The Project Gutenberg ebook of Main Street, by Sinclair Lewis



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of very interesting papers, this is such an interesting subject, the

poets, they have been an inspiration for higher thought, in fact wasn't

it Reverend Benlick who said that some of the poets have been as much an

inspiration as a good many of the ministers, and so we shall be glad to

hear----"
The poor lady smiled neuralgically, panted with fright, scrabbled about

the small oak table to find her eye-glasses, and continued, "We

will first have the pleasure of hearing Mrs. Jenson on the subject

'Shakespeare and Milton.'"


Mrs. Ole Jenson said that Shakespeare was born in 1564 and died 1616. He

lived in London, England, and in Stratford-on-Avon, which many American

tourists loved to visit, a lovely town with many curios and old houses

well worth examination. Many people believed that Shakespeare was the

greatest play-wright who ever lived, also a fine poet. Not much was

known about his life, but after all that did not really make so much

difference, because they loved to read his numerous plays, several of

the best known of which she would now criticize.


Perhaps the best known of his plays was "The Merchant of Venice," having

a beautiful love story and a fine appreciation of a woman's brains,

which a woman's club, even those who did not care to commit themselves

on the question of suffrage, ought to appreciate. (Laughter.) Mrs.

Jenson was sure that she, for one, would love to be like Portia. The

play was about a Jew named Shylock, and he didn't want his daughter to

marry a Venice gentleman named Antonio----
Mrs. Leonard Warren, a slender, gray, nervous woman, president of the

Thanatopsis and wife of the Congregational pastor, reported the birth

and death dates of Byron, Scott, Moore, Burns; and wound up:
"Burns was quite a poor boy and he did not enjoy the advantages we enjoy

today, except for the advantages of the fine old Scotch kirk where he

heard the Word of God preached more fearlessly than even in the finest

big brick churches in the big and so-called advanced cities of today,

but he did not have our educational advantages and Latin and the other

treasures of the mind so richly strewn before the, alas, too ofttimes

inattentive feet of our youth who do not always sufficiently appreciate

the privileges freely granted to every American boy rich or poor. Burns

had to work hard and was sometimes led by evil companionship into low

habits. But it is morally instructive to know that he was a good

student and educated himself, in striking contrast to the loose ways and

so-called aristocratic society-life of Lord Byron, on which I have just

spoken. And certainly though the lords and earls of his day may have

looked down upon Burns as a humble person, many of us have greatly

enjoyed his pieces about the mouse and other rustic subjects, with their

message of humble beauty--I am so sorry I have not got the time to quote

some of them."
Mrs. George Edwin Mott gave ten minutes to Tennyson and Browning.
Mrs. Nat Hicks, a wry-faced, curiously sweet woman, so awed by her

betters that Carol wanted to kiss her, completed the day's grim task by

a paper on "Other Poets." The other poets worthy of consideration were

Coleridge, Wordsworth, Shelley, Gray, Mrs. Hemans, and Kipling.


Miss Ella Stowbody obliged with a recital of "The Recessional" and

extracts from "Lalla Rookh." By request, she gave "An Old Sweetheart of

Mine" as encore.
Gopher Prairie had finished the poets. It was ready for the next week's

labor: English Fiction and Essays.


Mrs. Dawson besought, "Now we will have a discussion of the papers, and

I am sure we shall all enjoy hearing from one who we hope to have as a

new member, Mrs. Kennicott, who with her splendid literary training and

all should be able to give us many pointers and--many helpful pointers."


Carol had warned herself not to be so "beastly supercilious." She had

insisted that in the belated quest of these work-stained women was

an aspiration which ought to stir her tears. "But they're so

self-satisfied. They think they're doing Burns a favor. They don't

believe they have a 'belated quest.' They're sure that they have culture

salted and hung up." It was out of this stupor of doubt that Mrs.

Dawson's summons roused her. She was in a panic. How could she speak

without hurting them?


