Saturday, February 28, 2004

Main Street in a Spaceship
Carol Kennicott's Revenge

This was my fifth visit to Minnesota. Two others were also to look at malls; once I was traveling on a story with the Billy Joel tour, but the first, a long time ago, was to visit a girl. She was in the spring of her senior year at Hamline University, and living in St. Paul with several other young women. We shared a romance with literature, and she chose an itinerary accordingly.

She took me on a picnic overlooking the Mississippi River near where it begins its storied flow. We drove into the country to a place named in a Robert Bly poem, and she got me to mimic his voice and gesture, reading aloud in a snowless field. We went for drinks to the faded hotel that Scott Fitzgerald frequented, and were served by a waiter who had served him. When I asked him what Fitzgerald was like, he gave what must have been his standard and decidedly pointed answer: "He was a good tipper," he said.

We probably even sang some Dylan songs on the way north towards Lake Superior (I recall I'd just happened on an aside in a countercultural cookbook, in which the author recounted picking up a hitchhiker from Dylan's hometown of Hibbing, a young woman who'd known him in high school. "We thought there was something wrong with him," she said.)

No doubt we chatted about Garrison Keillor and his Prairie Home Companion. Keillor is the only one of these distinguished Minnesotans to have an entire shop dedicated to his work at Mall of America. You can get your powdermilk biscuits at Lake Woebegon USA.

But as far as I remember, we didn't do anything to honor Sinclair Lewis, who grew up in small town Minnesota and lived in several more of its towns and cities even after his first successes. My college teachers didn't assign his novels and they didn't seem to respect his work very much.

I wonder if students read him now in the Modern/Contemporary Literature class in the Mall of America. I hadn't read anything of his since high school, until just before I made this most recent trip to Minnesota, when I read Main Street.

People in the mall business who glory in hearing malls called the new Main Street, as well as mall critics who decry the destruction of so many small town Main Streets by nearby malls, tend to idealize both small towns and their Main Streets. Walt Disney didn't. He knew he was improving on reality with his Disneyland Main Street. His own Main Street in Marceline, Missouri was a muddy affair, with telephone and electrical wires hanging down over it. There was no magic castle at the end of it; probably a saloon.

Main Street is the basic mall fantasy, made of images created by the mall technology of enclosure, protection and control. It is Main Street in a space ship. In the mall and in the few other ways they can exist, these fantasy Main Streets depend on isolation.

Isolation was also a problem with the real Main Streets, as Sinclair Lewis saw it. Although this is now a standard view, it was shocking enough when Lewis first wrote about it. In Lewis' Main Street, Carol Milford is an early 20th century dreamer, a not quite emancipated young woman, born in a New England-like town near Minneapolis. After attending a stodgy local college and working in the St. Paul library, she meets and marries Dr. Will Kennicott, and goes with him to his prairie town with visions of helping to create a new Arcadia. Instead she finds a suffocating, self-satisfied, rigidly mediocre and class stratified, ugly little town.

The novel chronicles her roller-coaster ride of illusions, disillusions, adaptations, rebellions, sudden brutal insights and reactive denials, until several years on her own in Washington nourish her with the strength and sense of purpose to survive the insistent and (the ending suggests) still overpowering banality of Main Street.

I remembered Lewis' ability to satirize by just letting his characters talk---and though the vocabulary was different, the gist was depressingly accurate to my own experience when I was reading Babbitt in high school and living in a small town with its own Main Street.

