Originally published in the Alexandria Echo Press.
"We believe in the freedom to read and do not censor books," said Tammy Schmidt, Douglas County Library assistant director.
This week, Sept. 26 to Oct. 2, is "Banned Books Week" — an annual event put on by the Banned Books Week Coalition celebrating the freedom to read and highlighting past and present attempts to censor books in libraries and schools.
"Main Street," a 1920 novel by Minnesota native Sinclair Lewis, was banned by the Alexandria Library in 1921 for its portrayal of Minnesota small towns.
"Main Street" is a fictional story that follows the life of Carol Kennicott after she moves to "Gopher Prairie" — a fictionalized version of Sinclair's hometown, Sauk Centre. Carol finds the town to be "ugly" and "unsophisticated," A town filled with hypocritical and gossiping neighbors with little to no interest in social and cultural issues.
Despite the book's instant success — selling 295,000 copies in its first year — the unbecoming characterizations made in the book caused Sauk Centre and other towns in Minnesota to find the book distasteful and offensive. But the Alexandria Public Library — now known as the Douglas County Library — took it to the next level and altogether banned the book from its shelves. According to a 1921 article from the Minneapolis Star Tribune, "The Alexandria Library Board put in Sinclair Lewis' book 'Main Street,' but after the book was read by the board of censors, it was taken from the shelves. The board of censors refuses to give out any information in regard to their action."
Douglas County Historical Society director Brittany Johnson researched the topic of the "Main Street" ban and provided historical insight and perspective as well as the 1921 news article from the Minneapolis Star Tribune. No mention was found in the local Alexandria paper of the time.
"Censorship of Main Street may have been a socially difficult topic in this area, especially for local papers that could be very political in their reporting. The Park Region Echo favored the Non-Partisan League, and often published strongly worded opinion pieces on political issues and praised local farmers and agricultural developments like farmer-owned co-ops. Avoiding the issue may have been the politically and socially safest option for publications in rural areas," said Johnson, "When Main Street was criticized in Minnesota, it was often described as anti-farmer or anti-rural community. If a newspaper picked either side of the Main Street debate, they risked being seen as taking additional political stances they did not actually support because of the multitude of arguments within the novel."
The librarian at the time of the ban was Margaret McCord, who was with the library from 1915 to 1945. The length of the ban is unknown at this time; as of now, the Douglas County Library has multiple copies of "Main Street" available for checkout.
"The book was banned in 1921, that is all the information we could find at this time," said Dawn Dailey, Douglas County Library director.
"We believe in the freedom to read and do not censor books," said Tammy Schmidt, Douglas County Library assistant director regarding the ban of the book, "We love our local Minnesota authors and always try to have their books at the library."
Sauk Centre eventually changed its tone regarding Lewis; His boyhood home is now on display as a local attraction. There is a museum named after him and multiple streets, including Sinclair Lewis Avenue and The Original Mainstreet, which marks Sauk Centre's historic district on Main Street. Lewis even has a park named after him in town, and Sauk Centre's school named their athletic teams "The Mainstreeters," after the disputed book. Lewis was born in Sauk Centre on Feb. 7, 1885. He worked at the Palmer House for two summers when he was a teen but was fired for "reading, writing, and daydreaming" on the job, according to an excerpt from the book "Weird Minnesota" by Eric Dregni. Today, the Palmer House has a mural of Lewis on the side of the building painted by muralists Roger Reinardy and Mike Weisser in 2017.
"Main Street" was awarded the 1921 Pulitzer for fiction, but the board of trustees later rejected the award after they decided the book failed the "wholesome" requirement. Lewis would bite back at the board of trustees when Lewis himself rejected the 1926 Pulitzer award for his 1925 novel, "Arrowsmith," for the same reason they gave him about "Main Street." He did, however, accept the Nobel Prize for literature in 1930 — becoming the first American to win the award. Other notable Americans that later received the award are William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck and Bob Dylan.