Poor White by Sherwood Anderson
It was a summer night in Ohio and the wheat in the long, flat fields that stretched away to the north from the town of Bidwell was ripe for the cutting. Between the wheat fields lay corn and cabbage fields. In the corn fields the green stalks stood up like young trees. Facing the fields lay the white roads, once the silent roads, hushed and empty through the nights and often during many hours of the day, the night silence broken only at long intervals by the clattering hoofs of homeward bound horses and the silence of days by creaking wagons. Along the roads on a summer evening went the young farm hand in his buggy for which he had spent a summer's wage, a long summer of sweaty toil in hot fields. The hoofs of his horse beat a soft tattoo on the roads. His sweetheart sat beside him and he was in no hurry. All day he had been at work in the harvest and on the morrow he would work again. It did not matter. For him the night would last until the cocks in isolated farmyards began to hail the dawn. He forgot the horse and did not care what turning he took. All roads led to happiness for him.
Beside the long roads was an endless procession of fields broken now and then by a strip of woodland, where the shadows of trees fell upon the roads and made pools of an inky blackness. In the long, dry grass in fence corners insects sang; in the young cabbage fields rabbits ran, flitting away like shadows in the moonlight. The cabbage fields were beautiful too.
Who has written or sung of the beauties of corn fields in Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, or of the vast Ohio cabbage fields? In the cabbage fields the broad outer leaves fall down to make a background for the shifting, delicate colors of soils. The leaves are themselves riotous with color. As the season advances they change from light to dark greens, a thousand shades of purples, blues and reds appear and disappear.
In silence the cabbage fields slept beside the roads in Ohio. Not yet had the motor cars come to tear along the roads, their flashing lights--beautiful too, when seen by one afoot on the roads on a summer night--had not yet made the roads an extension of the cities. Akron, the terrible town, had not yet begun to roll forth its countless millions of rubber hoops, filled each with its portion of God's air compressed and in prison at last like the farm hands who have gone to the cities. Detroit and Toledo had not begun to send forth their hundreds of thousands of motor cars to shriek and scream the nights away on country roads. Willis was still a mechanic in an Indiana town, and Ford still worked in a bicycle repair shop in Detroit.
It was a summer night in the Ohio country and the moon shone. A country doctor's horse went at a humdrum pace along the roads. Softly and at long intervals men afoot stumbled along. A farm hand whose horse was lame walked toward town. An umbrella mender, benighted on the roads, hurried toward the lights of the distant town. In Bidwell, the place that had been on other summer nights a sleepy town filled with gossiping berry pickers, things were astir.
Change, and the thing men call growth, was in the air. Perhaps in its own way revolution was in the air, the silent, the real revolution that grew with the growth of the towns. In the stirring, bustling town of Bidwell that quiet summer night something happened that startled men. Something happened, and then in a few minutes it happened again. Heads wagged, special editions of daily newspapers were printed, the great hive of men was disturbed, under the invisible roof of the town that had so suddenly become a city, the seeds of self-consciousness were planted in new soil, in American soil.
Before all this began, however, something else happened. The first motor car ran through the streets of Bidwell and out upon the moonlit roads. The motor car was driven by Tom Butterworth and in it sat his daughter Clara with her husband Hugh McVey. During the week before, Tom had brought the car from Cleveland, and the mechanic who rode with him had taught him the art of driving. Now he drove alone and boldly. Early in the evening he had run out to the farmhouse to take his daughter and son-in-law for their first ride. Hugh sat in the seat beside him and after they had started and were clear of the town, Tom turned to him. "Now watch me step on her tail," he said proudly, using for the first time the motor slang he had picked up from the Cleveland mechanic.
As Tom sent the car hurling over the roads, Clara sat alone in the back seat unimpressed by her father's new acquisition. For three years she had been married and she felt that she did not yet know the man she had married. Always the story had been the same, moments of light and then darkness again. A new machine that went along roads at a startlingly increased rate of speed might change the whole face of the world, as her father declared it would, but it did not change certain facts of her life. "Am I a failure as a wife, or is Hugh impossible as a husband?" she asked herself for perhaps the thousandth time as the car, having got into a long stretch of clear, straight road, seemed to leap and sail through the air like a bird. "At any rate I have married me a husband and yet I have no husband, I have been in a man's arms but I have no lover, I have taken hold of life, but life has slipped through my fingers."
Like her father, Hugh seemed to Clara absorbed in only the things outside himself, the outer crust of life. He was like and yet unlike her father. She was baffled by him. There was something in the man she wanted and could not find. "The fault must be in me," she told herself. "He's all right, but what's the matter with me?"
After that night when he ran away from her bridal bed, Clara had more than once thought the miracle had happened. It did sometimes. On that night when he came to her out of the rain it had happened. There was a wall a blow could shatter, and she raised her hand to strike the blow. The wall was shattered and then builded itself again. