years if Harry didn't give him a partnership, his gesticulating hand
touched Vida's shoulders.
Headache," she said briefly.
Ray and she had stopped in at Dyer's for a hot chocolate on their way
that I may not be here next year?"
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
His hand was steady on her shoulder. She dropped her head, rubbed the
back of his hand with her cheek.
They took the Ole Jenson house. "It's small," said Vida, "but it's got
Nature for once."
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."
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."
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 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.
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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
"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?"
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?"
see Venice and make comparisons."
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