Gideon Planish, by Sinclair Lewis

Chapter 4

All that summer after his freshman year, Gid went to sea and met hairy men who had known fog and shipwreck. He talked with passengers who could toss you off a Capetown hotel or a Viennese countess or a Saskatchewan fishing trip as easily as you could toss off a game of checkers.

He was a waiter on a Great Lakes steamer, running from Buffalo to Duluth, and he learned something about navigation and more about beer and the surprising varieties of cheese. He had time to think of girls and religion and making money and all the things he could do in the way of organizing the loose high spirits and good nature of his fellow students. Standing in darkness on the lowest of the four sprawling open decks, he listened to the lake water singing past him, and made two romantic vows.

He would be a Good Man, a bringer of Messages to the poor old longing world — Messages about brotherhood and democracy and the regular use of green (including yellow) vegetables. He’d show ’em that there was nothing to all this predatory vice. He’d inform them that the waiters and deck-hands who gambled and got drunk had no bank accounts nor even much jollity to show for it.

Otherhand, he perceived that most of the Good Men, such as his college instructors, had little to show for their virtue. The trouble, he decided, was that they fooled their time away, without direction.

He selected virtue as his lot, but virtue had to be organized.

There were but few born organizers; few that had his gifted combination of imagination, power and accuracy. He wasn’t sure but that he was an even greater organizer than orator. Among Good Men, he would be the Most Good Man, and their chairman.

In some slight awe he perceived that this was probably Destiny speaking, and not just his humble willingness to serve mankind.

As for girls, God, scenery, also family life and physical fitness, he was glad to find that he considered them all very nice things. He hoped that he would never refer to any of them in any speech without saying, “God bless ’em!” But for a devoted artist like himself, he felt, they were important only as they could be organized and so made available to mankind.

He returned to college with some acclaim. The dean was almost polite to him, and the debaters assured him that if he would be patient, they would elect him their captain in another year. The football captain asked his advice as to whether there really was anything to all this Reading that he kept hearing about in his classes, and the leading bootlegger in the village gave Gid a box of thirty Turkish cigarettes.

Diligently harkening to the voice of the Lord, the first Great Organizer, Gid started on his new plans.

The pants-pressing situation in Adelbert was deplorable. Pressing was carried on, without co-ordination, by the village tailor shop, by the janitor of a fraternity house, and by two students; the elapsed-time factor was variable; and the prices ran anywhere from fifteen cents to half a dollar, with collections, Gid estimated, not over 67%.

He disliked the tailor shop — he had had words about his bill — so he eliminated it from the blessed society of justifiable pants pressers. He called the janitor and the two student pants craftsmen together; he smothered them with words, and set them all up in the janitor’s basement room, as The Adelbert Snappy Dressers’ Pantorium — Terms Cash. He increased their joint business by persuading the football captain to come out for pressedness instead of manly sloppiness, he got sixteen co-eds to sign a vow not to be “dated” by unpressed males, he coaxed the editor of the Weekly Delbertan to run an article, written by Gid, stating that visitors from Yale and Harvard were shocked by the normal state of the Adelbert trouser, and he even tried to remember not to throw his own clothes on the floor when he went to bed.

He spent joyful hours in the basement pressing shop, sniffing the pleasant steaminess, watching the tailors’ geese — or gooses — turn wrinkled cloth into smooth elegance, and going over the account book, looking like the founding Rothschild. And the Pantorium prospered and the rival tailor shop went gratifyingly bankrupt. Gid collected twenty-five per cent of the Pantorium profits. And so, by April of his sophomore year, he was so busy and so expanded that he was two hundred dollars in debt, and likely to be suspended from college.

To set up the business, he had had to provide better irons and a quicker furnace, to advance rent on the basement and, particularly, to pay for the dodgers which communicated his first printed messages to a surprised public. It is doubtful if ever in his life he was to be more forceful than in the hot rhetoric of “Hey, fellows, do you want to look like college men or town muckers? The garment oft bespeaks the man. Don’t go around bespeaking that you don’t belong to the bon ton. Co-eds’ suits also pressed scientifically. Welcome, girls. YE OLDE PANTORIUM. Terms cash.”

