The Project Gutenberg ebook of Main Street, by Sinclair Lewis



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"Do today? How do you mean?"
"Medically. I want to understand----"
"Today? Oh, there wasn't much of anything: couple chumps with

bellyaches, and a sprained wrist, and a fool woman that thinks she wants

to kill herself because her husband doesn't like her and----Just routine

work."
"But the unhappy woman doesn't sound routine!"


"Her? Just case of nerves. You can't do much with these marriage

mix-ups."


"But dear, PLEASE, will you tell me about the next case that you do

think is interesting?"


"Sure. You bet. Tell you about anything that----Say that's pretty good

salmon. Get it at Howland's?"


II

Four days after the Jolly Seventeen debacle Vida Sherwin called and



casually blew Carol's world to pieces.
"May I come in and gossip a while?" she said, with such excess of bright

innocence that Carol was uneasy. Vida took off her furs with a bounce,

she sat down as though it were a gymnasium exercise, she flung out:
"Feel disgracefully good, this weather! Raymond Wutherspoon says if he

had my energy he'd be a grand opera singer. I always think this climate

is the finest in the world, and my friends are the dearest people in the

world, and my work is the most essential thing in the world. Probably

I fool myself. But I know one thing for certain: You're the pluckiest

little idiot in the world."


"And so you are about to flay me alive." Carol was cheerful about it.
"Am I? Perhaps. I've been wondering--I know that the third party to a

squabble is often the most to blame: the one who runs between A and B

having a beautiful time telling each of them what the other has said.

But I want you to take a big part in vitalizing Gopher Prairie and

so----Such a very unique opportunity and----Am I silly?"
"I know what you mean. I was too abrupt at the Jolly Seventeen."
"It isn't that. Matter of fact, I'm glad you told them some wholesome

truths about servants. (Though perhaps you were just a bit tactless.)

It's bigger than that. I wonder if you understand that in a secluded

community like this every newcomer is on test? People cordial to her

but watching her all the time. I remember when a Latin teacher came here

from Wellesley, they resented her broad A. Were sure it was affected. Of

course they have discussed you----"
"Have they talked about me much?"
"My dear!"
"I always feel as though I walked around in a cloud, looking out at

others but not being seen. I feel so inconspicuous and so normal--so

normal that there's nothing about me to discuss. I can't realize that

Mr. and Mrs. Haydock must gossip about me." Carol was working up a small

passion of distaste. "And I don't like it. It makes me crawly to think

of their daring to talk over all I do and say. Pawing me over! I resent

it. I hate----"
"Wait, child! Perhaps they resent some things in you. I want you to try

and be impersonal. They'd paw over anybody who came in new. Didn't you,

with newcomers in College?"
"Yes."
"Well then! Will you be impersonal? I'm paying you the compliment of

supposing that you can be. I want you to be big enough to help me make

this town worth while."
"I'll be as impersonal as cold boiled potatoes. (Not that I shall ever

be able to help you 'make the town worth while.') What do they say about

me? Really. I want to know."
"Of course the illiterate ones resent your references to anything

farther away than Minneapolis. They're so suspicious--that's it,

suspicious. And some think you dress too well."
"Oh, they do, do they! Shall I dress in gunny-sacking to suit them?"
"Please! Are you going to be a baby?"
"I'll be good," sulkily.
"You certainly will, or I won't tell you one single thing. You must

understand this: I'm not asking you to change yourself. Just want you

to know what they think. You must do that, no matter how absurd their

prejudices are, if you're going to handle them. Is it your ambition to

make this a better town, or isn't it?"
"I don't know whether it is or not!"
"Why--why----Tut, tut, now, of course it is! Why, I depend on you.

You're a born reformer."


"I am not--not any more!"
"Of course you are."
"Oh, if I really could help----So they think I'm affected?"
"My lamb, they do! Now don't say they're nervy. After all, Gopher

Prairie standards are as reasonable to Gopher Prairie as Lake Shore

Drive standards are to Chicago. And there's more Gopher Prairies than

there are Chicagos. Or Londons. And----I'll tell you the whole story:

They think you're showing off when you say 'American' instead of

'Ammurrican.' They think you're too frivolous. Life's so serious to them

that they can't imagine any kind of laughter except Juanita's snortling.

