Gideon Planish, by Sinclair Lewis

Chapter 32

A disturbing letter had come in to Dr. Planish from Mr. Johnson of Minneapolis, written from the Great Lakes Naval Training Center:

“I have been asked to be a sponsor, whatever that means, for a Dinner Dedicated to the Plain People, to be held in your very fine Gladiola Hotel and to be conducted by three novelists, a portrait painter and an alderman, at $3.50 a plate, which is a good plain price. There are a lot of other names on the list of sponsors, but what bothers me is that they seem to have left out all the Plain People.

“Should I send some on? I can’t come myself because I am now in the Navy, but I know quite a few of the Plain People in Minnesota — a dumb farmer who happens to be my uncle, and a surgeon who likes duck hunting, and my plumber, and a chemist who went to Yale, which I guess should make him a Plain Person as that college was founded to promote plain democratic learning. Or do you think they might resent the imputation that they are so Plain and so lowdown that they have to have dinners given to them by liberal novelists to bring them up to a level where Mrs. Homeward can notice them?”

Suddenly, a little heavily, he liked Mr. Johnson of Minneapolis, and agreed with him against all the organizators and all the ethical raptures of his transmogrified Peony.

The next letter in the afternoon mail was from President T. Austin Bull of Kinnikinick, inviting him to be the speaker at Presentation Day, in early May.

“If you can possibly afford the time, stay on for a few days and get a real rest here in the quiet while the lilacs come out and the thin green lines of young oats look so pretty against the black earth.”

A young Gid Planish was reborn, and he exulted, “I’m going, and maybe I’m never coming back!”

No, said Peony, Good Lord, no; she couldn’t possibly leave her shorthand to go out to any Middlewest, and besides, she didn’t think the Bulls and that Teckla Schaum, that Gid used to be so much in love with, cared so much for her; and now that Peony’s father and mother were dead and she had lost track of all her dumb friends in that dumb Middlewest — Besides! She wasn’t going to waste all these lovely new clothes that she was (partly) paying for out of her new salary on a bunch of farmers, not HER!

But she insisted on their having a Real Time, a typical happy evening in New York, before he went West, and they had it, to the full splendor.

In order to be at home on time, he called on five contributors in thirty-eight minutes, riding up and down in express elevators, past a total of 474 floors, with the shoulders of strangers unaffectionately thrust into his jaw; he took a taxicab home and got stuck in crosstown traffic; his wife and he dressed in expensive special evening garments that were going to look pretty funny in the history-book pictures in 1982; they took another taxi, endured another traffic jam in the streets of the theatrical district, smelly with carbon monoxide and Italian food; paid for the unpleasant ride the ransom for a small prince; edged past a doorman whose glance said “Tip!”; edged into a restaurant; were insulted and kept waiting by a member of the Fascist Party who was learning dictatorship as a restaurant manager; waited for the pleasure of lending the Doctor’s hat to a girl who just didn’t like customers; squeezed in between a skinny table and the wall; looked unhungrily through the varieties of chicken on the menu; waited for the waiter; muttered their orders to the waiter, who was German–Swiss and didn’t like customers or anybody else; ate radishes and celery and olives and bread and lumps of ice and the table bouquet till they didn’t really want their chicken, and then ate chicken till they didn’t want their profiterolles, and then ate the profiterolles; listened to the shrieks of three business women, all in tweeds and all drunk, at another table; waited for the waiter with the bill; waited for their change; added a tip to an amount sufficient to ransom a pretty big prince; struggled out between tables; waited for the check-girl; paid her fifteen cents for a ten-cent hat and got a vicious look from her because it wasn’t a quarter; waited for the doorman to call another taxi; got a vicious look from the doorman because they hadn’t tipped him; tipped him; sat in a taxi one-tenth filled with cigarette butts and the corpses of paper matches during another jam in crosstown traffic; discovered that it would have been six blocks shorter to have walked to the theater; lifted themselves out of the taxi at the theater; got a vicious, dirty, and awfully discriminating look from the theater doorman who, while the Doctor was paying another ransom to the taxi-driver, looked over their clothes and muttered “Yonkers”; produced the theater tickets for which the Doctor had paid the ransom for two princes and a king; crawled into the theater behind a line of paralytics until they reached their seats, where Dr. Planish fell into such a coma of exhaustion that not till the second act did he sit up and discover that he had seen the play before.

And so they went home, to be kept awake by the radio across the way, and the next morning he started for Kinnikinick, with enthusiasm.

The bluff by Lake Elizabeth had once been an hour and a half walk over a sandy trail. Now, it was an eight-minute drive from the campus by a new black-top road.

