The Project Gutenberg ebook of Main Street, by Sinclair Lewis

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The Project Gutenberg EBook of Main Street, by Sinclair Lewis
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Title: Main Street

Author: Sinclair Lewis
Release Date: April 12, 2006 [EBook #543]

[Last corrected: October 13, 2011]

Language: English


Produced by Charles Keller
By Sinclair Lewis

To James Branch Cabell and Joseph Hergesheimer

This is America--a town of a few thousand, in a region of wheat and corn

and dairies and little groves.

The town is, in our tale, called "Gopher Prairie, Minnesota." But its

Main Street is the continuation of Main Streets everywhere. The story

would be the same in Ohio or Montana, in Kansas or Kentucky or Illinois,

and not very differently would it be told Up York State or in the

Carolina hills.
Main Street is the climax of civilization. That this Ford car might

stand in front of the Bon Ton Store, Hannibal invaded Rome and Erasmus

wrote in Oxford cloisters. What Ole Jenson the grocer says to Ezra

Stowbody the banker is the new law for London, Prague, and the

unprofitable isles of the sea; whatsoever Ezra does not know and

sanction, that thing is heresy, worthless for knowing and wicked to

Our railway station is the final aspiration of architecture. Sam

Clark's annual hardware turnover is the envy of the four counties which

constitute God's Country. In the sensitive art of the Rosebud Movie

Palace there is a Message, and humor strictly moral.

Such is our comfortable tradition and sure faith. Would he not betray

himself an alien cynic who should otherwise portray Main Street, or

distress the citizens by speculating whether there may not be other


ON a hill by the Mississippi where Chippewas camped two generations ago,

a girl stood in relief against the cornflower blue of Northern sky.

She saw no Indians now; she saw flour-mills and the blinking windows of

skyscrapers in Minneapolis and St. Paul. Nor was she thinking of squaws

and portages, and the Yankee fur-traders whose shadows were all about

her. She was meditating upon walnut fudge, the plays of Brieux, the

reasons why heels run over, and the fact that the chemistry instructor

had stared at the new coiffure which concealed her ears.

A breeze which had crossed a thousand miles of wheat-lands bellied her

taffeta skirt in a line so graceful, so full of animation and moving

beauty, that the heart of a chance watcher on the lower road tightened

to wistfulness over her quality of suspended freedom. She lifted her

arms, she leaned back against the wind, her skirt dipped and flared, a

lock blew wild. A girl on a hilltop; credulous, plastic, young; drinking

the air as she longed to drink life. The eternal aching comedy of

expectant youth.

It is Carol Milford, fleeing for an hour from Blodgett College.
The days of pioneering, of lassies in sunbonnets, and bears killed with

axes in piney clearings, are deader now than Camelot; and a rebellious

girl is the spirit of that bewildered empire called the American



Blodgett College is on the edge of Minneapolis. It is a bulwark of sound

religion. It is still combating the recent heresies of Voltaire, Darwin,

and Robert Ingersoll. Pious families in Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin, the

Dakotas send their children thither, and Blodgett protects them from the

wickedness of the universities. But it secretes friendly girls, young

men who sing, and one lady instructress who really likes Milton and

Carlyle. So the four years which Carol spent at Blodgett were not

altogether wasted. The smallness of the school, the fewness of rivals,

permitted her to experiment with her perilous versatility. She played

tennis, gave chafing-dish parties, took a graduate seminar in the drama,

went "twosing," and joined half a dozen societies for the practise of

the arts or the tense stalking of a thing called General Culture.
In her class there were two or three prettier girls, but none more

eager. She was noticeable equally in the classroom grind and at dances,

though out of the three hundred students of Blodgett, scores recited

more accurately and dozens Bostoned more smoothly. Every cell of her

body was alive--thin wrists, quince-blossom skin, ingenue eyes, black

The other girls in her dormitory marveled at the slightness of her

body when they saw her in sheer negligee, or darting out wet from a

shower-bath. She seemed then but half as large as they had supposed;

a fragile child who must be cloaked with understanding kindness.

"Psychic," the girls whispered, and "spiritual." Yet so radioactive

were her nerves, so adventurous her trust in rather vaguely conceived

sweetness and light, that she was more energetic than any of the hulking

young women who, with calves bulging in heavy-ribbed woolen stockings

beneath decorous blue serge bloomers, thuddingly galloped across the

floor of the "gym" in practise for the Blodgett Ladies' Basket-Ball

Even when she was tired her dark eyes were observant. She did not yet

know the immense ability of the world to be casually cruel and proudly

dull, but if she should ever learn those dismaying powers, her eyes

would never become sullen or heavy or rheumily amorous.
For all her enthusiasms, for all the fondness and the "crushes" which

she inspired, Carol's acquaintances were shy of her. When she was most

ardently singing hymns or planning deviltry she yet seemed gently aloof

and critical. She was credulous, perhaps; a born hero-worshipper; yet

she did question and examine unceasingly. Whatever she might become she

would never be static.

