Poor White by Sherwood Anderson
Hugh McVey left the town of Mudcat Landing in early September of the year eighteen eighty-six. He was then twenty years old and was six feet and four inches tall. The whole upper part of his body was immensely strong but his long legs were ungainly and lifeless. He secured a pass from the railroad company that had employed him, and rode north along the river in the night train until he came to a large town named Burlington in the State of Iowa. There a bridge went over the river, and the railroad tracks joined those of a trunk line and ran eastward toward Chicago; but Hugh did not continue his journey on that night. Getting off the train he went to a nearby hotel and took a room for the night.
It was a cool clear evening and Hugh was restless. The town of Burlington, a prosperous place in the midst of a rich farming country, overwhelmed him with its stir and bustle. For the first time he saw brick-paved streets and streets lighted with lamps. Although it was nearly ten o'clock at night when he arrived, people still walked about in the streets and many stores were open.
The hotel where he had taken a room faced the railroad tracks and stood at the corner of a brightly lighted street. When he had been shown to his room Hugh sat for a half hour by an open window, and then as he could not sleep, decided to go for a walk. For a time he walked in the streets where the people stood about before the doors of the stores but, as his tall figure attracted attention and he felt people staring at him, he went presently into a side street.
In a few minutes he became utterly lost. He went through what seemed to him miles of streets lined with frame and brick houses, and occasionally passed people, but was too timid and embarrassed to ask his way. The street climbed upward and after a time he got into open country and followed a road that ran along a cliff overlooking the Mississippi River. The night was clear and the sky brilliant with stars. In the open, away from the multitude of houses, he no longer felt awkward and afraid, and went cheerfully along. After a time he stopped and stood facing the river. Standing on a high cliff and with a grove of trees at his back, the stars seemed to have all gathered in the eastern sky. Below him the water of the river reflected the stars. They seemed to be making a pathway for him into the East.
The tall Missouri countryman sat down on a log near the edge of the cliff and tried to see the water in the river below. Nothing was visible but a bed of stars that danced and twinkled in the darkness. He had made his way to a place far above the railroad bridge, but presently a through passenger train from the West passed over it and the lights of the train looked also like stars, stars that moved and beckoned and that seemed to fly like flocks of birds out of the West into the East.
For several hours Hugh sat on the log in the darkness. He decided that it was hopeless for him to find his way back to the hotel, and was glad of the excuse for staying abroad. His body for the first time in his life felt light and strong and his mind was feverishly awake. A buggy in which sat a young man and woman went along the road at his back, and after the voices had died away silence came, broken only at long intervals during the hours when he sat thinking of his future by the barking of a dog in some distant house or the churning of the paddle-wheels of a passing river boat.
All of the early formative years of Hugh McVey's life had been spent within sound of the lapping of the waters of the Mississippi River. He had seen it in the hot summer when the water receded and the mud lay baked and cracked along the edge of the water; in the spring when the floods raged and the water went whirling past, bearing tree logs and even parts of houses; in the winter when the water looked deathly cold and ice floated past; and in the fall when it was quiet and still and lovely, and seemed to have sucked an almost human quality of warmth out of the red trees that lined its shores. Hugh had spent hours and days sitting or lying in the grass beside the river. The fishing shack in which he had lived with his father until he was fourteen years old was within a half dozen long strides of the river's edge, and the boy had often been left there alone for a week at a time. When his father had gone for a trip on a lumber raft or to work for a few days on some farm in the country back from the river, the boy, left often without money and with but a few loaves of bread, went fishing when he was hungry and when he was not did nothing but idle the days away in the grass on the river bank. Boys from the town came sometimes to spend an hour with him, but in their presence he was embarrassed and a little annoyed. He wanted to be left alone with his dreams. One of the boys, a sickly, pale, undeveloped lad of ten, often stayed with him through an entire summer afternoon. He was the son of a merchant in the town and grew quickly tired when he tried to follow other boys about. On the river bank he lay beside Hugh in silence. The two got into Hugh's boat and went fishing and the merchant's son grew animated and talked. He taught Hugh to write his own name and to read a few words. The shyness that kept them apart had begun to break down, when the merchant's son caught some childhood disease and died.
In the darkness above the cliff that night in Burlington Hugh remembered things concerning his boyhood that had not come back to his mind in years. The very thoughts that had passed through his mind during those long days of idling on the river bank came streaming back.
