Gideon Planish, by Sinclair Lewis

Chapter 3

The dean of Adelbert College said feebly, “You again?”

Gid’s expression declared that they were old and helpful friends; that he was fond of this aged pal, and glad to give him new vigor and ideas.

“Yes, sir. I thought you ought to know that I have founded a secret Socialist club.”

“Well?”

“I just thought, if it was forbidden to have revolutionary clubs, I’d better report it, so it would be okay. Gosh, I guess it must be awful unusual to have secret juntas in Adelbert!”

“No, not unusual; a little annoying, perhaps, but not unusual. Some years we have an anarchist club, and frequently a nihilist club or an atheist club, and once we had a nudist club — I really had to speak to the inaugurator of that one, a very nice young fellow who is now assistant rector of St. Dimity’s, in Philadelphia. But with most subversive organizations, we don’t do anything unless they parade in nightshirts or trample the shrubbery. But it is somewhat rare for the chief instigator to come in and inform us.”

“Would you like me to wind up the club, Dean? I’d be glad to, if you’d let me in on the course in Forensics. And in the circumstances, I guess I’d have to be taken into the debating society, too.”

“Please — go — away!”

“Well, sir, you’ll remember I warned you.”

“Just let me know well beforehand any particularly destructive sabotage or direct action that you may plan. I wouldn’t foresee them — my curious learnings are rather along theological and ichthyological lines. You’ll let me know, won’t you?”

“Oh, I couldn’t do that, Dean. I have to be loyal to my gang. But I think I may say I have a lot of influence, and I’ll see they don’t perpetrate anything too dangerous. And if you’ll just think over that Forensics course —”

“Please — go — away!”

Upon Gid’s suggestion, the Socialist League challenged the college debating society to a discussion of the government ownership of railroads, and that official body accepted, with the notion of having a practice match before the classic annual contest with the great University of Winnemac.

Hatch Hewitt, who didn’t really believe in government ownership of anything except congressional spittoons, and whose idea of socialism was that under it an enlightened young man could tell the city editor to go to the devil; Gid, who hadn’t believed in government ownership until today; and Francis Tyne, who always had, sat together in the college library, garnering statistics about socialized railroads in Germany. In 1910 that country, under the enlightened and scholarly leadership of Kaiser William, was universally known to be the brightest nation in the world.

As he was often to do in his later career as a professional promoter of ideas, Gid nearly convinced himself of the truth of his own crusade. He was deciding to go out and nationalize all rails, he was beginning to believe he had invented collectivism, when the catastrophe struck them.

On October 2nd, they had the news that the plant of the Los Angeles Times, which had been warring with union labor, had been blown up, with nineteen deaths. And the Adelbert Socialist League blew up with it.

The League now had nine members. Most of them would have preferred to meet dramatically at Hatch’s stable, in conspiratorial darkness, but they were up against reality. They weren’t merely defying God and the House of Morgan now; they were in danger of getting demerits from the dean. The executive committee gathered in a corner of the Y.M.C.A. lounge at three o’clock on a bright afternoon.

Gid panted, “Meancometorder. Lissen, Comrades, I think we better get the hell out of this Socialist club, or turn it into a literary society.”

“You’re going to lay down and take it? You mean you don’t dare to face the ruling class and defy ’em when there’s something to defy ’em about?” demanded Hatch.

“Not at all! We’ll call our literary society the Walt Whitman League. That’s defiant enough for anybody! Whitman never went to college!” explained Gid. “There’s nobody wants to hammer tyranny more than I do, but this isn’t the time for it.”

All the rest of his life, in crises, Gideon Planish was to say, “But this isn’t the time for it.” It is the slogan of discreet Liberalism, as profound as St. Francis’s “The beasts are my brothers,” or Governor Alfred E. Smith’s war-cry, “Slice it where you will, it’s still baloney.”

Hatch Hewitt was demanding, “Why isn’t it the time for it?”

“Because there may be a chance that these labor agitators, the McNamara brothers, DID blow up the Times.”

“Impossible!” protested Hatch, while Lou Klock challenged, “And suppose they did? Wouldn’t you guys still support them? Do you know what WAR is?” Unanswered, he walked out of the room, out of the Socialist League and, in a few weeks, out of Adelbert College.

Hatch reflected, “I don’t agree with Lou — yet. But I see his idea. Now, Gid, you run to the dean again and tell him we’ve ducked for cover!” And he followed Lou out of the Y.M.C.A., while Gid wailed after him, “Me? Run to the dean? ME?”

That was the death of the Adelbert Socialist League, and for the funeral there were no hymns, no flowers, and only such exhibits of Christian resignation as were provided by Francis Tyne.

For a month Hatch looked at Gid with bleakness, and there were no intellectual gallops in his stableyard. But Hatch Hewitt was a lonely young man; he loved people too much and he despised them too much to have long and casual friendships. When Lou Klock had gone and Dave Traub had wandered on to the University of Chicago, Hatch was left companionless, and by the end of their freshman year there had been restored between him and Gid a flinching amiability. They sneaked over to a neighboring city and drank beer and discussed the danger of war with Mexico.

