The Project Gutenberg ebook of Main Street, by Sinclair Lewis



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accommodation. And it's horrible. It ought to be the most charming room

in town, to comfort women sick of prairie kitchens. Certainly it ought

to have a clear window, so that they can see the metropolitan life go

by. Some day I'm going to make a better rest-room--a club-room. Why!

I've already planned that as part of my Georgian town hall!"


So it chanced that she was plotting against the peace of the Thanatopsis

at her third meeting (which covered Scandinavian, Russian, and Polish

Literature, with remarks by Mrs. Leonard Warren on the sinful paganism

of the Russian so-called church). Even before the entrance of the

coffee and hot rolls Carol seized on Mrs. Champ Perry, the kind and

ample-bosomed pioneer woman who gave historic dignity to the modern

matrons of the Thanatopsis. She poured out her plans. Mrs. Perry nodded

and stroked Carol's hand, but at the end she sighed:


"I wish I could agree with you, dearie. I'm sure you're one of the

Lord's anointed (even if we don't see you at the Baptist Church as often

as we'd like to)! But I'm afraid you're too tender-hearted. When Champ

and I came here we teamed-it with an ox-cart from Sauk Centre to Gopher

Prairie, and there was nothing here then but a stockade and a few

soldiers and some log cabins. When we wanted salt pork and gunpowder, we

sent out a man on horseback, and probably he was shot dead by the

Injuns before he got back. We ladies--of course we were all farmers

at first--we didn't expect any rest-room in those days. My, we'd have

thought the one they have now was simply elegant! My house was roofed

with hay and it leaked something terrible when it rained--only dry place

was under a shelf.


"And when the town grew up we thought the new city hall was real fine.

And I don't see any need for dance-halls. Dancing isn't what it was,

anyway. We used to dance modest, and we had just as much fun as all

these young folks do now with their terrible Turkey Trots and hugging

and all. But if they must neglect the Lord's injunction that young girls

ought to be modest, then I guess they manage pretty well at the K.

P. Hall and the Oddfellows', even if some of tie lodges don't always

welcome a lot of these foreigners and hired help to all their dances.

And I certainly don't see any need of a farm-bureau or this domestic

science demonstration you talk about. In my day the boys learned to farm

by honest sweating, and every gal could cook, or her ma learned her

how across her knee! Besides, ain't there a county agent at Wakamin? He

comes here once a fortnight, maybe. That's enough monkeying with this

scientific farming--Champ says there's nothing to it anyway.


"And as for a lecture hall--haven't we got the churches? Good deal

better to listen to a good old-fashioned sermon than a lot of geography

and books and things that nobody needs to know--more 'n enough heathen

learning right here in the Thanatopsis. And as for trying to make a

whole town in this Colonial architecture you talk about----I do love

nice things; to this day I run ribbons into my petticoats, even if

Champ Perry does laugh at me, the old villain! But just the same I don't

believe any of us old-timers would like to see the town that we worked

so hard to build being tore down to make a place that wouldn't look like

nothing but some Dutch story-book and not a bit like the place we loved.

And don't you think it's sweet now? All the trees and lawns? And such

comfy houses, and hot-water heat and electric lights and telephones

and cement walks and everything? Why, I thought everybody from the Twin

Cities always said it was such a beautiful town!"


Carol forswore herself; declared that Gopher Prairie had the color of

Algiers and the gaiety of Mardi Gras.


Yet the next afternoon she was pouncing on Mrs. Lyman Cass, the

hook-nosed consort of the owner of the flour-mill.


Mrs. Cass's parlor belonged to the crammed-Victorian school, as Mrs.

Luke Dawson's belonged to the bare-Victorian. It was furnished on two

principles: First, everything must resemble something else. A rocker had

a back like a lyre, a near-leather seat imitating tufted cloth, and

arms like Scotch Presbyterian lions; with knobs, scrolls, shields, and

spear-points on unexpected portions of the chair. The second principle

of the crammed-Victorian school was that every inch of the interior must

be filled with useless objects.


