The Project Gutenberg ebook of Main Street, by Sinclair Lewis



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She could only stare.
"I want you to be satisfied when you get there. I'll do everything I can

to keep you happy, but I'll make lots of breaks, so I want you to take

time and think it over."
She was relieved. She still had a chance to seize splendid indefinite

freedoms. She might go--oh, she'd see Europe, somehow, before she was

recaptured. But she also had a firmer respect for Kennicott. She had

fancied that her life might make a story. She knew that there was

nothing heroic or obviously dramatic in it, no magic of rare hours,

nor valiant challenge, but it seemed to her that she was of some

significance because she was commonplaceness, the ordinary life of the

age, made articulate and protesting. It had not occurred to her that

there was also a story of Will Kennicott, into which she entered only so

much as he entered into hers; that he had bewilderments and concealments

as intricate as her own, and soft treacherous desires for sympathy.
Thus she brooded, looking at the amazing sea, holding his hand.

VIII


She was in Washington; Kennicott was in Gopher Prairie, writing as dryly

as ever about water-pipes and goose-hunting and Mrs. Fageros's mastoid.


She was talking at dinner to a generalissima of suffrage. Should she

return?
The leader spoke wearily:


"My dear, I'm perfectly selfish. I can't quite visualize the needs of

your husband, and it seems to me that your baby will do quite as well in

the schools here as in your barracks at home."
"Then you think I'd better not go back?" Carol sounded disappointed.
"It's more difficult than that. When I say that I'm selfish I mean that

the only thing I consider about women is whether they're likely to prove

useful in building up real political power for women. And you? Shall I

be frank? Remember when I say 'you' I don't mean you alone. I'm thinking

of thousands of women who come to Washington and New York and

Chicago every year, dissatisfied at home and seeking a sign in the

heavens--women of all sorts, from timid mothers of fifty in cotton

gloves, to girls just out of Vassar who organize strikes in their own

fathers' factories! All of you are more or less useful to me, but only

a few of you can take my place, because I have one virtue (only one): I

have given up father and mother and children for the love of God.
"Here's the test for you: Do you come to 'conquer the East,' as people

say, or do you come to conquer yourself?


"It's so much more complicated than any of you know--so much more

complicated than I knew when I put on Ground Grippers and started out to

reform the world. The final complication in 'conquering Washington' or

'conquering New York' is that the conquerors must beyond all things not

conquer! It must have been so easy in the good old days when authors

dreamed only of selling a hundred thousand volumes, and sculptors

of being feted in big houses, and even the Uplifters like me had a

simple-hearted ambition to be elected to important offices and invited

to go round lecturing. But we meddlers have upset everything. Now the

one thing that is disgraceful to any of us is obvious success. The

Uplifter who is very popular with wealthy patrons can be pretty sure

that he has softened his philosophy to please them, and the author who

is making lots of money--poor things, I've heard 'em apologizing for it

to the shabby bitter-enders; I've seen 'em ashamed of the sleek luggage

they got from movie rights.
"Do you want to sacrifice yourself in such a topsy-turvy world, where

popularity makes you unpopular with the people you love, and the only

failure is cheap success, and the only individualist is the person who

gives up all his individualism to serve a jolly ungrateful proletariat

which thumbs its nose at him?"
Carol smiled ingratiatingly, to indicate that she was indeed one who

desired to sacrifice, but she sighed, "I don't know; I'm afraid I'm not

heroic. I certainly wasn't out home. Why didn't I do big effective----"
"Not a matter of heroism. Matter of endurance. Your Middlewest is

double-Puritan--prairie Puritan on top of New England Puritan; bluff

frontiersman on the surface, but in its heart it still has the ideal of

Plymouth Rock in a sleet-storm. There's one attack you can make on it,

perhaps the only kind that accomplishes much anywhere: you can keep on

looking at one thing after another in your home and church and bank, and

ask why it is, and who first laid down the law that it had to be that

way. If enough of us do this impolitely enough, then we'll become

civilized in merely twenty thousand years or so, instead of having

to wait the two hundred thousand years that my cynical anthropologist

friends allow. . . . Easy, pleasant, lucrative home-work for wives:

asking people to define their jobs. That's the most dangerous doctrine I

know!"
Carol was mediating, "I will go back! I will go on asking questions.

