The Project Gutenberg ebook of Main Street, by Sinclair Lewis



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to get freight cars to ship there, the railroads wouldn't let us have

'em--even though they had cars standing empty right here in the yards.

There you got it--good market, and these towns keeping us from it. Gus,

that's the way these towns work all the time. They pay what they want

to for our wheat, but we pay what they want us to for their clothes.

Stowbody and Dawson foreclose every mortgage they can, and put in tenant

farmers. The Dauntless lies to us about the Nonpartisan League, the

lawyers sting us, the machinery-dealers hate to carry us over bad years,

and then their daughters put on swell dresses and look at us as if we

were a bunch of hoboes. Man, I'd like to burn this town!"
Kennicott observed, "There's that old crank Wes Brannigan shooting off

his mouth again. Gosh, but he loves to hear himself talk! They ought to

run that fellow out of town!"

VII


She felt old and detached through high-school commencement week, which

is the fete of youth in Gopher Prairie; through baccalaureate sermon,

senior Parade, junior entertainment, commencement address by an Iowa

clergyman who asserted that he believed in the virtue of virtuousness,

and the procession of Decoration Day, when the few Civil War veterans

followed Champ Perry, in his rusty forage-cap, along the spring-powdered

road to the cemetery. She met Guy; she found that she had nothing to

say to him. Her head ached in an aimless way. When Kennicott rejoiced,

"We'll have a great time this summer; move down to the lake early and

wear old clothes and act natural," she smiled, but her smile creaked.


In the prairie heat she trudged along unchanging ways, talked about

nothing to tepid people, and reflected that she might never escape from

them.
She was startled to find that she was using the word "escape."
Then, for three years which passed like one curt paragraph, she ceased

to find anything interesting save the Bjornstams and her baby.


CHAPTER XIX


I
IN three years of exile from herself Carol had certain experiences

chronicled as important by the Dauntless, or discussed by the Jolly

Seventeen, but the event unchronicled, undiscussed, and supremely

controlling, was her slow admission of longing to find her own people.

II

Bea and Miles Bjornstam were married in June, a month after "The Girl



from Kankakee." Miles had turned respectable. He had renounced his

criticisms of state and society; he had given up roving as horse-trader,

and wearing red mackinaws in lumber-camps; he had gone to work as

engineer in Jackson Elder's planing-mill; he was to be seen upon the

streets endeavoring to be neighborly with suspicious men whom he had

taunted for years.


Carol was the patroness and manager of the wedding. Juanita Haydock

mocked, "You're a chump to let a good hired girl like Bea go. Besides!

How do you know it's a good thing, her marrying a sassy bum like this

awful Red Swede person? Get wise! Chase the man off with a mop, and

hold onto your Svenska while the holding's good. Huh? Me go to their

Scandahoofian wedding? Not a chance!"


The other matrons echoed Juanita. Carol was dismayed by the casualness

of their cruelty, but she persisted. Miles had exclaimed to her, "Jack

Elder says maybe he'll come to the wedding! Gee, it would be nice to

have Bea meet the Boss as a reg'lar married lady. Some day I'll be so

well off that Bea can play with Mrs. Elder--and you! Watch us!"
There was an uneasy knot of only nine guests at the service in the

unpainted Lutheran Church--Carol, Kennicott, Guy Pollock, and the Champ

Perrys, all brought by Carol; Bea's frightened rustic parents, her

cousin Tina, and Pete, Miles's ex-partner in horse-trading, a surly,

hairy man who had bought a black suit and come twelve hundred miles from

Spokane for the event.


Miles continuously glanced back at the church door. Jackson Elder did

not appear. The door did not once open after the awkward entrance of the

first guests. Miles's hand closed on Bea's arm.
He had, with Carol's help, made his shanty over into a cottage with

white curtains and a canary and a chintz chair.


Carol coaxed the powerful matrons to call on Bea. They half scoffed,

half promised to go.