After his fourteenth year when he went to work at the railroad station Hugh had stayed away from the river. With his work at the station, and in the garden back of Sarah Shepard's house, and the lessons in the afternoons, he had little idle time. On Sundays however things were different. Sarah Shepard did not go to church after she came to Mudcat Landing, but she would have no work done on Sundays. On Sunday afternoons in the summer she and her husband sat in chairs beneath a tree beside the house and went to sleep. Hugh got into the habit of going off by himself. He wanted to sleep also, but did not dare. He went along the river bank by the road that ran south from the town, and when he had followed it two or three miles, turned into a grove of trees and lay down in the shade.
The long summer Sunday afternoons had been delightful times for Hugh, so delightful that he finally gave them up, fearing they might lead him to take up again his old sleepy way of life. Now as he sat in the darkness above the same river he had gazed on through the long Sunday afternoons, a spasm of something like loneliness swept over him. For the first time he thought about leaving the river country and going into a new land with a keen feeling of regret.
On the Sunday afternoons in the woods south of Mudcat Landing Hugh had lain perfectly still in the grass for hours. The smell of dead fish that had always been present about the shack where he spent his boyhood, was gone and there were no swarms of flies. Above his head a breeze played through the branches of the trees, and insects sang in the grass. Everything about him was clean. A lovely stillness pervaded the river and the woods. He lay on his belly and gazed down over the river out of sleep-heavy eyes into hazy distances. Half formed thoughts passed like visions through his mind. He dreamed, but his dreams were unformed and vaporous. For hours the half dead, half alive state into which he had got, persisted. He did not sleep but lay in a land between sleeping and waking. Pictures formed in his mind. The clouds that floated in the sky above the river took on strange, grotesque shapes. They began to move. One of the clouds separated itself from the others. It moved swiftly away into the dim distance and then returned. It became a half human thing and seemed to be marshaling the other clouds. Under its influence they became agitated and moved restlessly about. Out of the body of the most active of the clouds long vaporous arms were extended. They pulled and hauled at the other clouds making them also restless and agitated.
Hugh's mind, as he sat in the darkness on the cliff above the river that night in Burlington, was deeply stirred. Again he was a boy lying in the woods above his river, and the visions that had come to him there returned with startling clearness. He got off the log and lying in the wet grass, closed his eyes. His body became warm.
Hugh thought his mind had gone out of his body and up into the sky to join the clouds and the stars, to play with them. From the sky he thought he looked down on the earth and saw rolling fields, hills and forests. He had no part in the lives of the men and women of the earth, but was torn away from them, left to stand by himself. From his place in the sky above the earth he saw the great river going majestically along. For a time it was quiet and contemplative as the sky had been when he was a boy down below lying on his belly in the wood. He saw men pass in boats and could hear their voices dimly. A great quiet prevailed and he looked abroad beyond the wide expanse of the river and saw fields and towns. They were all hushed and still. An air of waiting hung over them. And then the river was whipped into action by some strange unknown force, something that had come out of a distant place, out of the place to which the cloud had gone and from which it had returned to stir and agitate the other clouds.
The river now went tearing along. It overflowed its banks and swept over the land, uprooting trees and forests and towns. The white faces of drowned men and children, borne along by the flood, looked up into the mind's eye of the man Hugh, who, in the moment of his setting out into the definite world of struggle and defeat, had let himself slip back into the vaporous dreams of his boyhood.
As he lay in the wet grass in the darkness on the cliff Hugh tried to force his way back to consciousness, but for a long time was unsuccessful. He rolled and writhed about and his lips muttered words. It was useless. His mind also was swept away. The clouds of which he felt himself a part flew across the face of the sky. They blotted out the sun from the earth, and darkness descended on the land, on the troubled towns, on the hills that were torn open, on the forests that were destroyed, on the peace and quiet of all places. In the country stretching away from the river where all had been peace and quiet, all was now agitation and unrest. Houses were destroyed and instantly rebuilt. People gathered in whirling crowds.
The dreaming man felt himself a part of something significant and terrible that was happening to the earth and to the peoples of the earth. Again he struggled to awake, to force himself back out of the dream world into consciousness. When he did awake, day was breaking and he sat on the very edge of the cliff that looked down upon the Mississippi River, gray now in the dim morning light.