The walls of Mrs. Cass's parlor were plastered with "hand-painted"

pictures, "buckeye" pictures, of birch-trees, news-boys, puppies, and

church-steeples on Christmas Eve; with a plaque depicting the Exposition

Building in Minneapolis, burnt-wood portraits of Indian chiefs of no

tribe in particular, a pansy-decked poetic motto, a Yard of Roses, and

the banners of the educational institutions attended by the Casses' two

sons--Chicopee Falls Business College and McGillicuddy University. One

small square table contained a card-receiver of painted china with a rim

of wrought and gilded lead, a Family Bible, Grant's Memoirs, the latest

novel by Mrs. Gene Stratton Porter, a wooden model of a Swiss chalet

which was also a bank for dimes, a polished abalone shell holding one

black-headed pin and one empty spool, a velvet pin-cushion in a gilded

metal slipper with "Souvenir of Troy, N. Y." stamped on the toe, and an

unexplained red glass dish which had warts.


Mrs. Cass's first remark was, "I must show you all my pretty things and

art objects."


She piped, after Carol's appeal:
"I see. You think the New England villages and Colonial houses are so

much more cunning than these Middlewestern towns. I'm glad you feel that

way. You'll be interested to know I was born in Vermont."
"And don't you think we ought to try to make Gopher Prai----"
"My gracious no! We can't afford it. Taxes are much too high as it is.

We ought to retrench, and not let the city council spend another cent.

Uh----Don't you think that was a grand paper Mrs. Westlake read about

Tolstoy? I was so glad she pointed out how all his silly socialistic

ideas failed."
What Mrs. Cass said was what Kennicott said, that evening. Not in twenty

years would the council propose or Gopher Prairie vote the funds for a

new city hall.

V

Carol had avoided exposing her plans to Vida Sherwin. She was shy of the



big-sister manner; Vida would either laugh at her or snatch the idea and

change it to suit herself. But there was no other hope. When Vida came

in to tea Carol sketched her Utopia.
Vida was soothing but decisive:
"My dear, you're all off. I would like to see it: a real gardeny place

to shut out the gales. But it can't be done. What could the clubwomen

accomplish?"
"Their husbands are the most important men in town. They ARE the town!"
"But the town as a separate unit is not the husband of the Thanatopsis.

If you knew the trouble we had in getting the city council to spend the

money and cover the pumping-station with vines! Whatever you may think

of Gopher Prairie women, they're twice as progressive as the men."


"But can't the men see the ugliness?"
"They don't think it's ugly. And how can you prove it? Matter of taste.

Why should they like what a Boston architect likes?"


"What they like is to sell prunes!"
"Well, why not? Anyway, the point is that you have to work from the

inside, with what we have, rather than from the outside, with foreign

ideas. The shell ought not to be forced on the spirit. It can't be! The

bright shell has to grow out of the spirit, and express it. That means

waiting. If we keep after the city council for another ten years they

MAY vote the bonds for a new school."


"I refuse to believe that if they saw it the big men would be too

tight-fisted to spend a few dollars each for a building--think!--dancing

and lectures and plays, all done co-operatively!"
"You mention the word 'co-operative' to the merchants and they'll

lynch you! The one thing they fear more than mail-order houses is that

farmers' co-operative movements may get started."
"The secret trails that lead to scared pocket-books! Always, in

everything! And I don't have any of the fine melodrama of fiction: the

dictagraphs and speeches by torchlight. I'm merely blocked by stupidity.

Oh, I know I'm a fool. I dream of Venice, and I live in Archangel and

scold because the Northern seas aren't tender-colored. But at least they

sha'n't keep me from loving Venice, and sometime I'll run away----All

right. No more."
She flung out her hands in a gesture of renunciation.

VI

Early May; wheat springing up in blades like grass; corn and potatoes



being planted; the land humming. For two days there had been steady

rain. Even in town the roads were a furrowed welter of mud, hideous to

view and difficult to cross. Main Street was a black swamp from curb to

curb; on residence streets the grass parking beside the walks oozed gray

water. It was prickly hot, yet the town was barren under the bleak sky.