For this enterprise, which was in the true American tradition of Jim Hill, the Rockefellers and Jesse James, Gid had borrowed three hundred dollars from an aunt who read nothing but the Boston Cook Book and who was deaf and pious, though she lived in the great city of Zenith. He had promised to repay her within a month.

But his student patrons interpreted the phrase “terms Cash” just as Gid himself would have interpreted it: as somewhere between a poor joke and a threat of horrid tyranny. In five months, Gid was able to pay back only one hundred dollars, and his doting aunt stopped doting. She wrote to his father on the same day on which the Adelbert Sportshop reported to the dean that Gid owed them seventy-two dollars.

Gid’s father arrived, a melancholy veterinary insignificance with a thin gray mustache, and while the dean listened with small smiling, Gid’s father explained to him that the worst of all sins, excepting treason and the neglect of sickness among domestic animals, was being in debt. At the end of it all, Gideon cried out, as Gideon Planish was so often to cry out, “It just seems like people don’t appreciate it when you try to do things for them.”

He really got more credit for other enterprises which did not require half the boldness involved in the Pantorium and which may have brightened up the college public far less than a year of well-pressed trousers. He organized the first Sophomore Prom ever known in Adelbert. It is true that this Prom never did come off, but there were weeks of splendid committee meetings, and, after them, Gid was elected president of the class. He then combined the warring Student Volunteers and the Society for the Study of Missions into one body, and he got the Zenith Electric Lighting Company to invite the Social Conditions class to go up to the city and inspect the plant, with free transportation and lemonade.

He seemed to have won back the friendship of Hatch Hewitt, who said to him something which Gid never quite made out, but which he felt to be complimentary: “If I just stick around with you, I’ll understand all of American education and American benevolence.”

Gid was glad to hear that, because one of the intelligentsia had been complaining that though he was useful at starting great cultural movements, like the evening class in Great Women of the Bible, he was no true executive, and incapable of keeping his crusades alive.

Well, by gosh, Gid reflected, if he could hold onto the worship of an ole bandit like Hatch, he certainly was a better executive than MOST people, by gosh!

And so he flashed on into junior year and senior year, as class president, assistant chairman of the Junior Prom, business manager of the baseball team, vice-president of the Y.M.C.A., vice-fourflush of the Four Aces and Growler Association, and as a scholar whose A’s in Rhetoric and Forensics made up for his C’s in everything else. He was a senior, and it was time for him and Hatch to decide which of the rewards in the world outside college they would prefer to pluck.

Gid’s professor in the speech department had hinted that if he would “settle down to work and quit trying to uphold the arms of Moses and teach everybody on the campus how to go to the bathroom,” he might become a fairly good teacher. But Gid saw himself and a whole armament of Messages in a larger arena.

“I suppose you still intend to go back to newspaper work,” said Gid.

“Sure. And what mode of gracious living have YOU picked on this morning?” said Hatch Hewitt.

“Say, I wish you wouldn’t always try to kid me.”

“I admire you, Gid. I think you’re cockeyed when you look in the mirror and talk about ‘doing something for humanity’— which usually means giving ’em another excuse for getting into war. But after four beers, you have virtue. What are you really going to apply it to?”

“I’m still more tempted by politics than by anything else. I tell you, politics needs men with intellectual training. I could be a doctor, but I don’t like sick people. Or a lawyer, but I hate sticking in an office. Or a clergyman. Yes, I been a lot tempted by the ministry. But I do like a glass of beer now and then, and anyway, I don’t know as I could work up the real feeling of instant communion with God that I’d like to, if I was going to go around doing a lot of public praying. So, you see, I do really feel a call to politics.

“Gosh, what I could put over! Old-age pensions for every man, woman and child, and scientific measures of free trade, and adequate defense, which would be the surest guaranty of world peace and —”

“Sure, sure, I know. Which party do you feel yourself called upon to revive?”

