Main Street, by Sinclair Lewis

Chapter 36

KENNICOTT was not so inhumanly patient that he could continue to forgive Carol’s heresies, to woo her as he had on the venture to California. She tried to be inconspicuous, but she was betrayed by her failure to glow over the boosting. Kennicott believed in it; demanded that she say patriotic things about the White Way and the new factory. He snorted, “By golly, I’ve done all I could, and now I expect you to play the game. Here you been complaining for years about us being so poky, and now when Blausser comes along and does stir up excitement and beautify the town like you’ve always wanted somebody to, why, you say he’s a roughneck, and you won’t jump on the band-wagon.”

Once, when Kennicott announced at noon-dinner, “What do you know about this! They say there’s a chance we may get another factory — cream-separator works!” he added, “You might try to look interested, even if you ain’t!” The baby was frightened by the Jovian roar; ran wailing to hide his face in Carol’s lap; and Kennicott had to make himself humble and court both mother and child. The dim injustice of not being understood even by his son left him irritable. He felt injured.

An event which did not directly touch them brought down his wrath.

In the early autumn, news came from Wakamin that the sheriff had forbidden an organizer for the National Nonpartisan League to speak anywhere in the county. The organizer had defied the sheriff, and announced that in a few days he would address a farmers’ political meeting. That night, the news ran, a mob of a hundred business men led by the sheriff — the tame village street and the smug village faces ruddled by the light of bobbing lanterns, the mob flowing between the squatty rows of shops — had taken the organizer from his hotel, ridden him on a fence-rail, put him on a freight train, and warned him not to return.

The story was threshed out in Dave Dyer’s drug store, with Sam Clark, Kennicott, and Carol present.

“That’s the way to treat those fellows — only they ought to have lynched him!” declared Sam, and Kennicott and Dave Dyer joined in a proud “You bet!”

Carol walked out hastily, Kennicott observing her.

Through supper-time she knew that he was bubbling and would soon boil over. When the baby was abed, and they sat composedly in canvas chairs on the porch, he experimented; “I had a hunch you thought Sam was kind of hard on that fellow they kicked out of Wakamin.”

“Wasn’t Sam rather needlessly heroic?”

“All these organizers, yes, and a whole lot of the German and Squarehead farmers themselves, they’re seditious as the devil — disloyal, non-patriotic, pro-German pacifists, that’s what they are!”

“Did this organizer say anything pro-German?”

“Not on your life! They didn’t give him a chance!” His laugh was stagey.

“So the whole thing was illegal — and led by the sheriff! Precisely how do you expect these aliens to obey your law if the officer of the law teaches them to break it? Is it a new kind of logic?”

“Maybe it wasn’t exactly regular, but what’s the odds? They knew this fellow would try to stir up trouble. Whenever it comes right down to a question of defending Americanism and our constitutional rights, it’s justifiable to set aside ordinary procedure.”

“What editorial did he get that from?” she wondered, as she protested, “See here, my beloved, why can’t you Tories declare war honestly? You don’t oppose this organizer because you think he’s seditious but because you’re afraid that the farmers he is organizing will deprive you townsmen of the money you make out of mortgages and wheat and shops. Of course, since we’re at war with Germany, anything that any one of us doesn’t like is ‘pro-German,’ whether it’s business competition or bad music. If we were fighting England, you’d call the radicals ‘pro-English.’ When this war is over, I suppose you’ll be calling them ‘red anarchists.’ What an eternal art it is — such a glittery delightful art — finding hard names for our opponents! How we do sanctify our efforts to keep them from getting the holy dollars we want for ourselves! The churches have always done it, and the political orators — and I suppose I do it when I call Mrs. Bogart a ‘Puritan’ and Mr. Stowbody a ‘capitalist.’ But you business men are going to beat all the rest of us at it, with your simple-hearted, energetic, pompous ——”

She got so far only because Kennicott was slow in shaking off respect for her. Now he bayed:

