The Project Gutenberg ebook of Main Street, by Sinclair Lewis

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years if Harry didn't give him a partnership, his gesticulating hand

touched Vida's shoulders.

"Oh, excuse me!" he pleaded.
"It's all right. Well, I think I must be running up to my room.

Headache," she said briefly.


Ray and she had stopped in at Dyer's for a hot chocolate on their way

home from the movies, that March evening. Vida speculated, "Do you know

that I may not be here next year?"

"What do you mean?"
With her fragile narrow nails she smoothed the glass slab which formed

the top of the round table at which they sat. She peeped through the

glass at the perfume-boxes of black and gold and citron in the hollow

table. She looked about at shelves of red rubber water-bottles, pale

yellow sponges, wash-rags with blue borders, hair-brushes of polished

cherry backs. She shook her head like a nervous medium coming out of a

trance, stared at him unhappily, demanded:
"Why should I stay here? And I must make up my mind. Now. Time to renew

our teaching-contracts for next year. I think I'll go teach in some

other town. Everybody here is tired of me. I might as well go. Before

folks come out and SAY they're tired of me. I have to decide tonight. I

might as well----Oh, no matter. Come. Let's skip. It's late."
She sprang up, ignoring his wail of "Vida! Wait! Sit down! Gosh! I'm

flabbergasted! Gee! Vida!" She marched out. While he was paying his

check she got ahead. He ran after her, blubbering, "Vida! Wait!" In the

shade of the lilacs in front of the Gougerling house he came up with

her, stayed her flight by a hand on her shoulder.
"Oh, don't! Don't! What does it matter?" she begged. She was sobbing,

her soft wrinkly lids soaked with tears. "Who cares for my affection or

help? I might as well drift on, forgotten. O Ray, please don't hold

me. Let me go. I'll just decide not to renew my contract here, and--and

drift--way off----"
His hand was steady on her shoulder. She dropped her head, rubbed the

back of his hand with her cheek.

They were married in June.


They took the Ole Jenson house. "It's small," said Vida, "but it's got

the dearest vegetable garden, and I love having time to get near to

Nature for once."

Though she became Vida Wutherspoon technically, and though she certainly

had no ideals about the independence of keeping her name, she continued

to be known as Vida Sherwin.
She had resigned from the school, but she kept up one class in English.

She bustled about on every committee of the Thanatopsis; she was always

popping into the rest-room to make Mrs. Nodelquist sweep the floor;

she was appointed to the library-board to succeed Carol; she taught the

Senior Girls' Class in the Episcopal Sunday School, and tried to revive

the King's Daughters. She exploded into self-confidence and happiness;

her draining thoughts were by marriage turned into energy. She became

daily and visibly more plump, and though she chattered as eagerly, she

was less obviously admiring of marital bliss, less sentimental about

babies, sharper in demanding that the entire town share her reforms--the

purchase of a park, the compulsory cleaning of back-yards.
She penned Harry Haydock at his desk in the Bon Ton; she interrupted

his joking; she told him that it was Ray who had built up the

shoe-department and men's department; she demanded that he be made a

partner. Before Harry could answer she threatened that Ray and she would

start a rival shop. "I'll clerk behind the counter myself, and a Certain

Party is all ready to put up the money."

She rather wondered who the Certain Party was.
Ray was made a one-sixth partner.
He became a glorified floor-walker, greeting the men with new poise, no

longer coyly subservient to pretty women. When he was not affectionately

coercing people into buying things they did not need, he stood at the

back of the store, glowing, abstracted, feeling masculine as he recalled

the tempestuous surprises of love revealed by Vida.
The only remnant of Vida's identification of herself with Carol was a

jealousy when she saw Kennicott and Ray together, and reflected that

some people might suppose that Kennicott was his superior. She was sure

that Carol thought so, and she wanted to shriek, "You needn't try to

gloat! I wouldn't have your pokey old husband. He hasn't one single bit

of Ray's spiritual nobility."


THE greatest mystery about a human being is not his reaction to sex or

praise, but the manner in which he contrives to put in twenty-four hours

a day. It is this which puzzles the long-shoreman about the clerk, the

Londoner about the bushman. It was this which puzzled Carol in regard

to the married Vida. Carol herself had the baby, a larger house to care

for, all the telephone calls for Kennicott when he was away; and she

read everything, while Vida was satisfied with newspaper headlines.
But after detached brown years in boarding-houses, Vida was hungry for

housework, for the most pottering detail of it. She had no maid, nor

wanted one. She cooked, baked, swept, washed supper-cloths, with

the triumph of a chemist in a new laboratory. To her the hearth was

veritably the altar. When she went shopping she hugged the cans of soup,

and she bought a mop or a side of bacon as though she were preparing for

a reception. She knelt beside a bean sprout and crooned, "I raised this

with my own hands--I brought this new life into the world."

