The Project Gutenberg ebook of Main Street, by Sinclair Lewis



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about?"
"Yump. That's him. Wasn't that the darndest get-up he had on!" Kennicott

scratched at a white smear on his hard gray sleeve.


"It wasn't so bad. I wonder where he comes from? He seems to have lived

in cities a good deal. Is he from the East?"


"The East? Him? Why, he comes from a farm right up north here, just this

side of Jefferson. I know his father slightly--Adolph Valborg--typical

cranky old Swede farmer."
"Oh, really?" blandly.
"Believe he has lived in Minneapolis for quite some time, though.

Learned his trade there. And I will say he's bright, some ways. Reads

a lot. Pollock says he takes more books out of the library than anybody

else in town. Huh! He's kind of like you in that!"


The Smails and Kennicott laughed very much at this sly jest. Uncle

Whittier seized the conversation. "That fellow that's working for Hicks?

Milksop, that's what he is. Makes me tired to see a young fellow that

ought to be in the war, or anyway out in the fields earning his living

honest, like I done when I was young, doing a woman's work and then come

out and dress up like a show-actor! Why, when I was his age----"


Carol reflected that the carving-knife would make an excellent dagger

with which to kill Uncle Whittier. It would slide in easily. The

headlines would be terrible.
Kennicott said judiciously, "Oh, I don't want to be unjust to him.

I believe he took his physical examination for military service. Got

varicose veins--not bad, but enough to disqualify him. Though I will say

he doesn't look like a fellow that would be so awful darn crazy to poke

his bayonet into a Hun's guts."
"Will! PLEASE!"
"Well, he don't. Looks soft to me. And they say he told Del Snafflin,

when he was getting a hair-cut on Saturday, that he wished he could play

the piano."
"Isn't it wonderful how much we all know about one another in a town

like this," said Carol innocently.


Kennicott was suspicious, but Aunt Bessie, serving the floating island

pudding, agreed, "Yes, it is wonderful. Folks can get away with all

sorts of meannesses and sins in these terrible cities, but they can't

here. I was noticing this tailor fellow this morning, and when Mrs.

Riggs offered to share her hymn-book with him, he shook his head, and

all the while we was singing he just stood there like a bump on a log

and never opened his mouth. Everybody says he's got an idea that he's

got so much better manners and all than what the rest of us have, but if

that's what he calls good manners, I want to know!"
Carol again studied the carving-knife. Blood on the whiteness of a

tablecloth might be gorgeous.


Then:
"Fool! Neurotic impossibilist! Telling yourself orchard fairy-tales--at

thirty. . . . Dear Lord, am I really THIRTY? That boy can't be more than

twenty-five."

IV

She went calling.


Boarding with the Widow Bogart was Fern Mullins, a girl of twenty-two

who was to be teacher of English, French, and gymnastics in the high

school this coming session. Fern Mullins had come to town early, for the

six-weeks normal course for country teachers. Carol had noticed her on

the street, had heard almost as much about her as about Erik Valborg.

She was tall, weedy, pretty, and incurably rakish. Whether she wore a

low middy collar or dressed reticently for school in a black suit with a

high-necked blouse, she was airy, flippant. "She looks like an absolute

totty," said all the Mrs. Sam Clarks, disapprovingly, and all the

Juanita Haydocks, enviously.


That Sunday evening, sitting in baggy canvas lawn-chairs beside the

house, the Kennicotts saw Fern laughing with Cy Bogart who, though still

a junior in high school, was now a lump of a man, only two or three

years younger than Fern. Cy had to go downtown for weighty matters

connected with the pool-parlor. Fern drooped on the Bogart porch, her

chin in her hands.


"She looks lonely," said Kennicott.
"She does, poor soul. I believe I'll go over and speak to her. I was

introduced to her at Dave's but I haven't called." Carol was slipping

across the lawn, a white figure in the dimness, faintly brushing the

dewy grass. She was thinking of Erik and of the fact that her feet

were wet, and she was casual in her greeting: "Hello! The doctor and I

wondered if you were lonely."


