Marching Men by Sherwood Anderson
Chicago is a vast city and millions of people live within the limits of its influence. It stands at the heart of America almost within sound of the creaking green leaves of the corn in the vast corn fields of the Mississippi Valley. It is inhabited by hordes of men of all nations who have come across the seas or out of western corn--shipping towns to make their fortunes. On all sides men are busy making fortunes.
In little Polish villages the word has been whispered about, "In America one gets much money," and adventurous souls have set forth only to land at last, a little perplexed and disconcerted, in narrow ill--smelling rooms in Halstead Street in Chicago.
In American villages the tale has been told. Here it has not been whispered but shouted. Magazines and newspapers have done the job. The word regarding the making of money runs over the land like a wind among the corn. The young men listen and run away to Chicago. They have vigour and youth but in them has been builded no dream no tradition of devotion to anything but gain.
Chicago is one vast gulf of disorder. Here is the passion for gain, the very spirit of the bourgeoise gone drunk with desire. The result is something terrible. Chicago is leaderless, purposeless, slovenly, down at the heels.
And back of Chicago lie the long corn fields that are not disorderly. There is hope in the corn. Spring comes and the corn is green. It shoots up out of the black land and stands up in orderly rows. The corn grows and thinks of nothing but growth. Fruition comes to the corn and it is cut down and disappears. Barns are filled to bursting with the yellow fruit of the corn.
And Chicago has forgotten the lesson of the corn. All men have forgotten. It has never been told to the young men who come out of the corn fields to live in the city.
Once and once only in modern times the soul of America was stirred. The Civil War swept like a purifying fire through the land. Men marched together and knew the feel of shoulder to shoulder action. Brown stout bearded figures returned after the war to the villages. The beginning of a literature of strength and virility arose.
And then the time of sorrow and of stirring effort passed and prosperity returned. Only the aged are now cemented together by the sorrow of that time and there has been no new national sorrow.
It is a summer evening in America and the citizens sit in their houses after the effort of the day. They talk of the children in school or of the new difficulty of meeting the high prices of food stuff. In cities the bands play in the parks. In villages the lights go out and one hears the sound of hurrying horses on distant roads.
A thoughtful man walking in the streets of Chicago on such an evening sees women in white shirt waists and men with cigars in their mouths who sit on the porches of the houses. The man is from Ohio. He owns a factory in one of the large industrial towns there and has come to the city to sell his product. He is a man of the better sort, quiet, efficient, kindly. In his own community every one respects him and he respects himself. Now he walks and gives himself over to thoughts. He passes a house set among trees where a man cuts grass by the streaming light from a window. The song of the lawn mower stirs the walker. He idles along the street and looks in through the windows at Prints upon the walls. A white--clad woman sits playing on a piano. "Life is good," he says, lighting a cigar; "it climbs on and up toward a kind of universal fairness."
And then in the light from a street lamp the walker sees a man staggering along the sidewalk, muttering and helping himself with his hands upon a wall. The sight does not greatly disturb the pleasant satisfying thoughts that stir in his mind. He has eaten a good dinner at the hotel, he knows that drunken men are often but gay money- spending dogs who to-morrow morning will settle down to their work feeling secretly better for the night of wine and song.
My thoughtful man is an American with the disease of comfort and prosperity in his blood. He strolls along and turns a corner. He is satisfied with the cigar he smokes and, he decides, satisfied with the age in which he lives. "Agitators may howl," he says, "but on the whole life is good, and as for me I am going to spend my life attending to the business in hand."
The walker has turned a corner into a side street. Two men emerge from the door of a saloon and stand upon the sidewalk under a light. They wave their arms up and down. Suddenly one of them springs forward and with a quick forward thrust of his body and the flash of a clenched fist in the lamp light knocks his companion into the gutter. Down the street he sees rows of tall smoke-begrimed brick buildings hanging black and ominous against the sky. At the end of a street a huge mechanical apparatus lifts cars of coal and dumps them roaring and rattling into the bowels of a ship that lies tied in the river.
The walker throws his cigar away and looks about. A man walks before him in the silent street. He sees the man raise his fist to the sky and notes with a shock the movement of the lips and the hugeness and ugliness of the face in the lamplight.
Again he goes on, hurrying now, around another corner into a street filled with pawn shops, clothing stores and the clamour of voices. In his mind floats a picture. He sees two boys, clad in white rompers, feeding clover to a tame rabbit in a suburban back lawn and wishes he were at home in his own place. In his fancy the two sons are walking under apple trees and laughing and tusseling for a great bundle of newly pulled sweet smelling clover. The strange looking red man with the huge face he has seen in the street is looking at the two children over a garden wall. There is a threat in the look and the threat alarms him. Into his mind comes the notion that the man who looks over the wall wants to destroy the future of his children.
The night advances. Down a stairway beside a clothing store comes a woman with gleaming white teeth who is clad in a black dress. She makes a Peculiar little jerking movement with her head to the walker. A patrol wagon with clanging bells rushes through the street, two blue clad policemen sitting stiffly in the seat. A boy--he can't be above six--runs along the street pushing soiled newspapers under the noses of idlers on the corners, his shrill childish voice rises above the din of the trolley cars and the clanging notes of the patrol wagon.