"I love her for being so happy," Carol brooded. "I ought to be that way.

I worship the baby, but the housework----Oh, I suppose I'm fortunate; so

much better off than farm-women on a new clearing, or people in a slum."
It has not yet been recorded that any human being has gained a very

large or permanent contentment from meditation upon the fact that he is

better off than others.
In Carol's own twenty-four hours a day she got up, dressed the baby, had

breakfast, talked to Oscarina about the day's shopping, put the baby on

the porch to play, went to the butcher's to choose between steak and

pork chops, bathed the baby, nailed up a shelf, had dinner, put the baby

to bed for a nap, paid the iceman, read for an hour, took the baby out

for a walk, called on Vida, had supper, put the baby to bed, darned

socks, listened to Kennicott's yawning comment on what a fool Dr.

McGanum was to try to use that cheap X-ray outfit of his on an

epithelioma, repaired a frock, drowsily heard Kennicott stoke the

furnace, tried to read a page of Thorstein Veblen--and the day was gone.

Except when Hugh was vigorously naughty, or whiney, or laughing,

or saying "I like my chair" with thrilling maturity, she was always

enfeebled by loneliness. She no longer felt superior about that

misfortune. She would gladly have been converted to Vida's satisfaction

in Gopher Prairie and mopping the floor.


Carol drove through an astonishing number of books from the public

library and from city shops. Kennicott was at first uncomfortable over

her disconcerting habit of buying them. A book was a book, and if you

had several thousand of them right here in the library, free, why the

dickens should you spend your good money? After worrying about it for

two or three years, he decided that this was one of the Funny Ideas

which she had caught as a librarian and from which she would never

entirely recover.
The authors whom she read were most of them frightfully annoyed by the

Vida Sherwins. They were young American sociologists, young English

realists, Russian horrorists; Anatole France, Rolland, Nexo, Wells,

Shaw, Key, Edgar Lee Masters, Theodore Dreiser, Sherwood Anderson, Henry

Mencken, and all the other subversive philosophers and artists whom

women were consulting everywhere, in batik-curtained studios in New

York, in Kansas farmhouses, San Francisco drawing-rooms, Alabama schools

for negroes. From them she got the same confused desire which the

million other women felt; the same determination to be class-conscious

without discovering the class of which she was to be conscious.

Certainly her reading precipitated her observations of Main Street, of

Gopher Prairie and of the several adjacent Gopher Prairies which she had

seen on drives with Kennicott. In her fluid thought certain convictions

appeared, jaggedly, a fragment of an impression at a time, while she was

going to sleep, or manicuring her nails, or waiting for Kennicott.
These convictions she presented to Vida Sherwin--Vida

Wutherspoon--beside a radiator, over a bowl of not very good walnuts and

pecans from Uncle Whittier's grocery, on an evening when both Kennicott

and Raymie had gone out of town with the other officers of the Ancient

and Affiliated Order of Spartans, to inaugurate a new chapter at

Wakamin. Vida had come to the house for the night. She helped in putting

Hugh to bed, sputtering the while about his soft skin. Then they talked

till midnight.

What Carol said that evening, what she was passionately thinking, was

also emerging in the minds of women in ten thousand Gopher Prairies. Her

formulations were not pat solutions but visions of a tragic futility.

She did not utter them so compactly that they can be given in her words;

they were roughened with "Well, you see" and "if you get what I mean"

and "I don't know that I'm making myself clear." But they were definite

enough, and indignant enough.


In reading popular stories and seeing plays, asserted Carol, she

had found only two traditions of the American small town. The first

tradition, repeated in scores of magazines every month, is that the

American village remains the one sure abode of friendship, honesty,

and clean sweet marriageable girls. Therefore all men who succeed in

painting in Paris or in finance in New York at last become weary of

smart women, return to their native towns, assert that cities are

vicious, marry their childhood sweethearts and, presumably, joyously

abide in those towns until death.
The other tradition is that the significant features of all villages are

whiskers, iron dogs upon lawns, gold bricks, checkers, jars of gilded

cat-tails, and shrewd comic old men who are known as "hicks" and who

ejaculate "Waal I swan." This altogether admirable tradition rules

the vaudeville stage, facetious illustrators, and syndicated newspaper

humor, but out of actual life it passed forty years ago. Carol's small

town thinks not in hoss-swapping but in cheap motor cars,

telephones, ready-made clothes, silos, alfalfa, kodaks, phonographs,

leather-upholstered Morris chairs, bridge-prizes, oil-stocks,

motion-pictures, land-deals, unread sets of Mark Twain, and a chaste

version of national politics.
With such a small-town life a Kennicott or a Champ Perry is content, but