Mrs. Champ Perry leaned over to stroke her hand and whisper, "You look

tired, dearie. Don't you talk unless you want to."


Affection flooded Carol; she was on her feet, searching for words and

courtesies:


"The only thing in the way of suggestion----I know you are following

a definite program, but I do wish that now you've had such a splendid

introduction, instead of going on with some other subject next year you

could return and take up the poets more in detail. Especially actual

quotations--even though their lives are so interesting and, as Mrs.

Warren said, so morally instructive. And perhaps there are several poets

not mentioned today whom it might be worth while considering--Keats, for

instance, and Matthew Arnold and Rossetti and Swinburne. Swinburne would

be such a--well, that is, such a contrast to life as we all enjoy it in

our beautiful Middle-west----"


She saw that Mrs. Leonard Warren was not with her. She captured her by

innocently continuing:


"Unless perhaps Swinburne tends to be, uh, more outspoken than you, than

we really like. What do you think, Mrs. Warren?"


The pastor's wife decided, "Why, you've caught my very thoughts, Mrs.

Kennicott. Of course I have never READ Swinburne, but years ago, when

he was in vogue, I remember Mr. Warren saying that Swinburne (or was

it Oscar Wilde? but anyway:) he said that though many so-called

intellectual people posed and pretended to find beauty in Swinburne,

there can never be genuine beauty without the message from the heart.

But at the same time I do think you have an excellent idea, and though

we have talked about Furnishings and China as the probable subject for

next year, I believe that it would be nice if the program committee

would try to work in another day entirely devoted to English poetry! In

fact, Madame Chairman, I so move you."
When Mrs. Dawson's coffee and angel's-food had helped them to recover

from the depression caused by thoughts of Shakespeare's death they all

told Carol that it was a pleasure to have her with them. The membership

committee retired to the sitting-room for three minutes and elected her

a member.
And she stopped being patronizing.
She wanted to be one of them. They were so loyal and kind. It was they

who would carry out her aspiration. Her campaign against village sloth

was actually begun! On what specific reform should she first loose

her army? During the gossip after the meeting Mrs. George Edwin Mott

remarked that the city hall seemed inadequate for the splendid modern

Gopher Prairie. Mrs. Nat Hicks timidly wished that the young people

could have free dances there--the lodge dances were so exclusive. The

city hall. That was it! Carol hurried home.


She had not realized that Gopher Prairie was a city. From Kennicott she

discovered that it was legally organized with a mayor and city-council

and wards. She was delighted by the simplicity of voting one's self a

metropolis. Why not?


She was a proud and patriotic citizen, all evening.

II

She examined the city hall, next morning. She had remembered it only as



a bleak inconspicuousness. She found it a liver-colored frame coop half

a block from Main Street. The front was an unrelieved wall of clapboards

and dirty windows. It had an unobstructed view of a vacant lot and Nat

Hicks's tailor shop. It was larger than the carpenter shop beside it,

but not so well built.
No one was about. She walked into the corridor. On one side was the

municipal court, like a country school; on the other, the room of the

volunteer fire company, with a Ford hose-cart and the ornamental helmets

used in parades, at the end of the hall, a filthy two-cell jail, now

empty but smelling of ammonia and ancient sweat. The whole second story

was a large unfinished room littered with piles of folding chairs, a

lime-crusted mortar-mixing box, and the skeletons of Fourth of July

floats covered with decomposing plaster shields and faded red, white,

and blue bunting. At the end was an abortive stage. The room was large

enough for the community dances which Mrs. Nat Hicks advocated. But

Carol was after something bigger than dances.
In the afternoon she scampered to the public library.
The library was open three afternoons and four evenings a week. It was

housed in an old dwelling, sufficient but unattractive. Carol caught

herself picturing pleasanter reading-rooms, chairs for children, an art

collection, a librarian young enough to experiment.