“That’ll be about all from you! I’ve stood for your sneering at this town, and saying how ugly and dull it is. I’ve stood for your refusing to appreciate good fellows like Sam. I’ve even stood for your ridiculing our Watch Gopher Prairie Grow campaign. But one thing I’m not going to stand: I’m not going to stand my own wife being seditious. You can camouflage all you want to, but you know darn well that these radicals, as you call ’em, are opposed to the war, and let me tell you right here and now, and you and all these long-haired men and short-haired women can beef all you want to, but we’re going to take these fellows, and if they ain’t patriotic, we’re going to make them be patriotic. And — Lord knows I never thought I’d have to say this to my own wife — but if you go defending these fellows, then the same thing applies to you! Next thing, I suppose you’ll be yapping about free speech. Free speech! There’s too much free speech and free gas and free beer and free love and all the rest of your damned mouthy freedom, and if I had my way I’d make you folks live up to the established rules of decency even if I had to take you ——”

“Will!” She was not timorous now. “Am I pro-German if I fail to throb to Honest Jim Blausser, too? Let’s have my whole duty as a wife!”

He was grumbling, “The whole thing’s right in line with the criticism you’ve always been making. Might have known you’d oppose any decent constructive work for the town or for ——”

“You’re right. All I’ve done has been in line. I don’t belong to Gopher Prairie. That isn’t meant as a condemnation of Gopher Prairie, and it may be a condemnation of me. All right! I don’t care! I don’t belong here, and I’m going. I’m not asking permission any more. I’m simply going.”

He grunted. “Do you mind telling me, if it isn’t too much trouble, how long you’re going for?”

“I don’t know. Perhaps for a year. Perhaps for a lifetime.”

“I see. Well, of course, I’ll be tickled to death to sell out my practise and go anywhere you say. Would you like to have me go with you to Paris and study art, maybe, and wear velveteen pants and a woman’s bonnet, and live on spaghetti?”

“No, I think we can save you that trouble. You don’t quite understand. I am going — I really am — and alone! I’ve got to find out what my work is ——”

“Work? Work? Sure! That’s the whole trouble with you! You haven’t got enough work to do. If you had five kids and no hired girl, and had to help with the chores and separate the cream, like these farmers’ wives, then you wouldn’t be so discontented.”

“I know. That’s what most men — and women — like you WOULD say. That’s how they would explain all I am and all I want. And I shouldn’t argue with them. These business men, from their crushing labors of sitting in an office seven hours a day, would calmly recommend that I have a dozen children. As it happens, I’ve done that sort of thing. There’ve been a good many times when we hadn’t a maid, and I did all the housework, and cared for Hugh, and went to Red Cross, and did it all very efficiently. I’m a good cook and a good sweeper, and you don’t dare say I’m not!”

“N-no, you’re ——”

“But was I more happy when I was drudging? I was not. I was just bedraggled and unhappy. It’s work — but not my work. I could run an office or a library, or nurse and teach children. But solitary dish-washing isn’t enough to satisfy me — or many other women. We’re going to chuck it. We’re going to wash ’em by machinery, and come out and play with you men in the offices and clubs and politics you’ve cleverly kept for yourselves! Oh, we’re hopeless, we dissatisfied women! Then why do you want to have us about the place, to fret you? So it’s for your sake that I’m going!”

“Of course a little thing like Hugh makes no difference!”

“Yes, all the difference. That’s why I’m going to take him with me.”

“Suppose I refuse?”

“You won’t!”

Forlornly, “Uh —— Carrie, what the devil is it you want, anyway?”

“Oh, conversation! No, it’s much more than that. I think it’s a greatness of life — a refusal to be content with even the healthiest mud.”

“Don’t you know that nobody ever solved a problem by running away from it?”

“Perhaps. Only I choose to make my own definition of ‘running away’ I don’t call —— Do you realize how big a world there is beyond this Gopher Prairie where you’d keep me all my life? It may be that some day I’ll come back, but not till I can bring something more than I have now. And even if I am cowardly and run away — all right, call it cowardly, call me anything you want to! I’ve been ruled too long by fear of being called things. I’m going away to be quiet and think. I’m — I’m going! I have a right to my own life.”

“So have I to mine!”

“Well?”

“I have a right to my life — and you’re it, you’re my life! You’ve made yourself so. I’m damned if I’ll agree to all your freak notions, but I will say I’ve got to depend on you. Never thought of that complication, did you, in this ‘off to Bohemia, and express yourself, and free love, and live your own life’ stuff!”