But this time I was surprised at the power of his description, his painstaking and convincing narration of Carol's psychological journey, and especially his sudden, almost surreal bursts of eloquence. Early in Main Street, Carol muses on the possible futures for this pioneer civilization, reconstituting the land that two generations before had been the forest and river world of the Ojibwa and the Sioux:

"They are pioneers, these sweaty way-farers, for all their telephones and bank accounts and automatic pianos and co-operative leagues. And for all its fat richness, theirs is a pioneer land. What is its future? she wondered. A future of cities and factory smut where now are loping empty fields? Homes universal and secure? Or placid chateaux ringed with sullen huts? Youth free to find knowledge and laughter? Willingness to sift the sanctified lies? Or creamy-skinned fat women, smeared with grease and chalk, gorgeous in the skins of beasts and the bloody feathers of slain birds, playing bridge with puffy pink-nailed jeweled fingers, women who after much expenditure of labor and bad temper still grotesquely resemble their own flatulent lap-dogs? The ancient stale equalities, or something different in history, unlike the tedious maturity of other empires? What future and what hope? Carol's head ached with the riddle."

I thought about Carol Kennicott as I watched a young couple from Maple Grove, Minnesota getting married in the Mall of America. A few hours earlier I'd run into the BBC crew and met the director, Rob Bayly. He told me about the wedding they were going to cover at 5:30 in the mall's Chapel of Love, and invited me to come.

The chapel is actually inside a bridal boutique sells wedding dresses and other accoutrements. It's on the third level, near Bloomingdales, and across from Hair Removal and Body Esthetics. The marriage with the marriage gear nearby is not precisely a convenience except for those who buy their veils just before the ceremony. But it testifies to the ritual link between the ceremony and the buying, and shopping has definitely become an integral part of American weddings (I once accompanied a cousin to three different Atlanta area malls in one afternoon, as she made last minute acquisitions for her own wedding.)

Before I got there I was tempted to assume that a couple getting married at Mall of America would be flamboyant, thrill (and publicity)-seeking, and otherwise hyperthyroid cases-the type that gets married while sky-diving, or on top of the Space Needle in Seattle. Or else they'd be dogged fanatics-the kind that has their ceremony as part of a Civil War battle re-enactment, or dressed in Minnesota Vikings colors.

But what I saw was a very young couple of apparently modest means, from a small suburban town on the Mississippi River, just north of Minneapolis. The chapel was reasonably church-like, more modest than tacky, and the preacher conducted an ordinary wedding ceremony-he was apparently uncomfortable about being there ( he'd told Bayly he had misgivings about marrying people in the mall) but he concentrated on performing a respectable service.

The young bride and groom, in formal if modest wedding array, were surrounded by parents, family and friends, all quiet, respectfully dressed and comported as if they were watching two people they loved pledge themselves to each other for life. In fact, marriages at the Mall of America are not that uncommon. More than 2500 couples have been married there so far.

I never spoke to the couple---I was embarrassed even to be there, as their wedding was being actively recorded by an international television crew of strangers. But Bayly told me they had been fairly vague about their reasons for marrying there. My guess is that cost had something to do with it. They told him they liked the mall, and were spending their honeymoon at a hotel nearby. After the ceremony, they were going down to the amusement park to ride the roller coaster.

I haven't read much scholarship on the subject, but it's not hard to discern the basic pattern of our paradigmatic marriage ceremony. It is arrayed much like the ceremony of the prom queen and king, where the metaphor is more obvious. The couple to be married are the royalty of the moment, and the court attends them. The attention the community pays to this event is expressed in the symbolic language of the royal courts of Europe during the 600 years or so they were the central source of power and meaning.

For Americans like the couple here---who well may have been high school prom royalty not so long ago, and the young man especially could be wearing the same tux--- it's probable that this will be the last ceremony in which they are treated like royalty, until their elaborate and probably more expensive funerals.

In many ways, this is one of the couples the mall was made for. The postwar middle class got so huge because more people moved up into it economically. However, economic mobility is faster than cultural change, and while the things the American middle class wanted became more elaborate and expensive, the tastes and needs of the lower middle class were still strong, and arguably dominant. It is their tastes, expanding at their pace, that determine the cultural mix at the shopping mall.