Ethel Villets was sure you were patronizing her when----"


"Oh, I was not!"
"----you talked about encouraging reading; and Mrs. Elder thought you

were patronizing when you said she had 'such a pretty little car.' She

thinks it's an enormous car! And some of the merchants say you're too

flip when you talk to them in the store and----"


"Poor me, when I was trying to be friendly!"
"----every housewife in town is doubtful about your being so chummy with

your Bea. All right to be kind, but they say you act as though she were

your cousin. (Wait now! There's plenty more.) And they think you were

eccentric in furnishing this room--they think the broad couch and that

Japanese dingus are absurd. (Wait! I know they're silly.) And I guess

I've heard a dozen criticize you because you don't go to church oftener

and----"
"I can't stand it--I can't bear to realize that they've been saying all

these things while I've been going about so happily and liking them. I

wonder if you ought to have told me? It will make me self-conscious."
"I wonder the same thing. Only answer I can get is the old saw about

knowledge being power. And some day you'll see how absorbing it is to

have power, even here; to control the town----Oh, I'm a crank. But I do

like to see things moving."


"It hurts. It makes these people seem so beastly and treacherous, when

I've been perfectly natural with them. But let's have it all. What did

they say about my Chinese house-warming party?"
"Why, uh----"
"Go on. Or I'll make up worse things than anything you can tell me."
"They did enjoy it. But I guess some of them felt you were showing

off--pretending that your husband is richer than he is."


"I can't----Their meanness of mind is beyond any horrors I could

imagine. They really thought that I----And you want to 'reform' people

like that when dynamite is so cheap? Who dared to say that? The rich or

the poor?"


"Fairly well assorted."
"Can't they at least understand me well enough to see that though I

might be affected and culturine, at least I simply couldn't commit that

other kind of vulgarity? If they must know, you may tell them, with my

compliments, that Will makes about four thousand a year, and the party

cost half of what they probably thought it did. Chinese things are not

very expensive, and I made my own costume----"


"Stop it! Stop beating me! I know all that. What they meant was: they

felt you were starting dangerous competition by giving a party such as

most people here can't afford. Four thousand is a pretty big income for

this town."


"I never thought of starting competition. Will you believe that it was

in all love and friendliness that I tried to give them the gayest party

I could? It was foolish; it was childish and noisy. But I did mean it so

well."
"I know, of course. And it certainly is unfair of them to make fun of

your having that Chinese food--chow men, was it?--and to laugh about

your wearing those pretty trousers----"


Carol sprang up, whimpering, "Oh, they didn't do that! They didn't poke

fun at my feast, that I ordered so carefully for them! And my little

Chinese costume that I was so happy making--I made it secretly, to

surprise them. And they've been ridiculing it, all this while!"


She was huddled on the couch.
Vida was stroking her hair, muttering, "I shouldn't----"
Shrouded in shame, Carol did not know when Vida slipped away. The

clock's bell, at half past five, aroused her. "I must get hold of myself

before Will comes. I hope he never knows what a fool his wife is. . . .

Frozen, sneering, horrible hearts."


Like a very small, very lonely girl she trudged up-stairs, slow step by

step, her feet dragging, her hand on the rail. It was not her husband

to whom she wanted to run for protection--it was her father, her smiling

understanding father, dead these twelve years.


III


Kennicott was yawning, stretched in the largest chair, between the

radiator and a small kerosene stove.


Cautiously, "Will dear, I wonder if the people here don't criticize me

sometimes? They must. I mean: if they ever do, you mustn't let it bother

you."
"Criticize you? Lord, I should say not. They all keep telling me you're

the swellest girl they ever saw."


"Well, I've just fancied----The merchants probably think I'm too fussy

about shopping. I'm afraid I bore Mr. Dashaway and Mr. Howland and Mr.

