Gideon Planish, by Sinclair Lewis

Chapter 1

The urgent whistle of the Manhattan Flyer woke the boy, and his square face moved with smiling as in half-dreams he was certain that some day he would take that train and be welcomed in lofty rooms by millionaires and poets and actresses. He would be one of them, and much admired.

His present state, at the age of ten, in 1902, was well enough. His father was not only a veterinarian but a taxidermist, a man who had not done so badly in a city like this — for Vulcan, with its population of 38,000, was the seventh city in the great State of Winnemac. The Planishes’ red-brick house, too, was one of the most decorated in that whole row on Sycamore Terrace, and they had a telephone and a leather-bound set of the Encyclopedia Americana. A cultured and enterprising household, altogether. But as the small Gideon Planish heard the enticing train, he was certain that he was going far beyond eagle-stuffing and the treatment of water-spaniels’ indigestion.

He would be a senator or a popular minister, something rotund and oratorical, and he would make audiences of two and three hundred people listen while he shot off red-hot adjectives about Liberty and Plymouth Rock.

But even as the boy was smiling, the last whistle of the train, coming across the swamps and outlying factory yards, was so lost and lonely that he fell back into his habitual doubt of himself and of his rhetorical genius; and that small square face tightened now, with the anxiety and compromise of the prophet who wants both divine sanction and a diet much spicier than locusts and wild honey. Gid already felt a little dizzy on the path that mounted high above his father’s business of embalming hoot-owls. He could feel a forecast of regret that life was going to yank him up to greatness and mountain-sickness.

Into the office of the dean of Adelbert College hastened a chunky young man with hair like a tortoise-shell cat. He glared down at the astonished dean, upraised a sturdy arm like a traffic officer, and bellowed:

“‘If they dare to come out in the open field and defend the gold standard as a good thing, we will fight them to the uttermost!’ Huh?”

“Yes, yes,” the dean said, soothingly. He was an aging man and a careful scholar, for Adelbert was a respectable small Presbyterian college. And he was used to freshmen. But Gid Planish was furiously going on:

“‘Having behind us the producing masses of this nation and the world, supported by the industrial interests —’”

The dean interrupted, “It’s ‘commercial interests,’ not ‘industrial interests.’ If you must quote William Jennings Bryan, do be accurate, my young friend.”

Gid looked pained. Through all of his long and ambitious life — he was now eighteen — he had been oppressed by just such cynical misunderstanding. But he knew the Bryan speech clear to the end, and he was a natural public leader, who never wasted any information that he possessed. He roared on:

“’— supported by the commercial interests, the laboring interests, and the toilers everywhere, we will answer their demand for a gold standard by saying to them: “You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns, you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold,”’ and look, Dean, I got to take Forensics and Extempore Speaking, I got to, that’s what I came to Adelbert for, and I asked the prof —”

“The professor.”

“Yuh, I asked the prof, and he said freshmen can’t take Forensics, but I got to take it.”

“Don’t you think that Freshman Rhetoric and a nice course of Freshman English, Wordsworth and the daffodils, would satisfy you?”

“No, sir. I guess maybe it sounds highfalutin, but I got a kind of Message to deliver.”

“And what is your message?”

Gid looked out at the waiting-room. No one was there but the dean’s secretary. He insisted, mounting on his own eloquence:

“It seems to me, what this country needs is young men in politics that have higher standards of honesty and more profound knowledge of history and, uh, well, of civics than the politicians of today, and who will advance the unfinished work lying before us of leading this country to uh, higher standards of Freedom, Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, Freedom, and — well, I mean higher standards of —”

“Of Democracy.”

“That’s it. Of Democracy. So you see I GOT to take Forensics.”

“How do you spell Forensics, young man?”

“I guess it’s f-o-r-e-n-s-i-k-s. Can I take it?”

“No.”

“What did you say, sir?”

“I said no.”

“You mean I can’t take Forensics?”

“No.”

Gid felt confused. This business of preparing to lead the masses seemed to be going around in circles. And he was aware that a fellow freshman, but a thin, tall, unidealistic and devilish kind of freshman, had entered the waiting-room, and was listening. Gid urged, more softly:

“I was the star on the debating team at Lincoln High, in Vulcan, and that’s the fifth biggest high school in the State.”

“No. It is a rule. Public Speaking is reserved for upper-classmen.”

“And we debated with the Webster High team from Monarch on ‘Resolved: Flying-machines will never be useful in war,’ and we won.”

“My young friend, your fervor is admirable, and so —”

“I can take it? Forensics? Bully!”

“You can not! Please — go — away.”

Gid went away, a little bewildered, as later in life he was so often to be bewildered by the world’s inappreciation of people who want to help it.