I've always done it, and always failed at it, and it's all I can do. I'm

going to ask Ezra Stowbody why he's opposed to the nationalization of

railroads, and ask Dave Dyer why a druggist always is pleased when he's

called 'doctor,' and maybe ask Mrs. Bogart why she wears a widow's veil

that looks like a dead crow."


The woman leader straightened. "And you have one thing. You have a baby

to hug. That's my temptation. I dream of babies--of a baby--and I sneak

around parks to see them playing. (The children in Dupont Circle are

like a poppy-garden.) And the antis call me 'unsexed'!"


Carol was thinking, in panic, "Oughtn't Hugh to have country air? I

won't let him become a yokel. I can guide him away from street-corner

loafing. . . . I think I can."
On her way home: "Now that I've made a precedent, joined the union and

gone out on one strike and learned personal solidarity, I won't be

so afraid. Will won't always be resisting my running away. Some day I

really will go to Europe with him . . . or without him.


"I've lived with people who are not afraid to go to jail. I could invite

a Miles Bjornstam to dinner without being afraid of the Haydocks . . . I

think I could.
"I'll take back the sound of Yvette Guilbert's songs and Elman's violin.

They'll be only the lovelier against the thrumming of crickets in the

stubble on an autumn day.
"I can laugh now and be serene . . . I think I can."
Though she should return, she said, she would not be utterly defeated.

She was glad of her rebellion. The prairie was no longer empty land in

the sun-glare; it was the living tawny beast which she had fought and

made beautiful by fighting; and in the village streets were shadows of

her desires and the sound of her marching and the seeds of mystery and

greatness.

IX

Her active hatred of Gopher Prairie had run out. She saw it now as a



toiling new settlement. With sympathy she remembered Kennicott's defense

of its citizens as "a lot of pretty good folks, working hard and trying

to bring up their families the best they can." She recalled tenderly the

young awkwardness of Main Street and the makeshifts of the little brown

cottages; she pitied their shabbiness and isolation; had compassion for

their assertion of culture, even as expressed in Thanatopsis papers, for

their pretense of greatness, even as trumpeted in "boosting." She saw

Main Street in the dusty prairie sunset, a line of frontier shanties

with solemn lonely people waiting for her, solemn and lonely as an old

man who has outlived his friends. She remembered that Kennicott and Sam

Clark had listened to her songs, and she wanted to run to them and sing.
"At last," she rejoiced, "I've come to a fairer attitude toward the

town. I can love it, now."


She was, perhaps, rather proud of herself for having acquired so much

tolerance.


She awoke at three in the morning, after a dream of being tortured by

Ella Stowbody and the Widow Bogart.


"I've been making the town a myth. This is how people keep up the

tradition of the perfect home-town, the happy boyhood, the brilliant

college friends. We forget so. I've been forgetting that Main Street

doesn't think it's in the least lonely and pitiful. It thinks it's God's

Own Country. It isn't waiting for me. It doesn't care."
But the next evening she again saw Gopher Prairie as her home, waiting

for her in the sunset, rimmed round with splendor.


She did not return for five months more; five months crammed with greedy

accumulation of sounds and colors to take back for the long still days.


She had spent nearly two years in Washington.
When she departed for Gopher Prairie, in June, her second baby was

stirring within her.


CHAPTER XXXIX


SHE wondered all the way home what her sensations would be. She wondered

about it so much that she had every sensation she had imagined. She was

excited by each familiar porch, each hearty "Well, well!" and flattered

to be, for a day, the most important news of the community. She bustled

about, making calls. Juanita Haydock bubbled over their Washington

encounter, and took Carol to her social bosom. This ancient opponent

seemed likely to be her most intimate friend, for Vida Sherwin, though

she was cordial, stood back and watched for imported heresies.


