Main Street, by Sinclair Lewis

Chapter 19

IN three years of exile from herself Carol had certain experiences chronicled as important by the Dauntless, or discussed by the Jolly Seventeen, but the event unchronicled, undiscussed, and supremely controlling, was her slow admission of longing to find her own people.

II

Bea and Miles Bjornstam were married in June, a month after “The Girl from Kankakee.” Miles had turned respectable. He had renounced his criticisms of state and society; he had given up roving as horse-trader, and wearing red mackinaws in lumber-camps; he had gone to work as engineer in Jackson Elder’s planing-mill; he was to be seen upon the streets endeavoring to be neighborly with suspicious men whom he had taunted for years.

Carol was the patroness and manager of the wedding. Juanita Haydock mocked, “You’re a chump to let a good hired girl like Bea go. Besides! How do you know it’s a good thing, her marrying a sassy bum like this awful Red Swede person? Get wise! Chase the man off with a mop, and hold onto your Svenska while the holding’s good. Huh? Me go to their Scandahoofian wedding? Not a chance!”

The other matrons echoed Juanita. Carol was dismayed by the casualness of their cruelty, but she persisted. Miles had exclaimed to her, “Jack Elder says maybe he’ll come to the wedding! Gee, it would be nice to have Bea meet the Boss as a reg’lar married lady. Some day I’ll be so well off that Bea can play with Mrs. Elder — and you! Watch us!”

There was an uneasy knot of only nine guests at the service in the unpainted Lutheran Church — Carol, Kennicott, Guy Pollock, and the Champ Perrys, all brought by Carol; Bea’s frightened rustic parents, her cousin Tina, and Pete, Miles’s ex-partner in horse-trading, a surly, hairy man who had bought a black suit and come twelve hundred miles from Spokane for the event.

Miles continuously glanced back at the church door. Jackson Elder did not appear. The door did not once open after the awkward entrance of the first guests. Miles’s hand closed on Bea’s arm.

He had, with Carol’s help, made his shanty over into a cottage with white curtains and a canary and a chintz chair.

Carol coaxed the powerful matrons to call on Bea. They half scoffed, half promised to go.

Bea’s successor was the oldish, broad, silent Oscarina, who was suspicious of her frivolous mistress for a month, so that Juanita Haydock was able to crow, “There, smarty, I told you you’d run into the Domestic Problem!” But Oscarina adopted Carol as a daughter, and with her as faithful to the kitchen as Bea had been, there was nothing changed in Carol’s life.

III

She was unexpectedly appointed to the town library-board by Ole Jenson, the new mayor. The other members were Dr. Westlake, Lyman Cass, Julius Flickerbaugh the attorney, Guy Pollock, and Martin Mahoney, former livery-stable keeper and now owner of a garage. She was delighted. She went to the first meeting rather condescendingly, regarding herself as the only one besides Guy who knew anything about books or library methods. She was planning to revolutionize the whole system.

Her condescension was ruined and her humility wholesomely increased when she found the board, in the shabby room on the second floor of the house which had been converted into the library, not discussing the weather and longing to play checkers, but talking about books. She discovered that amiable old Dr. Westlake read everything in verse and “light fiction”; that Lyman Cass, the veal-faced, bristly-bearded owner of the mill, had tramped through Gibbon, Hume, Grote, Prescott, and the other thick historians; that he could repeat pages from them — and did. When Dr. Westlake whispered to her, “Yes, Lym is a very well-informed man, but he’s modest about it,” she felt uninformed and immodest, and scolded at herself that she had missed the human potentialities in this vast Gopher Prairie. When Dr. Westlake quoted the “Paradiso,” “Don Quixote,” “Wilhelm Meister,” and the Koran, she reflected that no one she knew, not even her father, had read all four.

She came diffidently to the second meeting of the board. She did not plan to revolutionize anything. She hoped that the wise elders might be so tolerant as to listen to her suggestions about changing the shelving of the juveniles.

Yet after four sessions of the library-board she was where she had been before the first session. She had found that for all their pride in being reading men, Westlake and Cass and even Guy had no conception of making the library familiar to the whole town. They used it, they passed resolutions about it, and they left it as dead as Moses. Only the Henty books and the Elsie books and the latest optimisms by moral female novelists and virile clergymen were in general demand, and the board themselves were interested only in old, stilted volumes. They had no tenderness for the noisiness of youth discovering great literature.

If she was egotistic about her tiny learning, they were at least as much so regarding theirs. And for all their talk of the need of additional library-tax none of them was willing to risk censure by battling for it, though they now had so small a fund that, after paying for rent, heat, light, and Miss Villets’s salary, they had only a hundred dollars a year for the purchase of books.

