Gideon Planish, by Sinclair Lewis

Chapter 11

It was Peony who suggested that, since they were so very much in debt, they must economize all that next summer and fall. Peony was always being spectacular.

She said, “I love to blow money in, and I’d give my virtue for the Chinese rug and the Chippendale cabinet, but I can save, too — I can save like a son of a gun.” During vacation she found for them a three-room cottage in Northern Minnesota, and she cooked, swept, scrubbed, amused Carrie. She would let the Dean help her only with the dishes; she had him reading economics, anthropology, history, and they both felt very advanced and improved. Neither of them saw any difference between Lothrop Stoddard and William Graham Sumner. Any book was good and very useful if it said anything about head-measurements, the training of youth for democracy, or the increased production of gas-stoves.

With advisory aid from an Episcopal clergyman who smoked a pipe and was frank and helpful about Sex and was therefore called “Father,” Peony had the Dean inducted into the Episcopal Church. She felt that if he ever got to be a leader of progressive thought in New York or Washington, he couldn’t very well be a Presbyterian; he had to be either an Episcopalian or an atheist, and for an employee of an Episcopal college, the former seemed a lot more thoughtful. Later, he was to know that this was a mistake, and to see that if he was to be either a great Liberal or a staunch Illiberal, and if he was to raise money extensively, he ought to be a Methodist, a Baptist, a Congregationalist, a Quaker or a Russian prince.

The Planishes came back to the campus in the autumn with many new ideas, first-rate tans and only two hundred dollars in debts.

The Garfield County Censorship Board had gone on attacking and advertising good books, and Mr. Rood had, with amazement at himself, taken to reading, and had established the first adequate book shop in the county. The name of Chairman Planish, “a scholar who isn’t afraid to get out into the dust of the streets” (Waterloo Courier), had been advertised almost as loudly as the books. Through the whole State there began to slide a feeling that he was a very sound man, though nobody except Peony was sure what he was sound at, and he was appointed a member of the Legislative Advisory Electrification and Creative Planning Committee.

Suddenly he was dashing to Ottumwa, to Mason City, to Sioux City, to Muscatine, over a period of two months; his name was in the newspapers daily — on page 7; he took Peony to public dinners of more than three hundred persons, with sixteen speeches; and at the end of the meritorious crusade, the Planishes were four hundred dollars in debt, and Whipple Jackson sent a check to cover half the amount, and with it Peony bought a rock-crystal lamp and five hundred shares in a diamond mine.

Dean Planish had been honored by his first invitation to become a “national director” of a great organization with its office in New York: The Sympathizers with the Pacifistic Purposes of the New Democratic Turkey. He was assured that they desired only the use of his distinguished name, and he need give no time nor money unless he was eager to. He wasn’t.

Afterward he was often to have the experience, as warming to the stomach as hot toddy, of seeing his name on organizational stationery. But this was his first drink. He viewed the Turkish Sympathizers’ letter, lavishly signed by a Dartmouth professor, as a symbol of cultural advance and the international low-down. Centered at the top was the head of a fezless Turkish workman, with the mystic letters S.P.P.N.D.T. circling him like a necktie blown in the wind.

To a resident of Kinnikinick, the address was inspiring: Fifth Avenue and 43d Street, New York City.

In the upper right-hand corner of the letter were the National Officers, who included three prominent clergymen, a Chicago corporation lawyer, and a treasurer who was the fourteenth vice president of the Sixteenth National Bank of Manhattan. The Dean did not know that all proper national organizations, including many that pass away after a run of six nights, have New York bankers for treasurers.

Beneath the list of officers was the item, “Constantine Kelly, Executive Director,” in letters so modest that the Planishes, amateurs in the organizational world, did not notice it. They were interested in the left-hand side of the stationery where, among the forty-eight directors, appeared:

Gideon Planish, Ph.D.
Dean, Kinnikinick Cge.

The Dean and Peony looked at each other, and looked at Carrie, and all three of them sighed — the elders with radiant joy, Carrie with boredom and possibly wind.