The Pridmore shack in which he had spent his first night with Peony had been replaced by a log-and-stone chalet, where Teckla and her father lived all year round; and next door, with a common plane of springy lawn, was the Virginia mansion of President Bull, where Dr. Planish was staying.

It was the morning of Presentation Day, and T. Austin Bull and he were already in doctoral robes, very gloomy and priestly and proper. But a catastrophe threw down all this majesty.

The small cat of the youngest Bull granddaughter scrambled up a tree, and was too scared to come down. There was a domestic flurry. The President, with his robe flapping, tried with a bamboo fishing-pole to guide the kitten out on a branch that hung low. The four grandchildren capered round and round the tree, screaming; the President’s two daughters, and Teckla Schaum, from next door, stood watching, comfortable and amused, while Mrs. Bull leaned from one upstairs window, and the young colored maid from another, ironically cheering. Dr. Planish was excitedly giving advice to President Bull, who looked as much like a sleek, curly-headed leading man as ever, but an old actor now, old and kind and amused. The lake breeze was fresh, and wavelets ran up among the bright dry weeds on shore.

Suddenly Dr. Planish was homesick for precisely the place where he was; suddenly it was unendurable to think of going back to the city that was an hourly futility and a yearly defeat.

Teckla was shouting, “Here’s a berry box! Put a piece of fish in it and tie it to the top of the pole and the kitten will crawl in to get the fish, and you’ll have her!”

The children danced and clapped their hands as the box was raised to the kitten, who sniffed at it, scowled, and turned her head to the study of arboriculture.

“Now this is really important!” proclaimed Dr. Planish.

“Extremely important. Let the Presentation Day wait!” agreed the President.

There loomed up a farmer neighbor, bearing a lofty ladder and bawling, “You boys got great minds but no sense. It’s a good thing I never went to college. Now let a real man get at that cat!”

“You’re right,” agreed the two doctors, as the farmer began to climb, the kitten to swear, and the children to sing, “At that cat — that fat cat — catch that cat!”

Then Teckla said to a young Gideon, “Now you’re happy. It’s the first time here that I’ve seen you relaxed. But I think your heart is still in our backwoods.”

He looked uncomfortably at her, lonely for her even when he was actually with her. It seemed to him that Teckla, fifty-four and gray, was younger and more content than Peony at less than forty.

And not till then did he remember to ask for the Dr. Edith Minton who had been so admirably icy. He learned that she had been dead for seven years. Somewhere near by she lay in earth, alone.

He wanted to discard all of his careful Presentation Day speech. He had seen the men students in uniform, he had seen the girl students on the campus, smoking cigarettes, their legs bare with little rolled socks, and he felt that if this academic shrine was less decorous than in his day, it was shockingly more sensible. The Flaming Youth nonsense had been all pose; just the propriety of impropriety. It seemed to him that these young people now were too busy for posing — much posing.

He did not feel altogether safe in intoning to this audience, this sharp-eyed gang of intellectual pirates, that they ought to look into something new called Democracy.

In other colleges, he had had evidence that young people today were irreverent toward sloganeering, but he had not comprehended it till he had come home; and now, even this audience of over a thousand couldn’t keep him contentedly bombasting for more than twenty minutes. All through his oration he heard, like a ringing in the ears, his own doubt, “Maybe I ought to be asking these young people about freedom and courage, not telling them.”

He did not recover his front till, at evening at the President’s house, he was surrounded by his old acquaintances, asking him respectfully — pretty respectfully — about the private scandals and phobias of the Great Leaders: Governor Blizzard and Senator Bultitude and Milo Samphire and, always, the dazzle-sounding, radiogenic Winifred Marduc Homeward.

“All noble souls, yet often I feel as if I wanted to give them all up and be back in this peaceful world of scholarship,” he sighed.

“That’s because you’ve been away a long time. You forget how many fakers WE put out, in our modest way,” said old Eakins, professor emeritus.

Dr. Planish was not even sure that Eakins was impressed by his inside news about what the British Army was planning in the way of future aircraft. “Some of these old devils out here are horribly on. They do read, and they know Europe — which is more than I do!” he worried.

But the chairman of the Kinnikinick trustees, Mr. Pridmore, sat admiring.

Dr. Planish rejoiced, “There’s a man I can bank on. I’d like to have him for a neighbor again. And Teckla!”

He noted that since his time here, the Doctoring and Professoring of the faculty members had thinned out. Even that stickler Austin Bull preferred to be called just Mister. Dr. Planish was worried for a time. Was the whole country turning against its honorable titled leaders? Then it seemed to him that for a while it might be pleasant to quit going around Doctoring, and be plain Mr. Planish.

And just once say to the Colonel, “Hey you, Marduc!”

