|The Project Gutenberg EBook of Main Street, by Sinclair Lewis
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Title: Main Street
Author: Sinclair Lewis
Release Date: April 12, 2006 [EBook #543]
[Last corrected: October 13, 2011]
*** START OF THIS PROJECT GUTENBERG EBOOK MAIN STREET ***
Produced by Charles Keller
By Sinclair Lewis
To James Branch Cabell and Joseph Hergesheimer
This is America--a town of a few thousand, in a region of wheat and corn
and dairies and little groves.
The town is, in our tale, called "Gopher Prairie, Minnesota." But its
Main Street is the continuation of Main Streets everywhere. The story
would be the same in Ohio or Montana, in Kansas or Kentucky or Illinois,
and not very differently would it be told Up York State or in the
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
Our railway station is the final aspiration of architecture. Sam
Clark's annual hardware turnover is the envy of the four counties which
constitute God's Country. In the sensitive art of the Rosebud Movie
Palace there is a Message, and humor strictly moral.
Such is our comfortable tradition and sure faith. Would he not betray
himself an alien cynic who should otherwise portray Main Street, or
distress the citizens by speculating whether there may not be other
ON a hill by the Mississippi where Chippewas camped two generations ago,
a girl stood in relief against the cornflower blue of Northern sky.
She saw no Indians now; she saw flour-mills and the blinking windows of
skyscrapers in Minneapolis and St. Paul. Nor was she thinking of squaws
and portages, and the Yankee fur-traders whose shadows were all about
her. She was meditating upon walnut fudge, the plays of Brieux, the
reasons why heels run over, and the fact that the chemistry instructor
had stared at the new coiffure which concealed her ears.
A breeze which had crossed a thousand miles of wheat-lands bellied her
taffeta skirt in a line so graceful, so full of animation and moving
beauty, that the heart of a chance watcher on the lower road tightened
to wistfulness over her quality of suspended freedom. She lifted her
arms, she leaned back against the wind, her skirt dipped and flared, a
lock blew wild. A girl on a hilltop; credulous, plastic, young; drinking
the air as she longed to drink life. The eternal aching comedy of
It is Carol Milford, fleeing for an hour from Blodgett College.
The days of pioneering, of lassies in sunbonnets, and bears killed with
axes in piney clearings, are deader now than Camelot; and a rebellious
girl is the spirit of that bewildered empire called the American
Blodgett College is on the edge of Minneapolis. It is a bulwark of sound
religion. It is still combating the recent heresies of Voltaire, Darwin,
and Robert Ingersoll. Pious families in Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin, the
Dakotas send their children thither, and Blodgett protects them from the
wickedness of the universities. But it secretes friendly girls, young
men who sing, and one lady instructress who really likes Milton and
Carlyle. So the four years which Carol spent at Blodgett were not
altogether wasted. The smallness of the school, the fewness of rivals,
permitted her to experiment with her perilous versatility. She played
tennis, gave chafing-dish parties, took a graduate seminar in the drama,
went "twosing," and joined half a dozen societies for the practise of
the arts or the tense stalking of a thing called General Culture.
In her class there were two or three prettier girls, but none more
eager. She was noticeable equally in the classroom grind and at dances,
though out of the three hundred students of Blodgett, scores recited
more accurately and dozens Bostoned more smoothly. Every cell of her
body was alive--thin wrists, quince-blossom skin, ingenue eyes, black
The other girls in her dormitory marveled at the slightness of her
body when they saw her in sheer negligee, or darting out wet from a
shower-bath. She seemed then but half as large as they had supposed;
a fragile child who must be cloaked with understanding kindness.
"Psychic," the girls whispered, and "spiritual." Yet so radioactive
were her nerves, so adventurous her trust in rather vaguely conceived
sweetness and light, that she was more energetic than any of the hulking
young women who, with calves bulging in heavy-ribbed woolen stockings
beneath decorous blue serge bloomers, thuddingly galloped across the
floor of the "gym" in practise for the Blodgett Ladies' Basket-Ball
Even when she was tired her dark eyes were observant. She did not yet
know the immense ability of the world to be casually cruel and proudly
dull, but if she should ever learn those dismaying powers, her eyes
would never become sullen or heavy or rheumily amorous.
For all her enthusiasms, for all the fondness and the "crushes" which
she inspired, Carol's acquaintances were shy of her. When she was most
ardently singing hymns or planning deviltry she yet seemed gently aloof
and critical. She was credulous, perhaps; a born hero-worshipper; yet
she did question and examine unceasingly. Whatever she might become she
would never be static.
