The Project Gutenberg ebook of Main Street, by Sinclair Lewis



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They were in shirt sleeves; smoking, chewing, spitting incessantly;

lowering their voices for a moment so that she did not hear what they

said and afterward giggling hoarsely; using over and over the canonical

phrases: "Three to dole," "I raise you a finif," "Come on now, ante up;

what do you think this is, a pink tea?" The cigar-smoke was acrid and

pervasive. The firmness with which the men mouthed their cigars made the

lower part of their faces expressionless, heavy, unappealing. They were

like politicians cynically dividing appointments.


How could they understand her world?
Did that faint and delicate world exist? Was she a fool? She doubted her

world, doubted herself, and was sick in the acid, smoke-stained air.


She slipped back into brooding upon the habituality of the house.
Kennicott was as fixed in routine as an isolated old man. At first

he had amorously deceived himself into liking her experiments with

food--the one medium in which she could express imagination--but now

he wanted only his round of favorite dishes: steak, roast beef, boiled

pig's-feet, oatmeal, baked apples. Because at some more flexible period

he had advanced from oranges to grape-fruit he considered himself an

epicure.
During their first autumn she had smiled over his affection for his

hunting-coat, but now that the leather had come unstitched in dribbles

of pale yellow thread, and tatters of canvas, smeared with dirt of the

fields and grease from gun-cleaning, hung in a border of rags, she hated

the thing.
Wasn't her whole life like that hunting-coat?
She knew every nick and brown spot on each piece of the set of china

purchased by Kennicott's mother in 1895--discreet china with a pattern

of washed-out forget-me-nots, rimmed with blurred gold: the gravy-boat,

in a saucer which did not match, the solemn and evangelical covered

vegetable-dishes, the two platters.
Twenty times had Kennicott sighed over the fact that Bea had broken the

other platter--the medium-sized one.


The kitchen.
Damp black iron sink, damp whitey-yellow drain-board with shreds of

discolored wood which from long scrubbing were as soft as cotton thread,

warped table, alarm clock, stove bravely blackened by Oscarina but an

abomination in its loose doors and broken drafts and oven that never

would keep an even heat.
Carol had done her best by the kitchen: painted it white, put up

curtains, replaced a six-year-old calendar by a color print. She had

hoped for tiling, and a kerosene range for summer cooking, but Kennicott

always postponed these expenses.


She was better acquainted with the utensils in the kitchen than with

Vida Sherwin or Guy Pollock. The can-opener, whose soft gray metal

handle was twisted from some ancient effort to pry open a window,

was more pertinent to her than all the cathedrals in Europe; and

more significant than the future of Asia was the never-settled weekly

question as to whether the small kitchen knife with the unpainted handle

or the second-best buckhorn carving-knife was better for cutting up cold

chicken for Sunday supper.

II

She was ignored by the males till midnight. Her husband called, "Suppose



we could have some eats, Carrie?" As she passed through the dining-room

the men smiled on her, belly-smiles. None of them noticed her while she

was serving the crackers and cheese and sardines and beer. They were

determining the exact psychology of Dave Dyer in standing pat, two hours

before.
When they were gone she said to Kennicott, "Your friends have the

manners of a barroom. They expect me to wait on them like a servant.

They're not so much interested in me as they would be in a waiter,

because they don't have to tip me. Unfortunately! Well, good night."


So rarely did she nag in this petty, hot-weather fashion that he was

astonished rather than angry. "Hey! Wait! What's the idea? I must say

I don't get you. The boys----Barroom? Why, Perce Bresnahan was saying

there isn't a finer bunch of royal good fellows anywhere than just the

crowd that were here tonight!"
They stood in the lower hall. He was too shocked to go on with his

duties of locking the front door and winding his watch and the clock.


"Bresnahan! I'm sick of him!" She meant nothing in particular.
"Why, Carrie, he's one of the biggest men in the country! Boston just

eats out of his hand!"