Resentfully, "I am!"
Carol concentrated on her. "My dear, you sound so! I know how it is. I

used to be tired when I was on the job--I was a librarian. What was your

college? I was Blodgett."
More interestedly, "I went to the U." Fern meant the University of

Minnesota.


"You must have had a splendid time. Blodgett was a bit dull."
"Where were you a librarian?" challengingly.
"St. Paul--the main library."
"Honest? Oh dear, I wish I was back in the Cities! This is my first year

of teaching, and I'm scared stiff. I did have the best time in college:

dramatics and basket-ball and fussing and dancing--I'm simply crazy

about dancing. And here, except when I have the kids in gymnasium class,

or when I'm chaperoning the basket-ball team on a trip out-of-town, I

won't dare to move above a whisper. I guess they don't care much if

you put any pep into teaching or not, as long as you look like a Good

Influence out of school-hours--and that means never doing anything you

want to. This normal course is bad enough, but the regular school will

be FIERCE! If it wasn't too late to get a job in the Cities, I swear I'd

resign here. I bet I won't dare to go to a single dance all winter. If

I cut loose and danced the way I like to, they'd think I was a perfect

hellion--poor harmless me! Oh, I oughtn't to be talking like this. Fern,

you never could be cagey!"


"Don't be frightened, my dear! . . . Doesn't that sound atrociously old

and kind! I'm talking to you the way Mrs. Westlake talks to me! That's

having a husband and a kitchen range, I suppose. But I feel young, and I

want to dance like a--like a hellion?--too. So I sympathize."


Fern made a sound of gratitude. Carol inquired, "What experience did you

have with college dramatics? I tried to start a kind of Little Theater

here. It was dreadful. I must tell you about it----"
Two hours later, when Kennicott came over to greet Fern and to yawn,

"Look here, Carrie, don't you suppose you better be thinking about

turning in? I've got a hard day tomorrow," the two were talking so

intimately that they constantly interrupted each other.


As she went respectably home, convoyed by a husband, and decorously

holding up her skirts, Carol rejoiced, "Everything has changed! I have

two friends, Fern and----But who's the other? That's queer; I thought

there was----Oh, how absurd!"

V

She often passed Erik Valborg on the street; the brown jersey coat



became unremarkable. When she was driving with Kennicott, in early

evening, she saw him on the lake shore, reading a thin book which might

easily have been poetry. She noted that he was the only person in the

motorized town who still took long walks.


She told herself that she was the daughter of a judge, the wife of a

doctor, and that she did not care to know a capering tailor. She told

herself that she was not responsive to men . . . not even to Percy

Bresnahan. She told herself that a woman of thirty who heeded a boy

of twenty-five was ridiculous. And on Friday, when she had convinced

herself that the errand was necessary, she went to Nat Hicks's shop,

bearing the not very romantic burden of a pair of her husband's

trousers. Hicks was in the back room. She faced the Greek god who, in a

somewhat ungodlike way, was stitching a coat on a scaley sewing-machine,

in a room of smutted plaster walls.


She saw that his hands were not in keeping with a Hellenic face. They

were thick, roughened with needle and hot iron and plow-handle. Even

in the shop he persisted in his finery. He wore a silk shirt, a topaz

scarf, thin tan shoes.


This she absorbed while she was saying curtly, "Can I get these pressed,

please?"
Not rising from the sewing-machine he stuck out his hand, mumbled, "When

do you want them?"
"Oh, Monday."
The adventure was over. She was marching out.
"What name?" he called after her.
He had risen and, despite the farcicality of Dr. Will Kennicott's bulgy

trousers draped over his arm, he had the grace of a cat.


"Kennicott."
"Kennicott. Oh! Oh say, you're Mrs. Dr. Kennicott then, aren't you?"
"Yes." She stood at the door. Now that she had carried out her

preposterous impulse to see what he was like, she was cold, she was as

ready to detect familiarities as the virtuous Miss Ella Stowbody.
"I've heard about you. Myrtle Cass was saying you got up a dramatic club

and gave a dandy play. I've always wished I had a chance to belong to a

Little Theater, and give some European plays, or whimsical like Barrie,

or a pageant."


