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3. City & Town


We title this section city & town, but it could be titled city & country as well. While the terms overlap in defining cultural and perceptual divisions that have existed in America since colonial days, they took on new meaning in postwar America. To champions of the city, a New York or Chicago meant all that was modern and robust. The city invented the future. To champions of the country and its small towns and mid-sized cities, the rural heritage of America protected its future from urban excess and moral decay. Nuance did enter the debate, for sure, but the city-town divide produced some of the strongest rhetoric of the decade.

    Collected Commentary City & Town PDF file
  • Collected commentary. The fact is now an icon of American pivotal moments—the 1920 census revealed that, for the first time in U.S. history, more people lived in urban than in rural areas. The percentages were close—51.2% urban to 48.8% rural—but the significance was astounding. Everyone understood that the trajectory would not change course. The nation of yeoman farmers and stalwart pioneers was passing into history; America was an urban nation. Here we view the response from Americans and an Englishman, journalists and a novelist, social scientists and a president, and, of course, a cartoonist. Selections can be divided among students for research and classroom discussion. (6 pp.)

  • Sinclair Lewis, Main Street PDF file
  • Sinclair Lewis novel selections. Sinclair Lewis was the chronicler in fiction of the city-country divide in the 1920s. From a small midwestern town himself, he could write blistering satire of the world he grew up in, yet allow his characters (and readers) to discover the subtle redeeming qualities of small-town life. In the selection from Main Street (1920), city girl Carol Kennicott escapes the Minnesota small town she married into and embarks on a two-year solo venture in Washington, D.C., returning with insight into herself and the opportunities small-town life offers her.

    Sinclair Lewis, Babbitt PDF file

    In the selection from Babbitt (1922), businessman George Babbitt delivers a booster speech to his fellow real estate brokers on the superlative qualities of their midwestern city Zenith. No big city like New York or Chicago, Babbitt insists, could hope to populate America with the "Ideal Citizen" as Zenith can. It's over-the-top satire, yet one feels sympathy for Babbitt's gallant defense of what we today call Middle America. With Carol and George, Lewis leads us to sneer at their provincialism first, then takes us one step further to face our own provincialism. (15 pp.)

  • Robert Frost, The Need of Being Versed in Country Things PDF file
  • Robert Frost, "The Need of Being Versed in Country Things," poem, 1920. Pastoral in setting but modern in message, "The Need of Being Versed in Country Things" leads us to a demonstration that we, most likely, are not versed in country things. If we were, we would instinctively understand the last line and would long have accepted its reality. Nature does not provide solace or insight for man. Man may gain solace and insight from nature, but that is man's doing. Nature just is. The fiery destruction of the farmhouse and the desolation of the barn are irrelevant to the eastern phoebes, who in New England had long been known to favor abandoned farm buildings for their nests.1 But we who are un-versed in country things need them to weep with us at the fiery loss of manmade structures. They do not; instead they "rejoice" in their nest, ironically provided by man, and in the progeny it will nurture. Their song fee-bee may resemble a human sigh from "too much dwelling on what has been," but it is not a melancholy murmur; it is a call to defend territory and procreate. Man does not need to eschew melancholic ruminations in the presence of nature, but he will be stronger for accepting that nature is not waiting to console or instruct him. Compare "The Need of Being Versed in Country Things" with Frost's "A Brook in the City" (1921) in this collection. Judging from these poems, what was Frost's perspective on the city-country divide? What does urbanized man lose by being un-versed in country things? Or from another perspective, what can urbanized man gain by being versed in country things? (1 p.)