"I wonder if it does? How do we know but that in Boston, among well-bred

people, he may be regarded as an absolute lout? The way he calls women

'Sister,' and the way----"
"Now look here! That'll do! Of course I know you don't mean it--you're

simply hot and tired, and trying to work off your peeve on me. But just

the same, I won't stand your jumping on Perce. You----It's just like

your attitude toward the war--so darn afraid that America will become

militaristic----"
"But you are the pure patriot!"
"By God, I am!"
"Yes, I heard you talking to Sam Clark tonight about ways of avoiding

the income tax!"


He had recovered enough to lock the door; he clumped up-stairs ahead of

her, growling, "You don't know what you're talking about. I'm perfectly

willing to pay my full tax--fact, I'm in favor of the income tax--even

though I do think it's a penalty on frugality and enterprise--fact, it's

an unjust, darn-fool tax. But just the same, I'll pay it. Only, I'm not

idiot enough to pay more than the government makes me pay, and Sam and

I were just figuring out whether all automobile expenses oughn't to be

exemptions. I'll take a lot off you, Carrie, but I don't propose for one

second to stand your saying I'm not patriotic. You know mighty well and

good that I've tried to get away and join the army. And at the beginning

of the whole fracas I said--I've said right along--that we ought to have

entered the war the minute Germany invaded Belgium. You don't get me at

all. You can't appreciate a man's work. You're abnormal. You've

fussed so much with these fool novels and books and all this highbrow

junk----You like to argue!"
It ended, a quarter of an hour later, in his calling her a "neurotic"

before he turned away and pretended to sleep.


For the first time they had failed to make peace.
"There are two races of people, only two, and they live side by

side. His calls mine 'neurotic'; mine calls his 'stupid.' We'll never

understand each other, never; and it's madness for us to debate--to lie

together in a hot bed in a creepy room--enemies, yoked."

III

It clarified in her the longing for a place of her own.


"While it's so hot, I think I'll sleep in the spare room," she said next

day.
"Not a bad idea." He was cheerful and kindly.


The room was filled with a lumbering double bed and a cheap pine bureau.

She stored the bed in the attic; replaced it by a cot which, with a

denim cover, made a couch by day; put in a dressing-table, a rocker

transformed by a cretonne cover; had Miles Bjornstam build book-shelves.


Kennicott slowly understood that she meant to keep up her seclusion. In

his queries, "Changing the whole room?" "Putting your books in there?"

she caught his dismay. But it was so easy, once her door was closed, to

shut out his worry. That hurt her--the ease of forgetting him.


Aunt Bessie Smail sleuthed out this anarchy. She yammered, "Why, Carrie,

you ain't going to sleep all alone by yourself? I don't believe in that.

Married folks should have the same room, of course! Don't go getting

silly notions. No telling what a thing like that might lead to. Suppose

I up and told your Uncle Whit that I wanted a room of my own!"
Carol spoke of recipes for corn-pudding.
But from Mrs. Dr. Westlake she drew encouragement. She had made an

afternoon call on Mrs. Westlake. She was for the first time invited

up-stairs, and found the suave old woman sewing in a white and mahogany

room with a small bed.


"Oh, do you have your own royal apartments, and the doctor his?" Carol

hinted.
"Indeed I do! The doctor says it's bad enough to have to stand my temper

at meals. Do----" Mrs. Westlake looked at her sharply. "Why, don't you

do the same thing?"


"I've been thinking about it." Carol laughed in an embarrassed way.

"Then you wouldn't regard me as a complete hussy if I wanted to be by

myself now and then?"
"Why, child, every woman ought to get off by herself and turn over her

thoughts--about children, and God, and how bad her complexion is, and

the way men don't really understand her, and how much work she finds to

do in the house, and how much patience it takes to endure some things in

a man's love."
"Yes!" Carol said it in a gasp, her hands twisted together. She wanted

to confess not only her hatred for the Aunt Bessies but her covert

irritation toward those she best loved: her alienation from Kennicott,

her disappointment in Guy Pollock, her uneasiness in the presence of

Vida. She had enough self-control to confine herself to, "Yes. Men! The

dear blundering souls, we do have to get off and laugh at them."


