Gideon Planish, by Sinclair Lewis

Chapter 14

Back in 1924 there appeared a book which, like Das Kapital or Shakespeare or the Koran, inspired a generation and enriched an age. It was The Man Nobody Knows, by Mr. Bruce Barton, a treatise which proved that Christ Jesus was not a rebel or a peasant, but a society gent, a real sport, a press agent and the founder of modern business.

This Epistle to the Babbitts had upon Dr. Planish such an effect as cannot be comprehended by the wild children of an age which is more concerned with Hitler and Expressionism. They miss the quivering zest with which Dr. Planish said, “I learned a whale of a lot more about the writing racket from Mr. Barton than I ever did from Walter Pater.”

He proved it in what became the most beloved feature of Rural Adult Education: his witty column called “Cornpone and Popcorn.” In this appeared his essay “Mental Elbow Grease,” and this little masterpiece was to be more quoted than any other foam from his pen. It began:

“As the Swede fellow says, the saws and chisels in your tool chest von’t yump up into your hand. And the books on your shelves aren’t going to crawl down and get inside your brain. It isn’t the number of books that counts in your mental development, but how you read and re-read them. Books don’t give up their inner secrets to the man who snubs them and isn’t friendly with them and doesn’t try to coax out their confidence. The proverbial old-time country doctor’s library, just Shakespeare and the Bible and Gray’s Anatomy, contained plenty for the man who dug out every word as though it were a golden nugget.”

This pasticcio was reprinted by little treadmill magazines and trade journals all over the country, and from these lifted as a filler by some hundreds of newspapers. Occasionally they even gave credit to Dr. Planish, and he began to receive letters about it addressed to him in care of everything from the Salt Lake City Manna to the Alabama Department of Education.

One of the warmest letters was from the Reverend James Severance Kitto, S.T.D., pastor of the Abner Jones Christian Church of Evanston, Illinois, and president of the famous Heskett Rural School Foundation of Chicago.

Dr. Planish knew him by mail, though he had never yet looked into his red and friendly Scottish face. Dr. Kitto had contributed to Rural Adult a small panegyric on a handsome new illustrated edition of Ben Hur, a classic which, as he wrote, lives on with the Bible and Wentworth’s Algebra. He had written to Rural Adult that he was not sure that he ought to keep their generous payment of $7.44. He did not, however, return the check.

A. J. Joslin had lunched with Dr. Kitto in Chicago, and reported that he was a learned but hearty fellow, who felt that the Kremlin was plotting against rural church work in Nebraska, Missouri, and portions of Southern Illinois. But this interested Dr. Planish less than Joslin’s tip that the paid executives of the Heskett Rural School Foundation — known to all professional good-doers as the H.R.S.F. — weren’t cashing in adequately on the large funds of the Foundation. Dr. Kitto had taken Mr. Joslin to the Foundation offices, and they had found no one there except the managing secretary, a spinster named Bernardine Nimrock, and two stenographers, who weren’t so much as sending out red and green circulars to supply the far-flung wastebaskets of our broad land with information about the beauties of rural education and with the plea that unless the wastebasket send in a generous contribution at once, the little red schoolhouses and the big gray consolidated schoolhouses would all be turned into speakeasies.

It appeared that old Heskett, the gents’ furnishings chain-store king, had left three million dollars to the H.R.S.F., but it was not using half the interest. It did occasionally publish a report fly-specked with statistics, it did give grants-inaid to a few worthy schools, but never, said Mr. Joslin, did the officers perform these deeds with enough ballyhoo. They were regular bushel-hiders.

Dr. Kitto who, as president, was unpaid, was too busy with other idealistic jobs to think up new ways of spending the Foundation’s income, and the salaried Bernardine Nimrock too timid, and both of them, marveled Mr. Joslin, too lazy or conceivably too honest to take the opportunity of giving their nephews, sisters-inlaw, ex-lovers and classmates such suitable jobs with the Foundation as knitting, copying poetry, telephoning and drinking tea.

“I’d like to have my hands on that show. I’d make it take care of the proper people — Oh, by the way, Doc, I’m going to be able to pay you that two hundred smackers I owe you by the end of the month, positively,” said Mr. Joslin.

All this Dr. Planish recalled when there came from Dr. James Severance Kitto the letter praising his essay, and inviting him to accept a National Directorship in the H.R.S.F. and to attend its Annual Midsummer Conference. (Conference, not Convention, because Convention means strip-tease shows and illicit liquor and the singing of “Happy birthday, dear Henry Hargett Huisenkamp, happy birthday to you,” while Conference indicates only mental stripping.)

Dr. Planish accepted, and had his own Conference, with Peony.

Her father made a dozen trips a year to Chicago, and on the next one he looked up certain things, and wrote to the Doctor:

“I went in the Heskett place and got acquainted, and I even took the virtuous Bunny Nimrock, the secy, out to lunch. I didn’t know I was so much of a beau, your father-inlaw, the little devil, I had her quite flustered.

“I think you ought to let her alone, the poor gal thinks she is doing a good job and getting city folks to take country schools seriously and trying to do a little amateur lobbying with State Legislatures, but if you want her job, go to it, she does not look so hot and I imagine you could expand it into a pretty well-paying proposition. I found, as you asked, that the fellow to honey up to, besides Reverend Kitto, is another preacher, Reverend Christian Stern of New York City, a slick politician who is in all the uplift rackets and will certainly be in Chi for the conference.