She berated herself, "Stop this fever of reforming everything! I WILL be

satisfied with the library! The city hall is enough for a beginning.

And it's really an excellent library. It's--it isn't so bad. . . . Is

it possible that I am to find dishonesties and stupidity in every

human activity I encounter? In schools and business and government and

everything? Is there never any contentment, never any rest?"


She shook her head as though she were shaking off water, and hastened

into the library, a young, light, amiable presence, modest in unbuttoned

fur coat, blue suit, fresh organdy collar, and tan boots roughened from

scuffling snow. Miss Villets stared at her, and Carol purred, "I was so

sorry not to see you at the Thanatopsis yesterday. Vida said you might

come."
"Oh. You went to the Thanatopsis. Did you enjoy it?"


"So much. Such good papers on the poets." Carol lied resolutely. "But I

did think they should have had you give one of the papers on poetry!"


"Well----Of course I'm not one of the bunch that seem to have the

time to take and run the club, and if they prefer to have papers on

literature by other ladies who have no literary training--after all, why

should I complain? What am I but a city employee!"


"You're not! You're the one person that does--that does--oh, you do so

much. Tell me, is there, uh----Who are the people who control the club?"


Miss Villets emphatically stamped a date in the front of "Frank on the

Lower Mississippi" for a small flaxen boy, glowered at him as though she

were stamping a warning on his brain, and sighed:
"I wouldn't put myself forward or criticize any one for the world, and

Vida is one of my best friends, and such a splendid teacher, and there

is no one in town more advanced and interested in all movements, but I

must say that no matter who the president or the committees are, Vida

Sherwin seems to be behind them all the time, and though she is always

telling me about what she is pleased to call my 'fine work in the

library,' I notice that I'm not often called on for papers, though Mrs.

Lyman Cass once volunteered and told me that she thought my paper on

'The Cathedrals of England' was the most interesting paper we had, the

year we took up English and French travel and architecture. But----And

of course Mrs. Mott and Mrs. Warren are very important in the club, as

you might expect of the wives of the superintendent of schools and

the Congregational pastor, and indeed they are both very cultured,

but----No, you may regard me as entirely unimportant. I'm sure what I

say doesn't matter a bit!"
"You're much too modest, and I'm going to tell Vida so, and, uh, I

wonder if you can give me just a teeny bit of your time and show me

where the magazine files are kept?"
She had won. She was profusely escorted to a room like a grandmother's

attic, where she discovered periodicals devoted to house-decoration and

town-planning, with a six-year file of the National Geographic. Miss

Villets blessedly left her alone. Humming, fluttering pages with

delighted fingers, Carol sat cross-legged on the floor, the magazines in

heaps about her.


She found pictures of New England streets: the dignity of Falmouth, the

charm of Concord, Stockbridge and Farmington and Hillhouse Avenue. The

fairy-book suburb of Forest Hills on Long Island. Devonshire cottages

and Essex manors and a Yorkshire High Street and Port Sunlight. The

Arab village of Djeddah--an intricately chased jewel-box. A town in

California which had changed itself from the barren brick fronts and

slatternly frame sheds of a Main Street to a way which led the eye down

a vista of arcades and gardens.


Assured that she was not quite mad in her belief that a small American

town might be lovely, as well as useful in buying wheat and selling

plows, she sat brooding, her thin fingers playing a tattoo on her

cheeks. She saw in Gopher Prairie a Georgian city hall: warm brick walls

with white shutters, a fanlight, a wide hall and curving stair. She

saw it the common home and inspiration not only of the town but of

the country about. It should contain the court-room (she couldn't get

herself to put in a jail), public library, a collection of excellent

prints, rest-room and model kitchen for farmwives, theater, lecture

room, free community ballroom, farm-bureau, gymnasium. Forming about it

and influenced by it, as mediaeval villages gathered about the castle,

she saw a new Georgian town as graceful and beloved as Annapolis or that

bowery Alexandria to which Washington rode.
All this the Thanatopsis Club was to accomplish with no difficulty

whatever, since its several husbands were the controllers of business

and politics. She was proud of herself for this practical view.
She had taken only half an hour to change a wire-fenced potato-plot into

a walled rose-garden. She hurried out to apprize Mrs. Leonard Warren, as

president of the Thanatopsis, of the miracle which had been worked.