“I don’t care a damn which it is, as long as it isn’t the Socialist. Yuh, I got to hand both the major parties something. I’m all for Jefferson, but then I think very highly of Lincoln, too.”

“Really?”

“Yes, I certainly do.”

“Look, Gid. The State Legislature is in session. Why don’t we get a day off and go up and visit it? I’ve been thinking about going into political reporting myself.”

(Years later, Gid explained to his wife that by taking Hatch to the State capital, Galop de Vache, he had started him off as a newspaperman.)

The dean gave them leave, and this time he said almost nothing about beer. He had come to feel that young Planish was a really useful member of the college, and that, no matter what the psychology professor said about the boy’s “bumbling busyness,” he did have a fine, earnest interest in Christian missions. The dean was growing old.

Galop de Vache was a smallish town surrounding a State capitol building, and the capitol was a jungle of marble corridors and onyx pillars and cases of Civil War flags and marble ex-governors in frock coats, together with eight or ten rooms in which the State business was done. The gaudiest of these was the senate chamber, and when Gid, with Hatch, teetered down the steep stairs in the visitors’ gallery, he was impressed.

The chamber was lined with mahogany, save for the front wall, which, in one vast mosaic splashed with rose and gilt and scarlet, recalled the history of the State: pioneers beside their ox-teams, tall river-boats with buckskin huntsmen, and Stephen A. Douglas addressing a crowd, women in bright calico and men with beaver hats, on this same spot where the capitol stood. In front of the mural was the Lieutenant–Governor’s desk, upraised on yellow-and-black marble, and over the chamber the vast skylight was jeweled with the arms of every State in the Union.

Here was glory, here was high politics, here was marble, and Gid wanted to be standing upon this lofty and burning stone.

But he noticed, as he settled down and looked for flaws — a college senior has to be practical — that the thirty-six seats for senators were nothing but mahogany school-desks. And how sick he was of schoolrooms and desks!

He had hoped for high oratory, about flags and eagles and the brawny arm of labor, but a bald fat man was on his feet and, while nobody seemed to listen, while one senator ate a sandwich and another snapped spit balls, was mumbling:

“This bill — this 179 — I know there’s been some opposition to it — the gentleman from Grolier County has been kicking about it — but it’s been pretty well talked over in committee and I guess it’s a sound bill, I don’t know much about it — it’s about muzzling dogs in the southern tier of counties.”

Gid groaned, “Good God! So that’s how senators trifle around when we elect ’em to preserve our liberties!”

Down on the floor, a silver-haired man with schoolmaster spectacles rose, yawned, handed a peanut to the senator who was speaking, walked to the back of the chamber, and stood yawning again.

“That old fellow seems as much bored as we are,” approved Gid.

“Yes, and I know who he is — he really is something — that’s Senator Kurtshaw, the minority leader,” said Hatch.

The man on the throne, presumably the Lieutenant–Governor, said something rapid and entirely incomprehensible about the dog-muzzle bill, there was a growl from the caged senators, and the measure seemed incredibly to have passed. It wouldn’t have if HE had been a senator, Gid asserted. But he was to hear still more abysmal legislation slide through, presented in the reading clerk’s furry mumble —

“To amend the markets law in relation to the definition of ‘limburg cheese’.”

“To amend the education law in relation to school camps for children.”

“To revive and extend the corporate existence of The Highlife Brewing Company of Monarch.”

It was on this last that the silvery Senator Kurtshaw yawned most destructively, and walked out of the chamber.

“Now there’s one representative of the people that seems to have an idea what it’s all about!” said Gid. “Gosh, I wish I had a chance to talk with him and ask him if we can ever really do anything with this castiron political machine.”

“Why don’t we just butt in and do it?”

Gid appreciated the gall and ingenuity of his journalistic friend. Some day he might give Hatch a newspaper of his own.