In the evening Carol went to the mill. The mystical Om-Om-Om of the

dynamos in the electric-light plant behind the mill was louder in the

darkness. Outside sat the night watchman, Champ Perry. He held up his

stringy hands and squeaked, "We've all missed you terrible."


Who in Washington would miss her?
Who in Washington could be depended upon like Guy Pollock? When she saw

him on the street, smiling as always, he seemed an eternal thing, a part

of her own self.
After a week she decided that she was neither glad nor sorry to be back.

She entered each day with the matter-of-fact attitude with which she

had gone to her office in Washington. It was her task; there would be

mechanical details and meaningless talk; what of it?


The only problem which she had approached with emotion proved

insignificant. She had, on the train, worked herself up to such devotion

that she was willing to give up her own room, to try to share all of her

life with Kennicott.


He mumbled, ten minutes after she had entered the house, "Say, I've kept

your room for you like it was. I've kind of come round to your way of

thinking. Don't see why folks need to get on each other's nerves just

because they're friendly. Darned if I haven't got so I like a little

privacy and mulling things over by myself."

II

She had left a city which sat up nights to talk of universal transition;



of European revolution, guild socialism, free verse. She had fancied

that all the world was changing.


She found that it was not.
In Gopher Prairie the only ardent new topics were prohibition, the place

in Minneapolis where you could get whisky at thirteen dollars a quart,

recipes for home-made beer, the "high cost of living," the presidential

election, Clark's new car, and not very novel foibles of Cy Bogart.

Their problems were exactly what they had been two years ago, what they

had been twenty years ago, and what they would be for twenty years to

come. With the world a possible volcano, the husbandmen were plowing at

the base of the mountain. A volcano does occasionally drop a river

of lava on even the best of agriculturists, to their astonishment and

considerable injury, but their cousins inherit the farms and a year or

two later go back to the plowing.
She was unable to rhapsodize much over the seven new bungalows and the

two garages which Kennicott had made to seem so important. Her intensest

thought about them was, "Oh yes, they're all right I suppose." The

change which she did heed was the erection of the schoolbuilding, with

its cheerful brick walls, broad windows, gymnasium, classrooms for

agriculture and cooking. It indicated Vida's triumph, and it stirred her

to activity--any activity. She went to Vida with a jaunty, "I think I

shall work for you. And I'll begin at the bottom."


She did. She relieved the attendant at the rest-room for an hour a

day. Her only innovation was painting the pine table a black and orange

rather shocking to the Thanatopsis. She talked to the farmwives and

soothed their babies and was happy.


Thinking of them she did not think of the ugliness of Main Street as she

hurried along it to the chatter of the Jolly Seventeen.


She wore her eye-glasses on the street now. She was beginning to ask

Kennicott and Juanita if she didn't look young, much younger than

thirty-three. The eye-glasses pinched her nose. She considered

spectacles. They would make her seem older, and hopelessly settled.

No! She would not wear spectacles yet. But she tried on a pair at

Kennicott's office. They really were much more comfortable.

III

Dr. Westlake, Sam Clark, Nat Hicks, and Del Snafflin were talking in



Del's barber shop.
"Well, I see Kennicott's wife is taking a whirl at the rest-room, now,"

said Dr. Westlake. He emphasized the "now."


Del interrupted the shaving of Sam and, with his brush dripping lather,

he observed jocularly:


"What'll she be up to next? They say she used to claim this burg wasn't

swell enough for a city girl like her, and would we please tax ourselves

about thirty-seven point nine and fix it all up pretty, with tidies on

the hydrants and statoos on the lawns----"


Sam irritably blew the lather from his lips, with milky small bubbles,

and snorted, "Be a good thing for most of us roughnecks if we did have

a smart woman to tell us how to fix up the town. Just as much to her

kicking as there was to Jim Blausser's gassing about factories. And you

can bet Mrs. Kennicott is smart, even if she is skittish. Glad to see

her back."