"Of course we do. Not that you have to laugh at Dr. Kennicott so much,

but MY man, heavens, now there's a rare old bird! Reading story-books

when he ought to be tending to business! 'Marcus Westlake,' I say to

him, 'you're a romantic old fool.' And does he get angry? He does not!

He chuckles and says, 'Yes, my beloved, folks do say that married

people grow to resemble each other!' Drat him!" Mrs. Westlake laughed

comfortably.
After such a disclosure what could Carol do but return the courtesy by

remarking that as for Kennicott, he wasn't romantic enough--the darling.

Before she left she had babbled to Mrs. Westlake her dislike for Aunt

Bessie, the fact that Kennicott's income was now more than five thousand

a year, her view of the reason why Vida had married Raymie (which

included some thoroughly insincere praise of Raymie's "kind heart"), her

opinion of the library-board, just what Kennicott had said about Mrs.

Carthal's diabetes, and what Kennicott thought of the several surgeons

in the Cities.
She went home soothed by confession, inspirited by finding a new friend.

IV

The tragicomedy of the "domestic situation."


Oscarina went back home to help on the farm, and Carol had a succession

of maids, with gaps between. The lack of servants was becoming one

of the most cramping problems of the prairie town. Increasingly the

farmers' daughters rebelled against village dullness, and against the

unchanged attitude of the Juanitas toward "hired girls." They went off

to city kitchens, or to city shops and factories, that they might be

free and even human after hours.
The Jolly Seventeen were delighted at Carol's desertion by the loyal

Oscarina. They reminded her that she had said, "I don't have any trouble

with maids; see how Oscarina stays on."
Between incumbencies of Finn maids from the North Woods, Germans from

the prairies, occasional Swedes and Norwegians and Icelanders, Carol did

her own work--and endured Aunt Bessie's skittering in to tell her how to

dampen a broom for fluffy dust, how to sugar doughnuts, how to stuff

a goose. Carol was deft, and won shy praise from Kennicott, but as her

shoulder blades began to sting, she wondered how many millions of women

had lied to themselves during the death-rimmed years through which they

had pretended to enjoy the puerile methods persisting in housework.


She doubted the convenience and, as a natural sequent, the sanctity of

the monogamous and separate home which she had regarded as the basis of

all decent life.
She considered her doubts vicious. She refused to remember how many of

the women of the Jolly Seventeen nagged their husbands and were nagged

by them.
She energetically did not whine to Kennicott. But her eyes ached; she

was not the girl in breeches and a flannel shirt who had cooked over a

camp-fire in the Colorado mountains five years ago. Her ambition was to

get to bed at nine; her strongest emotion was resentment over rising at

half-past six to care for Hugh. The back of her neck ached as she got

out of bed. She was cynical about the joys of a simple laborious life.

She understood why workmen and workmen's wives are not grateful to their

kind employers.


At mid-morning, when she was momentarily free from the ache in her neck

and back, she was glad of the reality of work. The hours were living

and nimble. But she had no desire to read the eloquent little newspaper

essays in praise of labor which are daily written by the white-browed

journalistic prophets. She felt independent and (though she hid it) a

bit surly.


In cleaning the house she pondered upon the maid's-room. It was a

slant-roofed, small-windowed hole above the kitchen, oppressive in

summer, frigid in winter. She saw that while she had been considering

herself an unusually good mistress, she had been permitting her friends

Bea and Oscarina to live in a sty. She complained to Kennicott. "What's

the matter with it?" he growled, as they stood on the perilous stairs

dodging up from the kitchen. She commented upon the sloping roof of

unplastered boards stained in brown rings by the rain, the uneven floor,

the cot and its tumbled discouraged-looking quilts, the broken rocker,

the distorting mirror.