* * * * *
The towns in which Hugh lived during the first three years after he began his eastward journey were all small places containing a few hundred people, and were scattered through Illinois, Indiana and western Ohio. All of the people among whom he worked and lived during that time were farmers and laborers. In the spring of the first year of his wandering he passed through the city of Chicago and spent two hours there, going in and out at the same railroad station.
He was not tempted to become a city man. The huge commercial city at the foot of Lake Michigan, because of its commanding position in the very center of a vast farming empire, had already become gigantic. He never forgot the two hours he spent standing in the station in the heart of the city and walking in the street adjoining the station. It was evening when he came into the roaring, clanging place. On the long wide plains west of the city he saw farmers at work with their spring plowing as the train went flying along. Presently the farms grew small and the whole prairie dotted with towns. In these the train did not stop but ran into a crowded network of streets filled with multitudes of people. When he got into the big dark station Hugh saw thousands of people rushing about like disturbed insects. Unnumbered thousands of people were going out of the city at the end of their day of work and trains waited to take them to towns on the prairies. They came in droves, hurrying along like distraught cattle, over a bridge and into the station. The in-bound crowds that had alighted from through trains coming from cities of the East and West climbed up a stairway to the street, and those that were out-bound tried to descend by the same stairway and at the same time. The result was a whirling churning mass of humanity. Every one pushed and crowded his way along. Men swore, women grew angry, and children cried. Near the doorway that opened into the street a long line of cab drivers shouted and roared.
Hugh looked at the people who were whirled along past him, and shivered with the nameless fear of multitudes, common to country boys in the city. When the rush of people had a little subsided he went out of the station and, walking across a narrow street, stood by a brick store building. Presently the rush of people began again, and again men, women, and boys came hurrying across the bridge and ran wildly in at the doorway leading into the station. They came in waves as water washes along a beach during a storm. Hugh had a feeling that if he were by some chance to get caught in the crowd he would be swept away into some unknown and terrible place. Waiting until the rush had a little subsided, he went across the street and on to the bridge to look at the river that flowed past the station. It was narrow and filled with ships, and the water looked gray and dirty. A pall of black smoke covered the sky. From all sides of him and even in the air above his head a great clatter and roar of bells and whistles went on.
With the air of a child venturing into a dark forest Hugh went a little way into one of the streets that led westward from the station. Again he stopped and stood by a building. Near at hand a group of young city roughs stood smoking and talking before a saloon. Out of a nearby building came a young girl who approached and spoke to one of them. The man began to swear furiously. "You tell her I'll come in there in a minute and smash her face," he said, and, paying no more attention to the girl, turned to stare at Hugh. All of the young men lounging before the saloon turned to stare at the tall countryman. They began to laugh and one of them walked quickly toward him.
Hugh ran along the street and into the station followed by the shouts of the young roughs. He did not venture out again, and when his train was ready, got aboard and went gladly out of the great complex dwelling-place of modern Americans.
Hugh went from town to town always working his way eastward, always seeking the place where happiness was to come to him and where he was to achieve companionship with men and women. He cut fence posts in a forest on a large farm in Indiana, worked in the fields, and in one place was a section hand on the railroad.
On a farm in Indiana, some forty miles east of Indianapolis, he was for the first time powerfully touched by the presence of a woman. She was the daughter of the farmer who was Hugh's employer, and was an alert, handsome woman of twenty-four who had been a school teacher but had given up the work because she was about to be married. Hugh thought the man who was to marry her the most fortunate being in the world. He lived in Indianapolis and came by train to spend the week-ends at the farm. The woman prepared for his coming by putting on a white dress and fastening a rose in her hair. The two people walked about in an orchard beside the house or went for a ride along the country roads. The young man, who, Hugh had been told, worked in a bank, wore stiff white collars, a black suit and a black derby hat.
On the farm Hugh worked in the field with the farmer and ate at table with his family, but did not get acquainted with them. On Sunday when the young man came he took the day off and went into a nearby town. The courtship became a matter very close to him and he lived through the excitement of the weekly visits as though he had been one of the principals. The daughter of the house, sensing the fact that the silent farm hand was stirred by her presence, became interested in him. Sometimes in the evening as he sat on a little porch before the house, she came to join him, and sat looking at him with a peculiarly detached and interested air. She tried to make talk, but Hugh answered all her advances so briefly and with such a half frightened manner that she gave up the attempt. One Saturday evening when her sweetheart had come she took him for a ride in the family carriage, and Hugh concealed himself in the hay loft of the barn to wait for their return.
