Main Street: The Story of Carol Kennicott

Contents:
Author: Sinclair Lewis

I

CAROL was on the back porch, tightening a bolt on the baby’s go-cart, this Sunday afternoon. Through an open window of the Bogart house she heard a screeching, heard Mrs. Bogart’s haggish voice:

. . .did too, and there’s no use your denying it no you don’t, you march yourself right straight out of the house. . .never in my life heard of such. . . never had nobody talk to me like. . .walk in the ways of sin and nastiness. . .leave your clothes here, and heaven knows that’s more than you deserve. . .any of your lip or I’ll call the policeman."

The voice of the other interlocutor Carol did not catch, nor, though Mrs. Bogart was proclaiming that he was her confidant and present assistant, did she catch the voice of Mrs. Bogart’s God.

"Another row with Cy," Carol inferred.

She trundled the go-cart down the back steps and tentatively wheeled it across the yard, proud of her repairs. She heard steps on the sidewalk. She saw not Cy Bogart but Fern Mullins, carrying a suit-case, hurrying up the street with her head low. The widow, standing on the porch with buttery arms akimbo, yammered after the fleeing girl:

"And don’t you dare show your face on this block again. You can send the drayman for your trunk. My house has been contaminated long enough. Why the Lord should afflict me----"

Fern was gone. The righteous widow glared, banged into the house, came out poking at her bonnet, marched away. By this time Carol was staring in a manner not visibly to be distinguished from the window-peeping of the rest of Gopher Prairie. She saw Mrs. Bogart enter the Howland house, then the Casses’. Not till suppertime did she reach the Kennicotts. The doctor answered her ring, and greeted her, "Well, well? how’s the good neighbor?"

The good neighbor charged into the living-room, waving the most unctuous of black kid gloves and delightedly sputtering:

"You may well ask how I am! I really do wonder how I could go through the awful scenes of this day—and the impudence I took from that woman’s tongue, that ought to be cut out----"

"Whoa! Whoa! Hold up!" roared Kennicott. "Who’s the hussy, Sister Bogart? Sit down and take it cool and tell us about it."

"I can’t sit down, I must hurry home, but I couldn’t devote myself to my own selfish cares till I’d warned you, and heaven knows I don’t expect any thanks for trying to warn the town against her, there’s always so much evil in the world that folks simply won’t see or appreciate your trying to safeguard them---- And forcing herself in here to get in with you and Carrie, many ’s the time I’ve seen her doing it, and, thank heaven, she was found out in time before she could do any more harm, it simply breaks my heart and prostrates me to think what she may have done already, even if some of us that understand and know about things----"

"Whoa-up! Who are you talking about?"

"She’s talking about Fern Mullins," Carol put in, not pleasantly.

"Huh?"

Kennicott was incredulous.

"I certainly am!" flourished Mrs. Bogart, "and good and thankful you may be that I found her out in time, before she could get YOU into something, Carol, because even if you are my neighbor and Will’s wife and a cultured lady, let me tell you right now, Carol Kennicott, that you ain’t always as respectful to—you ain’t as reverent—you don’t stick by the good old ways like they was laid down for us by God in the Bible, and while of course there ain’t a bit of harm in having a good laugh, and I know there ain’t any real wickedness in you, yet just the same you don’t fear God and hate the transgressors of his commandments like you ought to, and you may be thankful I found out this serpent I nourished in my bosom —and oh yes! oh yes indeed! my lady must have two eggs every morning for breakfast, and eggs sixty cents a dozen, and wa’n’t satisfied with one, like most folks—what did she care how much they cost or if a person couldn’t make hardly nothing on her board and room, in fact I just took her in out of charity and I might have known from the kind of stockings and clothes that she sneaked into my house in her trunk----"

Before they got her story she had five more minutes of obscene wallowing. The gutter comedy turned into high tragedy, with Nemesis in black kid gloves. The actual story was simple, depressing, and unimportant. As to details Mrs. Bogart was indefinite, and angry that she should be questioned.

Fern Mullins and Cy had, the evening before, driven alone to a barn-dance in the country. (Carol brought out the admission that Fern had tried to get a chaperon.) At the dance Cy had kissed Fern—she confessed that. Cy had obtained a pint of whisky; he said that he didn’t remember where he had got it; Mrs. Bogart implied that Fern had given it to him; Fern herself insisted that he had stolen it from a farmer’s overcoat— which, Mrs. Bogart raged, was obviously a lie. He had become soggily drunk. Fern had driven him home; deposited him, retching and wabbling, on the Bogart porch.

Never before had her boy been drunk, shrieked Mrs. Bogart. When Kennicott grunted, she owned, "Well, maybe once or twice I’ve smelled licker on his breath." She also, with an air of being only too scrupulously exact, granted that sometimes he did not come home till morning. But he couldn’t ever have been drunk, for he always had the best excuses: the other boys had tempted him to go down the lake spearing pickerel by torchlight, or he had been out in a "machine that ran out of gas." Anyway, never before had her boy fallen into the hands of a "designing woman."

"What do you suppose Miss Mullins could design to do with him?" insisted Carol.