Dr. Westlake hastened to play safe. "So was I! So was I! She's got a

nice way about her, and she knows a good deal about books, or fiction

anyway. Of course she's like all the rest of these women--not

solidly founded--not scholarly--doesn't know anything about political

economy--falls for every new idea that some windjamming crank puts out.

But she's a nice woman. She'll probably fix up the rest-room, and the

rest-room is a fine thing, brings a lot of business to town. And now

that Mrs. Kennicott's been away, maybe she's got over some of her fool

ideas. Maybe she realizes that folks simply laugh at her when she tries

to tell us how to run everything."


"Sure. She'll take a tumble to herself," said Nat Hicks, sucking in

his lips judicially. "As far as I'm concerned, I'll say she's as nice a

looking skirt as there is in town. But yow!" His tone electrified them.

"Guess she'll miss that Swede Valborg that used to work for me! They was

a pair! Talking poetry and moonshine! If they could of got away with it,

they'd of been so darn lovey-dovey----"


Sam Clark interrupted, "Rats, they never even thought about making love,

Just talking books and all that junk. I tell you, Carrie Kennicott's

a smart woman, and these smart educated women all get funny ideas, but

they get over 'em after they've had three or four kids. You'll see her

settled down one of these days, and teaching Sunday School and helping

at sociables and behaving herself, and not trying to butt into business

and politics. Sure!"
After only fifteen minutes of conference on her stockings, her son, her

separate bedroom, her music, her ancient interest in Guy Pollock, her

probable salary in Washington, and every remark which she was known to

have made since her return, the supreme council decided that they would

permit Carol Kennicott to live, and they passed on to a consideration of

Nat Hicks's New One about the traveling salesman and the old maid.

IV

For some reason which was totally mysterious to Carol, Maud Dyer seemed



to resent her return. At the Jolly Seventeen Maud giggled nervously,

"Well, I suppose you found war-work a good excuse to stay away and have

a swell time. Juanita! Don't you think we ought to make Carrie tell us

about the officers she met in Washington?"


They rustled and stared. Carol looked at them. Their curiosity seemed

natural and unimportant.


"Oh yes, yes indeed, have to do that some day," she yawned.
She no longer took Aunt Bessie Smail seriously enough to struggle for

independence. She saw that Aunt Bessie did not mean to intrude; that

she wanted to do things for all the Kennicotts. Thus Carol hit upon the

tragedy of old age, which is not that it is less vigorous than youth,

but that it is not needed by youth; that its love and prosy sageness,

so important a few years ago, so gladly offered now, are rejected

with laughter. She divined that when Aunt Bessie came in with a jar of

wild-grape jelly she was waiting in hope of being asked for the recipe.

After that she could be irritated but she could not be depressed by Aunt

Bessie's simoom of questioning.


She wasn't depressed even when she heard Mrs. Bogart observe, "Now we've

got prohibition it seems to me that the next problem of the country

ain't so much abolishing cigarettes as it is to make folks observe the

Sabbath and arrest these law-breakers that play baseball and go to the

movies and all on the Lord's Day."
Only one thing bruised Carol's vanity. Few people asked her about

Washington. They who had most admiringly begged Percy Bresnahan for his

opinions were least interested in her facts. She laughed at herself when

she saw that she had expected to be at once a heretic and a returned

hero; she was very reasonable and merry about it; and it hurt just as

much as ever.


Her baby, born in August, was a girl. Carol could not decide whether she

was to become a feminist leader or marry a scientist or both, but did

settle on Vassar and a tricolette suit with a small black hat for her

Freshman year.