The news of this honor appeared in the Iowa newspapers, and the Dean received invitations to become a director of two other national organizations, and to contribute to sixty-three of them. He accepted the first two. His duties in the S.P.P.N.D.T. did not tax him. After having appointed him, that body seemed to have forgotten him, except for breezy monthly letters, theoretically signed by the Dartmouth professor, explaining why no one in Europe or Asia would ever go to war again, and suggesting that he get more people in his State to contribute. It would be all right with the S.P.P.N.D.T. if he held meetings and shipped them the collections.

His many honors had now started the Dean on a meaty career of oratory and public enlightenment. As the Kinnikinick Record said, “This gentleman is always in great demand as the speaker at alumni banquets, high-school commencements, conventions, annual Rotary and Kiwanis jollifications, and other occasions where there is a demand for wit and culture, in this and neighboring counties, and there is no hand we are prouder to shake than that of Dean ‘Giddy’.”

The invitations to speak were coming in, two a day, three a day, and Peony took charge.

“Gideon, honey, you’ve been doing all this spieling free, and it’s a chance to cash in. We’ll pay up that ole five-hundred-dollar debt in jig time, and I can get me a real evening dress that tinkles. You let me answer these bids. I’m going to stick ’em twenty-five and fifty bucks apiece, and up to seventy-five, with traveling expenses, and there’s no reason why they shouldn’t pay for a chair car, even if you don’t feel like taking one.”

The Dean meditated, “I do get a lot of spiritual satisfaction out of stimulating their intellects, but I swear, people that want free oratory are the naggingest beggars there are, especially the women that run committees. They got no mercy. If I let ’em, they’d have me making addresses twenty-four hours a day, and look pained if I stopped to blow my nose. Sure. Go ahead and soak ’em. I just never had the nerve.”

“Nerve? Why the man never even had the nerve to seduce me, and Heaven knows, that wouldn’t have been hard.”


“Listen. I might pick out a regular topic for you and advertise it a little — mention it in all my letters.”

“Ausgezeichnet! Peony! Which do you think would draw more — a lecture maintaining that the Post–War Generation are okay, and will get over it, or just the opposite — a message that they’re a gang of cockeyed hellions and harlots? This is very important. A lecturer has got to get his message straight, and more or less know what he’s really talking about, even if he isn’t so eloquent.”

“Oh, give ’em the young-generation-gone-to-hell number. Nobody wants to pay their good dough to hear that the kids are simply human beings. What’s the use of a forum, if you only tell folks to act natural and try to have some common sense? Besides! I got a wonderful name for the kids that ARE tough: singe cats! Isn’t that beautiful?”

“Wow! You’re the poet of this household, Peony! That ought to drag ’em in. ‘Don’t Be a Singe Cat.’ Okay! Let’s go!”

This was the real origin of the term “singe cat,” which spread over the United States and became one of the permanent treasures of American fancy.

The suggestion that vulgar money might be involved lessened the number of invitations to toss the torches, but eight or ten times a month, now, Dean Planish was called out of town, sometimes a hundred and fifty miles from home, and the family debt was reduced to three hundred dollars, and Peony did buy an evening dress that tinkled, and one, very soft and feminine, which unfortunately made her look maternal.

President Bull was crosser and crosser as he saw his dean, whose job was really to run the college and let the president go out and sell it, both neglecting his duty and getting the pretty orange checks that should have gone to T. Austin Bull.

Dean Planish was to speak this evening at the joint dinner of the Daughters of Pilgrims, and the Upsala Bach Society, at New Ipswich, sixty miles from Kinnikinick. He would drive there. The roads were snowy but passable, and he had bought new chains for the Maxwell. He came home at four-thirty in the afternoon, kissed his wife, spanked her slightly, kissed the baby and put on dinner clothes.

He decided that the dress shirt would do one more time, but he’d better change the collar. It had a spot on it from the quick one he had grabbed in the men’s-room at the Hotel Grampion in Des Moines, last Tuesday, when he had addressed the Hawkeye Association of Agronomists. That had been a sixty-dollar fee, but worth more, because he had had to make up an entirely new lecture, something about the History of Agriculture, of which he knew nothing whatever.