Bea's successor was the oldish, broad, silent Oscarina, who was

suspicious of her frivolous mistress for a month, so that Juanita

Haydock was able to crow, "There, smarty, I told you you'd run into the

Domestic Problem!" But Oscarina adopted Carol as a daughter, and with

her as faithful to the kitchen as Bea had been, there was nothing

changed in Carol's life.

III

She was unexpectedly appointed to the town library-board by Ole Jenson,



the new mayor. The other members were Dr. Westlake, Lyman Cass, Julius

Flickerbaugh the attorney, Guy Pollock, and Martin Mahoney, former

livery-stable keeper and now owner of a garage. She was delighted. She

went to the first meeting rather condescendingly, regarding herself

as the only one besides Guy who knew anything about books or library

methods. She was planning to revolutionize the whole system.


Her condescension was ruined and her humility wholesomely increased when

she found the board, in the shabby room on the second floor of the house

which had been converted into the library, not discussing the weather

and longing to play checkers, but talking about books. She discovered

that amiable old Dr. Westlake read everything in verse and "light

fiction"; that Lyman Cass, the veal-faced, bristly-bearded owner of the

mill, had tramped through Gibbon, Hume, Grote, Prescott, and the other

thick historians; that he could repeat pages from them--and did. When

Dr. Westlake whispered to her, "Yes, Lym is a very well-informed man,

but he's modest about it," she felt uninformed and immodest, and scolded

at herself that she had missed the human potentialities in this vast

Gopher Prairie. When Dr. Westlake quoted the "Paradiso," "Don Quixote,"

"Wilhelm Meister," and the Koran, she reflected that no one she knew,

not even her father, had read all four.


She came diffidently to the second meeting of the board. She did not

plan to revolutionize anything. She hoped that the wise elders might be

so tolerant as to listen to her suggestions about changing the shelving

of the juveniles.


Yet after four sessions of the library-board she was where she had been

before the first session. She had found that for all their pride in

being reading men, Westlake and Cass and even Guy had no conception of

making the library familiar to the whole town. They used it, they passed

resolutions about it, and they left it as dead as Moses. Only the Henty

books and the Elsie books and the latest optimisms by moral female

novelists and virile clergymen were in general demand, and the board

themselves were interested only in old, stilted volumes. They had no

tenderness for the noisiness of youth discovering great literature.
If she was egotistic about her tiny learning, they were at least as much

so regarding theirs. And for all their talk of the need of additional

library-tax none of them was willing to risk censure by battling for it,

though they now had so small a fund that, after paying for rent, heat,

light, and Miss Villets's salary, they had only a hundred dollars a year

for the purchase of books.


The Incident of the Seventeen Cents killed her none too enduring

interest.


She had come to the board-meeting singing with a plan. She had made

a list of thirty European novels of the past ten years, with twenty

important books on psychology, education, and economics which the

library lacked. She had made Kennicott promise to give fifteen dollars.

If each of the board would contribute the same, they could have the

books.
Lym Cass looked alarmed, scratched himself, and protested, "I think

it would be a bad precedent for the board-members to contribute

money--uh--not that I mind, but it wouldn't be fair--establish

precedent. Gracious! They don't pay us a cent for our services!

Certainly can't expect us to pay for the privilege of serving!"


Only Guy looked sympathetic, and he stroked the pine table and said

nothing.
The rest of the meeting they gave to a bellicose investigation of the

fact that there was seventeen cents less than there should be in the

Fund. Miss Villets was summoned; she spent half an hour in explosively

defending herself; the seventeen cents were gnawed over, penny by penny;

and Carol, glancing at the carefully inscribed list which had been

so lovely and exciting an hour before, was silent, and sorry for Miss

Villets, and sorrier for herself.


She was reasonably regular in attendance till her two years were up and

Vida Sherwin was appointed to the board in her place, but she did not

try to be revolutionary. In the plodding course of her life there was

nothing changed, and nothing new.

