The Project Gutenberg ebook of Main Street, by Sinclair Lewis



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"Yup. Gosh!"
Spit. "Silence."
"Say Earl, ma says if you chew tobacco you get consumption."
"Aw rats, your old lady is a crank."
"Yuh, that's so." Pause. "But she says she knows a fella that did."
"Aw, gee whiz, didn't Doc Kennicott used to chew tobacco all the time

before he married this-here girl from the Cities? He used to spit---Gee!

Some shot! He could hit a tree ten feet off."
This was news to the girl from the Cities.
"Say, how is she?" continued Earl.
"Huh? How's who?"
"You know who I mean, smarty."
A tussle, a thumping of loose boards, silence, weary narration from Cy:
"Mrs. Kennicott? Oh, she's all right, I guess." Relief to Carol, below.

"She gimme a hunk o' cake, one time. But Ma says she's stuck-up as hell.

Ma's always talking about her. Ma says if Mrs. Kennicott thought as much

about the doc as she does about her clothes, the doc wouldn't look so

peaked."
Spit. Silence.
"Yuh. Juanita's always talking about her, too," from Earl. "She says

Mrs. Kennicott thinks she knows it all. Juanita says she has to laugh

till she almost busts every time she sees Mrs. Kennicott peerading along

the street with that 'take a look--I'm a swell skirt' way she's got. But

gosh, I don't pay no attention to Juanita. She's meaner 'n a crab."
"Ma was telling somebody that she heard that Mrs. Kennicott claimed she

made forty dollars a week when she was on some job in the Cities, and

Ma says she knows posolutely that she never made but eighteen a week--Ma

says that when she's lived here a while she won't go round making a fool

of herself, pulling that bighead stuff on folks that know a whole lot

more than she does. They're all laughing up their sleeves at her."


"Say, jever notice how Mrs. Kennicott fusses around the house? Other

evening when I was coming over here, she'd forgot to pull down the

curtain, and I watched her for ten minutes. Jeeze, you'd 'a' died

laughing. She was there all alone, and she must 'a' spent five minutes

getting a picture straight. It was funny as hell the way she'd stick out

her finger to straighten the picture--deedle-dee, see my tunnin' 'ittle

finger, oh my, ain't I cute, what a fine long tail my cat's got!"
"But say, Earl, she's some good-looker, just the same, and O Ignatz! the

glad rags she must of bought for her wedding. Jever notice these low-cut

dresses and these thin shimmy-shirts she wears? I had a good squint at

'em when they were out on the line with the wash. And some ankles she's

got, heh?"
Then Carol fled.
In her innocence she had not known that the whole town could discuss

even her garments, her body. She felt that she was being dragged naked

down Main Street.
The moment it was dusk she pulled down the window-shades, all the shades

flush with the sill, but beyond them she felt moist fleering eyes.


III


She remembered, and tried to forget, and remembered more sharply the

vulgar detail of her husband's having observed the ancient customs

of the land by chewing tobacco. She would have preferred a prettier

vice--gambling or a mistress. For these she might have found a luxury

of forgiveness. She could not remember any fascinatingly wicked hero of

fiction who chewed tobacco. She asserted that it proved him to be a man

of the bold free West. She tried to align him with the hairy-chested

heroes of the motion-pictures. She curled on the couch a pallid softness

in the twilight, and fought herself, and lost the battle. Spitting did

not identify him with rangers riding the buttes; it merely bound him to

Gopher Prairie--to Nat Hicks the tailor and Bert Tybee the bartender.
"But he gave it up for me. Oh, what does it matter! We're all filthy in

some things. I think of myself as so superior, but I do eat and digest,

I do wash my dirty paws and scratch. I'm not a cool slim goddess on

a column. There aren't any! He gave it up for me. He stands by me,

believing that every one loves me. He's the Rock of Ages--in a storm of

meanness that's driving me mad . . . it will drive me mad."