Softened neither by snow nor by waving boughs the houses squatted and

scowled, revealed in their unkempt harshness.
As she dragged homeward Carol looked with distaste at her clay-loaded

rubbers, the smeared hem of her skirt. She passed Lyman Cass's

pinnacled, dark-red, hulking house. She waded a streaky yellow pool.

This morass was not her home, she insisted. Her home, and her beautiful

town, existed in her mind. They had already been created. The task was

done. What she really had been questing was some one to share them with

her. Vida would not; Kennicott could not.
Some one to share her refuge.
Suddenly she was thinking of Guy Pollock.
She dismissed him. He was too cautious. She needed a spirit as young and

unreasonable as her own. And she would never find it. Youth would never

come singing. She was beaten.
Yet that same evening she had an idea which solved the rebuilding of

Gopher Prairie.


Within ten minutes she was jerking the old-fashioned bell-pull of Luke

Dawson. Mrs. Dawson opened the door and peered doubtfully about the

edge of it. Carol kissed her cheek, and frisked into the lugubrious

sitting-room.


"Well, well, you're a sight for sore eyes!" chuckled Mr. Dawson,

dropping his newspaper, pushing his spectacles back on his forehead.


"You seem so excited," sighed Mrs. Dawson.
"I am! Mr. Dawson, aren't you a millionaire?"
He cocked his head, and purred, "Well, I guess if I cashed in on all my

securities and farm-holdings and my interests in iron on the Mesaba and

in Northern timber and cut-over lands, I could push two million dollars

pretty close, and I've made every cent of it by hard work and having the

sense to not go out and spend every----"
"I think I want most of it from you!"
The Dawsons glanced at each other in appreciation of the jest; and

he chirped, "You're worse than Reverend Benlick! He don't hardly ever

strike me for more than ten dollars--at a time!"
"I'm not joking. I mean it! Your children in the Cities are grown-up and

well-to-do. You don't want to die and leave your name unknown. Why not

do a big, original thing? Why not rebuild the whole town? Get a great

architect, and have him plan a town that would be suitable to the

prairie. Perhaps he'd create some entirely new form of architecture.

Then tear down all these shambling buildings----"


Mr. Dawson had decided that she really did mean it. He wailed, "Why,

that would cost at least three or four million dollars!"


"But you alone, just one man, have two of those millions!"
"Me? Spend all my hard-earned cash on building houses for a lot of

shiftless beggars that never had the sense to save their money? Not

that I've ever been mean. Mama could always have a hired girl to do the

work--when we could find one. But her and I have worked our fingers to

the bone and--spend it on a lot of these rascals----?"
"Please! Don't be angry! I just mean--I mean----Oh, not spend all of it,

of course, but if you led off the list, and the others came in, and if

they heard you talk about a more attractive town----"
"Why now, child, you've got a lot of notions. Besides what's the matter

with the town? Looks good to me. I've had people that have traveled

all over the world tell me time and again that Gopher Prairie is the

prettiest place in the Middlewest. Good enough for anybody. Certainly

good enough for Mama and me. Besides! Mama and me are planning to go

out to Pasadena and buy a bungalow and live there."


VII


She had met Miles Bjornstam on the street. For the second of welcome

encounter this workman with the bandit mustache and the muddy overalls

seemed nearer than any one else to the credulous youth which she was

seeking to fight beside her, and she told him, as a cheerful anecdote, a

little of her story.
He grunted, "I never thought I'd be agreeing with Old Man Dawson, the

penny-pinching old land-thief--and a fine briber he is, too. But you

got the wrong slant. You aren't one of the people--yet. You want to do

something for the town. I don't! I want the town to do something for

itself. We don't want old Dawson's money--not if it's a gift, with a

string. We'll take it away from him, because it belongs to us. You got

to get more iron and cussedness into you. Come join us cheerful bums,

and some day--when we educate ourselves and quit being bums--we'll take

things and run 'em straight."
He had changed from her friend to a cynical man in overalls. She could

not relish the autocracy of "cheerful bums."