Discussion Questions

Contemporary commentary___
  1. Overall, what aspects of the city-town and city-country divide are emphasized by the commentators?
  2. Who are the enthusiasts of small-town life? What aspects do they champion?
  3. Who are the critics of small-town life? What aspects do they deem harmful or limiting?
  4. What perspective is provided by the social scientists Lynd & Lynd, W. S. Myers, and Herbert Blumer?
  5. What perspective is provided by the politicians Warren Harding and Tom McKeown?
  6. What perspective is provided by Englishman Philip Gibbs in his essay "Things I Like in the United States"? What aspects of small-town life did he praise as manifesting a "clean, bright progressive spirit of life"?
  7. According to Gibbs, what five elements of small-town life revealed the "spirit of the community"? How did the bank embody the American "spirit of success" and "spirit of good-natured democracy"? How did the post office exude a "visible friendliness between the state and the people"? (See Supplemental Sites for the full text of Gibbs's essay.)
  8. Why would a European visitor be attuned to these qualities?
  9. How did the recent world war influence Gibbs's-response to America?
  10. What aspects of a general American personality did he value in small-town residents? What did he identify as "the thing I liked best in the United States"?
  11. Why, do you think, did he emphasize the architectural qualities of the American small towns he visited?
  12. How might novelist Sinclair Lewis, essayist L. R. Reid, and sociologists Lynd & Lynd have responded to Gibbs's perspective on small towns?
  13. What did Lewis condemn as the "rigid ruling of the spirit" that constrained small-town residents?
  14. Compare the favorable opinion of big city suburbs expressed by Philip Gibbs with the criticism voiced by Lewis Mumford in his 1926 essay "The Intolerable City" (in THE MODERN CITY). How might you explain their difference of opinion?
  15. According to the commentators, what modern innovations spurred small-town residents to leave their home towns for the big city? Was this migration a plus or minus for the residents? for the nation?
  16. Compare the analysis by Louis Raymond Reid ("The Small Town") of the attraction of small-town youth to big-city life with the Washington, D.C., experience of Carol Kennicott in Lewis's Main Street. What might young people discover on returning to the small towns they had fled?
  17. What aspects of small-town conformity and boosterism that are described by sociologists Lynd & Lynd in Middletown are satirized by Sinclair Lewis in his novel Babbitt, specifically in George Babbitt's speech on the town of Zenith?
  18. Why did cartoonist John McCutcheon depict the change in city and country population as two men riding on each other's shoulders (Chicago Tribune, Aug. 29, 1921)? Through these illustrations, how did he contrast the relationship of the two "men" in 1920 and one hundred years earlier? What problem did he predict through these illustrations?
  19. How did President Harding (in his 1921 State of the Union address) and Congressman Tom McKeown of Oklahoma (in his 1929 statement to the Forum) agree with McCutcheon's prediction?
Sinclair Lewis novels___
  1. In Main Street, what does Carol expect to gain from big-city life? What insights does she gain from her solo venture in Washington, D.C.?
  2. What "thick streak of Gopher Prairie" does Carol find in Washington, D.C.?
  3. What advice does Carol receive from the suffrage leader about working for slow incremental change back in Gopher Prairie? How does Carol respond?
  4. What did the suffrage leader sacrifice to be a national reform leader? Does she recommend that Carol do the same?
  5. Describe the "renewed courage" that Carol gains from her city experience. Why is she "glad of her rebellion"? How will it change her life in Gopher Prairie for the better?
  6. In Babbitt, why does George Babbitt describe the mid-sized city of Zenith as the "finest example of American life and prosperity to be found anywhere"?
  7. List other superlatives that Babbitt uses to describe the "all round unlimited greatness of Zenith." How did Lewis use these superlatives as a satirical device?
  8. How does Babbitt characterize the "Ideal Citizen" that cities like Zenith produce for America? Why does he also call this ideal the "Sane Citizen" and the "Standardized American Citizen"?
  9. Lewis is not satirizing patriotism or pride of community with Babbitt's speech. So what is he satirizing? How is the reader led to accept or reject different aspects of the speech? (Reading the speech aloud, with exaggeration, will help you answer this question.)
  10. How does Babbitt interweave American prosperity with American achievement in the arts?
  11. According to Babbitt, how does the American businessman epitomize the ideal citizen?
  12. According to Babbitt, what distinguishes America from the "decayed nations of Europe"?
  13. How did Lewis judge these attitudes? How can you tell?
  14. How did Lewis use satire to portray Babbitt's rah-rah speech as narrow-minded and fearful of the modern?
  15. How did Lewis use current slang and modes of "speechifying" to extend his satirical punch?
  16. How would Carol and Will Kennicott have responded to Babbitt's speech? How would Philip Gibbs, the English author of "Things I Like in the United States," have responded?
  17. Create a dialogue between Carol Kennicott of Main Street and George Babbitt of Babbitt. Determine the issue or question that will initiate their dialogue. When will the dialogue occur—in the early 1920s, early 1930s, today? How will you conclude the dialogue? Perhaps add Sinclair Lewis as a moderator. What questions might he ask his own characters?
  18. Complete the chart below to analyze the perspectives of small-town life offered by Carol Kennicott and George Babbitt. Remember to include Carol's insights from her Washington, D.C., experience. You can also consider Babbitt's experiences with the Good Citizens' League and during the Zenith general strike.
    Small-Town Life
    in America
    perspective of Carol Kennicott
    Main Street, 1920
    perspective of George Babbitt
    Babbitt, 1922
    main advantage over big-city life      
    main disadvantage compared with big-city life      
    opportunities for a fulfilling life as a person and citizen      
    opportunities for an intellectual and creative life      
    sense of community; pride of community      
    value to democracy and the American nation      
    value to children and the family      
    expectations of conformity      
    expectations of modernity      
    future role in American life, in which most people will be urban dwellers      
  19. How did Sinclair Lewis weave more nuance about the city-town divide in Main Street than in Babbitt? What understandings does Carol gain that George Babbitt does not (or has no opportunity to gain)?
  20. What understandings do Lewis's readers gain from each novel? What self-analysis might Lewis have meant to provoke in his readers?
  21. Overall, contrast the different perspectives on the city-town divide in Main Street and Babbitt. To what extent did Lewis offer "solutions" for the divide?