“I don’t think a country as big as what we are had ought to pick on a neighboring state,” said Gid, the old Liberal.

“Is that a fact?” marveled Hatch.

On the day after the decease of the Socialist League, Gid sought out the secretary of the college debating society, reminded him that it had been announced on all bulletin boards that the society would debate with the Socialists, who had blown up the Times personally, and suggested that the only way out of such a perilous connection would be for the debating society to elect Gid a member. Then, he might possibly think about killing off and generally disowning the League.

The debating society met, in haste, changed its constitution so that freshmen might be admitted, elected Gid, and thanked him for something — they weren’t quite sure what — that he had done to save Adelbertan oratory from shame. Late in the spring he was actually on the debating team which invaded and conquered Erasmus College; and the fame of Gideon Planish promised to be as firmly established in the glorious annals of the college as that of Old Pug, for eleven years the baseball mascot. Erasmus College was in Eastern Ohio, and Gid had never been so far East — almost into New York State!

With his associate debaters, including a very large junior who sang grand opera in Dakotan, he traveled on a day coach to Erasmus. They had large stickers, “Adelbert Champion Debaters,” on their suitcases, and they talked in enormous voices about taxation, to improve the minds of their fellow passengers.

They were met by a cheering crowd of nine, and put up at a fine hotel: twenty-two rooms, twenty-two pitchers, and twenty-two bowls. Gid had never before stayed at a hotel, except with his fussy father and mother, who kept telling him about the fire-escape. He had a room of his own, and he proudly raised the shade, felt the bed, as he had seen his mother do, demanded a luggage rack of the cynical bellboy, and unpacked the two shirts, the chemistry textbook and the shoeshine rag.

They were all dressing for the debate, in dark-blue suits — practically in evening clothes, felt Gid. He sat down to his debate notes, not very nervously. He might not be a William Jennings Bryan, but he had worked hard, he was full of earnestness, he had a great message for the student audience of Erasmus, and there was no reason to suppose that God wasn’t enthusiastically with him.

They were entertained at dinner in the college, and when the Adelbert heroes came into the Erasmus Commons, very modestly, just one of them carrying a small banner lettered

                       Adelbert
                       \  /\  / ill
                        \/  \/  in


the student body clapped their hands, all six hundred hands, and some of them threw bread in an affectionate way, while Gideon Planish tasted the fiery brandy of public greatness and just acclaim.

At the debate, in the college chapel, there wasn’t as large a crowd as he had hoped; in fact, there were less than a hundred — in fact, there were less than seventy-five. The hosts explained that it just happened that there was also a basketball game tonight. But as Gid spoke, the crowd seemed to stretch out endless, and they were all his, all looking at him, all listening to him, and his power was on them.

For a moment he found it amusing that what he had to say was the opposite of what he would have said for the Socialist League. Then it was the truth, and the only truth, and he had invented it. He maintained that the government ownership of railroads was not only inefficient but naughty. He played on figures as on cello strings, and wound up his Message like a Beethoven finale:

“I think we have shown by the statistics of railroad operation in New Kamchatka how wasteful is the political control of transportation. But there is another aspect that is even more important: the spiritual side of this economic crime against suffering mankind.

“How would you like it if you were one of our fine, honest toilers, say, like a conductor on your own K Line here, a man who has supported his family and paid his debts and his charities and his lodge dues, and been loyal to his State, his country, his God, and his company, and he finds that some apparently innocent passenger is nothing but a snooper, a Government spy, put there on the train by inimical politicians and bosses to see how many cash fares the conductor knocks down? Do you think any man could carry on, like the fine, honest workmen ought to in our land of liberty, in that atmosphere of political intrigue and distrust? Oh, to ask that question is to answer it! And so, finally, do you know what that kind of stuff is? It is nothing less than that menacing, that subversive, that most European doctrine — SOCIALISM!”

And Gid and God and the Adelbert team won the debate.

He came down the Erasmus Hotel corridor, broad, confident, shining with youth and victory.

The night maid was a German woman of thirty, unmarried but not very virginal, just from the farm, and lonely for her Otto. She had a radiant skin, and a smile for returning heroes.

“Well, you been out,” she said.

“Yes! I won a debate!”

“A debate? Well!”

It was the first time that he had ever encountered a person who was completely worldly-wise. Marta had the sophistication that came from seeing a mortgage foreclosed, a father killed by falling on a scythe, a thousand animals bred and a hundred suitors smirking. He was overwhelmed, and he said, by her volition more than by his, “Don’t I get a kiss after winning the debate?”

“Yuh — maybe.”

Her lips were as sweet as fresh-made johnnycake with honey. He unbuttoned her bodice, kissed her again and shakily unlocked the door of his room. She followed him in, cheerfully, and much later she told him he was a fine young man — just like her Otto.

But as Gid went to sleep, quite happily, to the urgent whistle of an express flying through town, he was thinking not of the dark blind chasm of Marta’s love, but of how the applause had marched across his audience, and he muttered:

“Now, nothing can stop me! United States Senator — why, I got it cinched!”

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