The thin devil of a classmate leered at him as he crossed the waiting-room.

At Doc’s Bar-B-Q Lunch, Gid was taking refreshment, this late afternoon of his second day at Adelbert College. To his disillusionment was added the stress of choosing between two fraternities, the Philamathean Club and Tiger Head. Meantime he lived at Mrs. Jones’s and endangered the nice fresh digestion that the son of a veterinarian ought to have by dining at Doc’s on hamburger sandwiches and pickles.

Next to the broad-armed chair which was also his dining-table he found the lean devil whom he had seen in the dean’s office.

“How you makin’ out?” said the devil.

“Oh, all right, I guess.”

“Did you get in on the public-speaking course?”

“No, damn it.”

“Why don’t you try for the debating team?”

“Gosh, I’ve tried to try already. I went and saw the captain, and he told me you can’t get on the team till you’re a sophomore. Gosh, I guess they don’t WANT freshmen to be intellectual and idealistic here! But I don’t suppose you care a darn about that.”

“What makes you think so?”

“You look so — Say, what do they call you?”

“Hatch Hewitt, my name is.”

“Gideon Planish, mine is.”

“Pleasedmeecha.”

“Pleasedmeecha.”

“What makes you think, do I care can freshmen be idealistic in this dump, Mr. Planish?”

“Well, I’ll tell you, Mr. Hewitt; it’s because you look like you’d make fun of sentimentalists.”

“Maybe I would, at that, Mr. Planish. But that’s because I AM an idealist.”

“Is that a fact, Hatch! Well, well, is that a fact! Say, I’m tickled to death! It would knock you for a row of small cottages if you knew how few idealists I had to discuss things with, in a factory town like Vulcan.”

“That’s how it is even in Chicago.”

“Chi-cago?” Gid was reverent. “Do you come from Chicago?”

“Um-huh.”

“Gosh! What do you want with a half-sized place like this, then?”

“Low tuition.”

“Wouldn’t I like to see Chicago! Holy mackerel! I hear where there’s an auditorium there that seats six thousand people. Imagine seeing a gang like that stretching out before you! And I hear where there’s a big women’s sufferage organization. That’s a very fine cause. Women had ought to have the vote, don’t you think so? Don’t you think we had ought to have women for their moral effect in the purification of politics?”

“That isn’t exactly my idea of what I want ’em for.”

“I thought you said you were an idealist, Hatch!”

“I guess maybe I’m an idealist AGAINST. I hate all this fakery. I hate these rich women bossing clerks in department stores, and these fat boys with cigars in the corner of their mouths, like elongated warts, and I hate books like this Mrs. Barclay’s The Rosary, that they say is selling by the hundred thousand. See how I mean?”

“Me, I don’t hate things so much — only it does kind of make me mad when I hear about little kids working in cotton mills. But I’m on the positive side, you might say. I want to kind of, you might say, rouse people to the idea this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom. I s’pose you think that’s sentimental!”

“No — no! Only, I just wish people wouldn’t quote Lincoln or the Bible, or hang out the flag or the cross, to cover up something that belongs more to the bank-book and the three golden balls. But I envy you. I wish I could trust human enthusiasm. But I come from across the tracks. My dad was an awful smart drayman and he could sing Harry Lauder songs and he was a good union man, but my God, did he lap up the licker! I went to work as a Western Union messenger at twelve — one Christmas Eve I worked at the joyous Noel business till four A.M. — and I wound up in the South Chicago bureau of the Chronicle.”

“Gosh! A re-porter?”

“Yuh. But I’m a lot older than you are. God, I’m twenty-one!”

They both sighed at that senility, and Hatch went on:

“I got what education I could reading at the branch library. I don’t think so much of colleges, but maybe I can learn some economics here, and some vocabulary besides ‘holocaust’ and ‘suspended sentence’.”

“Maybe you and I can do something in politics together, some time.”

Gid felt exultantly that perhaps he had, for the first time in his life, a Friend.

He was a tail-wagging pup, and in high school he had always been member of some respectable gang, but it had been only of baseball, fudge, dances and swimming that he had been able to talk, while deeply he desired a Real Friend, to whom he could confide his intentions toward eloquence and justice and How to Get into the Legislature. He was jarred now when Hatch Hewitt shook his head, and droned:

“No politics — no spieling. I’m a reporter. I do like Swinburne, though — nice, smooth, slippery, marble words.”

“My ideal is Bryan. But I guess maybe you think Bryan does a lot of spouting.”

“He loves dogs and mothers.”

“What’s the matter with loving dogs and mothers?”