    [Also see questions 12, 13, 16, and 17 above.]
Frost, "The Need of Being Versed in Country Things"___
  1. What has happened to the farm buildings in the poem's past, and what is happening in the poem's present?
  2. Why would an observer who is not "versed in country things" want to believe the "phoebes wept" for the destroyed farmhouse and abandoned barn?
  3. For those who are "versed in country things," what is the phoebes' response? Why?
  4. For what do the phoebes rejoice? Does Frost use "rejoice" from a human's or the birds' perspective? [Note: pursue a nuanced answer.]
  5. Frost is not saying that man should be an unemotional objective observer of reality and avoid melancholic reflection. So what is he saying about man, nature, memory, and emotion?
  6. How does Frost use multiple meanings of the words versed, opposed, and dwelling?
  7. What does urbanized man lose by being un-versed in country things? Or from another perspective, what does urbanized man gain by being versed in country things?
  8. Judging from these poems, what might have been Frost's perspective on the city-country divide in the 1920s?

Framing Questions

  • What factors precipitated and fueled the social divisions of the 1920s?
  • How did each division reflect postwar adjustments and the "modern age"?
  • What issues overlapped the multiple social divisions of the period?
  • How had each issue evolved by 1930 as the nation entered the Great Depression?


Collected commentary
Lewis, Main Street: Carol goes to Washington, DC
Lewis, Babbitt: Babbitt's booster speech on Zenith
Frost, "The Need of Being Versed in Country Things"
 6 pp.
10 pp.
 5 pp.
 1 p.
22 pp.

Supplemental Sites

Resources from the U.S. Census Bureau Sinclair Lewis novels, full text (Electronic Text Center, University of Virginia Library) Philip Gibbs, "Things I Like in the United States," Harper's, October 1919, as reprinted in Gibbs, People of Destiny: Americans as I Saw Them at Home and Abroad, 1920 On Frost, "The Need of Being Versed in Country Things," 1920 Songs and calls of the eastern phoebe (Cornell University Lab of Ornithology)

"J. J. Lankes and His Woodcuts," by Sherwood Anderson, Virginia Quarterly Review, Winter 1931 (Virginia Quarterly Review)

1Terence D. Mosher, "Music of the Northern Forest: Boreal Birdsong in Literature and on the Trail," in Nature and Culture in the Northern Forest: Region, Heritage, and Environment in the Rural Northeast, ed. Pavel Cenkl (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2010), pp. 37-38.

– Main Street, Ripley, Maine, photograph, ca. 1920 (detail). Reproduced by permission of the Penobscot Marine Museum, Searsport, Maine; accessed in Maine Memory Network, Item #25742.
– Sauk Centre, Minnesota, postcard, ca. 1920 (detail). Location #M56.9 SK1 r3. Negative #63743. Reproduced by permission.
– M. Parks Watson, aerial photographs of downtown Cincinnati, 1920 and 1934 (details). Cincinnati Museum Center, SC#318-0095 & SC#318-0029. Reproduced by permission.
– John T. McCutcheon, "City and Country Population," political cartoon, Chicago Tribune, August 29, 1921. Reproduced by permission of the Chicago Tribune. Digital image courtesy of ProQuest Historical Newspapers.
– General Electric Co., "Back to the Small Town . . . ," print advertisement, Popular Science, October 1928. Reproduced by permission.
– J. J. Lankes, woodcut, frontispiece in Robert Frost, New Hampshire: A Poem, 1923. Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Rare Book and Collections Division.

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