Her versatility ensnared her. By turns she hoped to discover that she

had an unusual voice, a talent for the piano, the ability to act, to

write, to manage organizations. Always she was disappointed, but always

she effervesced anew--over the Student Volunteers, who intended to

become missionaries, over painting scenery for the dramatic club, over

soliciting advertisements for the college magazine.

She was on the peak that Sunday afternoon when she played in chapel.

Out of the dusk her violin took up the organ theme, and the candle-light

revealed her in a straight golden frock, her arm arched to the bow, her

lips serious. Every man fell in love then with religion and Carol.

Throughout Senior year she anxiously related all her experiments and

partial successes to a career. Daily, on the library steps or in the

hall of the Main Building, the co-eds talked of "What shall we do when

we finish college?" Even the girls who knew that they were going to be

married pretended to be considering important business positions;

even they who knew that they would have to work hinted about fabulous

suitors. As for Carol, she was an orphan; her only near relative was a

vanilla-flavored sister married to an optician in St. Paul. She had used

most of the money from her father's estate. She was not in love--that

is, not often, nor ever long at a time. She would earn her living.

But how she was to earn it, how she was to conquer the world--almost

entirely for the world's own good--she did not see. Most of the girls

who were not betrothed meant to be teachers. Of these there were two

sorts: careless young women who admitted that they intended to leave the

"beastly classroom and grubby children" the minute they had a chance to

marry; and studious, sometimes bulbous-browed and pop-eyed maidens who

at class prayer-meetings requested God to "guide their feet along the

paths of greatest usefulness." Neither sort tempted Carol. The former

seemed insincere (a favorite word of hers at this era). The earnest

virgins were, she fancied, as likely to do harm as to do good by their

faith in the value of parsing Caesar.
At various times during Senior year Carol finally decided upon studying

law, writing motion-picture scenarios, professional nursing, and

marrying an unidentified hero.
Then she found a hobby in sociology.
The sociology instructor was new. He was married, and therefore taboo,

but he had come from Boston, he had lived among poets and socialists and

Jews and millionaire uplifters at the University Settlement in New

York, and he had a beautiful white strong neck. He led a giggling class

through the prisons, the charity bureaus, the employment agencies of

Minneapolis and St. Paul. Trailing at the end of the line Carol was

indignant at the prodding curiosity of the others, their manner of

staring at the poor as at a Zoo. She felt herself a great liberator.

She put her hand to her mouth, her forefinger and thumb quite painfully

pinching her lower lip, and frowned, and enjoyed being aloof.

A classmate named Stewart Snyder, a competent bulky young man in a gray

flannel shirt, a rusty black bow tie, and the green-and-purple class

cap, grumbled to her as they walked behind the others in the muck of the

South St. Paul stockyards, "These college chumps make me tired. They're

so top-lofty. They ought to of worked on the farm, the way I have. These

workmen put it all over them."

"I just love common workmen," glowed Carol.
"Only you don't want to forget that common workmen don't think they're

"You're right! I apologize!" Carol's brows lifted in the astonishment of

emotion, in a glory of abasement. Her eyes mothered the world. Stewart

Snyder peered at her. He rammed his large red fists into his pockets,

he jerked them out, he resolutely got rid of them by clenching his hands

behind him, and he stammered:

"I know. You _get_ people. Most of these darn co-eds----Say, Carol, you

could do a lot for people."

"Oh--oh well--you know--sympathy and everything--if you were--say you

were a lawyer's wife. You'd understand his clients. I'm going to be a

lawyer. I admit I fall down in sympathy sometimes. I get so dog-gone

impatient with people that can't stand the gaff. You'd be good for

a fellow that was too serious. Make him more--more--YOU


His slightly pouting lips, his mastiff eyes, were begging her to beg him

to go on. She fled from the steam-roller of his sentiment. She cried,

"Oh, see those poor sheep--millions and millions of them." She darted

Stewart was not interesting. He hadn't a shapely white neck, and he had

never lived among celebrated reformers. She wanted, just now, to have

a cell in a settlement-house, like a nun without the bother of a black

robe, and be kind, and read Bernard Shaw, and enormously improve a horde

of grateful poor.

The supplementary reading in sociology led her to a book on

village-improvement--tree-planting, town pageants, girls' clubs. It

had pictures of greens and garden-walls in France, New England,

Pennsylvania. She had picked it up carelessly, with a slight yawn which

she patted down with her finger-tips as delicately as a cat.
She dipped into the book, lounging on her window-seat, with her slim,

lisle-stockinged legs crossed, and her knees up under her chin.