Ludelmeyer."
"I can tell you how that is. I didn't want to speak of it but since

you've brought it up: Chet Dashaway probably resents the fact that you

got this new furniture down in the Cities instead of here. I didn't want

to raise any objection at the time but----After all, I make my money

here and they naturally expect me to spend it here."
"If Mr. Dashaway will kindly tell me how any civilized person can

furnish a room out of the mortuary pieces that he calls----" She

remembered. She said meekly, "But I understand."
"And Howland and Ludelmeyer----Oh, you've probably handed 'em a few

roasts for the bum stocks they carry, when you just meant to jolly 'em.

But rats, what do we care! This is an independent town, not like these

Eastern holes where you have to watch your step all the time, and live

up to fool demands and social customs, and a lot of old tabbies always

busy criticizing. Everybody's free here to do what he wants to." He said

it with a flourish, and Carol perceived that he believed it. She turned

her breath of fury into a yawn.


"By the way, Carrie, while we're talking of this: Of course I like

to keep independent, and I don't believe in this business of binding

yourself to trade with the man that trades with you unless you really

want to, but same time: I'd be just as glad if you dealt with Jenson or

Ludelmeyer as much as you ran, instead of Howland & Gould, who go to Dr.

Gould every last time, and the whole tribe of 'em the same way. I don't

see why I should be paying out my good money for groceries and having

them pass it on to Terry Gould!"


"I've gone to Howland & Gould because they're better, and cleaner."
"I know. I don't mean cut them out entirely. Course Jenson is

tricky--give you short weight--and Ludelmeyer is a shiftless old Dutch

hog. But same time, I mean let's keep the trade in the family whenever

it is convenient, see how I mean?"


"I see."
"Well, guess it's about time to turn in."
He yawned, went out to look at the thermometer, slammed the door, patted

her head, unbuttoned his waistcoat, yawned, wound the clock, went down

to look at the furnace, yawned, and clumped up-stairs to bed, casually

scratching his thick woolen undershirt.


Till he bawled, "Aren't you ever coming up to bed?" she sat unmoving.

CHAPTER IX

I
SHE had tripped into the meadow to teach the lambs a pretty educational

dance and found that the lambs were wolves. There was no way out between

their pressing gray shoulders. She was surrounded by fangs and sneering

eyes.
She could not go on enduring the hidden derision. She wanted to flee.

She wanted to hide in the generous indifference of cities. She practised

saying to Kennicott, "Think perhaps I'll run down to St. Paul for a few

days." But she could not trust herself to say it carelessly; could not

abide his certain questioning.


Reform the town? All she wanted was to be tolerated!
She could not look directly at people. She flushed and winced before

citizens who a week ago had been amusing objects of study, and in their

good-mornings she heard a cruel sniggering.
She encountered Juanita Haydock at Ole Jenson's grocery. She besought,

"Oh, how do you do! Heavens, what beautiful celery that is!"


"Yes, doesn't it look fresh. Harry simply has to have his celery on

Sunday, drat the man!"


Carol hastened out of the shop exulting, "She didn't make fun of me. . . .

Did she?"


In a week she had recovered from consciousness of insecurity, of shame

and whispering notoriety, but she kept her habit of avoiding people. She

walked the streets with her head down. When she spied Mrs. McGanum or

Mrs. Dyer ahead she crossed over with an elaborate pretense of looking

at a billboard. Always she was acting, for the benefit of every one she

saw--and for the benefit of the ambushed leering eyes which she did not

see.
She perceived that Vida Sherwin had told the truth. Whether she entered

a store, or swept the back porch, or stood at the bay-window in the

living-room, the village peeped at her. Once she had swung along the

street triumphant in making a home. Now she glanced at each house, and

felt, when she was safely home, that she had won past a thousand

enemies armed with ridicule. She told herself that her sensitiveness

was preposterous, but daily she was thrown into panic. She saw curtains

slide back into innocent smoothness. Old women who had been entering

their houses slipped out again to stare at her--in the wintry quiet she

could hear them tiptoeing on their porches. When she had for a blessed

hour forgotten the searchlight, when she was scampering through a chill

dusk, happy in yellow windows against gray night, her heart checked

as she realized that a head covered with a shawl was thrust up over a

snow-tipped bush to watch her.