The walker throws his cigar into the gutter and climbing the steps of a street car goes back to his hotel. His fine reflective mood is gone. He half wishes that something lovely might come into American life but the wish does not persist. He is only irritated and feels that a pleasant evening has been in some way spoiled. He is wondering if he will be successful in the business that brought him to the city. As he turns out the light in his room and putting his head upon the pillow listens to the noises of the city merged now into a quiet droning roar he thinks of the brick factory on the banks of the river in Ohio and as he falls into sleep the face of the red-haired man lowers at him from the factory door.
* * * * *
When McGregor returned to the city after the burial of his mother he began at once to try to put his idea of the marching men into form. For a long time he did not know how to begin. The idea was vague and shadowy. It belonged to the nights in the hills of his own country and seemed a little absurd when he tried to think of it in the daylight of North State Street in Chicago.
McGregor felt that he had to prepare himself. He believed that he could study books and learn much from men's ideas expressed in books without being overwhelmed by their thoughts. He became a student and quit the place in the apple-warehouse to the secret relief of the little bright-eyed superintendent who had never been able to get himself up to the point of raging at this big red fellow as he had raged at the German before McGregor's time. The warehouse man felt that during the meeting on the corner before the saloon on the day McGregor began to work for him something had happened. The miner's son had unmanned him. "A man ought to be boss in his own place," he sometimes muttered to himself, as he walked in the passageways among rows of piled apple barrels in the upper part of the warehouse wondering why the presence of McGregor irritated him.
From six o'clock in the evening until two in the morning McGregor now worked as night-cashier in a restaurant on South State Street below Van Buren and from two until seven in the morning he slept in a room whose windows looked down into Michigan Boulevard. On Thursday he was free, his place being taken for the evening by the man who owned the restaurant, a small excitable Irishman by the name of Tom O'Toole.
McGregor got his chance to become a student through the bank account belonging to Edith Carson. The opportunity arose in this way. On a summer evening after his return from Pennsylvania he sat with her in the darkened store back of the closed screen door. McGregor was morose and silent. On the evening before he had tried to talk to several men at the warehouse about the Marching Men and they had not understood. He blamed his inability with words and sat in the half darkness with his face in his hands and looked up the street saying nothing and thinking bitter thoughts.
The idea that had come to him made him half drunk with its possibilities and he knew that he must not let it make him drunk. He wanted to begin forcing men to do the simple thing full of meaning rather than the disorganised ineffective things and he had an ever- present inclination to arise, to stretch himself, to run into the streets and with his great arms see if he could not sweep the people before him, starting them on the long purposeful march that was to be the beginning of the rebirth of the world and that was to fill with meaning the lives of men. Then when he had walked the fever out of his blood and had frightened the people in the streets by the grim look in his face he tried to school himself to sit quietly waiting.
The woman sitting beside him in a low rocking chair began trying to tell him of something that had been in her mind. Her heart jumped and she talked slowly, pausing between sentences to conceal the trembling of her voice. "Would it help you in what you want to do if you could quit at the warehouse and spend your days in study?" she asked.
McGregor looked at her and nodded his head absent-mindedly. He thought of the nights in his room when the hard heavy work of the day in the warehouse seemed to have benumbed his brain.
"Besides the business here I have seventeen hundred dollars in the savings bank," said Edith, turning aside to conceal the eager hopeful look in her eyes. "I want to invest it. I do not want it lying there doing nothing. I want you to take it and make a lawyer of yourself."
Edith sat rigid in her chair waiting for his answer. She felt that she had put him to a test. In her mind was a new hope. "If he takes it he will not be walking out at the door some night and never coming back."
McGregor tried to think. He had not tried to explain to her his new notion of life and did not know how to begin.
"After all why not stick to my plan and be a lawyer?" he asked himself. "That might open the door. I'll do that," he said aloud to the woman. "Both you and mother have talked of it so I'll give it a trial. Yes, I'll take the money."
Again he looked at her as she sat before him flushed and eager and was touched by her devotion as he had been touched by the devotion of the undertaker's daughter in Coal Creek. "I don't mind being under obligations to you," he said; "I don't know any one else I would take it from."
In the street later the troubled man walked about trying to make new plans for the accomplishment of his purpose. He was annoyed by what he thought to be the dulness of his own brain and he thrust his fist up into the air to look at it in the lamplight. "I'll get ready to use that intelligently," he thought; "a man wants trained brains backed up by a big fist in the struggle I'm going into."
It was then that the man from Ohio walked past with his hands in his pockets and attracted his attention. To McGregor's nostrils came the odour of rich fragrant tobacco. He turned and stood staring at the intruder on his thoughts. "That's what I am going to fight," he growled; "the comfortable well-to-do acceptance of a disorderly world, the smug men who see nothing wrong with a world like this. I would like to frighten them so that they throw their cigars away and run about like ants when you kick over ant hills in the field."