She stroked a satin pillow while she read. About her was the clothy

exuberance of a Blodgett College room: cretonne-covered window-seat,

photographs of girls, a carbon print of the Coliseum, a chafing-dish,

and a dozen pillows embroidered or beaded or pyrographed. Shockingly out

of place was a miniature of the Dancing Bacchante. It was the only trace

of Carol in the room. She had inherited the rest from generations of

girl students.
It was as a part of all this commonplaceness that she regarded the

treatise on village-improvement. But she suddenly stopped fidgeting. She

strode into the book. She had fled half-way through it before the three

o'clock bell called her to the class in English history.

She sighed, "That's what I'll do after college! I'll get my hands on

one of these prairie towns and make it beautiful. Be an inspiration. I

suppose I'd better become a teacher then, but--I won't be that kind of

a teacher. I won't drone. Why should they have all the garden suburbs

on Long Island? Nobody has done anything with the ugly towns here in the

Northwest except hold revivals and build libraries to contain the Elsie

books. I'll make 'em put in a village green, and darling cottages, and a

quaint Main Street!"

Thus she triumphed through the class, which was a typical Blodgett

contest between a dreary teacher and unwilling children of twenty, won

by the teacher because his opponents had to answer his questions, while

their treacherous queries he could counter by demanding, "Have you

looked that up in the library? Well then, suppose you do!"
The history instructor was a retired minister. He was sarcastic today.

He begged of sporting young Mr. Charley Holmberg, "Now Charles, would it

interrupt your undoubtedly fascinating pursuit of that malevolent fly

if I were to ask you to tell us that you do not know anything about King

John?" He spent three delightful minutes in assuring himself of the fact

that no one exactly remembered the date of Magna Charta.

Carol did not hear him. She was completing the roof of a half-timbered

town hall. She had found one man in the prairie village who did not

appreciate her picture of winding streets and arcades, but she had

assembled the town council and dramatically defeated him.


Though she was Minnesota-born Carol was not an intimate of the prairie

villages. Her father, the smiling and shabby, the learned and teasingly

kind, had come from Massachusetts, and through all her childhood he

had been a judge in Mankato, which is not a prairie town, but in its

garden-sheltered streets and aisles of elms is white and green New

England reborn. Mankato lies between cliffs and the Minnesota River,

hard by Traverse des Sioux, where the first settlers made treaties

with the Indians, and the cattle-rustlers once came galloping before

hell-for-leather posses.
As she climbed along the banks of the dark river Carol listened to its

fables about the wide land of yellow waters and bleached buffalo bones

to the West; the Southern levees and singing darkies and palm trees

toward which it was forever mysteriously gliding; and she heard again

the startled bells and thick puffing of high-stacked river steamers

wrecked on sand-reefs sixty years ago. Along the decks she saw

missionaries, gamblers in tall pot hats, and Dakota chiefs with scarlet

blankets. . . . Far off whistles at night, round the river bend,

plunking paddles reechoed by the pines, and a glow on black sliding

Carol's family were self-sufficient in their inventive life, with

Christmas a rite full of surprises and tenderness, and "dressing-up

parties" spontaneous and joyously absurd. The beasts in the Milford

hearth-mythology were not the obscene Night Animals who jump out

of closets and eat little girls, but beneficent and bright-eyed

creatures--the tam htab, who is woolly and blue and lives in the

bathroom, and runs rapidly to warm small feet; the ferruginous oil

stove, who purrs and knows stories; and the skitamarigg, who will play

with children before breakfast if they spring out of bed and close the

window at the very first line of the song about puellas which father

sings while shaving.

Judge Milford's pedagogical scheme was to let the children read whatever

they pleased, and in his brown library Carol absorbed Balzac and

Rabelais and Thoreau and Max Muller. He gravely taught them the letters

on the backs of the encyclopedias, and when polite visitors asked about

the mental progress of the "little ones," they were horrified to hear

the children earnestly repeating A-And, And-Aus, Aus-Bis, Bis-Cal,

Carol's mother died when she was nine. Her father retired from the

judiciary when she was eleven, and took the family to Minneapolis. There

he died, two years after. Her sister, a busy proper advisory soul, older

than herself, had become a stranger to her even when they lived in the

same house.
From those early brown and silver days and from her independence of

relatives Carol retained a willingness to be different from brisk

efficient book-ignoring people; an instinct to observe and wonder

at their bustle even when she was taking part in it. But, she felt

approvingly, as she discovered her career of town-planning, she was now

roused to being brisk and efficient herself.