All evening she sang Scotch ballads to Kennicott, and when she noticed

that he was chewing an unlighted cigar she smiled maternally at his

secret.
She could not escape asking (in the exact words and mental intonations

which a thousand million women, dairy wenches and mischief-making

queens, had used before her, and which a million million women will

know hereafter), "Was it all a horrible mistake, my marrying him?" She

quieted the doubt--without answering it.

IV

Kennicott had taken her north to Lac-qui-Meurt, in the Big Woods. It was



the entrance to a Chippewa Indian reservation, a sandy settlement among

Norway pines on the shore of a huge snow-glaring lake. She had her first

sight of his mother, except the glimpse at the wedding. Mrs. Kennicott

had a hushed and delicate breeding which dignified her woodeny

over-scrubbed cottage with its worn hard cushions in heavy rockers.

She had never lost the child's miraculous power of wonder. She asked

questions about books and cities. She murmured:
"Will is a dear hard-working boy but he's inclined to be too serious,

and you've taught him how to play. Last night I heard you both laughing

about the old Indian basket-seller, and I just lay in bed and enjoyed

your happiness."


Carol forgot her misery-hunting in this solidarity of family life.

She could depend upon them; she was not battling alone. Watching Mrs.

Kennicott flit about the kitchen she was better able to translate

Kennicott himself. He was matter-of-fact, yes, and incurably mature. He

didn't really play; he let Carol play with him. But he had his mother's

genius for trusting, her disdain for prying, her sure integrity.


From the two days at Lac-qui-Meurt Carol drew confidence in herself,

and she returned to Gopher Prairie in a throbbing calm like those golden

drugged seconds when, because he is for an instant free from pain, a

sick man revels in living.


A bright hard winter day, the wind shrill, black and silver clouds

booming across the sky, everything in panicky motion during the brief

light. They struggled against the surf of wind, through deep snow.

Kennicott was cheerful. He hailed Loren Wheeler, "Behave yourself while

I been away?" The editor bellowed, "B' gosh you stayed so long that

all your patients have got well!" and importantly took notes for the

Dauntless about their journey. Jackson Elder cried, "Hey, folks! How's

tricks up North?" Mrs. McGanum waved to them from her porch.


"They're glad to see us. We mean something here. These people are

satisfied. Why can't I be? But can I sit back all my life and be

satisfied with 'Hey, folks'? They want shouts on Main Street, and I want

violins in a paneled room. Why----?"


V

Vida Sherwin ran in after school a dozen times. She was tactful,



torrentially anecdotal. She had scuttled about town and plucked

compliments: Mrs. Dr. Westlake had pronounced Carol a "very sweet,

bright, cultured young woman," and Brad Bemis, the tinsmith at Clark's

Hardware Store, had declared that she was "easy to work for and awful

easy to look at."
But Carol could not yet take her in. She resented this outsider's

knowledge of her shame. Vida was not too long tolerant. She hinted,

"You're a great brooder, child. Buck up now. The town's quit criticizing

you, almost entirely. Come with me to the Thanatopsis Club. They

have some of the BEST papers, and current-events discussions--SO

interesting."


In Vida's demands Carol felt a compulsion, but she was too listless to

obey.
It was Bea Sorenson who was really her confidante.


However charitable toward the Lower Classes she may have thought

herself, Carol had been reared to assume that servants belong to

a distinct and inferior species. But she discovered that Bea was

extraordinarily like girls she had loved in college, and as a companion

altogether superior to the young matrons of the Jolly Seventeen. Daily

they became more frankly two girls playing at housework. Bea artlessly

considered Carol the most beautiful and accomplished lady in the

country; she was always shrieking, "My, dot's a swell hat!" or, "Ay

t'ink all dese ladies yoost die when dey see how elegant you do your

hair!" But it was not the humbleness of a servant, nor the hypocrisy of

a slave; it was the admiration of Freshman for Junior.
They made out the day's menus together. Though they began with

propriety, Carol sitting by the kitchen table and Bea at the sink or

blacking the stove, the conference was likely to end with both of them

by the table, while Bea gurgled over the ice-man's attempt to kiss her,

or Carol admitted, "Everybody knows that the doctor is lots more clever

than Dr. McGanum." When Carol came in from marketing, Bea plunged into

the hall to take off her coat, rub her frostied hands, and ask, "Vos

dere lots of folks up-town today?"