IV

Kennicott made an excellent land-deal, but as he told her none of the



details, she was not greatly exalted or agitated. What did agitate her

was his announcement, half whispered and half blurted, half tender and

half coldly medical, that they "ought to have a baby, now they could

afford it." They had so long agreed that "perhaps it would be just as

well not to have any children for a while yet," that childlessness had

come to be natural. Now, she feared and longed and did not know; she

hesitatingly assented, and wished that she had not assented.
As there appeared no change in their drowsy relations, she forgot all

about it, and life was planless.

V

Idling on the porch of their summer cottage at the lake, on afternoons



when Kennicott was in town, when the water was glazed and the whole air

languid, she pictured a hundred escapes: Fifth Avenue in a snow-storm,

with limousines, golden shops, a cathedral spire. A reed hut on

fantastic piles above the mud of a jungle river. A suite in Paris,

immense high grave rooms, with lambrequins and a balcony. The Enchanted

Mesa. An ancient stone mill in Maryland, at the turn of the road,

between rocky brook and abrupt hills. An upland moor of sheep and

flitting cool sunlight. A clanging dock where steel cranes unloaded

steamers from Buenos Ayres and Tsing-tao. A Munich concert-hall, and a

famous 'cellist playing--playing to her.


One scene had a persistent witchery:
She stood on a terrace overlooking a boulevard by the warm sea. She was

certain, though she had no reason for it, that the place was Mentone.

Along the drive below her swept barouches, with a mechanical tlot-tlot,

tlot-tlot, tlot-tlot, and great cars with polished black hoods and

engines quiet as the sigh of an old man. In them were women erect,

slender, enameled, and expressionless as marionettes, their small hands

upon parasols, their unchanging eyes always forward, ignoring the men

beside them, tall men with gray hair and distinguished faces. Beyond the

drive were painted sea and painted sands, and blue and yellow pavilions.

Nothing moved except the gliding carriages, and the people were small

and wooden, spots in a picture drenched with gold and hard bright blues.

There was no sound of sea or winds; no softness of whispers nor of

falling petals; nothing but yellow and cobalt and staring light, and the

never-changing tlot-tlot, tlot-tlot----


She startled. She whimpered. It was the rapid ticking of the clock which

had hypnotized her into hearing the steady hoofs. No aching color of the

sea and pride of supercilious people, but the reality of a round-bellied

nickel alarm-clock on a shelf against a fuzzy unplaned pine wall, with

a stiff gray wash-rag hanging above it and a kerosene-stove standing

below.
A thousand dreams governed by the fiction she had read, drawn from the

pictures she had envied, absorbed her drowsy lake afternoons, but

always in the midst of them Kennicott came out from town, drew on khaki

trousers which were plastered with dry fish-scales, asked, "Enjoying

yourself?" and did not listen to her answer.


And nothing was changed, and there was no reason to believe that there

ever would be change.

VI

Trains!
At the lake cottage she missed the passing of the trains. She realized



that in town she had depended upon them for assurance that there

remained a world beyond.


The railroad was more than a means of transportation to Gopher Prairie.

It was a new god; a monster of steel limbs, oak ribs, flesh of gravel,

and a stupendous hunger for freight; a deity created by man that he

might keep himself respectful to Property, as elsewhere he had elevated

and served as tribal gods the mines, cotton-mills, motor-factories,

colleges, army.


The East remembered generations when there had been no railroad, and had

no awe of it; but here the railroads had been before time was. The towns

had been staked out on barren prairie as convenient points for future

train-halts; and back in 1860 and 1870 there had been much profit, much

opportunity to found aristocratic families, in the possession of advance

knowledge as to where the towns would arise.


If a town was in disfavor, the railroad could ignore it, cut it off from

commerce, slay it. To Gopher Prairie the tracks were eternal verities,

and boards of railroad directors an omnipotence. The smallest boy or the

most secluded grandam could tell you whether No. 32 had a hot-box last

Tuesday, whether No. 7 was going to put on an extra day-coach; and the

name of the president of the road was familiar to every breakfast table.