III


At a quarter to three Carol had left home; at half-past four she had

created the Georgian town; at a quarter to five she was in the dignified

poverty of the Congregational parsonage, her enthusiasm pattering upon

Mrs. Leonard Warren like summer rain upon an old gray roof; at two

minutes to five a town of demure courtyards and welcoming dormer windows

had been erected, and at two minutes past five the entire town was as

flat as Babylon.
Erect in a black William and Mary chair against gray and speckly-brown

volumes of sermons and Biblical commentaries and Palestine geographies

upon long pine shelves, her neat black shoes firm on a rag-rug, herself

as correct and low-toned as her background, Mrs. Warren listened without

comment till Carol was quite through, then answered delicately:
"Yes, I think you draw a very nice picture of what might easily come to

pass--some day. I have no doubt that such villages will be found on the

prairie--some day. But if I might make just the least little criticism:

it seems to me that you are wrong in supposing either that the city hall

would be the proper start, or that the Thanatopsis would be the right

instrument. After all, it's the churches, isn't it, that are the

real heart of the community. As you may possibly know, my husband

is prominent in Congregational circles all through the state for

his advocacy of church-union. He hopes to see all the evangelical

denominations joined in one strong body, opposing Catholicism and

Christian Science, and properly guiding all movements that make for

morality and prohibition. Here, the combined churches could afford

a splendid club-house, maybe a stucco and half-timber building with

gargoyles and all sorts of pleasing decorations on it, which, it seems

to me, would be lots better to impress the ordinary class of people than

just a plain old-fashioned colonial house, such as you describe. And

that would be the proper center for all educational and pleasurable

activities, instead of letting them fall into the hands of the

politicians."
"I don't suppose it will take more than thirty or forty years for the

churches to get together?" Carol said innocently.


"Hardly that long even; things are moving so rapidly. So it would be a

mistake to make any other plans."


Carol did not recover her zeal till two days after, when she tried Mrs.

George Edwin Mott, wife of the superintendent of schools.


Mrs. Mott commented, "Personally, I am terribly busy with dressmaking

and having the seamstress in the house and all, but it would be splendid

to have the other members of the Thanatopsis take up the question.

Except for one thing: First and foremost, we must have a new

schoolbuilding. Mr. Mott says they are terribly cramped."
Carol went to view the old building. The grades and the high school were

combined in a damp yellow-brick structure with the narrow windows of an

antiquated jail--a hulk which expressed hatred and compulsory training.

She conceded Mrs. Mott's demand so violently that for two days she

dropped her own campaign. Then she built the school and city hall

together, as the center of the reborn town.


She ventured to the lead-colored dwelling of Mrs. Dave Dyer. Behind the

mask of winter-stripped vines and a wide porch only a foot above the

ground, the cottage was so impersonal that Carol could never visualize

it. Nor could she remember anything that was inside it. But Mrs. Dyer

was personal enough. With Carol, Mrs. Howland, Mrs. McGanum, and Vida

Sherwin she was a link between the Jolly Seventeen and the serious

Thanatopsis (in contrast to Juanita Haydock, who unnecessarily boasted

of being a "lowbrow" and publicly stated that she would "see herself

in jail before she'd write any darned old club papers"). Mrs. Dyer was

superfeminine in the kimono in which she received Carol. Her skin was

fine, pale, soft, suggesting a weak voluptuousness. At afternoon-coffees

she had been rude but now she addressed Carol as "dear," and insisted on

being called Maud. Carol did not quite know why she was uncomfortable

in this talcum-powder atmosphere, but she hastened to get into the fresh

air of her plans.
Maud Dyer granted that the city hall wasn't "so very nice," yet, as Dave

said, there was no use doing anything about it till they received

an appropriation from the state and combined a new city hall with

a national guard armory. Dave had given verdict, "What these mouthy

youngsters that hang around the pool-room need is universal military

training. Make men of 'em."