The Incident of the Seventeen Cents killed her none too enduring interest.

She had come to the board-meeting singing with a plan. She had made a list of thirty European novels of the past ten years, with twenty important books on psychology, education, and economics which the library lacked. She had made Kennicott promise to give fifteen dollars. If each of the board would contribute the same, they could have the books.

Lym Cass looked alarmed, scratched himself, and protested, “I think it would be a bad precedent for the board-members to contribute money — uh — not that I mind, but it wouldn’t be fair — establish precedent. Gracious! They don’t pay us a cent for our services! Certainly can’t expect us to pay for the privilege of serving!”

Only Guy looked sympathetic, and he stroked the pine table and said nothing.

The rest of the meeting they gave to a bellicose investigation of the fact that there was seventeen cents less than there should be in the Fund. Miss Villets was summoned; she spent half an hour in explosively defending herself; the seventeen cents were gnawed over, penny by penny; and Carol, glancing at the carefully inscribed list which had been so lovely and exciting an hour before, was silent, and sorry for Miss Villets, and sorrier for herself.

She was reasonably regular in attendance till her two years were up and Vida Sherwin was appointed to the board in her place, but she did not try to be revolutionary. In the plodding course of her life there was nothing changed, and nothing new.

IV

Kennicott made an excellent land-deal, but as he told her none of the details, she was not greatly exalted or agitated. What did agitate her was his announcement, half whispered and half blurted, half tender and half coldly medical, that they “ought to have a baby, now they could afford it.” They had so long agreed that “perhaps it would be just as well not to have any children for a while yet,” that childlessness had come to be natural. Now, she feared and longed and did not know; she hesitatingly assented, and wished that she had not assented.

As there appeared no change in their drowsy relations, she forgot all about it, and life was planless.

V

Idling on the porch of their summer cottage at the lake, on afternoons when Kennicott was in town, when the water was glazed and the whole air languid, she pictured a hundred escapes: Fifth Avenue in a snow-storm, with limousines, golden shops, a cathedral spire. A reed hut on fantastic piles above the mud of a jungle river. A suite in Paris, immense high grave rooms, with lambrequins and a balcony. The Enchanted Mesa. An ancient stone mill in Maryland, at the turn of the road, between rocky brook and abrupt hills. An upland moor of sheep and flitting cool sunlight. A clanging dock where steel cranes unloaded steamers from Buenos Ayres and Tsing- tao. A Munich concert-hall, and a famous ‘cellist playing — playing to her.

One scene had a persistent witchery:

She stood on a terrace overlooking a boulevard by the warm sea. She was certain, though she had no reason for it, that the place was Mentone. Along the drive below her swept barouches, with a mechanical tlot-tlot, tlot-tlot, tlot-tlot, and great cars with polished black hoods and engines quiet as the sigh of an old man. In them were women erect, slender, enameled, and expressionless as marionettes, their small hands upon parasols, their unchanging eyes always forward, ignoring the men beside them, tall men with gray hair and distinguished faces. Beyond the drive were painted sea and painted sands, and blue and yellow pavilions. Nothing moved except the gliding carriages, and the people were small and wooden, spots in a picture drenched with gold and hard bright blues. There was no sound of sea or winds; no softness of whispers nor of falling petals; nothing but yellow and cobalt and staring light, and the never-changing tlot-tlot, tlot-tlot ——

She startled. She whimpered. It was the rapid ticking of the clock which had hypnotized her into hearing the steady hoofs. No aching color of the sea and pride of supercilious people, but the reality of a round-bellied nickel alarm-clock on a shelf against a fuzzy unplaned pine wall, with a stiff gray wash-rag hanging above it and a kerosene-stove standing below.

A thousand dreams governed by the fiction she had read, drawn from the pictures she had envied, absorbed her drowsy lake afternoons, but always in the midst of them Kennicott came out from town, drew on khaki trousers which were plastered with dry fish-scales, asked, “Enjoying yourself?” and did not listen to her answer.

And nothing was changed, and there was no reason to believe that there ever would be change.

VI

Trains!

At the lake cottage she missed the passing of the trains. She realized that in town she had depended upon them for assurance that there remained a world beyond.

The railroad was more than a means of transportation to Gopher Prairie. It was a new god; a monster of steel limbs, oak ribs, flesh of gravel, and a stupendous hunger for freight; a deity created by man that he might keep himself respectful to Property, as elsewhere he had elevated and served as tribal gods the mines, cotton-mills, motor-factories, colleges, army.