He pronounced it "pagent"; he rhymed "pag" with "rag."
Carol nodded in the manner of a lady being kind to a tradesman, and one

of her selves sneered, "Our Erik is indeed a lost John Keats."


He was appealing, "Do you suppose it would be possible to get up another

dramatic club this coming fall?"


"Well, it might be worth thinking of." She came out of her several

conflicting poses, and said sincerely, "There's a new teacher, Miss

Mullins, who might have some talent. That would make three of us for a

nucleus. If we could scrape up half a dozen we might give a real play

with a small cast. Have you had any experience?"
"Just a bum club that some of us got up in Minneapolis when I was

working there. We had one good man, an interior decorator--maybe he was

kind of sis and effeminate, but he really was an artist, and we gave one

dandy play. But I----Of course I've always had to work hard, and study

by myself, and I'm probably sloppy, and I'd love it if I had training in

rehearsing--I mean, the crankier the director was, the better I'd like

it. If you didn't want to use me as an actor, I'd love to design the

costumes. I'm crazy about fabrics--textures and colors and designs."


She knew that he was trying to keep her from going, trying to indicate

that he was something more than a person to whom one brought trousers

for pressing. He besought:
"Some day I hope I can get away from this fool repairing, when I have

the money saved up. I want to go East and work for some big dressmaker,

and study art drawing, and become a high-class designer. Or do you think

that's a kind of fiddlin' ambition for a fellow? I was brought up on

a farm. And then monkeyin' round with silks! I don't know. What do you

think? Myrtle Cass says you're awfully educated."


"I am. Awfully. Tell me: Have the boys made fun of your ambition?"
She was seventy years old, and sexless, and more advisory than Vida

Sherwin.
"Well, they have, at that. They've jollied me a good deal, here and

Minneapolis both. They say dressmaking is ladies' work. (But I was

willing to get drafted for the war! I tried to get in. But they

rejected me. But I did try! ) I thought some of working up in a gents'

furnishings store, and I had a chance to travel on the road for a

clothing house, but somehow--I hate this tailoring, but I can't seem

to get enthusiastic about salesmanship. I keep thinking about a room in

gray oatmeal paper with prints in very narrow gold frames--or would it

be better in white enamel paneling?--but anyway, it looks out on

Fifth Avenue, and I'm designing a sumptuous----" He made it

"sump-too-ous"--"robe of linden green chiffon over cloth of gold! You

know--tileul. It's elegant. . . . What do you think?"
"Why not? What do you care for the opinion of city rowdies, or a lot

of farm boys? But you mustn't, you really mustn't, let casual strangers

like me have a chance to judge you."
"Well----You aren't a stranger, one way. Myrtle Cass--Miss Cass, should

say--she's spoken about you so often. I wanted to call on you--and the

doctor--but I didn't quite have the nerve. One evening I walked past

your house, but you and your husband were talking on the porch, and you

looked so chummy and happy I didn't dare butt in."
Maternally, "I think it's extremely nice of you to want to be trained

in--in enunciation by a stage-director. Perhaps I could help you. I'm

a thoroughly sound and uninspired schoolma'am by instinct; quite

hopelessly mature."


"Oh, you aren't EITHER!"
She was not very successful at accepting his fervor with the air of

amused woman of the world, but she sounded reasonably impersonal: "Thank

you. Shall we see if we really can get up a new dramatic club? I'll tell

you: Come to the house this evening, about eight. I'll ask Miss Mullins

to come over, and we'll talk about it."

VI

"He has absolutely no sense of humor. Less than Will. But hasn't



he-----What is a 'sense of humor'? Isn't the thing he lacks the

back-slapping jocosity that passes for humor here? Anyway----Poor lamb,

coaxing me to stay and play with him! Poor lonely lamb! If he could be

free from Nat Hickses, from people who say 'dandy' and 'bum,' would he

develop?
"I wonder if Whitman didn't use Brooklyn back-street slang, as a boy?
"No. Not Whitman. He's Keats--sensitive to silken things. 'Innumerable

of stains and splendid dyes as are the tiger-moth's deep-damask'd

wings.' Keats, here! A bewildered spirit fallen on Main Street. And Main

Street laughs till it aches, giggles till the spirit doubts his own self

and tries to give up the use of wings for the correct uses of a 'gents'

furnishings store.' Gopher Prairie with its celebrated eleven miles of

cement walk. . . . I wonder how much of the cement is made out of the

tombstones of John Keatses?"