there are also hundreds of thousands, particularly women and young men,

who are not at all content. The more intelligent young people (and the

fortunate widows!) flee to the cities with agility and, despite the

fictional tradition, resolutely stay there, seldom returning even for

holidays. The most protesting patriots of the towns leave them in old

age, if they can afford it, and go to live in California or in the

The reason, Carol insisted, is not a whiskered rusticity. It is nothing

so amusing!
It is an unimaginatively standardized background, a sluggishness of

speech and manners, a rigid ruling of the spirit by the desire to appear

respectable. It is contentment . . . the contentment of the quiet

dead, who are scornful of the living for their restless walking. It is

negation canonized as the one positive virtue. It is the prohibition of

happiness. It is slavery self-sought and self-defended. It is dullness

made God.
A savorless people, gulping tasteless food, and sitting afterward,

coatless and thoughtless, in rocking-chairs prickly with inane

decorations, listening to mechanical music, saying mechanical things

about the excellence of Ford automobiles, and viewing themselves as the

greatest race in the world.


She had inquired as to the effect of this dominating dullness upon

foreigners. She remembered the feeble exotic quality to be found in the

first-generation Scandinavians; she recalled the Norwegian Fair at the

Lutheran Church, to which Bea had taken her. There, in the bondestue,

the replica of a Norse farm kitchen, pale women in scarlet jackets

embroidered with gold thread and colored beads, in black skirts with a

line of blue, green-striped aprons, and ridged caps very pretty to set

off a fresh face, had served rommegrod og lefse--sweet cakes and sour

milk pudding spiced with cinnamon. For the first time in Gopher Prairie

Carol had found novelty. She had reveled in the mild foreignness of it.
But she saw these Scandinavian women zealously exchanging their spiced

puddings and red jackets for fried pork chops and congealed white

blouses, trading the ancient Christmas hymns of the fjords for "She's My

Jazzland Cutie," being Americanized into uniformity, and in less than

a generation losing in the grayness whatever pleasant new customs

they might have added to the life of the town. Their sons finished the

process. In ready-made clothes and ready-made high-school phrases they

sank into propriety, and the sound American customs had absorbed without

one trace of pollution another alien invasion.
And along with these foreigners, she felt herself being ironed into

glossy mediocrity, and she rebelled, in fear.

The respectability of the Gopher Prairies, said Carol, is reinforced by

vows of poverty and chastity in the matter of knowledge. Except for

half a dozen in each town the citizens are proud of that achievement

of ignorance which it is so easy to come by. To be "intellectual" or

"artistic" or, in their own word, to be "highbrow," is to be priggish

and of dubious virtue.

Large experiments in politics and in co-operative distribution, ventures

requiring knowledge, courage, and imagination, do originate in the West

and Middlewest, but they are not of the towns, they are of the farmers.

If these heresies are supported by the townsmen it is only by occasional

teachers doctors, lawyers, the labor unions, and workmen like Miles

Bjornstam, who are punished by being mocked as "cranks," as "half-baked

parlor socialists." The editor and the rector preach at them. The cloud

of serene ignorance submerges them in unhappiness and futility.


Here Vida observed, "Yes--well----Do you know, I've always thought

that Ray would have made a wonderful rector. He has what I call an

essentially religious soul. My! He'd have read the service beautifully!

I suppose it's too late now, but as I tell him, he can also serve

the world by selling shoes and----I wonder if we oughtn't to have



Doubtless all small towns, in all countries, in all ages, Carol

admitted, have a tendency to be not only dull but mean, bitter, infested

with curiosity. In France or Tibet quite as much as in Wyoming or

Indiana these timidities are inherent in isolation.
But a village in a country which is taking pains to become altogether

standardized and pure, which aspires to succeed Victorian England as the

chief mediocrity of the world, is no longer merely provincial, no longer

downy and restful in its leaf-shadowed ignorance. It is a force seeking

to dominate the earth, to drain the hills and sea of color, to set Dante

at boosting Gopher Prairie, and to dress the high gods in Klassy Kollege

Klothes. Sure of itself, it bullies other civilizations, as a traveling

salesman in a brown derby conquers the wisdom of China and tacks

advertisements of cigarettes over arches for centuries dedicate to the

sayings of Confucius.

Such a society functions admirably in the large production of cheap

automobiles, dollar watches, and safety razors. But it is not satisfied

until the entire world also admits that the end and joyous purpose of

living is to ride in flivvers, to make advertising-pictures of dollar

watches, and in the twilight to sit talking not of love and courage but

of the convenience of safety razors.

And such a society, such a nation, is determined by the Gopher Prairies.

The greatest manufacturer is but a busier Sam Clark, and all the rotund

senators and presidents are village lawyers and bankers grown nine feet

Though a Gopher Prairie regards itself as a part of the Great World,

compares itself to Rome and Vienna, it will not acquire the scientific

spirit, the international mind, which would make it great. It picks at

information which will visibly procure money or social distinction.