He ate a tuna-fish sandwich, hastily sucked in a straight rye, and put on a dogskin coat, a plush cap and coonskin gauntlets, which utterly disguised the scholar and philosopher. The visible remnants of him, the brown short beard and the brown cheerful eyes and the ruddy nose, looked somehow like a horse doctor’s.

Peony bade her warrior, “Be a good boy. Have you got your key? Keep your muffler tight around your neck. Don’t go bringing any blondes home with you, or I’ll gouge their eyes out. Oh, where’s that ten dollars you were going to leave me? I have a feeling I’m going to buy me some silver slippers before the store closes. Oh, nemmine, don’t unbutton your coat just to get it. I’ll charge ’em. I love to charge things, anyway. Oh, darling, do slow down on the curves, and remember to call your typical singe cat ‘Mamie,’ not ‘Meggie’— don’t forget what a hell of a time you had with that real Meggie at Clinton. Good-bye, lover.”

As he lighted a cigar and eased his car into gear, Dean Planish reflected, “That’s the best little wife any man’s had since —” He balked. Since Caesar? Since Alfred Lord Tennyson? Since U. S. Grant?

“The best little wife any man ever had,” he finished it.

He went buzzing, steady as a train, through a gray, steady wind over the prairie. His car was a small fast bug, lost in that immensity. He thought about the young men who had come to his office today, about the luscious girls — but none of them could touch Peony — about his salary, about how pleasant it would be to live in New York and not drive his own car, about Professor Eakins’s statement that he had heard of an explorer who got $750 a lecture, about giving Peony some day an ivory-colored bed with carved and gilded cupids, and, briefly, about his coming lecture.

Tonight he was, in a craftsmanlike way, going to combine his spicy revelations about Youth’s naughtiness with a denial that they were even naughty, and he was calling the talk “It’s up to the Parents.”

Ten billion acres of flat grayness slipped by as the cozy philosopher brooded:

“Must remember not bring the term singe cat in till after the tourist camp story — oh, must be careful to tell that tactfully, so nobody will realize I’m referring to contraceptives. Then introduce the phrase with a rising inflection: singe — CAT. Like that.

“Damn that farmer! What’s he think he’s trying to do? Crowd me over into the ditch?

“She’s not a bit fat. Just a good figure.

“Yes, in New York, have our bedroom like SHE’D like it: carved bed and a great big dressing-table, mirror big’s a barn, and every kind of soap and rouge and cream in the world — fun to arrange it and then take her in there and surprise her. . . . Don’t kid yourself now, Doc! Fat chance your ever having a say about furnishing any room. Well, now, shut up! That’s the way it ought to be. I’m the scholar and a crank for high-tone talk and accuracy, but she’s got the punch and the genius. I wish I were kissing her right now.

“Hm. Missouri license, eh? Wonder what he’s doing up here, this time of year. Nice job. La Salle, I guess. Gracious, is he going fast!

“Explain that it isn’t the surface appearance of vice that matters, but are the kids, no matter if they do tumble into the Slew — what is it? slew, slau, sluff? — of Despond, still, are they trying to march on toward intellectual solidarity with the leaders? (Like me.) Better bring this in dramatically: youth with banners — mud on their robes may merely show the fact that they been in the what-d’yuh-call-it of Despond, fighting. Plenty dramatic.

“This will make a hundred and ten bucks extra this week. Wow! Well, I’m worth it. They don’t get many lecturers that hand ’em thoughts the way I do. ‘There’s Dr. Planish — he’s read just about everything, and he’s completely honest. I’ll bet he’s satisfied with the part he’s playing in the march to moral victory!’ I don’t care if she gets THREE pairs of silver slippers, bless her!

“By golly, here we are in the outskirts right now. That wasn’t so bad. I’m certainly a good driver. These kids, these students, that think they can speed so! It’s skill and steadiness like mine that covers the distance.

“I wonder if any of these undergraduates DO do the things I tell about in the lecture.”

New Ipswich, Iowa, was exactly like Chicago, except that it was only one two-hundred-and-fiftieth as large, and the March of Empire Hotel, in New Ipswich, was exactly like the nobler Chicago hotels, except that it had only one-tenth as many rooms. It had four stories of red brick trimmed with gray limestone, and in the lobby was a mural depicting Richelieu selling the glories of New France to Louis XIII.