Her versatility ensnared her. By turns she hoped to discover that she
had an unusual voice, a talent for the piano, the ability to act, to
write, to manage organizations. Always she was disappointed, but always
she effervesced anew--over the Student Volunteers, who intended to
become missionaries, over painting scenery for the dramatic club, over
soliciting advertisements for the college magazine.
She was on the peak that Sunday afternoon when she played in chapel.
Out of the dusk her violin took up the organ theme, and the candle-light
revealed her in a straight golden frock, her arm arched to the bow, her
lips serious. Every man fell in love then with religion and Carol.
Throughout Senior year she anxiously related all her experiments and
partial successes to a career. Daily, on the library steps or in the
hall of the Main Building, the co-eds talked of "What shall we do when
we finish college?" Even the girls who knew that they were going to be
married pretended to be considering important business positions;
even they who knew that they would have to work hinted about fabulous
suitors. As for Carol, she was an orphan; her only near relative was a
vanilla-flavored sister married to an optician in St. Paul. She had used
most of the money from her father's estate. She was not in love--that
is, not often, nor ever long at a time. She would earn her living.
But how she was to earn it, how she was to conquer the world--almost
entirely for the world's own good--she did not see. Most of the girls
who were not betrothed meant to be teachers. Of these there were two
sorts: careless young women who admitted that they intended to leave the
"beastly classroom and grubby children" the minute they had a chance to
marry; and studious, sometimes bulbous-browed and pop-eyed maidens who
at class prayer-meetings requested God to "guide their feet along the
paths of greatest usefulness." Neither sort tempted Carol. The former
seemed insincere (a favorite word of hers at this era). The earnest
virgins were, she fancied, as likely to do harm as to do good by their
faith in the value of parsing Caesar.
At various times during Senior year Carol finally decided upon studying
law, writing motion-picture scenarios, professional nursing, and
marrying an unidentified hero.
Then she found a hobby in sociology.
The sociology instructor was new. He was married, and therefore taboo,
but he had come from Boston, he had lived among poets and socialists and
Jews and millionaire uplifters at the University Settlement in New
York, and he had a beautiful white strong neck. He led a giggling class
through the prisons, the charity bureaus, the employment agencies of
Minneapolis and St. Paul. Trailing at the end of the line Carol was
indignant at the prodding curiosity of the others, their manner of
staring at the poor as at a Zoo. She felt herself a great liberator.
She put her hand to her mouth, her forefinger and thumb quite painfully
pinching her lower lip, and frowned, and enjoyed being aloof.
A classmate named Stewart Snyder, a competent bulky young man in a gray
flannel shirt, a rusty black bow tie, and the green-and-purple class
cap, grumbled to her as they walked behind the others in the muck of the
South St. Paul stockyards, "These college chumps make me tired. They're
so top-lofty. They ought to of worked on the farm, the way I have. These
workmen put it all over them."
"I just love common workmen," glowed Carol.
"Only you don't want to forget that common workmen don't think they're
"You're right! I apologize!" Carol's brows lifted in the astonishment of
emotion, in a glory of abasement. Her eyes mothered the world. Stewart
Snyder peered at her. He rammed his large red fists into his pockets,
he jerked them out, he resolutely got rid of them by clenching his hands
behind him, and he stammered:
"I know. You _get_ people. Most of these darn co-eds----Say, Carol, you
could do a lot for people."
"Oh--oh well--you know--sympathy and everything--if you were--say you
were a lawyer's wife. You'd understand his clients. I'm going to be a
lawyer. I admit I fall down in sympathy sometimes. I get so dog-gone
impatient with people that can't stand the gaff. You'd be good for
a fellow that was too serious. Make him more--more--YOU
His slightly pouting lips, his mastiff eyes, were begging her to beg him
to go on. She fled from the steam-roller of his sentiment. She cried,
"Oh, see those poor sheep--millions and millions of them." She darted
Stewart was not interesting. He hadn't a shapely white neck, and he had
never lived among celebrated reformers. She wanted, just now, to have
a cell in a settlement-house, like a nun without the bother of a black
robe, and be kind, and read Bernard Shaw, and enormously improve a horde
of grateful poor.
The supplementary reading in sociology led her to a book on
village-improvement--tree-planting, town pageants, girls' clubs. It
had pictures of greens and garden-walls in France, New England,
Pennsylvania. She had picked it up carelessly, with a slight yawn which
she patted down with her finger-tips as delicately as a cat.
She dipped into the book, lounging on her window-seat, with her slim,
lisle-stockinged legs crossed, and her knees up under her chin.