When the learned crew was gone, and Teckla had unexpectedly kissed him and bolted away, Austin Bull patted his shoulder and said gravely:

“Gid, a year from now I shall retire. How would you like to be president of Kinnikinick? I think when you left here, I said some very ill-advised things to you and about you. I realize now that I was jealous. I’m all for you as president, and I know some of the trustees are. It’s a possibility at least. What do you say?”

“That’s splendid of you. I’m very grateful. I’ll — I’ll have to think about it.”

“You won’t need to decide till next fall.”

“I’ll think quick and hard — Mr. Bull!” And he did have to think hard, for he was seeing, all at once, a kitten up a maple tree, the amused face of a barelegged co-ed, the storm-clouds of Colonel Marduc’s countenance, the pipe-smoke in President Bull’s little study, twenty-five thousand admiring people at a rally in Madison Square Garden, and Peony’s lips that could pout for kissing or square themselves in rage.

He stood on the porch and looked to the left, just a few rods away, and saw the shack that had once stood there, saw the ghost of a girl who had come gaily to a young professor by night. She hadn’t been renovated then by the world of fame and philanthrobbing. She had been so sweet! Now he was lonely. Oh, he would do SOMETHING—

Once there was a man in a condemned cell and he got to thinking about all the places he’d like to see again, and he was a man who had already traveled a lot and knew about such things, and he was thinking and deciding between Capri and California, and he was picturing Point Lobos and Carmel, and he calculated that if he sold a few shares of stock, he could afford to drive out there, but then he remembered that there was gasoline rationing now, and, besides, he was going to be hanged at eight o’clock tomorrow morning.

He sat in his bedroom, thinking that if he became president of Kinnikinick, he would make less money than at the DDD; when he traveled, he would have only a lower berth, and not a Pullman compartment, where you had a private toilet, and could stand up when you undressed, as a man of years and dignity should, and where you could recover from the strain of lecturing by lighting a cigar and making nice smoke rings. And there was difficulty in that he had now forgotten whatever he might once have known about literature, history and every other branch of learning in which it was not enough to roll out, “We are called upon to bear the heat and fatigue of the struggle,” and you had to mix some dates and figures with the oratory.

The president of a college was supposed to leave all these matters of study to the dean, and attend to the higher branch of getting money out of the alumni. Still, even the president couldn’t always avoid meeting inquisitive undergraduates.

Then he snapped back at himself. All right! All right! It was a challenge. He’d meet the challenge. He’d read a book again. He’d look up his old text-books, and read them. He was only fifty. By the time he was fifty-five, he could again be as well-read as any of these undergraduates — almost.

Anyway, he had to. Wheyfish’s titter and Sherry Belden’s jitter and Marduc’s totalitarianism and the swoop of express elevators filled with sharp and twitching elbows. Philanthrobbers, Organizators, midnight perpetual-motion discussions of Conditions and Situations, and Winifred Homeward the Talking Woman. Was that a life?

He walked through the village and saw the cottage where Peony and he had started married life. It was no longer white and shining. It belonged now to a professor, but he had five children and a crippled wife; it was as smeary and hopeless as something in factory slums.

Dr. Planish longed to paint it white again, but when he tried to coax a young Peony into the doorway, it remained mocking and empty.

He plodded to the campus and ventured into the office that he himself had once ruled, as dean. The present dean said, “Sorry I’ve got such a lot of engagements, Mr. Planish. If you can wait, I’ll be right with you.”

Mr. Planish could not wait for anyone, not in that room.

He returned to the lake, and lunched with Teckla, just they two, on the veranda by the blue water, by the silver birches.

“Gid darling, you trouble me. I know it’s impertinent, but you always seem a little tired. There isn’t anything that I can do for you again, but there’s no one that loves you better and more lastingly.”

“I’m sure or it.”

“Or who doesn’t care even if you HAVE become a stuffed shirt.”

“Me?”

“Daddy and I long to have you take the presidency and come back and be our neighbor again.”

“If I’m a stuffed shirt —”

“Well, aren’t you?”

“Don’t be disgusting! Certainly not! Well — What if I am?”

“Oh, it doesn’t matter to me. Not any more than your having done a few murders. I still love you — God knows why.”

She looked at him invitingly, but he was thinking that, aside from Carrie, he loved nobody at all save Peony, that he was devastatingly lonely for Peony this moment, and that Providence had used his loyalty to her — the one lone virtue he had ever had — to destroy him.

His good-bye to Teckla was a kiss so brotherly that even he was disgusted.

The young man across the table, in the diner on the train to New York, was in uniform as a seaman in the Navy, but to Dr. Planish he had a classroom air.

The Doctor hinted that it had been hot on the campus — oh, yes, he was a college teacher himself.

The young man said cheerfully, “I got my Ph.D in economics last February, and then I enlisted, to save my alleged Liberalism.”