“I also went out to the North Shore and sponged supper off my cousin Lucy and got to meet Reverend Kitto himself by accident on purpose and what shd we get to talking about but you, and I told him you were a national director of this New Turk outfit and a trustee of this Standard English society, whatever its name is, and cd have been president of Kinnikinick if you’d wanted to. Got Kitto so het up he is ready to give you the keys of the city, if you want to go there, I don’t know why, personally wd much prefer Faribault or even Northfield or Winona.

“The Nimrock woman gets only $2,200 but sure that cd be jacked up to $4,500 by the right second-story worker. Don’t be too hard on Bunny Nimrock, try and get her a pension, she is OK, likes checkers and cats same as I do.

“Yr. afft father,

“W. Jackson.”

It has never been quite clear whether it was Peony or Dr. Planish who originally decided that because he loved country schools so much, right down to the tin washbasins, he ought to take over the Rural School Foundation. Certainly it was Peony who, on her own impulse, skipped up to Kinnikinick for a week-end. She came back cooing.

“Lover, you’ll be interested to know that old Prexy Bull is going to interrupt his summer vacation and attend the Heskett Conference in Chicago, and Teckla Schaum is still in love with you, and she and her pappy have become Sustaining Members of Heskett.”

“What’s all this?”

“I told Bull that even if you ARE so popular among the alumni, you’re opposed to this new movement to make you president of Kinnikinick —”

“WHAT movement?”

“— instead of him, and just as I suspected, he is a member of the Heskett Foundation, and he’s promised to be there with bells on and support this project to make you managing secretary of it. And I told Teckla that, frankly, I wasn’t sure but that she’d of been a much better wife for you than I am, and that I suspected you thought so too, and — You don’t, do you, Gideon? I’d murder you, if you did! Say you don’t! Okay. Now go down and tell Joslin that if he doesn’t show up in Chicago and support you with Kitto and Doc Stern, you’ll sue him for the salary he owes you. I mean it. Now skip, hero.”

He skipped.

Before the annual conference of the Heskett Foundation, Dr. Planish had learned everything about it except why it existed at all.

The two mysteries regarding any organization for philanthropy are who really owns it and what, if anything, it actually does, besides create a pretty letterhead and provide a warm office for the chief executive to take naps in.

In the business, the term “Foundation” usually means an institution which is entirely supported by a trust fund established by a philanthropist (meaning a man with more money than he can spend on houses and pearls) and which does not solicit donations, but somewhat coldly picks out worthy persons or enterprises to which it does the giving. Occasionally, organizations call themselves Foundations without the benefit of large enough or oily enough trust funds, and send out begging letters like any League or Committee.

But the Heskett Foundation was mixed. It had the trust fund, but it also urged the pious or the guilty of mind to become Sustaining Members at $100 a year, or even Founding Members, at $1000 flat.

But more mixed were its accomplishments. Neither Dr. Kitto, the president, nor Dr. Christian Stern, the chairman of the board, got anything more than carfare and glory, and that was all right with Dr. Planish, but he was sorry to find that the Foundation was not more devoted to guaranteeing a worthy living for the managing secretary, who was a regular employee.

It published speeches about rural education by Kitto and Stern and by one H. Sanderson Sanderson–Smith, Esq., in flat little gray pamphlets, but no country teacher seemed ever to have received them. They were sent to managing editors, who turned them over to the drama editors, who threw them into the wastebasket, along with Hollywood releases about Miss Sylvia Silva’s goat farm. The Foundation had been known to give blackboards to a school in Kansas, two motion-picture films to a teachers’ college in Dakota, and a collection of Turkish stamps to a Hawaiian institute for pineapple growers, but the pattern for these benefactions seemed to exist only in the head of Miss Bernardine Nimrock. Dr. Planish studied the Foundation reports, he talked to rural contributors to his magazine, but he found nothing more.

Well, he said to his wife Peony, he’d change all that. Under his direction, the Foundation might not make more gifts, but they’d be brighter and a lot more talked-about.

On the hot evening before they set off for Chicago, the Planishes sat late in their flat, the Doctor in saffron pajamas open on his chubby chest, Peony in mules and a wisp of nightgown.

“Well, looks as if we’re going to take a shot at something new,” he said.

“Aren’t you excited, Gidjums?”

“Oh, I guess so, but — Same time. We don’t always want to go on shifting and changing. I’ve got pretty fond of Des Moines and the bunch here — I don’t even mind playing golf — and I get kind of homesick for Kinnikinick sometimes. I liked our little white house. We ought to have a dog for Carrie to play with —”

“Big tiny, I know how you feel. I want to be settled down, too. But first we got to make New York. You’ll be boss of the Boy Scouts or the Red Cross or some really big philanthropy in another five-ten years, and then we’ll get a house out in some lovely suburb, with elm trees and a stone wall around it — and yes, we’ll GET a dog for her. We can’t stop now, with that ahead of us, CAN we! It — wouldn’t be fair to young Carrie!”

“Maybe not — maybe not.”

“And wait till you see the new red velvet opera cape I got today. It’ll knock Chicago’s eyes out!”

“But won’t it be kind of warm, this weather, on the poor girl’s little shoulders?” he protested fondly, and kissed her shoulder by way of illustration.

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