This was the welcome upon which Carol depended.

VI
Through her weeks of cowering there was no change in her surface life.

No one save Vida was aware of her agonizing. On her most despairing

days she chatted to women on the street, in stores. But without

the protection of Kennicott's presence she did not go to the Jolly

Seventeen; she delivered herself to the judgment of the town only when

she went shopping and on the ritualistic occasions of formal afternoon

calls, when Mrs. Lyman Cass or Mrs. George Edwin Mott, with clean gloves

and minute handkerchiefs and sealskin card-cases and countenances of

frozen approbation, sat on the edges of chairs and inquired, "Do you

find Gopher Prairie pleasing?" When they spent evenings of social

profit-and-loss at the Haydocks' or the Dyers' she hid behind Kennicott,

playing the simple bride.
Now she was unprotected. Kennicott had taken a patient to Rochester

for an operation. He would be away for two or three days. She had not

minded; she would loosen the matrimonial tension and be a fanciful girl

for a time. But now that he was gone the house was listeningly empty.

Bea was out this afternoon--presumably drinking coffee and talking about

"fellows" with her cousin Tina. It was the day for the monthly supper

and evening-bridge of the Jolly Seventeen, but Carol dared not go.
She sat alone.

CHAPTER X


THE house was haunted, long before evening. Shadows slipped down the

walls and waited behind every chair.


Did that door move?
No. She wouldn't go to the Jolly Seventeen. She hadn't energy enough to

caper before them, to smile blandly at Juanita's rudeness. Not today.

But she did want a party. Now! If some one would come in this afternoon,

some one who liked her--Vida or Mrs. Sam Clark or old Mrs. Champ Perry

or gentle Mrs. Dr. Westlake. Or Guy Pollock! She'd telephone----
No. That wouldn't be it. They must come of themselves.
Perhaps they would.
Why not?
She'd have tea ready, anyway. If they came--splendid. If not--what did

she care? She wasn't going to yield to the village and let down; she was

going to keep up a belief in the rite of tea, to which she had always

looked forward as the symbol of a leisurely fine existence. And it would

be just as much fun, even if it was so babyish, to have tea by herself

and pretend that she was entertaining clever men. It would!


She turned the shining thought into action. She bustled to the kitchen,

stoked the wood-range, sang Schumann while she boiled the kettle, warmed

up raisin cookies on a newspaper spread on the rack in the oven. She

scampered up-stairs to bring down her filmiest tea-cloth. She arranged

a silver tray. She proudly carried it into the living-room and set it on

the long cherrywood table, pushing aside a hoop of embroidery, a volume

of Conrad from the library, copies of the Saturday Evening Post, the

Literary Digest, and Kennicott's National Geographic Magazine.


She moved the tray back and forth and regarded the effect. She shook

her head. She busily unfolded the sewing-table set it in the bay-window,

patted the tea-cloth to smoothness, moved the tray. "Some time I'll have

a mahogany tea-table," she said happily.


She had brought in two cups, two plates. For herself, a straight chair,

but for the guest the big wing-chair, which she pantingly tugged to the

table.
She had finished all the preparations she could think of. She sat and

waited. She listened for the door-bell, the telephone. Her eagerness was

stilled. Her hands drooped.
Surely Vida Sherwin would hear the summons.
She glanced through the bay-window. Snow was sifting over the ridge

of the Howland house like sprays of water from a hose. The wide

yards across the street were gray with moving eddies. The black trees

shivered. The roadway was gashed with ruts of ice.


She looked at the extra cup and plate. She looked at the wing-chair. It

was so empty.


The tea was cold in the pot. With wearily dipping fingertip she tested

it. Yes. Quite cold. She couldn't wait any longer.


The cup across from her was icily clean, glisteningly empty.
Simply absurd to wait. She poured her own cup of tea. She sat and stared

at it. What was it she was going to do now? Oh yes; how idiotic; take a

lump of sugar.
She didn't want the beastly tea.
She was springing up. She was on the couch, sobbing.