In fact a great deal of pop culture's impact arose from just such a lower middle class artist from Pittsburgh who re-packaged his tastes to astound the cosmopolitan art world, starting with a painting of a Heinz soup can. Some of Andy Warhol's apparently daring statements in the catalogue of his first retrospective at the Modern Museet in Stockholm in 1968 can now be read as a manifesto for mall culture: "I like boring things." "I'd like to be a machine, wouldn't you?" "I love plastic. I want to be plastic." "If you want to know all about Andy Warhol, just look at the surface of my paintings and films and me, and there I am. There's nothing behind it."

In fact, ordinary human beings have softened and humanized that program, and the longings of the Carol Kennicotts have expanded tastes and purview, but the sense of the world as surface and understandable as manufactured objects is reflected here. Though the new middle class is just one source of mall culture, it is an important one.

As they moved up into the middle class, many traditional certainties and stabilities quickly melted away. Their lives became unhinged when they bought houses and learned they weren't necessarily buying a home, they were investing in property, the value of which could be altered overnight by means totally out of their control. They mortgaged their lives to the property that likely would demand unremitting effort, yet could be taken away regardless of their dedication. The very act of buying a house could eventually leave them homeless.

Later, when high wage union jobs melted away, they had to learn how to sell themselves as commodities to prospective employers, by learning the skills of fudging the resume and projecting the proper job interview image. When inflation struck at about the same time that industrial jobs were disappearing, they were forced into the world of "financial instruments," from Certificates of Deposit to the stock market, in order to keep what they had earned. But this only meant they were even more vulnerable to the whims of Wall Street and the hair-trigger responses of its distant players, as well as the frenzied vagaries of global consumer markets. In very real ways, they became the slaves of fashion.

Now we know they were also dupes in a con game played by at least some corporations and their greed addicted executives, even if they joined the middle class march into the stock market.

All this combined with the costs and opportunities of economic upward mobility, based so uncertainly on images. If you wanted to rise economically and socially, you didn't buy a 'good enough' car as your prudent grandfather might. You bought the best car you could almost afford, with the 'best' determined not by quality but by its status at the moment.

You moved up the corporate ladder or in union contract income, then you moved up to a bigger house in a higher status suburb, with the appropriate cars and other accoutrements. Places (homes, communities) and things began to have less intrinsic value and less reality. Place was replaced by image of place.

The idealized small town of the mall was one of the first phenomena that measures the depth of longing for place expressed in the medium of nostalgia. Consumer products became a substitute for certainties. They became the comfort, the reward and the demonstration of how far you had come. They were what this world had to offer. Money could buy you more than two tastes of royalty, one of which you wouldn't be around to enjoy anyway.

In Main Street, Sinclair Lewis demonstrates that small towns have never been what they used to be. But the mall is more than the ideal small town now. It's a step up, certainly from most real Main Streets now. For a couple who may shop quite reasonably and happily at Wal-Mart, Mall of America is a wonderland.

But even more broadly, this is the small town version of exotic locales, shared by more than those from small towns or suburbs. It is in effect the urbanized small town that Carol Kennicott yearned for, at least in part.

To a small town Main Street eye, the variety is astonishing. The great Bloomingdales and the fabled Macy's of New York meet the west's best in Seattle-based Nordstroms, along with the Midwestern tried and true of Sears. Clothes, from Petite Sophisticates to Tall Girl and August Max Woman, Victoria's Secret to Motherhood Maternity, and a woman's apparel shop called Everything But Water.

Clothes, from Brooks Brothers to Chile Heads, RCC Western Wear to Hot Topic and Authentic Northern Reflections; Sox Appeal, The Buckle, City Shirts, Bostonian Shoes and The Walking Company. A shop of traditional eastern European imported crafts called Babushka, next to Hologram Land, where a framed hologram portrait of Jesus Christ was on sale for $660, reduced from $990.