A doorman suggested that they might find Senator Kurtshaw in the Financial Committee Room. Unaware that senators themselves slip up and down in small smelly elevators, the two young seekers descended the Napoleonic flight of the Grand Staircase — the first persons ever to do so except scrubwomen, sparrows and General Lew Wallace. Gid was declaiming, “Certainly a swell lot of legislative junk our guardians of liberty are fussing over, while widows starve and the myrmidons, or whatever you call ’em, beat up protesting wage-slaves! ‘An act to tax the State for red paint for the noses of brewery salesmen, to enchant, I guess it’s enhance, the sales of Old Dog Rover ales and lager.’ Now I know I GOT to go into politics and clean up the mess!”

The Financial Committee Room was a bareness of plaster and steel filing cabinets. Senator Kurtshaw was at the end of a ponderous table, reading the Zenith Advocate–Times — the sports page.

“How do you do, Senator?” said Gid.

“Huh?”

“We’re a couple of college men, from Adelbert.”

“Well?”

“I could see how amused you were by that Highlife Brewery Bill.”

“What d’ you mean, amused? Very necessary bill. What do you want?”

“Well, to be frank, I wanted to talk about entering politics.”

“Go ahead. There’s nothing to prevent you, if you’re a citizen, and twenty-one. Why talk to me about it?”

“I thought I might find it a little complicated, as a college man in politics.”

“What about it? I’m a college man in politics. In fact, I once taught in the university law school, and I suppose I was a conceited damn skinny nuisance, just as you’re a damn fat nuisance.”

“I am not fat!”

“You will be. Now what do you expect to do in politics, with your especial knowledge of Cro–Magnon tribal lore?”

Gid was becoming decently angry. “I’d speak up for the people, that’s what I’d do, and get ’em shorter hours and longer wages, more wages, I mean — but I mean, of course, without allowing any of this tyranny of union labor. I’d denounce all these consolidations of predatory interests that —”

“What predatory interests you mean? The farm-bloc or the Medical Association or the Methodist Church or your Adelbert Athletic Association?”

“You know what I mean! Anyway, I’d do something about justice and education and, well, I mean the Larger Issues, and not waste the public time on a lot of tripe about dog-muzzles and limburger cheese!”

“And just who do you think IS hired by the people to see they get good limburger cheese, to see that we have food inspectors who know cheese from Euclid? Do you think these things get themselves done by prayer and reading the Gettysburg Address and listening to lectures by Emma Goldman? If you get gypped on a street-car fare, or your mayor appoints a chief of police that steals your shirt, or your eggs are rotten, or your car breaks a spring on a bad road, then who do you blame? The State Legislature! And then you don’t re-elect us. We’re not a bunch of actors playing Julius Caesar. We’re business men, and badly paid ones, trying to carry out what the citizens want, or think they want, or some boy orator from the River Platte, like you, tells ’em they want. If you’d like to get into politics — all right. Go to your county committee, where they know how good you are, and tell ’em you’re fixing to step out and save the country. I’m sure they’ll cry with delight — but don’t come and tell ME! I didn’t walk out on the session upstairs because I was bored or ‘amused’. I had a toothache. And it’s getting worse every minute!”

For ten miles, on the train to Adelbert, Gid was silent with a silent Hatch. Then he broke up:

“Say it! I know. He was right. I’m just another college amateur. AND fat! I don’t know one doggone thing about how a government is carried on. That senator has certainly knocked all the ambition out of me! And I haven’t got any deep philosophy. Why, this question I noticed in the Zenith paper — if there was a fire and you had to decide between saving the Mona Lisa and a two-year-old child — I don’t know which I’d save.”

“Neither did the joker that wrote it.”

“But it shows me I’m not so gosh-awful profound. I guess I better just get into the teaching game and hand out the correct-speech guff, like my prof thinks I had ought to.” Then Gid became cheerful. “Maybe some day I’ll be a college president and get the alumni really lined up on contributions, and double the college attendance. I could do THAT, don’t you think?”

“I’m sure of it,” said Hatch.

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