"Maybe it ain't any Hotel Radisson parlor, but still, it's so much

better than anything these hired girls are accustomed to at home that

they think it's fine. Seems foolish to spend money when they wouldn't

appreciate it."


But that night he drawled, with the casualness of a man who wishes to be

surprising and delightful, "Carrie, don't know but what we might begin

to think about building a new house, one of these days. How'd you like

that?"
"W-why----"


"I'm getting to the point now where I feel we can afford one--and a

corker! I'll show this burg something like a real house! We'll put one

over on Sam and Harry! Make folks sit up an' take notice!"
"Yes," she said.
He did not go on.
Daily he returned to the subject of the new house, but as to time and

mode he was indefinite. At first she believed. She babbled of a low

stone house with lattice windows and tulip-beds, of colonial brick, of

a white frame cottage with green shutters and dormer windows. To her

enthusiasms he answered, "Well, ye-es, might be worth thinking about.

Remember where I put my pipe?" When she pressed him he fidgeted, "I

don't know; seems to me those kind of houses you speak of have been

overdone."


It proved that what he wanted was a house exactly like Sam Clark's,

which was exactly like every third new house in every town in the

country: a square, yellow stolidity with immaculate clapboards, a broad

screened porch, tidy grass-plots, and concrete walks; a house resembling

the mind of a merchant who votes the party ticket straight and goes to

church once a month and owns a good car.


He admitted, "Well, yes, maybe it isn't so darn artistic but----Matter

of fact, though, I don't want a place just like Sam's. Maybe I would cut

off that fool tower he's got, and I think probably it would look better

painted a nice cream color. That yellow on Sam's house is too kind

of flashy. Then there's another kind of house that's mighty nice and

substantial-looking, with shingles, in a nice brown stain, instead of

clapboards--seen some in Minneapolis. You're way off your base when you

say I only like one kind of house!"


Uncle Whittier and Aunt Bessie came in one evening when Carol was

sleepily advocating a rose-garden cottage.


"You've had a lot of experience with housekeeping, aunty, and don't you

think," Kennicott appealed, "that it would be sensible to have a nice

square house, and pay more attention to getting a crackajack furnace

than to all this architecture and doodads?"


Aunt Bessie worked her lips as though they were an elastic band. "Why

of course! I know how it is with young folks like you, Carrie; you want

towers and bay-windows and pianos and heaven knows what all, but the

thing to get is closets and a good furnace and a handy place to hang out

the washing, and the rest don't matter."
Uncle Whittier dribbled a little, put his face near to Carol's, and

sputtered, "Course it don't! What d'you care what folks think about

the outside of your house? It's the inside you're living in. None of my

business, but I must say you young folks that'd rather have cakes than

potatoes get me riled."
She reached her room before she became savage. Below, dreadfully

near, she could hear the broom-swish of Aunt Bessie's voice, and the

mop-pounding of Uncle Whittier's grumble. She had a reasonless dread

that they would intrude on her, then a fear that she would yield

to Gopher Prairie's conception of duty toward an Aunt Bessie and go

down-stairs to be "nice." She felt the demand for standardized behavior

coming in waves from all the citizens who sat in their sitting-rooms

watching her with respectable eyes, waiting, demanding, unyielding. She

snarled, "Oh, all right, I'll go!" She powdered her nose, straightened

her collar, and coldly marched down-stairs. The three elders ignored

her. They had advanced from the new house to agreeable general fussing.

Aunt Bessie was saying, in a tone like the munching of dry toast:


"I do think Mr. Stowbody ought to have had the rain-pipe fixed at our

store right away. I went to see him on Tuesday morning before ten, no,

it was couple minutes after ten, but anyway, it was long before noon--I

know because I went right from the bank to the meat market to get some

steak--my! I think it's outrageous, the prices Oleson & McGuire charge

for their meat, and it isn't as if they gave you a good cut either but

just any old thing, and I had time to get it, and I stopped in at Mrs.