She admitted that she was taking herself too seriously; that villagers

gape at every one. She became placid, and thought well of her

philosophy. But next morning she had a shock of shame as she entered

Ludelmeyer's. The grocer, his clerk, and neurotic Mrs. Dave Dyer had been

giggling about something. They halted, looked embarrassed, babbled about

onions. Carol felt guilty. That evening when Kennicott took her to call

on the crochety Lyman Casses, their hosts seemed flustered at their

arrival. Kennicott jovially hooted, "What makes you so hang-dog, Lym?"

The Casses tittered feebly.
Except Dave Dyer, Sam Clark, and Raymie Wutherspoon, there were no

merchants of whose welcome Carol was certain. She knew that she read

mockery into greetings but she could not control her suspicion, could

not rise from her psychic collapse. She alternately raged and flinched

at the superiority of the merchants. They did not know that they

were being rude, but they meant to have it understood that they were

prosperous and "not scared of no doctor's wife." They often said, "One

man's as good as another--and a darn sight better." This motto, however,

they did not commend to farmer customers who had had crop failures. The

Yankee merchants were crabbed; and Ole Jenson, Ludelmeyer, and Gus Dahl,

from the "Old Country," wished to be taken for Yankees. James Madison

Howland, born in New Hampshire, and Ole Jenson, born in Sweden, both

proved that they were free American citizens by grunting, "I don't

know whether I got any or not," or "Well, you can't expect me to get it

delivered by noon."
It was good form for the customers to fight back. Juanita Haydock

cheerfully jabbered, "You have it there by twelve or I'll snatch that

fresh delivery-boy bald-headed." But Carol had never been able to play

the game of friendly rudeness; and now she was certain that she never

would learn it. She formed the cowardly habit of going to Axel Egge's.
Axel was not respectable and rude. He was still a foreigner, and he

expected to remain one. His manner was heavy and uninterrogative. His

establishment was more fantastic than any cross-roads store. No one save

Axel himself could find anything. A part of the assortment of children's

stockings was under a blanket on a shelf, a part in a tin ginger-snap

box, the rest heaped like a nest of black-cotton snakes upon a

flour-barrel which was surrounded by brooms, Norwegian Bibles, dried

cod for ludfisk, boxes of apricots, and a pair and a half of lumbermen's

rubber-footed boots. The place was crowded with Scandinavian farmwives,

standing aloof in shawls and ancient fawn-colored leg o' mutton jackets,

awaiting the return of their lords. They spoke Norwegian or Swedish, and

looked at Carol uncomprehendingly. They were a relief to her--they were

not whispering that she was a poseur.
But what she told herself was that Axel Egge's was "so picturesque and

romantic."


It was in the matter of clothes that she was most self-conscious.
When she dared to go shopping in her new checked suit with the

black-embroidered sulphur collar, she had as good as invited all of

Gopher Prairie (which interested itself in nothing so intimately as in

new clothes and the cost thereof) to investigate her. It was a smart

suit with lines unfamiliar to the dragging yellow and pink frocks of the

town. The Widow Bogart's stare, from her porch, indicated, "Well I

never saw anything like that before!" Mrs. McGanum stopped Carol at

the notions shop to hint, "My, that's a nice suit--wasn't it terribly

expensive?" The gang of boys in front of the drug store commented, "Hey,

Pudgie, play you a game of checkers on that dress." Carol could not

endure it. She drew her fur coat over the suit and hastily fastened the

buttons, while the boys snickered.


II

No group angered her quite so much as these staring young roues.