She forgot him as she tramped the outskirts of town.
She had replaced the city hall project by an entirely new and highly

exhilarating thought of how little was done for these unpicturesque

poor.

VIII


The spring of the plains is not a reluctant virgin but brazen and soon

away. The mud roads of a few days ago are powdery dust and the puddles

beside them have hardened into lozenges of black sleek earth like

cracked patent leather.


Carol was panting as she crept to the meeting of the Thanatopsis program

committee which was to decide the subject for next fall and winter.


Madam Chairman (Miss Ella Stowbody in an oyster-colored blouse) asked if

there was any new business.


Carol rose. She suggested that the Thanatopsis ought to help the poor

of the town. She was ever so correct and modern. She did not, she said,

want charity for them, but a chance of self-help; an employment bureau,

direction in washing babies and making pleasing stews, possibly a

municipal fund for home-building. "What do you think of my plans, Mrs.

Warren?" she concluded.


Speaking judiciously, as one related to the church by marriage, Mrs.

Warren gave verdict:


"I'm sure we're all heartily in accord with Mrs. Kennicott in feeling

that wherever genuine poverty is encountered, it is not only noblesse

oblige but a joy to fulfil our duty to the less fortunate ones. But I

must say it seems to me we should lose the whole point of the thing by

not regarding it as charity. Why, that's the chief adornment of the true

Christian and the church! The Bible has laid it down for our guidance.

'Faith, Hope, and CHARITY,' it says, and, 'The poor ye have with ye

always,' which indicates that there never can be anything to these

so-called scientific schemes for abolishing charity, never! And isn't it

better so? I should hate to think of a world in which we were deprived

of all the pleasure of giving. Besides, if these shiftless folks realize

they're getting charity, and not something to which they have a right,

they're so much more grateful."
"Besides," snorted Miss Ella Stowbody, "they've been fooling you, Mrs.

Kennicott. There isn't any real poverty here. Take that Mrs. Steinhof

you speak of: I send her our washing whenever there's too much for our

hired girl--I must have sent her ten dollars' worth the past year alone!

I'm sure Papa would never approve of a city home-building fund. Papa

says these folks are fakers. Especially all these tenant farmers that

pretend they have so much trouble getting seed and machinery. Papa

says they simply won't pay their debts. He says he's sure he hates to

foreclose mortgages, but it's the only way to make them respect the

law."
"And then think of all the clothes we give these people!" said Mrs.

Jackson Elder.
Carol intruded again. "Oh yes. The clothes. I was going to speak of

that. Don't you think that when we give clothes to the poor, if we

do give them old ones, we ought to mend them first and make them as

presentable as we can? Next Christmas when the Thanatopsis makes its

distribution, wouldn't it be jolly if we got together and sewed on the

clothes, and trimmed hats, and made them----"


"Heavens and earth, they have more time than we have! They ought to be

mighty good and grateful to get anything, no matter what shape it's in.

I know I'm not going to sit and sew for that lazy Mrs. Vopni, with all

I've got to do!" snapped Ella Stowbody.


They were glaring at Carol. She reflected that Mrs. Vopni, whose husband

had been killed by a train, had ten children.


But Mrs. Mary Ellen Wilks was smiling. Mrs. Wilks was the proprietor of

Ye Art Shoppe and Magazine and Book Store, and the reader of the small

Christian Science church. She made it all clear:
"If this class of people had an understanding of Science and that we are

the children of God and nothing can harm us, they wouldn't be in error

and poverty."
Mrs. Jackson Elder confirmed, "Besides, it strikes me the club is

already doing enough, with tree-planting and the anti-fly campaign and

the responsibility for the rest-room--to say nothing of the fact that

we've talked of trying to get the railroad to put in a park at the

station!"
"I think so too!" said Madam Chairman. She glanced uneasily at Miss

Sherwin. "But what do you think, Vida?"