VII

Kennicott was cordial to Fern Mullins, teased her, told her he was a



"great hand for running off with pretty school-teachers," and promised

that if the school-board should object to her dancing, he would "bat 'em

one over the head and tell 'em how lucky they were to get a girl with

some go to her, for once."


But to Erik Valborg he was not cordial. He shook hands loosely, and

said, "H' are yuh."


Nat Hicks was socially acceptable; he had been here for years, and

owned his shop; but this person was merely Nat's workman, and the

town's principle of perfect democracy was not meant to be applied

indiscriminately.


The conference on a dramatic club theoretically included Kennicott, but

he sat back, patting yawns, conscious of Fern's ankles, smiling amiably

on the children at their sport.
Fern wanted to tell her grievances; Carol was sulky every time she

thought of "The Girl from Kankakee"; it was Erik who made suggestions.

He had read with astounding breadth, and astounding lack of judgment.

His voice was sensitive to liquids, but he overused the word "glorious."

He mispronounced a tenth of the words he had from books, but he knew it.

He was insistent, but he was shy.


When he demanded, "I'd like to stage 'Suppressed Desires,' by Cook and

Miss Glaspell," Carol ceased to be patronizing. He was not the yearner:

he was the artist, sure of his vision. "I'd make it simple. Use a big

window at the back, with a cyclorama of a blue that would simply hit you

in the eye, and just one tree-branch, to suggest a park below. Put

the breakfast table on a dais. Let the colors be kind of arty and

tea-roomy--orange chairs, and orange and blue table, and blue Japanese

breakfast set, and some place, one big flat smear of black--bang! Oh.

Another play I wish we could do is Tennyson Jesse's 'The Black Mask.'

I've never seen it but----Glorious ending, where this woman looks at

the man with his face all blown away, and she just gives one horrible

scream."
"Good God, is that your idea of a glorious ending?" bayed Kennicott.


"That sounds fierce! I do love artistic things, but not the horrible

ones," moaned Fern Mullins.


Erik was bewildered; glanced at Carol. She nodded loyally.
At the end of the conference they had decided nothing.

CHAPTER XXIX


SHE had walked up the railroad track with Hugh, this Sunday afternoon.
She saw Erik Valborg coming, in an ancient highwater suit, tramping

sullenly and alone, striking at the rails with a stick. For a second

she unreasoningly wanted to avoid him, but she kept on, and she serenely

talked about God, whose voice, Hugh asserted, made the humming in the

telegraph wires. Erik stared, straightened. They greeted each other with

"Hello."
"Hugh, say how-do-you-do to Mr. Valborg."


"Oh, dear me, he's got a button unbuttoned," worried Erik, kneeling.

Carol frowned, then noted the strength with which he swung the baby in

the air.
"May I walk along a piece with you?"
"I'm tired. Let's rest on those ties. Then I must be trotting back."
They sat on a heap of discarded railroad ties, oak logs spotted with

cinnamon-colored dry-rot and marked with metallic brown streaks where

iron plates had rested. Hugh learned that the pile was the hiding-place

of Injuns; he went gunning for them while the elders talked of

uninteresting things.
The telegraph wires thrummed, thrummed, thrummed above them; the rails

were glaring hard lines; the goldenrod smelled dusty. Across the track

was a pasture of dwarf clover and sparse lawn cut by earthy cow-paths;

beyond its placid narrow green, the rough immensity of new stubble,

jagged with wheat-stacks like huge pineapples.
Erik talked of books; flamed like a recent convert to any faith. He

exhibited as many titles and authors as possible, halting only to

appeal, "Have you read his last book? Don't you think he's a terribly

strong writer?"