The East remembered generations when there had been no railroad, and had no awe of it; but here the railroads had been before time was. The towns had been staked out on barren prairie as convenient points for future train-halts; and back in 1860 and 1870 there had been much profit, much opportunity to found aristocratic families, in the possession of advance knowledge as to where the towns would arise.

If a town was in disfavor, the railroad could ignore it, cut it off from commerce, slay it. To Gopher Prairie the tracks were eternal verities, and boards of railroad directors an omnipotence. The smallest boy or the most secluded grandam could tell you whether No. 32 had a hot-box last Tuesday, whether No. 7 was going to put on an extra day- coach; and the name of the president of the road was familiar to every breakfast table.

Even in this new era of motors the citizens went down to the station to see the trains go through. It was their romance; their only mystery besides mass at the Catholic Church; and from the trains came lords of the outer world — traveling salesmen with piping on their waistcoats, and visiting cousins from Milwaukee.

Gopher Prairie had once been a “division-point.” The roundhouse and repair-shops were gone, but two conductors still retained residence, and they were persons of distinction, men who traveled and talked to strangers, who wore uniforms with brass buttons, and knew all about these crooked games of con-men. They were a special caste, neither above nor below the Haydocks, but apart, artists and adventurers.

The night telegraph-operator at the railroad station was the most melodramatic figure in town: awake at three in the morning, alone in a room hectic with clatter of the telegraph key. All night he “talked” to operators twenty, fifty, a hundred miles away. It was always to be expected that he would be held up by robbers. He never was, but round him was a suggestion of masked faces at the window, revolvers, cords binding him to a chair, his struggle to crawl to the key before he fainted.

During blizzards everything about the railroad was melodramatic. There were days when the town was completely shut off, when they had no mail, no express, no fresh meat, no newspapers. At last the rotary snow-plow came through, bucking the drifts, sending up a geyser, and the way to the Outside was open again. The brakemen, in mufflers and fur caps, running along the tops of ice-coated freight-cars; the engineers scratching frost from the cab windows and looking out, inscrutable, self-contained, pilots of the prairie sea — they were heroism, they were to Carol the daring of the quest in a world of groceries and sermons.

To the small boys the railroad was a familiar playground. They climbed the iron ladders on the sides of the box-cars; built fires behind piles of old ties; waved to favorite brakemen. But to Carol it was magic.

She was motoring with Kennicott, the car lumping through darkness, the lights showing mud-puddles and ragged weeds by the road. A train coming! A rapid chuck-a-chuck, chuck- a-chuck, chuck-a-chuck. It was hurling past — the Pacific Flyer, an arrow of golden flame. Light from the fire-box splashed the under side of the trailing smoke. Instantly the vision was gone; Carol was back in the long darkness; and Kennicott was giving his version of that fire and wonder: “No. 19. Must be ‘bout ten minutes late.”

In town, she listened from bed to the express whistling in the cut a mile north. Uuuuuuu! — faint, nervous, distrait, horn of the free night riders journeying to the tall towns where were laughter and banners and the sound of bells — Uuuuu! Uuuuu! — the world going by — Uuuuuuu! — fainter, more wistful, gone.

Down here there were no trains. The stillness was very great. The prairie encircled the lake, lay round her, raw, dusty, thick. Only the train could cut it. Some day she would take a train; and that would be a great taking.

VII

She turned to the Chautauqua as she had turned to the dramatic association, to the library-board.

Besides the permanent Mother Chautauqua, in New York, there are, all over these States, commercial Chautauqua companies which send out to every smallest town troupes of lecturers and “entertainers” to give a week of culture under canvas. Living in Minneapolis, Carol had never encountered the ambulant Chautauqua, and the announcement of its com- ing to Gopher Prairie gave her hope that others might be doing the vague things which she had attempted. She pictured a condensed university course brought to the people. Mornings when she came in from the lake with Kennicott she saw placards in every shop-window, and strung on a cord across Main Street, a line of pennants alternately worded “The Boland Chautauqua COMING!” and “A solid week of inspiration and enjoyment!” But she was disappointed when she saw the program. It did not seem to be a tabloid university; it did not seem to be any kind of a university; it seemed to be a combination of vaudeville performance Y. M. C. A. lecture, and the graduation exercises of an elocution class.

She took her doubt to Kennicott. He insisted, “Well, maybe it won’t be so awful darn intellectual, the way you and I might like it, but it’s a whole lot better than nothing.” Vida Sherwin added, “They have some splendid speakers. If the people don’t carry off so much actual information, they do get a lot of new ideas, and that’s what counts.”