“Hm?”

“I had the job of making arrangements for outside lecturers at the university, and all these propaganda associations tried to sell me on lecturers that, they claimed, had the patent on Justice, Political Integrity and Love for the Chinese, and I set up TOO much sales-resistance. Then on the radio I heard a ballyhooer who calls himself Charles B. Marduc — and I bet I know what the B. stands for — and he attacked Fascism so hysterically, and with such a suggestion that he was the one lone anti-Hitler, that I almost found myself beginning to be pro-Fascist, anti-Semite, anti-Chinese, anti-feminist, anti-socialized-medicine, anti everything I had always believed in. So I thought I better get into uniform and get away from everything resembling organized virtue, and do it quick.”

The Doctor protested, “Now, now, now! There may be some useless or even mercenary national organizations, as you suggest, but surely the majority of them awaken the public to immediate needs which the Government, however benevolent, is too slow-moving to tackle.”

“Maybe. I decided that the rule was that if an organization was set up to achieve one definite social end, it was virtuous, but if it was started by one busybody who just wanted a career and a salary, it was bad. But that’s a simple-minded rule. Look at the Anti–Saloon League. I suppose it did have a lot of good intentions as well as an awful lot of millions, and look at the way it made the ideal of temperance ridiculous for another hundred years. In a republic like this, I’m scared of ANY private organization that can spend thousands on propaganda — that can persuade thousands of people to telegraph their congressman to do what the private organization demands. It’s a little too much like a private army — like the Brown Shirts.”

“All very interesting,” said Dr. Planish. “I’m sure the heads of the great organizations would be very much worried if they knew you had decided not to okay them! Good night!”

But the fact that this young man WAS unknown to him made him, in his compartment, feel naked in a cold gale that blew from a million unknown icebergs.

He reflected, “Oh, I must go back to Kinnikinick. Maybe start all over again.”

If he did that, could he win again the love, the confidence, of his own daughter?

No, she was gone from his tribe. However virtuous and lean-minded and strong that Modern Young Woman was, in her way she was just as dependent on clash and clatter and conversation as Peony. She had heard the new call: “Go East, young woman, and grow up with the steel and concrete and the electric waves.”

If he could have kept Teckla’s sympathy instead of Peony’s florid ambition and Carrie’s self-righteousness, might he not have been a man instead of an executive secretary?

“No, no, don’t misunderstand me,” he said to his other self. “I don’t mean any more — oh — well — you know — love-making with her, but if I could have Teckla for a neighbor and friend again.”

He would! He’d be bold and masculine and put his foot down and go home to Kinnikinick.

When he came into the house on Charles Street, Peony cried, “It’s so sweet to see you back! I did miss you, even if I have been so busy. How’re all the hicks in Kinnikinick? Did they bore you to death? Never mind — well have a Real Time, a real New York evening tonight.”

He said nothing whatever about a college presidency, or about returning to Kinnikinick.

After he came back to New York, Dr. Planish made a lot of speeches, and there was a quiet man who heard one of them, and this quiet man got to thinking.

He thought that the one thing that might break down American Democracy was the hysterical efficiency with which these pressure groups crusaded to seize all the benefits of that Democracy for themselves: the farm bloc, the women’s bloc, the manufacturers’ associations, the consumers’ associations, the bar associations, the medical associations, the Protestant ministerial associations, the labor unions, the anti-labor unions, the Communist Party and the Patriotic Flag Associations. Drug stores combining to force legislation forbidding the sale of aspirin on trains. Irish Catholics voting not as Americans but as Irish AND Catholics, Swedish Lutherans voting as Swedish Lutherans, Arkansas Baptists voting as Neanderthals.

Catholics forbidding the Episcopalians to advocate birth-control, and Methodists forbidding the Unitarians to drink their ancestral rum, and people who really believe in Christianity overwhelmingly outvoted by all these monopolies.

Gangs of Fascists damning the Jews — always the opening gambit in any mass insanity — until the Jews are forced to create their own alliances, and these become a new Sanhedrin that censors the Jews who won’t submit to the new Mosaic Law.

The Friends of Russia, the Friends of Germany, the Friends of the British Empire, the Friends of the Slovenes and Croats, the Sons of the American Revolution, and the Sons of Dog Fanciers.

Each of these private armies led by devout fanatics — not always on salary — who believe that the way to ensure freedom for everybody is to shut up every one of their opponents in jail for life, and that this is a very fine, new solution.

God save poor America, this quiet man thought, from all the zealous and the professionally idealistic, from eloquent women and generous sponsors and administrative ex-preachers and natural-born Leaders and Napoleonic newspaper executives and all the people who like to make long telephone calls and write inspirational memoranda.

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