Mrs. Bogart was puzzled, gave it up, went on. This morning, when she had faced both of them, Cy had manfully confessed that all of the blame was on Fern, because the teacher—his own teacher—had dared him to take a drink. Fern had tried to deny it.

"Then," gabbled Mrs. Bogart, "then that woman had the impudence to say to me, `What purpose could I have in wanting the filthy pup to get drunk?’ That’s just what she called him—pup. `I’ll have no such nasty language in my house,’ I says, `and you pretending and pulling the wool over people’s eyes and making them think you’re educated and fit to be a teacher and look out for young people’s morals—you’re worse ’n any street-walker!’ I says. I let her have it good. I wa’n’t going to flinch from my bounden duty and let her think that decent folks had to stand for her vile talk. `Purpose?’ I says, `Purpose? I’ll tell you what purpose you had! Ain’t I seen you making up to everything in pants that’d waste time and pay attention to your impert’nence? Ain’t I seen you showing off your legs with them short skirts of yours, trying to make out like you was so girlish and la-de-da, running along the street?’ "

Carol was very sick at this version of Fern’s eager youth, but she was sicker as Mrs. Bogart hinted that no one could tell what had happened between Fern and Cy before the drive home. Without exactly describing the scene, by her power of lustful imagination the woman suggested dark country places apart from the lanterns and rude fiddling and banging dance-steps in the barn, then madness and harsh hateful conquest. Carol was too sick to interrupt. It was Kennicott who cried, "Oh, for God’s sake quit it! You haven’t any idea what happened. You haven’t given us a single proof yet that Fern is anything but a rattle-brained youngster."

"I haven’t, eh? Well, what do you say to this? I come straight out and I says to her, `Did you or did you not taste the whisky Cy had?’ and she says, `I think I did take one sip— Cy made me,’ she said. She owned up to that much, so you can imagine----"

"Does that prove her a prostitute?" asked Carol.

"Carrie! Don’t you never use a word like that again!" wailed the outraged Puritan.

"Well, does it prove her to be a bad woman, that she took a taste of whisky? I’ve done it myself!"

"That’s different. Not that I approve your doing it. What do the Scriptures tell us? `Strong drink is a mocker’! But that’s entirely different from a teacher drinking with one of her own pupils."

"Yes, it does sound bad. Fern was silly, undoubtedly. But as a matter of fact she’s only a year or two older than Cy and probably a good many years younger in experience of vice."

"That’s—not—true! She is plenty old enough to corrupt him!

"The job of corrupting Cy was done by your sinless town, five years ago!"

Mrs. Bogart did not rage in return. Suddenly she was hopeless. Her head drooped. She patted her black kid gloves, picked at a thread of her faded brown skirt, and sighed, "He’s a good boy, and awful affectionate if you treat him right. Some thinks he’s terrible wild, but that’s because he’s young. And he’s so brave and truthful—why, he was one of the first in town that wanted to enlist for the war, and I had to speak real sharp to him to keep him from running away. I didn’t want him to get into no bad influences round these camps— and then," Mrs. Bogart rose from her pitifulness, recovered her pace, "then I go and bring into my own house a woman that’s worse, when all’s said and done, than any bad woman he could have met. You say this Mullins woman is too young and inexperienced to corrupt Cy. Well then, she’s too young and inexperienced to teach him, too, one or t’other, you can’t have your cake and eat it! So it don’t make no difference which reason they fire her for, and that’s practically almost what I said to the school-board."

"Have you been telling this story to the members of the school-board?"

"I certainly have! Every one of ’em! And their wives I says to them, ` ’Tain’t my affair to decide what you should or should not do with your teachers,’ I says, `and I ain’t presuming to dictate in any way, shape, manner, or form. I just want to know,’ I says, `whether you’re going to go on record as keeping here in our schools, among a lot of innocent boys and girls, a woman that drinks, smokes, curses, uses bad language, and does such dreadful things as I wouldn’t lay tongue to but you know what I mean,’ I says, `and if so, I’ll just see to it that the town learns about it.’ And that’s what I told Professor Mott, too, being superintendent—and he’s a righteous man, not going autoing on the Sabbath like the school-board members. And the professor as much as admitted he was suspicious of the Mullins woman himself."

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Chicago: Sinclair Lewis, "I," Main Street: The Story of Carol Kennicott in Main Street: The Story of Carol Kennicott (New York: Harcourt, Brace & Co., 1920), Original Sources, accessed October 4, 2022, http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=L82JC4XZ4M1B6K2.

MLA: Lewis, Sinclair. "I." Main Street: The Story of Carol Kennicott, in Main Street: The Story of Carol Kennicott, New York, Harcourt, Brace & Co., 1920, Original Sources. 4 Oct. 2022. http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=L82JC4XZ4M1B6K2.

Harvard: Lewis, S, 'I' in Main Street: The Story of Carol Kennicott. cited in 1920, Main Street: The Story of Carol Kennicott, Harcourt, Brace & Co., New York. Original Sources, retrieved 4 October 2022, from http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=L82JC4XZ4M1B6K2.