Its conception of a community ideal is not the grand manner, the noble

aspiration, the fine aristocratic pride, but cheap labor for the kitchen

and rapid increase in the price of land. It plays at cards on greasy

oil-cloth in a shanty, and does not know that prophets are walking and

talking on the terrace.

If all the provincials were as kindly as Champ Perry and Sam Clark there

would be no reason for desiring the town to seek great traditions. It is

the Harry Haydocks, the Dave Dyers, the Jackson Elders, small busy men

crushingly powerful in their common purpose, viewing themselves as men

of the world but keeping themselves men of the cash-register and the

comic film, who make the town a sterile oligarchy.


She had sought to be definite in analyzing the surface ugliness of

the Gopher Prairies. She asserted that it is a matter of universal

similarity; of flimsiness of construction, so that the towns resemble

frontier camps; of neglect of natural advantages, so that the hills

are covered with brush, the lakes shut off by railroads, and the

creeks lined with dumping-grounds; of depressing sobriety of color;

rectangularity of buildings; and excessive breadth and straightness of

the gashed streets, so that there is no escape from gales and from sight

of the grim sweep of land, nor any windings to coax the loiterer along,

while the breadth which would be majestic in an avenue of palaces makes

the low shabby shops creeping down the typical Main Street the more mean

by comparison.
The universal similarity--that is the physical expression of the

philosophy of dull safety. Nine-tenths of the American towns are so

alike that it is the completest boredom to wander from one to another.

Always, west of Pittsburg, and often, east of it, there is the same

lumber yard, the same railroad station, the same Ford garage, the same

creamery, the same box-like houses and two-story shops. The new, more

conscious houses are alike in their very attempts at diversity: the same

bungalows, the same square houses of stucco or tapestry brick. The shops

show the same standardized, nationally advertised wares; the newspapers

of sections three thousand miles apart have the same "syndicated

features"; the boy in Arkansas displays just such a flamboyant

ready-made suit as is found on just such a boy in Delaware, both of them

iterate the same slang phrases from the same sporting-pages, and if

one of them is in college and the other is a barber, no one may surmise

which is which.
If Kennicott were snatched from Gopher Prairie and instantly conveyed

to a town leagues away, he would not realize it. He would go down

apparently the same Main Street (almost certainly it would be called

Main Street); in the same drug store he would see the same young man

serving the same ice-cream soda to the same young woman with the same

magazines and phonograph records under her arm. Not till he had climbed

to his office and found another sign on the door, another Dr. Kennicott

inside, would he understand that something curious had presumably

Finally, behind all her comments, Carol saw the fact that the prairie

towns no more exist to serve the farmers who are their reason of

existence than do the great capitals; they exist to fatten on the

farmers, to provide for the townsmen large motors and social preferment;

and, unlike the capitals, they do not give to the district in return for

usury a stately and permanent center, but only this ragged camp. It is a

"parasitic Greek civilization"--minus the civilization.
"There we are then," said Carol. "The remedy? Is there any? Criticism,

perhaps, for the beginning of the beginning. Oh, there's nothing that

attacks the Tribal God Mediocrity that doesn't help a little . . . and

probably there's nothing that helps very much. Perhaps some day the

farmers will build and own their market-towns. (Think of the club they

could have!) But I'm afraid I haven't any 'reform program.' Not any

more! The trouble is spiritual, and no League or Party can enact a

preference for gardens rather than dumping-grounds. . . . There's my

confession. WELL?"
"In other words, all you want is perfection?"
"Yes! Why not?"
"How you hate this place! How can you expect to do anything with it if

you haven't any sympathy?"

"But I have! And affection. Or else I wouldn't fume so. I've learned

that Gopher Prairie isn't just an eruption on the prairie, as I thought

first, but as large as New York. In New York I wouldn't know more than

forty or fifty people, and I know that many here. Go on! Say what you're

"Well, my dear, if I DID take all your notions seriously, it would be

pretty discouraging. Imagine how a person would feel, after working hard

for years and helping to build up a nice town, to have you airily flit

in and simply say 'Rotten!' Think that's fair?"

"Why not? It must be just as discouraging for the Gopher Prairieite to

see Venice and make comparisons."

"It would not! I imagine gondolas are kind of nice to ride in, but we've

got better bath-rooms! But----My dear, you're not the only person in

this town who has done some thinking for herself, although (pardon my

rudeness) I'm afraid you think so. I'll admit we lack some things. Maybe

our theater isn't as good as shows in Paris. All right! I don't want

to see any foreign culture suddenly forced on us--whether it's

street-planning or table-manners or crazy communistic ideas."
Vida sketched what she termed "practical things that will make a happier

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