Bogart's to ask about her rheumatism----"


Carol was watching Uncle Whittier. She knew from his taut expression

that he was not listening to Aunt Bessie but herding his own thoughts,

and that he would interrupt her bluntly. He did:
"Will, where c'n I get an extra pair of pants for this coat and vest? D'

want to pay too much."


"Well, guess Nat Hicks could make you up a pair. But if I were you, I'd

drop into Ike Rifkin's--his prices are lower than the Bon Ton's."


"Humph. Got the new stove in your office yet?"
"No, been looking at some at Sam Clark's but----"
"Well, y' ought get 't in. Don't do to put off getting a stove all

summer, and then have it come cold on you in the fall."


Carol smiled upon them ingratiatingly. "Do you dears mind if I slip up

to bed? I'm rather tired--cleaned the upstairs today."


She retreated. She was certain that they were discussing her, and foully

forgiving her. She lay awake till she heard the distant creak of a bed

which indicated that Kennicott had retired. Then she felt safe.
It was Kennicott who brought up the matter of the Smails at breakfast.

With no visible connection he said, "Uncle Whit is kind of clumsy, but

just the same, he's a pretty wise old coot. He's certainly making good

with the store."


Carol smiled, and Kennicott was pleased that she had come to her senses.

"As Whit says, after all the first thing is to have the inside of a

house right, and darn the people on the outside looking in!"
It seemed settled that the house was to be a sound example of the Sam

Clark school.


Kennicott made much of erecting it entirely for her and the baby. He

spoke of closets for her frocks, and "a comfy sewing-room." But when

he drew on a leaf from an old account-book (he was a paper-saver and a

string-picker) the plans for the garage, he gave much more attention

to a cement floor and a work-bench and a gasoline-tank than he had to

sewing-rooms.


She sat back and was afraid.
In the present rookery there were odd things--a step up from the hall

to the dining-room, a picturesqueness in the shed and bedraggled lilac

bush. But the new place would be smooth, standardized, fixed. It was

probable, now that Kennicott was past forty, and settled, that this

would be the last venture he would ever make in building. So long as she

stayed in this ark, she would always have a possibility of change, but

once she was in the new house, there she would sit for all the rest of

her life--there she would die. Desperately she wanted to put it off,

against the chance of miracles. While Kennicott was chattering about a

patent swing-door for the garage she saw the swing-doors of a prison.


She never voluntarily returned to the project. Aggrieved, Kennicott

stopped drawing plans, and in ten days the new house was forgotten.

V

Every year since their marriage Carol had longed for a trip through the



East. Every year Kennicott had talked of attending the American Medical

Association convention, "and then afterwards we could do the East

up brown. I know New York clean through--spent pretty near a week

there--but I would like to see New England and all these historic places

and have some sea-food." He talked of it from February to May, and in

May he invariably decided that coming confinement-cases or land-deals

would prevent his "getting away from home-base for very long THIS

year--and no sense going till we can do it right."


The weariness of dish-washing had increased her desire to go. She

pictured herself looking at Emerson's manse, bathing in a surf of jade

and ivory, wearing a trottoir and a summer fur, meeting an aristocratic

Stranger. In the spring Kennicott had pathetically volunteered, "S'pose

you'd like to get in a good long tour this summer, but with Gould and

Mac away and so many patients depending on me, don't see how I can make

it. By golly, I feel like a tightwad though, not taking you." Through

all this restless July after she had tasted Bresnahan's disturbing

flavor of travel and gaiety, she wanted to go, but she said nothing.

They spoke of and postponed a trip to the Twin Cities. When she

suggested, as though it were a tremendous joke, "I think baby and I

might up and leave you, and run off to Cape Cod by ourselves!" his only

reaction was "Golly, don't know but what you may almost have to do that,

if we don't get in a trip next year."


Toward the end of July he proposed, "Say, the Beavers are holding a

convention in Joralemon, street fair and everything. We might go down

tomorrow. And I'd like to see Dr. Calibree about some business. Put in

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