Mrs. Dyer removed the new schoolbuilding from the city hall:
"Oh, so Mrs. Mott has got you going on her school craze! She's been

dinging at that till everybody's sick and tired. What she really wants

is a big office for her dear bald-headed Gawge to sit around and look

important in. Of course I admire Mrs. Mott, and I'm very fond of

her, she's so brainy, even if she does try to butt in and run the

Thanatopsis, but I must say we're sick of her nagging. The old building

was good enough for us when we were kids! I hate these would-be women

politicians, don't you?"


IV

The first week of March had given promise of spring and stirred Carol



with a thousand desires for lakes and fields and roads. The snow was

gone except for filthy woolly patches under trees, the thermometer

leaped in a day from wind-bitten chill to itchy warmth. As soon as Carol

was convinced that even in this imprisoned North, spring could exist

again, the snow came down as abruptly as a paper storm in a theater; the

northwest gale flung it up in a half blizzard; and with her hope of a

glorified town went hope of summer meadows.
But a week later, though the snow was everywhere in slushy heaps, the

promise was unmistakable. By the invisible hints in air and sky and

earth which had aroused her every year through ten thousand generations

she knew that spring was coming. It was not a scorching, hard, dusty day

like the treacherous intruder of a week before, but soaked with languor,

softened with a milky light. Rivulets were hurrying in each alley; a

calling robin appeared by magic on the crab-apple tree in the Howlands'

yard. Everybody chuckled, "Looks like winter is going," and "This 'll

bring the frost out of the roads--have the autos out pretty soon

now--wonder what kind of bass-fishing we'll get this summer--ought to be

good crops this year."
Each evening Kennicott repeated, "We better not take off our Heavy

Underwear or the storm windows too soon--might be 'nother spell of

cold--got to be careful 'bout catching cold--wonder if the coal will

last through?"


The expanding forces of life within her choked the desire for reforming.

She trotted through the house, planning the spring cleaning with Bea.

When she attended her second meeting of the Thanatopsis she said nothing

about remaking the town. She listened respectably to statistics on

Dickens, Thackeray, Jane Austen, George Eliot, Scott, Hardy, Lamb, De

Quincey, and Mrs. Humphry Ward, who, it seemed, constituted the writers

of English Fiction and Essays.
Not till she inspected the rest-room did she again become a fanatic.

She had often glanced at the store-building which had been turned into

a refuge in which farmwives could wait while their husbands transacted

business. She had heard Vida Sherwin and Mrs. Warren caress the virtue

of the Thanatopsis in establishing the rest-room and in sharing with the

city council the expense of maintaining it. But she had never entered it

till this March day.
She went in impulsively; nodded at the matron, a plump worthy widow

named Nodelquist, and at a couple of farm-women who were meekly rocking.

The rest-room resembled a second-hand store. It was furnished with

discarded patent rockers, lopsided reed chairs, a scratched pine table,

a gritty straw mat, old steel engravings of milkmaids being morally

amorous under willow-trees, faded chromos of roses and fish, and a

kerosene stove for warming lunches. The front window was darkened by

torn net curtains and by a mound of geraniums and rubber-plants.


While she was listening to Mrs. Nodelquist's account of how many

thousands of farmers' wives used the rest-room every year, and how much

they "appreciated the kindness of the ladies in providing them with

this lovely place, and all free," she thought, "Kindness nothing! The

kind-ladies' husbands get the farmers' trade. This is mere commercial

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