She was dizzy. But when he insisted, "You've been a librarian; tell

me; do I read too much fiction?" she advised him loftily, rather

discursively. He had, she indicated, never studied. He had skipped from

one emotion to another. Especially--she hesitated, then flung it at

him--he must not guess at pronunciations; he must endure the nuisance of

stopping to reach for the dictionary.


"I'm talking like a cranky teacher," she sighed.
"No! And I will study! Read the damned dictionary right through." He

crossed his legs and bent over, clutching his ankle with both hands. "I

know what you mean. I've been rushing from picture to picture, like a

kid let loose in an art gallery for the first time. You see, it's so

awful recent that I've found there was a world--well, a world where

beautiful things counted. I was on the farm till I was nineteen. Dad is

a good farmer, but nothing else. Do you know why he first sent me off to

learn tailoring? I wanted to study drawing, and he had a cousin that'd

made a lot of money tailoring out in Dakota, and he said tailoring was

a lot like drawing, so he sent me down to a punk hole called Curlew,

to work in a tailor shop. Up to that time I'd only had three months'

schooling a year--walked to school two miles, through snow up to my

knees--and Dad never would stand for my having a single book except

schoolbooks.


"I never read a novel till I got 'Dorothy Vernon of Haddon Hall' out

of the library at Curlew. I thought it was the loveliest thing in the

world! Next I read 'Barriers Burned Away' and then Pope's translation of

Homer. Some combination, all right! When I went to Minneapolis, just

two years ago, I guess I'd read pretty much everything in that Curlew

library, but I'd never heard of Rossetti or John Sargent or Balzac or

Brahms. But----Yump, I'll study. Look here! Shall I get out of this

tailoring, this pressing and repairing?"


"I don't see why a surgeon should spend very much time cobbling shoes."
"But what if I find I can't really draw and design? After fussing around

in New York or Chicago, I'd feel like a fool if I had to go back to work

in a gents' furnishings store!"
"Please say 'haberdashery.'"
"Haberdashery? All right. I'll remember." He shrugged and spread his

fingers wide.


She was humbled by his humility; she put away in her mind, to take out

and worry over later, a speculation as to whether it was not she who

was naive. She urged, "What if you do have to go back? Most of us do! We

can't all be artists--myself, for instance. We have to darn socks, and

yet we're not content to think of nothing but socks and darning-cotton.

I'd demand all I could get--whether I finally settled down to designing

frocks or building temples or pressing pants. What if you do drop back?

You'll have had the adventure. Don't be too meek toward life! Go! You're

young, you're unmarried. Try everything! Don't listen to Nat Hicks and

Sam Clark and be a 'steady young man'--in order to help them make

money. You're still a blessed innocent. Go and play till the Good People

capture you!"


"But I don't just want to play. I want to make something beautiful. God!

And I don't know enough. Do you get it? Do you understand? Nobody else

ever has! Do you understand?"
"Yes."
"And so----But here's what bothers me: I like fabrics; dinky things like

that; little drawings and elegant words. But look over there at those

fields. Big! New! Don't it seem kind of a shame to leave this and go

back to the East and Europe, and do what all those people have been

doing so long? Being careful about words, when there's millions of

bushels off wheat here! Reading this fellow Pater, when I've helped Dad

to clear fields!"
"It's good to clear fields. But it's not for you. It's one of our

favorite American myths that broad plains necessarily make broad minds,

and high mountains make high purpose. I thought that myself, when I

first came to the prairie. 'Big--new.' Oh, I don't want to deny the

prairie future. It will be magnificent. But equally I'm hanged if I want

to be bullied by it, go to war on behalf of Main Street, be bullied and

BULLIED by the faith that the future is already here in the present, and

that all of us must stay and worship wheat-stacks and insist that

this is 'God's Country'--and never, of course, do anything original

or gay-colored that would help to make that future! Anyway, you don't

belong here. Sam Clark and Nat Hicks, that's what our big newness has

produced. Go! Before it's too late, as it has been for--for some of us.

Young man, go East and grow up with the revolution! Then perhaps you

may come back and tell Sam and Nat and me what to do with the land we've

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