In a month Carol's ambition had clouded. Her hesitancy about becoming a

teacher had returned. She was not, she worried, strong enough to endure

the routine, and she could not picture herself standing before grinning

children and pretending to be wise and decisive. But the desire for

the creation of a beautiful town remained. When she encountered an item

about small-town women's clubs or a photograph of a straggling Main

Street, she was homesick for it, she felt robbed of her work.

It was the advice of the professor of English which led her to study

professional library-work in a Chicago school. Her imagination carved

and colored the new plan. She saw herself persuading children to read

charming fairy tales, helping young men to find books on mechanics,

being ever so courteous to old men who were hunting for newspapers--the

light of the library, an authority on books, invited to dinners with

poets and explorers, reading a paper to an association of distinguished



The last faculty reception before commencement. In five days they would

be in the cyclone of final examinations.
The house of the president had been massed with palms suggestive of

polite undertaking parlors, and in the library, a ten-foot room with a

globe and the portraits of Whittier and Martha Washington, the student

orchestra was playing "Carmen" and "Madame Butterfly." Carol was dizzy

with music and the emotions of parting. She saw the palms as a jungle,

the pink-shaded electric globes as an opaline haze, and the eye-glassed

faculty as Olympians. She was melancholy at sight of the mousey girls

with whom she had "always intended to get acquainted," and the half

dozen young men who were ready to fall in love with her.
But it was Stewart Snyder whom she encouraged. He was so much manlier

than the others; he was an even warm brown, like his new ready-made suit

with its padded shoulders. She sat with him, and with two cups of

coffee and a chicken patty, upon a pile of presidential overshoes in the

coat-closet under the stairs, and as the thin music seeped in, Stewart


"I can't stand it, this breaking up after four years! The happiest years

of life."

She believed it. "Oh, I know! To think that in just a few days we'll be

parting, and we'll never see some of the bunch again!"

"Carol, you got to listen to me! You always duck when I try to talk

seriously to you, but you got to listen to me. I'm going to be a big

lawyer, maybe a judge, and I need you, and I'd protect you----"
His arm slid behind her shoulders. The insinuating music drained her

independence. She said mournfully, "Would you take care of me?" She

touched his hand. It was warm, solid.
"You bet I would! We'd have, Lord, we'd have bully times in Yankton,

where I'm going to settle----"

"But I want to do something with life."
"What's better than making a comfy home and bringing up some cute kids

and knowing nice homey people?"

It was the immemorial male reply to the restless woman. Thus to the

young Sappho spake the melon-venders; thus the captains to Zenobia; and

in the damp cave over gnawed bones the hairy suitor thus protested to

the woman advocate of matriarchy. In the dialect of Blodgett College but

with the voice of Sappho was Carol's answer:
"Of course. I know. I suppose that's so. Honestly, I do love children.

But there's lots of women that can do housework, but I--well, if you

HAVE got a college education, you ought to use it for the world."
"I know, but you can use it just as well in the home. And gee, Carol,

just think of a bunch of us going out on an auto picnic, some nice

spring evening."
"And sleigh-riding in winter, and going fishing----"
Blarrrrrrr! The orchestra had crashed into the "Soldiers' Chorus"; and

she was protesting, "No! No! You're a dear, but I want to do things.

I don't understand myself but I want--everything in the world! Maybe I

can't sing or write, but I know I can be an influence in library work.

Just suppose I encouraged some boy and he became a great artist! I

will! I will do it! Stewart dear, I can't settle down to nothing but

Two minutes later--two hectic minutes--they were disturbed by

an embarrassed couple also seeking the idyllic seclusion of the

After graduation she never saw Stewart Snyder again. She wrote to him

once a week--for one month.


A year Carol spent in Chicago. Her study of library-cataloguing,

recording, books of reference, was easy and not too somniferous. She

reveled in the Art Institute, in symphonies and violin recitals and

chamber music, in the theater and classic dancing. She almost gave up

library work to become one of the young women who dance in cheese-cloth

in the moonlight. She was taken to a certified Studio Party, with

beer, cigarettes, bobbed hair, and a Russian Jewess who sang the

Internationale. It cannot be reported that Carol had anything

significant to say to the Bohemians. She was awkward with them, and

felt ignorant, and she was shocked by the free manners which she had for

years desired. But she heard and remembered discussions of Freud, Romain

Rolland, syndicalism, the Confederation Generale du Travail, feminism

vs. haremism, Chinese lyrics, nationalization of mines, Christian

Science, and fishing in Ontario.
She went home, and that was the beginning and end of her Bohemian life.
The second cousin of Carol's sister's husband lived in Winnetka, and

once invited her out to Sunday dinner. She walked back through Wilmette

and Evanston, discovered new forms of suburban architecture, and

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