“I don’t know. I never had either. Probably I’m just jealous of you, Gid. Maybe I wish I could hypnotize audiences too. Go to it! Sock em! I’ll write a speech for you, now and then.”

“You bet, Hatch! We’ll do that!”

So he did have the friend. But he did not intend to let even a Hatch Hewitt write his speeches. Himself, he might not be so doggone poetic, but he didn’t guess even a big journalist like Hatch could turn out anything better than his own salutatory in Vulcan:

“The fruits of the seven seas and the fruits of our broad fields from the legendary East to the broad-bosomed West have been garnered together by our illustrious princes of transportation and who have lent themselves to enlightened barter not to merely expand their own princely fortunes, so helpful, however, in benefactions to colleges and hospitals, but first and foremost to fill the hungry mouths of the clamoring multitude.”

Beat THAT?

Hatch hinted, “Let’s get out of here. C’mon over to my room. I got an idea, and I don’t want all these dopes listening.”

Indeed the small lunchroom, with its faded green tin ceiling, its faded blue plaster walls, its gallery of posters advertising gum, was filling with young men yelping, “Hey, Bill!” and “Say, is this History of Art stuff a gut course?” and the place smelled now of ham and cabbage and fried onions. As Gid wandered out with Hatch Hewitt, he resembled a plump spaniel trotting beside a wolf hound. Yet it was Gid, the comparatively prosperous, who was fashionably sloppy and collegiate, in shaggy blue woolen sweater and corduroys and thick brogans; Hatch who was fussily neat in the cheap gray suit, the plain white shirt, the cautious blue bow tie, that he was to wear for four years to come.

Hatch’s room was a stable, Gid romantically found; an old small stable built for a team of inconsiderable horses, leaning and shaky, with hayseed caked about the windows. But it was as orderly as a widow’s tea-room: a cot-bed in one stall, and in the other an old wood-stove and a wooden table with a dozen exactly arranged books.

“I do my own cooking here and just go to Doc’s barbecue for a cup of coffee and company. With what I’ve saved, and a syndicate of papers for college news that I’m working up, I’ll get through,” said Hatch. “But this dump must look pretty messy.”

“It’s grand! It’s Bohemian! Vie de Bohemia!”

“I hate Bohemians.”

“Oh!”

“I like order and precision.”

“Oh, you do!” Gid was not too meek about it.

“You — I suppose you have a handsome apartment, with a fumed-oak Morris chair.”

“I have not! I just got a stuffy room in a boarding-house till I find out which frat I’ll choose.”

“So you’re going to be a Greek — to join a select young gentlemen’s social club.”

“Why not?” Gid was admirably angry now; he was not much afraid of other people, only of himself. “I’m a social young gent myself. Just too bad you don’t like it!”

“Oh, I didn’t mean —”

“You have such a hell of a time admiring yourself as a hater, and I’m expected to sit at your feet —”

“No, no, Gid! I guess I just have mental sour stomach. You’re okay. You’re not content with this dumb world, the way it is, either — you’re not mediocre. I don’t think you are. Forgive me.”

So did Gid find his first friend, and they sat at the table drinking Hatch’s privately brewed coffee — very thin and bitter — while Hatch glanced up at the small high window of the stable to make sure the Secret Service wasn’t listening, and admitted his perilous secret.

“Gid, if you can’t get into the debating club, why don’t you — I’m going to start a Socialist Society.”

“What? But socialism is against the home and marriage!”

“What of it?”

“Of course there’s Gene Debs.”

“Exactly.”

“I hear he’s a grand guy.”

“Exactly. And we’ll have a lot of debates, and you can be in ’em. Maybe we’ll challenge the entire college to a debate.”

“That would be swell. I’d like to show up those galoots that wouldn’t take me in! I sure would! When do you start your society?”

“It’s just started this minute. It only takes two fearless guys like me and you to unsettle one little college.”

“Let’s go!”

That was the entire struggle involved in the conversion of Gideon Planish to socialism. His deconversion was to take longer, a little longer.

A train was whistling, and Gideon Planish was lying awake.

He remembered that he had a friend now, not just a companion to go walking with. Between his brains and Hatch Hewitt’s imagination, there was nothing they might not do. Probably he would never really be President of the United States, but if he ever were, it would be a pleasure to appoint Hatch Secretary of State — or anyway, postmaster at Zenith.

But of course they must think first not of such glories but of the good they could do.

Before the train had ceased its piping, he had built a glass and marble hospital in every village in America, he had Christianized China, he had stopped all wars forever by courts of arbitration, he had given the vote to women — and they had been very grateful. He remembered the co-ed in the tight blouse whom he had noticed in front of the Library, and he forgot his imperial benignity.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/l/lewis/sinclair/gideon/chapter1.html

Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:38