She stroked a satin pillow while she read. About her was the clothy
exuberance of a Blodgett College room: cretonne-covered window-seat,
photographs of girls, a carbon print of the Coliseum, a chafing-dish,
and a dozen pillows embroidered or beaded or pyrographed. Shockingly out
of place was a miniature of the Dancing Bacchante. It was the only trace
of Carol in the room. She had inherited the rest from generations of
It was as a part of all this commonplaceness that she regarded the
treatise on village-improvement. But she suddenly stopped fidgeting. She
strode into the book. She had fled half-way through it before the three
o'clock bell called her to the class in English history.
She sighed, "That's what I'll do after college! I'll get my hands on
one of these prairie towns and make it beautiful. Be an inspiration. I
suppose I'd better become a teacher then, but--I won't be that kind of
a teacher. I won't drone. Why should they have all the garden suburbs
on Long Island? Nobody has done anything with the ugly towns here in the
Northwest except hold revivals and build libraries to contain the Elsie
books. I'll make 'em put in a village green, and darling cottages, and a
quaint Main Street!"
Thus she triumphed through the class, which was a typical Blodgett
contest between a dreary teacher and unwilling children of twenty, won
by the teacher because his opponents had to answer his questions, while
their treacherous queries he could counter by demanding, "Have you
looked that up in the library? Well then, suppose you do!"
The history instructor was a retired minister. He was sarcastic today.
He begged of sporting young Mr. Charley Holmberg, "Now Charles, would it
interrupt your undoubtedly fascinating pursuit of that malevolent fly
if I were to ask you to tell us that you do not know anything about King
John?" He spent three delightful minutes in assuring himself of the fact
that no one exactly remembered the date of Magna Charta.
Carol did not hear him. She was completing the roof of a half-timbered
town hall. She had found one man in the prairie village who did not
appreciate her picture of winding streets and arcades, but she had
assembled the town council and dramatically defeated him.
Though she was Minnesota-born Carol was not an intimate of the prairie
villages. Her father, the smiling and shabby, the learned and teasingly
kind, had come from Massachusetts, and through all her childhood he
had been a judge in Mankato, which is not a prairie town, but in its
garden-sheltered streets and aisles of elms is white and green New
England reborn. Mankato lies between cliffs and the Minnesota River,
hard by Traverse des Sioux, where the first settlers made treaties
with the Indians, and the cattle-rustlers once came galloping before
As she climbed along the banks of the dark river Carol listened to its
fables about the wide land of yellow waters and bleached buffalo bones
to the West; the Southern levees and singing darkies and palm trees
toward which it was forever mysteriously gliding; and she heard again
the startled bells and thick puffing of high-stacked river steamers
wrecked on sand-reefs sixty years ago. Along the decks she saw
missionaries, gamblers in tall pot hats, and Dakota chiefs with scarlet
blankets. . . . Far off whistles at night, round the river bend,
plunking paddles reechoed by the pines, and a glow on black sliding
Carol's family were self-sufficient in their inventive life, with
Christmas a rite full of surprises and tenderness, and "dressing-up
parties" spontaneous and joyously absurd. The beasts in the Milford
hearth-mythology were not the obscene Night Animals who jump out
of closets and eat little girls, but beneficent and bright-eyed
creatures--the tam htab, who is woolly and blue and lives in the
bathroom, and runs rapidly to warm small feet; the ferruginous oil
stove, who purrs and knows stories; and the skitamarigg, who will play
with children before breakfast if they spring out of bed and close the
window at the very first line of the song about puellas which father
sings while shaving.
Judge Milford's pedagogical scheme was to let the children read whatever
they pleased, and in his brown library Carol absorbed Balzac and
Rabelais and Thoreau and Max Muller. He gravely taught them the letters
on the backs of the encyclopedias, and when polite visitors asked about
the mental progress of the "little ones," they were horrified to hear
the children earnestly repeating A-And, And-Aus, Aus-Bis, Bis-Cal,
Carol's mother died when she was nine. Her father retired from the
judiciary when she was eleven, and took the family to Minneapolis. There
he died, two years after. Her sister, a busy proper advisory soul, older
than herself, had become a stranger to her even when they lived in the
From those early brown and silver days and from her independence of
relatives Carol retained a willingness to be different from brisk
efficient book-ignoring people; an instinct to observe and wonder
at their bustle even when she was taking part in it. But, she felt
approvingly, as she discovered her career of town-planning, she was now
roused to being brisk and efficient herself.