VI

Hugh was loquacious at breakfast. He desired to give his impressions of



owls and F Street.
"Don't make so much noise. You talk too much," growled Kennicott.
Carol flared. "Don't speak to him that way! Why don't you listen to him?

He has some very interesting things to tell."


"What's the idea? Mean to say you expect me to spend all my time

listening to his chatter?"


"Why not?"
"For one thing, he's got to learn a little discipline. Time for him to

start getting educated."


"I've learned much more discipline, I've had much more education, from

him than he has from me."


"What's this? Some new-fangled idea of raising kids you got in

Washington?"


"Perhaps. Did you ever realize that children are people?"
"That's all right. I'm not going to have him monopolizing the

conversation."


"No, of course. We have our rights, too. But I'm going to bring him up

as a human being. He has just as many thoughts as we have, and I want

him to develop them, not take Gopher Prairie's version of them. That's

my biggest work now--keeping myself, keeping you, from 'educating' him."


"Well, let's not scrap about it. But I'm not going to have him spoiled."
Kennicott had forgotten it in ten minutes; and she forgot it--this time.

VII


The Kennicotts and the Sam Clarks had driven north to a duck-pass

between two lakes, on an autumn day of blue and copper.


Kennicott had given her a light twenty-gauge shotgun. She had a first

lesson in shooting, in keeping her eyes open, not wincing, understanding

that the bead at the end of the barrel really had something to do with

pointing the gun. She was radiant; she almost believed Sam when he

insisted that it was she who had shot the mallard at which they had

fired together.


She sat on the bank of the reedy lake and found rest in Mrs. Clark's

drawling comments on nothing. The brown dusk was still. Behind them were

dark marshes. The plowed acres smelled fresh. The lake was garnet and

silver. The voices of the men, waiting for the last flight, were clear

in the cool air.
"Mark left!" sang Kennicott, in a long-drawn call.
Three ducks were swooping down in a swift line. The guns banged, and

a duck fluttered. The men pushed their light boat out on the burnished

lake, disappeared beyond the reeds. Their cheerful voices and the slow

splash and clank of oars came back to Carol from the dimness. In the sky

a fiery plain sloped down to a serene harbor. It dissolved; the lake

was white marble; and Kennicott was crying, "Well, old lady, how about

hiking out for home? Supper taste pretty good, eh?"
"I'll sit back with Ethel," she said, at the car.
It was the first time she had called Mrs. Clark by her given name; the

first time she had willingly sat back, a woman of Main Street.


"I'm hungry. It's good to be hungry," she reflected, as they drove away.
She looked across the silent fields to the west. She was conscious of an

unbroken sweep of land to the Rockies, to Alaska, a dominion which

will rise to unexampled greatness when other empires have grown senile.

Before that time, she knew, a hundred generations of Carols will aspire

and go down in tragedy devoid of palls and solemn chanting, the humdrum

inevitable tragedy of struggle against inertia.


"Let's all go to the movies tomorrow night. Awfully exciting film," said

Ethel Clark.


"Well, I was going to read a new book but----All right, let's go," said

Carol.


VIII

"They're too much for me," Carol sighed to Kennicott. "I've been

thinking about getting up an annual Community Day, when the whole town

would forget feuds and go out and have sports and a picnic and a dance.

But Bert Tybee (why did you ever elect him mayor?)--he's kidnapped my

idea. He wants the Community Day, but he wants to have some politician

'give an address.' That's just the stilted sort of thing I've tried to

avoid. He asked Vida, and of course she agreed with him."


Kennicott considered the matter while he wound the clock and they

tramped up-stairs.


"Yes, it would jar you to have Bert butting in," he said amiably. "Are

you going to do much fussing over this Community stunt? Don't you ever

get tired of fretting and stewing and experimenting?"
"I haven't even started. Look!" She led him to the nursery door, pointed

at the fuzzy brown head of her daughter. "Do you see that object on the

pillow? Do you know what it is? It's a bomb to blow up smugness. If you

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