There is the Original Corn Dog and Steak Escape, Hibachi-San and Minnesota Picnic, Le Petit Bistro and Mandarin Gardens, Stampede Steakhouse and Wolfgang Puck's Pizzeria. There's Grasslands Gallery, Wild Wings Gallery and Deck the Walls. There's Black Hills Gold Jewelers, Helzberg Diamonds, Whitehall Jewelers and Elegant Illusions. There's Yankee Candle, Irish Indeed, European Gift Shop, Colorado Pen Company and Minnesot-ah.

There's the Body Shop, Basin and Perfumia. There's Funcoland, Arrtvark Toys, LEGO Imagination Center and Wizards of the Coast. There's Pottery Barn, The Cutlery, The Tiffany Collection, Linens-N-Things and Gadgets and More. There's Pro Wrestling Shop, Crazy About Cars, Mac Birdie Golf Gifts and Field of Dreams. There's Planet Hollywood, Hooters, Gators, America Live! and Fat Tuesday Daiquiri Bar.

There are 14 movie screens and 11 ATM locations. And when the newlyweds from Maple Grove tire of the Pepsi Ripsaw Rollercoaster, they can choose Ghost Blasters, Xcel Energy Log Chute, Mystery Mine Ride, Treetop Tumbler, Screaming Yellow Eagle, the Mighty Axe, Americana Carousel, the Skyscraper Ferris wheel or the Kite Eating Trees.

Carol Kennicott yearned for "beauty and strangeness," for "cities, music, quick laughter." There is much of all that to meet the eye at the Mall of America. At first the crowds looked uniform, despite skin color or even gender-a sea of sweatshirts and jeans. But then I saw variations in the parade.. An elderly black man and a boy, both in impressively tailored, softly shiny black suits and matching fedoras. Three tall middle aged white men in cowboy hats, bobbing above the crowd. Two Hispanic men in leather jackets at a food court table with a pale young man wearing a curved bill ball cap and an ambercrombie logo t shirt.

A sleek woman in a black CK t-shirt and tight black jeans marching smartly past a woman with Asian features bottle feeding her baby on a bench in front of Macy's court. Checking out the nearest mall directory, two young black men and a black woman in a Minnesota version of hip-hop attire: puffy big down jackets to go with fat pants and thick enormous shoes. A slim man and slim woman both attired head to foot in shiny tight black leather with silver studs.

Four teenage girls, all carrying Barnes and Noble bags, suddenly break into single file, the last three grasping the hood of the sweatshirt in front of them. After awhile in the peculiar mall light, they appear for a moment in the moving crowd and then they disappear: a guy who looks like he stepped out of a Jim Jarmusch movie, a woman going into Victoria's Secret who looks like she belongs there, and almost lost in a tall crowd sweeping onward, Harry Potter.

So the neo-Platonist poet may still be sequestered somewhere in London refusing to drink Coca-Cola, and the philosophers of our times may be jetting between a university campus in Maryland and international philosophy of our times conferences in Oslo, and you'll never see them here, unless they're doing a book signing. But you're not necessarily going to experience more variety than this in whatever enclave of Manhattan or other large city where you happen to feel safe and welcome.

Then I saw her, standing in line at Panda Express, but slightly apart from the others: a blond haired teenage girl, moderately pretty in the conventional sense, but in a long dramatic red serape coat, with cool presence and challenging eyes. She registered immediately but so quickly that I was aware of her distinctiveness only as an after-image. By the time I looked back, she was gone.

She was Carol Kennicott's great-great-great granddaughter, searching for beauty and strangeness, music and quick laughter, alone in the Mall of America on a Saturday night.

What future and what hope? Besides the lights and laughter, Carol Kennicott yearned for what she called "conversation," a term now very distant from what it likely meant to her: the entertainment of ideas, the play of serious questions, the dream of something different in history than a postmodern version of placid chateaux ringed with sullen huts. That kind of conversation is probably less rare than we think in the lives of small town Minnesotans, and maybe it happens among the students and teachers in the mall. But there doesn't appear to be any more encouragement for it in Shopopolis than there was in downtown Gopher Prairie.

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