II

She was thinking more sharply than she had for weeks.


She reverted to her resolution to change the town--awaken it, prod it,

"reform" it. What if they were wolves instead of lambs? They'd eat her

all the sooner if she was meek to them. Fight or be eaten. It was easier

to change the town completely than to conciliate it! She could not take

their point of view; it was a negative thing; an intellectual squalor;

a swamp of prejudices and fears. She would have to make them take hers.

She was not a Vincent de Paul, to govern and mold a people. What of

that? The tiniest change in their distrust of beauty would be the

beginning of the end; a seed to sprout and some day with thickening

roots to crack their wall of mediocrity. If she could not, as she

desired, do a great thing nobly and with laughter, yet she need not be

content with village nothingness. She would plant one seed in the blank

wall.
Was she just? Was it merely a blank wall, this town which to three

thousand and more people was the center of the universe? Hadn't she,

returning from Lac-qui-Meurt, felt the heartiness of their greetings?

No. The ten thousand Gopher Prairies had no monopoly of greetings and

friendly hands. Sam Clark was no more loyal than girl librarians she

knew in St. Paul, the people she had met in Chicago. And those others

had so much that Gopher Prairie complacently lacked--the world of gaiety

and adventure, of music and the integrity of bronze, of remembered

mists from tropic isles and Paris nights and the walls of Bagdad, of

industrial justice and a God who spake not in doggerel hymns.


One seed. Which seed it was did not matter. All knowledge and freedom

were one. But she had delayed so long in finding that seed. Could she

do something with this Thanatopsis Club? Or should she make her house

so charming that it would be an influence? She'd make Kennicott like

poetry. That was it, for a beginning! She conceived so clear a picture

of their bending over large fair pages by the fire (in a non-existent

fireplace) that the spectral presences slipped away. Doors no longer

moved; curtains were not creeping shadows but lovely dark masses in the

dusk; and when Bea came home Carol was singing at the piano which she

had not touched for many days.


Their supper was the feast of two girls. Carol was in the dining-room,

in a frock of black satin edged with gold, and Bea, in blue gingham and

an apron, dined in the kitchen; but the door was open between, and

Carol was inquiring, "Did you see any ducks in Dahl's window?" and Bea

chanting, "No, ma'am. Say, ve have a svell time, dis afternoon. Tina she

have coffee and knackebrod, and her fella vos dere, and ve yoost laughed

and laughed, and her fella say he vos president and he going to make

me queen of Finland, and Ay stick a fedder in may hair and say Ay bane

going to go to var--oh, ve vos so foolish and ve LAUGH so!"
When Carol sat at the piano again she did not think of her husband but

of the book-drugged hermit, Guy Pollock. She wished that Pollock would

come calling.
"If a girl really kissed him, he'd creep out of his den and be human. If

Will were as literate as Guy, or Guy were as executive as Will, I think

I could endure even Gopher Prairie. It's so hard to mother Will. I

could be maternal with Guy. Is that what I want, something to mother, a

man or a baby or a town? I WILL have a baby. Some day. But to have him

isolated here all his receptive years----


"And so to bed.
"Have I found my real level in Bea and kitchen-gossip?
"Oh, I do miss you, Will. But it will be pleasant to turn over in bed as

often as I want to, without worrying about waking you up.


"Am I really this settled thing called a 'married woman'? I feel

so unmarried tonight. So free. To think that there was once a Mrs.

Kennicott who let herself worry over a town called Gopher Prairie when

there was a whole world outside it!


"Of course Will is going to like poetry."

III


A black February day. Clouds hewn of ponderous timber weighing down

on the earth; an irresolute dropping of snow specks upon the trampled

wastes. Gloom but no veiling of angularity. The lines of roofs and

sidewalks sharp and inescapable.