Hugh had never seen or heard a man express in any way his affection for a woman. It seemed to him a terrifically heroic thing to do and he hoped by concealing himself in the barn to see it done. It was a bright moonlight night and he waited until nearly eleven o'clock before the lovers returned. In the hayloft there was an opening high up under the roof. Because of his great height he could reach and pull himself up, and when he had done so, found a footing on one of the beams that formed the framework of the barn. The lovers stood unhitching the horse in the barnyard below. When the city man had led the horse into the stable he hurried quickly out again and went with the farmer's daughter along a path toward the house. The two people laughed and pulled at each other like children. They grew silent and when they had come near the house, stopped by a tree to embrace. Hugh saw the man take the woman into his arms and hold her tightly against his body. He was so excited that he nearly fell off the beam. His imagination was inflamed and he tried to picture himself in the position of the young city man. His fingers gripped the boards to which he clung and his body trembled. The two figures standing in the dim light by the tree became one. For a long time they clung tightly to each other and then drew apart. They went into the house and Hugh climbed down from his place on the beam and lay in the hay. His body shook as with a chill and he was half ill of jealousy, anger, and an overpowering sense of defeat. It did not seem to him at the moment that it was worth while for him to go further east or to try to find a place where he would be able to mingle freely with men and women, or where such a wonderful thing as had happened to the man in the barnyard below might happen to him.
Hugh spent the night in the hayloft and at daylight crept out and went into a nearby town. He returned to the farmhouse late on Monday when he was sure the city man had gone away. In spite of the protest of the farmer he packed his clothes at once and declared his intention of leaving. He did not wait for the evening meal but hurried out of the house. When he got into the road and had started to walk away, he looked back and saw the daughter of the house standing at an open door and looking at him. Shame for what he had done on the night before swept over him. For a moment he stared at the woman who, with an intense, interested air stared back at him, and then putting down his head he hurried away. The woman watched him out of sight and later, when her father stormed about the house, blaming Hugh for leaving so suddenly and declaring the tall Missourian was no doubt a drunkard who wanted to go off on a drunk, she had nothing to say. In her own heart she knew what was the matter with her father's farm hand and was sorry he had gone before she had more completely exercised her power over him.
* * * * *
None of the towns Hugh visited during his three years of wandering approached realization of the sort of life Sarah Shepard had talked to him about. They were all very much alike. There was a main street with a dozen stores on each side, a blacksmith shop, and perhaps an elevator for the storage of grain. All day the town was deserted, but in the evening the citizens gathered on Main Street. On the sidewalks before the stores young farm hands and clerks sat on store boxes or on the curbing. They did not pay any attention to Hugh who, when he went to stand near them, remained silent and kept himself in the background. The farm hands talked of their work and boasted of the number of bushels of corn they could pick in a day, or of their skill in plowing. The clerks were intent upon playing practical jokes which pleased the farm hands immensely. While one of them talked loudly of his skill in his work a clerk crept out at the door of one of the stores and approached him. He held a pin in his hand and with it jabbed the talker in the back. The crowd yelled and shouted with delight. If the victim became angry a quarrel started, but this did not often happen. Other men came to join the party and the joke was told to them. "Well, you should have seen the look on his face. I thought I would die," one of the bystanders declared.
Hugh got a job with a carpenter who specialized in the building of barns and stayed with him all through one fall. Later he went to work as a section hand on a railroad. Nothing happened to him. He was like one compelled to walk through life with a bandage over his eyes. On all sides of him, in the towns and on the farms, an undercurrent of life went on that did not touch him. In even the smallest of the towns, inhabited only by farm laborers, a quaint interesting civilization was being developed. Men worked hard but were much in the open air and had time to think. Their minds reached out toward the solution of the mystery of existence. The schoolmaster and the country lawyer read Tom Paine's "Age of Reason" and Bellamy's "Looking Backward." They discussed these books with their fellows. There was a feeling, ill expressed, that America had something real and spiritual to offer to the rest of the world. Workmen talked to each other of the new tricks of their trades, and after hours of discussion of some new way to cultivate corn, shape a horseshoe or build a barn, spoke of God and his intent concerning man. Long drawn out discussions of religious beliefs and the political destiny of America were carried on.