Even in this new era of motors the citizens went down to the station

to see the trains go through. It was their romance; their only mystery

besides mass at the Catholic Church; and from the trains came lords of

the outer world--traveling salesmen with piping on their waistcoats, and

visiting cousins from Milwaukee.
Gopher Prairie had once been a "division-point." The roundhouse and

repair-shops were gone, but two conductors still retained residence,

and they were persons of distinction, men who traveled and talked to

strangers, who wore uniforms with brass buttons, and knew all about

these crooked games of con-men. They were a special caste, neither above

nor below the Haydocks, but apart, artists and adventurers.


The night telegraph-operator at the railroad station was the most

melodramatic figure in town: awake at three in the morning, alone in a

room hectic with clatter of the telegraph key. All night he "talked"

to operators twenty, fifty, a hundred miles away. It was always to be

expected that he would be held up by robbers. He never was, but round

him was a suggestion of masked faces at the window, revolvers, cords

binding him to a chair, his struggle to crawl to the key before he

fainted.
During blizzards everything about the railroad was melodramatic. There

were days when the town was completely shut off, when they had no mail,

no express, no fresh meat, no newspapers. At last the rotary snow-plow

came through, bucking the drifts, sending up a geyser, and the way to

the Outside was open again. The brakemen, in mufflers and fur caps,

running along the tops of ice-coated freight-cars; the engineers

scratching frost from the cab windows and looking out, inscrutable,

self-contained, pilots of the prairie sea--they were heroism, they were

to Carol the daring of the quest in a world of groceries and sermons.


To the small boys the railroad was a familiar playground. They climbed

the iron ladders on the sides of the box-cars; built fires behind piles

of old ties; waved to favorite brakemen. But to Carol it was magic.
She was motoring with Kennicott, the car lumping through darkness, the

lights showing mud-puddles and ragged weeds by the road. A train coming!

A rapid chuck-a-chuck, chuck-a-chuck, chuck-a-chuck. It was hurling

past--the Pacific Flyer, an arrow of golden flame. Light from the

fire-box splashed the under side of the trailing smoke. Instantly the

vision was gone; Carol was back in the long darkness; and Kennicott was

giving his version of that fire and wonder: "No. 19. Must be 'bout ten

minutes late."


In town, she listened from bed to the express whistling in the cut a

mile north. Uuuuuuu!--faint, nervous, distrait, horn of the free night

riders journeying to the tall towns where were laughter and

banners and the sound of bells--Uuuuu! Uuuuu!--the world going

by--Uuuuuuu!--fainter, more wistful, gone.
Down here there were no trains. The stillness was very great. The

prairie encircled the lake, lay round her, raw, dusty, thick. Only the

train could cut it. Some day she would take a train; and that would be a

great taking.

VII

She turned to the Chautauqua as she had turned to the dramatic



association, to the library-board.
Besides the permanent Mother Chautauqua, in New York, there are, all

over these States, commercial Chautauqua companies which send out to

every smallest town troupes of lecturers and "entertainers" to give a

week of culture under canvas. Living in Minneapolis, Carol had never

encountered the ambulant Chautauqua, and the announcement of its coming

to Gopher Prairie gave her hope that others might be doing the vague

things which she had attempted. She pictured a condensed university

course brought to the people. Mornings when she came in from the lake

with Kennicott she saw placards in every shop-window, and strung on

a cord across Main Street, a line of pennants alternately worded

"The Boland Chautauqua COMING!" and "A solid week of inspiration and

enjoyment!" But she was disappointed when she saw the program. It did

not seem to be a tabloid university; it did not seem to be any kind of

a university; it seemed to be a combination of vaudeville performance Y.