During the Chautauqua Carol attended three evening meetings, two afternoon meetings, and one in the morning. She was impressed by the audience: the sallow women in skirts and blouses, eager to be made to think, the men in vests and shirt- sleeves, eager to be allowed to laugh, and the wriggling children, eager to sneak away. She liked the plain benches, the portable stage under its red marquee, the great tent over all, shadowy above strings of incandescent bulbs at night and by day casting an amber radiance on the patient crowd. The scent of dust and trampled grass and sun-baked wood gave her an illusion of Syrian caravans; she forgot the speakers while she listened to noises outside the tent: two farmers talking hoarsely, a wagon creaking down Main Street, the crow of a rooster. She was content. But it was the contentment of the lost hunter stopping to rest.

For from the Chautauqua itself she got nothing but wind and chaff and heavy laughter, the laughter of yokels at old jokes, a mirthless and primitive sound like the cries of beasts on a farm.

These were the several instructors in the condensed university’s seven-day course:

Nine lecturers, four of them ex-ministers, and one an ex- congressman, all of them delivering “inspirational addresses.” The only facts or opinions which Carol derived from them were: Lincoln was a celebrated president of the United States, but in his youth extremely poor. James J. Hill was the best- known railroad-man of the West, and in his youth extremely poor. Honesty and courtesy in business are preferable to boorishness and exposed trickery, but this is not to be taken personally, since all persons in Gopher Prairie are known to be honest and courteous. London is a large city. A distinguished statesman once taught Sunday School.

Four “entertainers” who told Jewish stories, Irish stories, German stories, Chinese stories, and Tennessee mountaineer stories, most of which Carol had heard.

A “lady elocutionist” who recited Kipling and imitated children.

A lecturer with motion-pictures of an Andean exploration; excellent pictures and a halting narrative.

Three brass-bands, a company of six opera-singers, a Hawaiian sextette, and four youths who played saxophones and guitars disguised as wash-boards. The most applauded pieces were those, such as the “Lucia” inevitability, which the audience had heard most often.

The local superintendent, who remained through the week while the other enlighteners went to other Chautauquas for their daily performances. The superintendent was a bookish, underfed man who worked hard at rousing artificial enthusiasm, at trying to make the audience cheer by dividing them into competitive squads and telling them that they were intelligent and made splendid communal noises. He gave most of the morning lectures, droning with equal unhappy facility about poetry, the Holy Land, and the injustice to employers in any system of profit-sharing.

The final item was a man who neither lectured, inspired, nor entertained; a plain little man with his hands in his pockets. All the other speakers had confessed, “I cannot keep from telling the citizens of your beautiful city that none of the talent on this circuit have found a more charming spot or more enterprising and hospitable people.” But the little man suggested that the architecture of Gopher Prairie was haphazard, and that it was sottish to let the lake-front be monopolized by the cinder-heaped wall of the railroad embankment. Afterward the audience grumbled, “Maybe that guy’s got the right dope, but what’s the use of looking on the dark side of things all the time? New ideas are first-rate, but not all this criticism. Enough trouble in life without looking for it!”

Thus the Chautauqua, as Carol saw it. After it, the town felt proud and educated.

VIII

Two weeks later the Great War smote Europe.

For a month Gopher Prairie had the delight of shuddering, then, as the war settled down to a business of trench-fighting, they forgot.

When Carol talked about the Balkans, and the possibility of a German revolution, Kennicott yawned, “Oh yes, it’s a great old scrap, but it’s none of our business. Folks out here are too busy growing corn to monkey with any fool war that those foreigners want to get themselves into.”

It was Miles Bjornstam who said, “I can’t figure it out. I’m opposed to wars, but still, seems like Germany has got to be licked because them Junkers stands in the way of progress.”

She was calling on Miles and Bea, early in autumn. They had received her with cries, with dusting of chairs, and a running to fetch water for coffee. Miles stood and beamed at her. He fell often and joyously into his old irreverence about the lords of Gopher Prairie, but always — with a certain difficulty — he added something decorous and appreciative.

“Lots of people have come to see you, haven’t they?” Carol hinted.

“Why, Bea’s cousin Tina comes in right along, and the foreman at the mill, and —— Oh, we have good times. Say, take a look at that Bea! Wouldn’t you think she was a canary-bird, to listen to her, and to see that Scandahoofian tow- head of hers? But say, know what she is? She’s a mother hen! Way she fusses over me — way she makes old Miles wear a necktie! Hate to spoil her by letting her hear it, but she’s one pretty darn nice — nice —— Hell! What do we care if none of the dirty snobs come and call? We’ve got each other.”

Carol worried about their struggle, but she forgot it in the stress of sickness and fear. For that autumn she knew that a baby was coming, that at last life promised to be interesting in the peril of the great change.

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