The Bach–Pilgrims dinner was held in the Royal Bourbon Banquet and Ball Room, on the mezzanine floor, with its own Pompadour Coatroom. But Dean Planish could not venture up on that gala floor looking like a farmer. At the main coatroom, downstairs, he took off his dogskin coat and plush cap, tipped up his imitation silver pocket flask, combed his hair and beard with a small baby-blue pocket comb, and put on his harness of gold-rimmed eyeglasses with a broad black silk ribbon. Their lenses were of plain window-glass.

As he ambled up to the mezzanine, he looked the perfect Maestro, unafraid of ideologies or chicken croquettes. He could without an introduction tell who his chairwoman was. She would be the sharp-nosed and prosperous but slender lady who looked sick with anxiety. The Dean sailed down on her, as she stood with her program-flapping gang by the double door to the Banquet Hall; he held out his hand, and purred in his deepest tomcat voice, “Mrs. Wiggleman? Mr. Planish.”

By all union rules, his job was done now, except for the mere eating and lecturing; he was there, he was on time, he was sober, he was in dinner clothes, and he had not forgotten his necktie.

He was not one of your nervous lecturers who poke at their apple-pineapple-peach-creamcheese salad, who shakily fill up on coffee, and look glassily at the ladies to left and right, who answer “Ladies and gentlemen” when anybody asks if it is cold enough for them, and wonder how many cigarettes they can get in without being considered libidinous. Dean Planish ate stolidly, and he thought very well of the Surprise Ice Cream, while to Mrs. Wiggleman, the chairwoman, on his right, he was saying, Yes, he did think the movies were a pernicious influence on the young. After that he said to the lady on his left that Yes, he did think the movies stimulated the imaginations and slicked up the manners of the young.

All this he did with one lobe of his brain tied behind him.

He was not jumpy even when Mrs. Wiggleman introduced him. She had neither of the virtues that a lecturer longs for in an introducer: to keep it down to forty seconds, and to get the lecturer’s name right. Mrs. Wiggleman kicked up her palsied heels for two minutes and forty-three seconds, by the Dean’s wrist-watch, and she called him “Professor” instead of “Dean.” Yet when she had collapsed and sat shrieking to herself in a whisper, he rose, put on his fraudulent eyeglasses with a flourish, and sailed his plane steadily into the tradewinds of intellectuality:

“Madame Chairman, Right Reverend Sir, ladies and friends, it is altogether fitting and proper and a happy portent for the future that the descendants of the Yankees, my own stern but noble forbears, and the sons and daughters of the great Swedish race should thus have met together, and that I should endeavor to address you on the ever-burning topic of Today’s Youth, for in what have these titan races better united than in their emphasis on the scrupulous rearing of our children?”

He pushed his crumpled napkin away from him on the tired and geographical-looking tablecloth behind which he was standing, and really took flight. That he could soar at all while standing on a level with the customers showed his skill, for normally the wisdom and stimulation that will be tolerated from a lecturer are in ratio to the number of feet he is elevated above the audience.

Sixty-two minutes later, he made his landing, a little dazed now, and they yelled and hammered the tables. He enjoyed that, but it did not keep him from getting down to the real climax.

The first rule of all professional lecturers, whether inspirational, comic or travel, is to get your check before you leave the hall, for otherwise, in the spell of your wizardry, they might forget to send it on to you. So after he had shaken hands with forty-seven ladies and five men, he turned merrily to Mrs. Wiggleman and said, as though it were just a little joke between them, “I think I can save your committee a whole postage stamp if I take my check along with me!”

Mrs. Wiggleman looked shocked, but before he went down to shrug himself into his dogskin overcoat, he had the check tucked into his billfold.

He was weary now. He drove back to Kinnikinick in so still a paralysis that he noted only that it had started to snow, and that he must see if he couldn’t find a not too expensive snakeskin belt for Peony.

She was asleep on the new chintz-covered chaise longue when he came in, but she jumped up and kissed him.

“Were you wonderful? I got some hot beef-tea waiting for you. Did you get your check?” she said.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:57