And across the background of these discussions ran tales of action in a sphere outside the little world in which the inhabitants of the towns lived. Men who had been in the Civil War and who had climbed fighting over hills and in the terror of defeat had swum wide rivers, told the tale of their adventures.
In the evening, after his day of work in the field or on the railroad with the section hands, Hugh did not know what to do with himself. That he did not go to bed immediately after the evening meal was due to the fact that he looked upon his tendency to sleep and to dream as an enemy to his development; and a peculiarly persistent determination to make something alive and worth while out of himself--the result of the five years of constant talking on the subject by the New England woman--had taken possession of him. "I'll find the right place and the right people and then I'll begin," he continually said to himself.
And then, worn out with weariness and loneliness, he went to bed in one of the little hotels or boarding houses where he lived during those years, and his dreams returned. The dream that had come that night as he lay on the cliff above the Mississippi River near the town of Burlington, came back time after time. He sat upright in bed in the darkness of his room and after he had driven the cloudy, vague sensation out of his brain, was afraid to go to sleep again. He did not want to disturb the people of the house and so got up and dressed and without putting on his shoes walked up and down in the room. Sometimes the room he occupied had a low ceiling and he was compelled to stoop. He crept out of the house carrying his shoes in his hand and sat down on the sidewalk to put them on. In all the towns he visited, people saw him walking alone through the streets late at night or in the early hours of the morning. Whispers concerning the matter ran about. The story of what was spoken of as his queerness came to the men with whom he worked, and they found themselves unable to talk freely and naturally in his presence. At the noon hour when the men ate the lunch they had carried to work, when the boss was gone and it was customary among the workers to talk of their own affairs, they went off by themselves. Hugh followed them about. They went to sit under a tree, and when Hugh came to stand nearby, they became silent or the more vulgar and shallow among them began to show off. While he worked with a half dozen other men as a section hand on the railroad, two men did all the talking. Whenever the boss went away an old man who had a reputation as a wit told stories concerning his relations with women. A young man with red hair took the cue from him. The two men talked loudly and kept looking at Hugh. The younger of the two wits turned to another workman who had a weak, timid face. "Well, you," he cried, "what about your old woman? What about her? Who is the father of your son? Do you dare tell?"
In the towns Hugh walked about in the evening and tried always to keep his mind fixed on definite things. He felt that humanity was for some unknown reason drawing itself away from him, and his mind turned back to the figure of Sarah Shepard. He remembered that she had never been without things to do. She scrubbed her kitchen floor and prepared food for cooking; she washed, ironed, kneaded dough for bread, and mended clothes. In the evening, when she made the boy read to her out of one of the school books or do sums on a slate, she kept her hands busy knitting socks for him or for her husband. Except when something had crossed her so that she scolded and her face grew red, she was always cheerful. When the boy had nothing to do at the station and had been sent by the station master to work about the house, to draw water from the cistern for a family washing, or pull weeds in the garden, he heard the woman singing as she went about the doing of her innumerable petty tasks. Hugh decided that he also must do small tasks, fix his mind upon definite things. In the town where he was employed as a section hand, the cloud dream in which the world became a whirling, agitated center of disaster came to him almost every night. Winter came on and he walked through the streets at night in the darkness and through the deep snow. He was almost frozen; but as the whole lower part of his body was habitually cold he did not much mind the added discomfort, and so great was the reserve of strength in his big frame that the loss of sleep did not affect his ability to labor all day without effort.
Hugh went into one of the residence streets of the town and counted the pickets in the fences before the houses. He returned to the hotel and made a calculation as to the number of pickets in all the fences in town. Then he got a rule at the hardware store and carefully measured the pickets. He tried to estimate the number of pickets that could be cut out of certain sized trees and that gave his mind another opening. He counted the number of trees in every street in town. He learned to tell at a glance and with relative accuracy how much lumber could be cut out of a tree. He built imaginary houses with lumber cut from the trees that lined the streets. He even tried to figure out a way to utilize the small limbs cut from the tops of the trees, and one Sunday went into the wood back of the town and cut a great armful of twigs, which he carried to his room and later with great patience wove into the form of a basket.