She had tried to convince herself that the village, with its fresh air,

its lakes for fishing and swimming, was healthier than the artificial

city. But she was sickened by glimpses of the gang of boys from fourteen

to twenty who loafed before Dyer's Drug Store, smoking cigarettes,

displaying "fancy" shoes and purple ties and coats of diamond-shaped

buttons, whistling the Hoochi-Koochi and catcalling, "Oh, you baby-doll"

at every passing girl.
She saw them playing pool in the stinking room behind Del Snafflin's

barber shop, and shaking dice in "The Smoke House," and gathered in

a snickering knot to listen to the "juicy stories" of Bert Tybee, the

bartender of the Minniemashie House. She heard them smacking moist lips

over every love-scene at the Rosebud Movie Palace. At the counter of the

Greek Confectionery Parlor, while they ate dreadful messes of decayed

bananas, acid cherries, whipped cream, and gelatinous ice-cream, they

screamed to one another, "Hey, lemme 'lone," "Quit dog-gone you, looka

what you went and done, you almost spilled my glass swater," "Like hell

I did," "Hey, gol darn your hide, don't you go sticking your coffin

nail in my i-scream," "Oh you Batty, how juh like dancing with Tillie

McGuire, last night? Some squeezing, heh, kid?"


By diligent consultation of American fiction she discovered that this

was the only virile and amusing manner in which boys could function;

that boys who were not compounded of the gutter and the mining-camp

were mollycoddles and unhappy. She had taken this for granted. She had

studied the boys pityingly, but impersonally. It had not occurred to her

that they might touch her.


Now she was aware that they knew all about her; that they were waiting

for some affectation over which they could guffaw. No schoolgirl passed

their observation-posts more flushingly than did Mrs. Dr. Kennicott. In

shame she knew that they glanced appraisingly at her snowy overshoes,

speculating about her legs. Theirs were not young eyes--there was no

youth in all the town, she agonized. They were born old, grim and old

and spying and censorious.
She cried again that their youth was senile and cruel on the day when

she overheard Cy Bogart and Earl Haydock.


Cyrus N. Bogart, son of the righteous widow who lived across the alley,

was at this time a boy of fourteen or fifteen. Carol had already seen

quite enough of Cy Bogart. On her first evening in Gopher Prairie Cy

had appeared at the head of a "charivari," banging immensely upon a

discarded automobile fender. His companions were yelping in imitation

of coyotes. Kennicott had felt rather complimented; had gone out and

distributed a dollar. But Cy was a capitalist in charivaris. He returned

with an entirely new group, and this time there were three automobile

fenders and a carnival rattle. When Kennicott again interrupted his

shaving, Cy piped, "Naw, you got to give us two dollars," and he got it.

A week later Cy rigged a tic-tac to a window of the living-room, and the

tattoo out of the darkness frightened Carol into screaming. Since

then, in four months, she had beheld Cy hanging a cat, stealing melons,

throwing tomatoes at the Kennicott house, and making ski-tracks across

the lawn, and had heard him explaining the mysteries of generation,

with great audibility and dismaying knowledge. He was, in fact, a museum

specimen of what a small town, a well-disciplined public school, a

tradition of hearty humor, and a pious mother could produce from the

material of a courageous and ingenious mind.
Carol was afraid of him. Far from protesting when he set his mongrel on

a kitten, she worked hard at not seeing him.


The Kennicott garage was a shed littered with paint-cans, tools, a

lawn-mower, and ancient wisps of hay. Above it was a loft which Cy

Bogart and Earl Haydock, young brother of Harry, used as a den, for

smoking, hiding from whippings, and planning secret societies. They

climbed to it by a ladder on the alley side of the shed.
This morning of late January, two or three weeks after Vida's

revelations, Carol had gone into the stable-garage to find a hammer.

Snow softened her step. She heard voices in the loft above her:
"Ah gee, lez--oh, lez go down the lake and swipe some mushrats out of

somebody's traps," Cy was yawning.


"And get our ears beat off!" grumbled Earl Haydock.
"Gosh, these cigarettes are dandy. 'Member when we were just kids, and

used to smoke corn-silk and hayseed?"

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