In a month Carol's ambition had clouded. Her hesitancy about becoming a
teacher had returned. She was not, she worried, strong enough to endure
the routine, and she could not picture herself standing before grinning
children and pretending to be wise and decisive. But the desire for
the creation of a beautiful town remained. When she encountered an item
about small-town women's clubs or a photograph of a straggling Main
Street, she was homesick for it, she felt robbed of her work.
It was the advice of the professor of English which led her to study
professional library-work in a Chicago school. Her imagination carved
and colored the new plan. She saw herself persuading children to read
charming fairy tales, helping young men to find books on mechanics,
being ever so courteous to old men who were hunting for newspapers--the
light of the library, an authority on books, invited to dinners with
poets and explorers, reading a paper to an association of distinguished
The last faculty reception before commencement. In five days they would
be in the cyclone of final examinations.
The house of the president had been massed with palms suggestive of
polite undertaking parlors, and in the library, a ten-foot room with a
globe and the portraits of Whittier and Martha Washington, the student
orchestra was playing "Carmen" and "Madame Butterfly." Carol was dizzy
with music and the emotions of parting. She saw the palms as a jungle,
the pink-shaded electric globes as an opaline haze, and the eye-glassed
faculty as Olympians. She was melancholy at sight of the mousey girls
with whom she had "always intended to get acquainted," and the half
dozen young men who were ready to fall in love with her.
But it was Stewart Snyder whom she encouraged. He was so much manlier
than the others; he was an even warm brown, like his new ready-made suit
with its padded shoulders. She sat with him, and with two cups of
coffee and a chicken patty, upon a pile of presidential overshoes in the
coat-closet under the stairs, and as the thin music seeped in, Stewart
"I can't stand it, this breaking up after four years! The happiest years
She believed it. "Oh, I know! To think that in just a few days we'll be
parting, and we'll never see some of the bunch again!"
"Carol, you got to listen to me! You always duck when I try to talk
seriously to you, but you got to listen to me. I'm going to be a big
lawyer, maybe a judge, and I need you, and I'd protect you----"
His arm slid behind her shoulders. The insinuating music drained her
independence. She said mournfully, "Would you take care of me?" She
touched his hand. It was warm, solid.
"You bet I would! We'd have, Lord, we'd have bully times in Yankton,
where I'm going to settle----"
"But I want to do something with life."
"What's better than making a comfy home and bringing up some cute kids
and knowing nice homey people?"
It was the immemorial male reply to the restless woman. Thus to the
young Sappho spake the melon-venders; thus the captains to Zenobia; and
in the damp cave over gnawed bones the hairy suitor thus protested to
the woman advocate of matriarchy. In the dialect of Blodgett College but
with the voice of Sappho was Carol's answer:
"Of course. I know. I suppose that's so. Honestly, I do love children.
But there's lots of women that can do housework, but I--well, if you
HAVE got a college education, you ought to use it for the world."
"I know, but you can use it just as well in the home. And gee, Carol,
just think of a bunch of us going out on an auto picnic, some nice
"And sleigh-riding in winter, and going fishing----"
Blarrrrrrr! The orchestra had crashed into the "Soldiers' Chorus"; and
she was protesting, "No! No! You're a dear, but I want to do things.
I don't understand myself but I want--everything in the world! Maybe I
can't sing or write, but I know I can be an influence in library work.
Just suppose I encouraged some boy and he became a great artist! I
will! I will do it! Stewart dear, I can't settle down to nothing but
Two minutes later--two hectic minutes--they were disturbed by
an embarrassed couple also seeking the idyllic seclusion of the
After graduation she never saw Stewart Snyder again. She wrote to him
once a week--for one month.
A year Carol spent in Chicago. Her study of library-cataloguing,
recording, books of reference, was easy and not too somniferous. She
reveled in the Art Institute, in symphonies and violin recitals and
chamber music, in the theater and classic dancing. She almost gave up
library work to become one of the young women who dance in cheese-cloth
in the moonlight. She was taken to a certified Studio Party, with
beer, cigarettes, bobbed hair, and a Russian Jewess who sang the
Internationale. It cannot be reported that Carol had anything
significant to say to the Bohemians. She was awkward with them, and
felt ignorant, and she was shocked by the free manners which she had for
years desired. But she heard and remembered discussions of Freud, Romain
Rolland, syndicalism, the Confederation Generale du Travail, feminism
vs. haremism, Chinese lyrics, nationalization of mines, Christian
Science, and fishing in Ontario.
She went home, and that was the beginning and end of her Bohemian life.
The second cousin of Carol's sister's husband lived in Winnetka, and
once invited her out to Sunday dinner. She walked back through Wilmette
and Evanston, discovered new forms of suburban architecture, and