M. C. A. lecture, and the graduation exercises of an elocution class.
She took her doubt to Kennicott. He insisted, "Well, maybe it won't be

so awful darn intellectual, the way you and I might like it, but it's

a whole lot better than nothing." Vida Sherwin added, "They have

some splendid speakers. If the people don't carry off so much actual

information, they do get a lot of new ideas, and that's what counts."
During the Chautauqua Carol attended three evening meetings, two

afternoon meetings, and one in the morning. She was impressed by the

audience: the sallow women in skirts and blouses, eager to be made to

think, the men in vests and shirt-sleeves, eager to be allowed to laugh,

and the wriggling children, eager to sneak away. She liked the plain

benches, the portable stage under its red marquee, the great tent over

all, shadowy above strings of incandescent bulbs at night and by day

casting an amber radiance on the patient crowd. The scent of dust

and trampled grass and sun-baked wood gave her an illusion of Syrian

caravans; she forgot the speakers while she listened to noises outside

the tent: two farmers talking hoarsely, a wagon creaking down Main

Street, the crow of a rooster. She was content. But it was the

contentment of the lost hunter stopping to rest.
For from the Chautauqua itself she got nothing but wind and chaff and

heavy laughter, the laughter of yokels at old jokes, a mirthless and

primitive sound like the cries of beasts on a farm.
These were the several instructors in the condensed university's

seven-day course:


Nine lecturers, four of them ex-ministers, and one an ex-congressman,

all of them delivering "inspirational addresses." The only facts or

opinions which Carol derived from them were: Lincoln was a celebrated

president of the United States, but in his youth extremely poor. James

J. Hill was the best-known railroad-man of the West, and in his youth

extremely poor. Honesty and courtesy in business are preferable

to boorishness and exposed trickery, but this is not to be taken

personally, since all persons in Gopher Prairie are known to be honest

and courteous. London is a large city. A distinguished statesman once

taught Sunday School.


Four "entertainers" who told Jewish stories, Irish stories, German

stories, Chinese stories, and Tennessee mountaineer stories, most of

which Carol had heard.
A "lady elocutionist" who recited Kipling and imitated children.
A lecturer with motion-pictures of an Andean exploration; excellent

pictures and a halting narrative.


Three brass-bands, a company of six opera-singers, a Hawaiian sextette,

and four youths who played saxophones and guitars disguised as

wash-boards. The most applauded pieces were those, such as the "Lucia"

inevitability, which the audience had heard most often.


The local superintendent, who remained through the week while the other

enlighteners went to other Chautauquas for their daily performances. The

superintendent was a bookish, underfed man who worked hard at rousing

artificial enthusiasm, at trying to make the audience cheer by dividing

them into competitive squads and telling them that they were intelligent

and made splendid communal noises. He gave most of the morning lectures,

droning with equal unhappy facility about poetry, the Holy Land, and the

injustice to employers in any system of profit-sharing.


The final item was a man who neither lectured, inspired, nor

entertained; a plain little man with his hands in his pockets. All the

other speakers had confessed, "I cannot keep from telling the citizens

of your beautiful city that none of the talent on this circuit have

found a more charming spot or more enterprising and hospitable people."

But the little man suggested that the architecture of Gopher Prairie was

haphazard, and that it was sottish to let the lake-front be monopolized

by the cinder-heaped wall of the railroad embankment. Afterward the

audience grumbled, "Maybe that guy's got the right dope, but what's the

use of looking on the dark side of things all the time? New ideas are

first-rate, but not all this criticism. Enough trouble in life without

looking for it!"


Thus the Chautauqua, as Carol saw it. After it, the town felt proud and

educated.

VIII

Two weeks later the Great War smote Europe.


For a month Gopher Prairie had the delight of shuddering, then, as the

war settled down to a business of trench-fighting, they forgot.


When Carol talked about the Balkans, and the possibility of a German

revolution, Kennicott yawned, "Oh yes, it's a great old scrap, but it's

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