant Library, I gave Lewis scant attention. Hardly a manner that would excite others to know him better. Since I made no attempt to read his books, I didn't dare ask any of the patrons if they enjoyed reading him. It was good to hear that the library was a pleasant place. I was doing my job. And Lewis was being read without much help from us.
How quickly our ambivalences can change. Gentle proddings kept coming from the centennial committee. In what way might we focus on Lewis to bring people to the library? About that time the newly formed Friends of Bryant Library agree to hold discussions on his books throughout the year, and in their eagerness begin a half year early. Only a handful or more meet regularly. Yet they are a small success, if only as the library's first book discussion group. What other group in town talks about small towns,
why we live in them, what they do for us, or to us? Not a Thanatopsis Club as in ``Main Street,'' but one suspects Lewis might have taken satisfaction in listening to us in secret.
Our discussions about small towns lead naturally and easily to Lewis's novels; and we've grappled with two or three of the five books we have read. Grappled, because at times it has been hard going. Are some of his themes no longer significant for us? Or is his style prosaic? Even ponderous, perhaps puerile at times? On the other hand, it is with some glee that we read about people who seem like a few we know -- not us, of course. We can agree about his power to give unerring dialogue and description to
people and places. (Who cannot share the disappointment Carol felt on her first walk down Main Street? Or not feel pain at Babbitt's self-parodying speech before the Real Estate Board?) Much of Lewis's writing seems central to our beings -- we who are rooted in the small towns at the edges of the undulating grasslands of Minnesota. And, like Lewis, I think we share the enigma of what Main Street -- that is, the place where our lives have taken shape -- means to each of us. In our discussions we have kept r eading and trying to figure out what he is trying to tell us. And at the same time discovering we can talk more honestly and freely among ourselves. Not bad for a year's work. But wait.
``We've been reading and talking about Lewis for almost a year now, and it's getting heavy,'' said one woman. ``I think we need a rest. Let's read something light for a time or two.'' It turns out that the others share this feeling. Maybe it is time to get away for awhile from those parts of ourselves we tend to see in his novels. And, perhaps, in our next beginning, shift the emphasis to Lewis.
There are, of course, gaps in my notes: I've said nothing about the Friends' entry in the Sinclair Lewis parade. How one person wondered that anyone would want to dress as a character from a Lewis novel as ``none of them were very nice people.'' Is that why the Cat in the Hat, Cinderella, and Hester Prynne all turned up in the same convertible with the lone Lewis protagonist, Elmer Gantry? Never mind, the ex-minister in his role of Gantry reveled in exhorting parade watchers about evil and perditi on.
And there is the Lewis memorabilia -- classified, catalogued, and visible. There are the photographs of Lewis and his family, lined up chronologically on the fireplace mantle. One of Lewis and his cat prompts one patron to wonder aloud if he were some kind of rebel as ``so many of them seem to keep cats.''
Across the room in an enclosed glass oak cabinet is a sensitive, almost handsome photo of a younger Lewis: Overhead a shaded light, turned on in the evenings, casts shadows at oblique angles, giving him a strangely mysterious presence.
Although I'm not sure we are doing all we can for Lewis, it has been a good birthday party so far. Not exactly a Lewis renaissance. But does it matter? As long as there has been some good talk from the book discussions; from patrons who are reading him; from Lewis aficionados; and from several Lewis scholars who have come our way. Sometimes reporters leave an insight or two. (Goodness knows they've taken plenty of ours.) But we at the library are buoyed by the media people and their Garfieldian curiosit y, though we know that we are often the people they see last before they complete their ritual by visiting the gravesite of Lewis. One feels they might have less need for flashlights and, perhaps, leave with a happier impression of the town if the cemetery were earlier in their itineraries.