The second day of Kennicott's absence.
She fled from the creepy house for a walk. It was thirty below zero;

too cold to exhilarate her. In the spaces between houses the wind caught

her. It stung, it gnawed at nose and ears and aching cheeks, and she

hastened from shelter to shelter, catching her breath in the lee of a

barn, grateful for the protection of a billboard covered with ragged

posters showing layer under layer of paste-smeared green and streaky

red.
The grove of oaks at the end of the street suggested Indians, hunting,

snow-shoes, and she struggled past the earth-banked cottages to the

open country, to a farm and a low hill corrugated with hard snow. In

her loose nutria coat, seal toque, virginal cheeks unmarked by lines of

village jealousies, she was as out of place on this dreary hillside as

a scarlet tanager on an ice-floe. She looked down on Gopher Prairie. The

snow, stretching without break from streets to devouring prairie beyond,

wiped out the town's pretense of being a shelter. The houses were black

specks on a white sheet. Her heart shivered with that still loneliness

as her body shivered with the wind.


She ran back into the huddle of streets, all the while protesting that

she wanted a city's yellow glare of shop-windows and restaurants, or the

primitive forest with hooded furs and a rifle, or a barnyard warm and

steamy, noisy with hens and cattle, certainly not these dun houses,

these yards choked with winter ash-piles, these roads of dirty snow and

clotted frozen mud. The zest of winter was gone. Three months more, till

May, the cold might drag on, with the snow ever filthier, the weakened

body less resistent. She wondered why the good citizens insisted on

adding the chill of prejudice, why they did not make the houses of their

spirits more warm and frivolous, like the wise chatterers of Stockholm

and Moscow.
She circled the outskirts of the town and viewed the slum of "Swede

Hollow." Wherever as many as three houses are gathered there will be a

slum of at least one house. In Gopher Prairie, the Sam Clarks boasted,

"you don't get any of this poverty that you find in cities--always

plenty of work--no need of charity--man got to be blame shiftless if he

don't get ahead." But now that the summer mask of leaves and grass was

gone, Carol discovered misery and dead hope. In a shack of thin boards

covered with tar-paper she saw the washerwoman, Mrs. Steinhof, working

in gray steam. Outside, her six-year-old boy chopped wood. He had a torn

jacket, muffler of a blue like skimmed milk. His hands were covered with

red mittens through which protruded his chapped raw knuckles. He halted

to blow on them, to cry disinterestedly.


A family of recently arrived Finns were camped in an abandoned stable. A

man of eighty was picking up lumps of coal along the railroad.


She did not know what to do about it. She felt that these independent

citizens, who had been taught that they belonged to a democracy, would

resent her trying to play Lady Bountiful.
She lost her loneliness in the activity of the village industries--the

railroad-yards with a freight-train switching, the wheat-elevator,

oil-tanks, a slaughter-house with blood-marks on the snow, the creamery

with the sleds of farmers and piles of milk-cans, an unexplained stone

hut labeled "Danger--Powder Stored Here." The jolly tombstone-yard,

where a utilitarian sculptor in a red calfskin overcoat whistled as

he hammered the shiniest of granite headstones. Jackson Elder's small

planing-mill, with the smell of fresh pine shavings and the burr of

circular saws. Most important, the Gopher Prairie Flour and Milling

Company, Lyman Cass president. Its windows were blanketed with

flour-dust, but it was the most stirring spot in town. Workmen were

wheeling barrels of flour into a box-car; a farmer sitting on sacks of

wheat in a bobsled argued with the wheat-buyer; machinery within the

mill boomed and whined, water gurgled in the ice-freed mill-race.


The clatter was a relief to Carol after months of smug houses. She

wished that she could work in the mill; that she did not belong to the

caste of professional-man's-wife.
She started for home, through the small slum. Before a tar-paper shack,

at a gateless gate, a man in rough brown dogskin coat and black plush

cap with lappets was watching her. His square face was confident,

his foxy mustache was picaresque. He stood erect, his hands in his

side-pockets, his pipe puffing slowly. He was forty-five or -six,

perhaps.
"How do, Mrs. Kennicott," he drawled.


She recalled him--the town handyman, who had repaired their furnace at

the beginning of winter.


"Oh, how do you do," she fluttered.
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