“You have a right to me if you can keep me. Can you?”

He moved uneasily.

II

For a month they discussed it. They hurt each other very much, and sometimes they were close to weeping, and invariably he used banal phrases about her duties and she used phrases quite as banal about freedom, and through it all, her discovery that she really could get away from Main Street was as sweet as the discovery of love. Kennicott never consented definitely. At most he agreed to a public theory that she was “going to take a short trip and see what the East was like in wartime.”

She set out for Washington in October — just before the war ended.

She had determined on Washington because it was less intimidating than the obvious New York, because she hoped to find streets in which Hugh could play, and because in the stress of war-work, with its demand for thousands of temporary clerks, she could be initiated into the world of offices.

Hugh was to go with her, despite the wails and rather extensive comments of Aunt Bessie.

She wondered if she might not encounter Erik in the East but it was a chance thought, soon forgotten.

III

The last thing she saw on the station platform was Kennicott, faithfully waving his hand, his face so full of uncomprehending loneliness that he could not smile but only twitch up his lips. She waved to him as long as she could, and when he was lost she wanted to leap from the vestibule and run back to him. She thought of a hundred tendernesses she had neglected.

She had her freedom, and it was empty. The moment was not the highest of her life, but the lowest and most desolate, which was altogether excellent, for instead of slipping downward she began to climb.

She sighed, “I couldn’t do this if it weren’t for Will’s kindness, his giving me money.” But a second after: “I wonder how many women would always stay home if they had the money?”

Hugh complained, “Notice me, mummy!” He was beside her on the red plush seat of the day-coach; a boy of three and a half. “I’m tired of playing train. Let’s play something else. Let’s go see Auntie Bogart.”

“Oh, NO! Do you really like Mrs. Bogart?”

“Yes. She gives me cookies and she tells me about the Dear Lord. You never tell me about the Dear Lord. Why don’t you tell me about the Dear Lord? Auntie Bogart says I’m going to be a preacher. Can I be a preacher? Can I preach about the Dear Lord?”

“Oh, please wait till my generation has stopped rebelling before yours starts in!”

“What’s a generation?”

“It’s a ray in the illumination of the spirit.”

“That’s foolish.” He was a serious and literal person, and rather humorless. She kissed his frown, and marveled:

“I am running away from my husband, after liking a Swedish ne’er-do-well and expressing immoral opinions, just as in a romantic story. And my own son reproves me because I haven’t given him religious instruction. But the story doesn’t go right. I’m neither groaning nor being dramatically saved. I keep on running away, and I enjoy it. I’m mad with joy over it. Gopher Prairie is lost back there in the dust and stubble, and I look forward ——”

She continued it to Hugh: “Darling, do you know what mother and you are going to find beyond the blue horizon rim?”

“What?” flatly.

“We’re going to find elephants with golden howdahs from which peep young maharanees with necklaces of rubies, and a dawn sea colored like the breast of a dove, and a white and green house filled with books and silver tea-sets.”

“And cookies?”

“Cookies? Oh, most decidedly cookies. We’ve had enough of bread and porridge. We’d get sick on too many cookies, but ever so much sicker on no cookies at all.”

“That’s foolish.”

“It is, O male Kennicott!”

“Huh!” said Kennicott II, and went to sleep on her shoulder.

IV

The theory of the Dauntless regarding Carol’s absence:

Mrs. Will Kennicott and son Hugh left on No. 24 on Saturday last for a stay of some months in Minneapolis Chicago New York, and Washington. Mrs. Kennicott confided to Ye Scribe that she will be connected with one of the multifarious war activities now centering in the Nation’s Capital for a brief period before returning. Her countless friends who appreciate her splendid labors with the local Red Cross realize how valuable she will be to any war board with which she chooses to become connected. Gopher Prairie thus adds another shining star to its service flag and without wishing to knock any neighboring communities, we would like to know any town of anywheres near our size in the state that has such a sterling war record. Another reason why you’d better Watch Gopher Prairie Grow.

. . .

Mr. and Mrs. David Dyer, Mrs. Dyer’s sister, Mrs. Jennie Dayborn of Jackrabbit, and Dr. Will Kennicott drove to Minniemashie on Tuesday for a delightful picnic.

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