Vida smiled tactfully at each of the committee, and announced, "Well, I

don't believe we'd better start anything more right now. But it's been

a privilege to hear Carol's dear generous ideas, hasn't it! Oh! There is

one thing we must decide on at once. We must get together and oppose

any move on the part of the Minneapolis clubs to elect another State

Federation president from the Twin Cities. And this Mrs. Edgar Potbury

they're putting forward--I know there are people who think she's a

bright interesting speaker, but I regard her as very shallow. What do

you say to my writing to the Lake Ojibawasha Club, telling them that if

their district will support Mrs. Warren for second vice-president, we'll

support their Mrs. Hagelton (and such a dear, lovely, cultivated woman,

too) for president."


"Yes! We ought to show up those Minneapolis folks!" Ella Stowbody

said acidly. "And oh, by the way, we must oppose this movement of Mrs.

Potbury's to have the state clubs come out definitely in favor of woman

suffrage. Women haven't any place in politics. They would lose all their

daintiness and charm if they became involved in these horried plots

and log-rolling and all this awful political stuff about scandal and

personalities and so on."
All--save one--nodded. They interrupted the formal business-meeting

to discuss Mrs. Edgar Potbury's husband, Mrs. Potbury's income, Mrs.

Potbury's sedan, Mrs. Potbury's residence, Mrs. Potbury's oratorical

style, Mrs. Potbury's mandarin evening coat, Mrs. Potbury's coiffure,

and Mrs. Potbury's altogether reprehensible influence on the State

Federation of Women's Clubs.


Before the program committee adjourned they took three minutes to

decide which of the subjects suggested by the magazine Culture Hints,

Furnishings and China, or The Bible as Literature, would be better for

the coming year. There was one annoying incident. Mrs. Dr. Kennicott

interfered and showed off again. She commented, "Don't you think that we

already get enough of the Bible in our churches and Sunday Schools?"


Mrs. Leonard Warren, somewhat out of order but much more out of temper,

cried, "Well upon my word! I didn't suppose there was any one who felt

that we could get enough of the Bible! I guess if the Grand Old Book

has withstood the attacks of infidels for these two thousand years it is

worth our SLIGHT consideration!"
"Oh, I didn't mean----" Carol begged. Inasmuch as she did mean, it was

hard to be extremely lucid. "But I wish, instead of limiting ourselves

either to the Bible, or to anecdotes about the Brothers Adam's wigs,

which Culture Hints seems to regard as the significant point about

furniture, we could study some of the really stirring ideas that are

springing up today--whether it's chemistry or anthropology or labor

problems--the things that are going to mean so terribly much."
Everybody cleared her polite throat.
Madam Chairman inquired, "Is there any other discussion? Will some

one make a motion to adopt the suggestion of Vida Sherwin--to take up

Furnishings and China?"
It was adopted, unanimously.
"Checkmate!" murmured Carol, as she held up her hand.
Had she actually believed that she could plant a seed of liberalism

in the blank wall of mediocrity? How had she fallen into the folly of

trying to plant anything whatever in a wall so smooth and sun-glazed,

and so satisfying to the happy sleepers within?


CHAPTER XII


ONE week of authentic spring, one rare sweet week of May, one tranquil

moment between the blast of winter and the charge of summer. Daily Carol

walked from town into flashing country hysteric with new life.
One enchanted hour when she returned to youth and a belief in the

possibility of beauty.


She had walked northward toward the upper shore of Plover Lake, taking

to the railroad track, whose directness and dryness make it the natural

highway for pedestrians on the plains. She stepped from tie to tie, in

long strides. At each road-crossing she had to crawl over a cattle-guard

of sharpened timbers. She walked the rails, balancing with arms

extended, cautious heel before toe. As she lost balance her body bent

over, her arms revolved wildly, and when she toppled she laughed aloud.
The thick grass beside the track, coarse and prickly with many burnings,

hid canary-yellow buttercups and the mauve petals and woolly sage-green

coats of the pasque flowers. The branches of the kinnikinic brush were

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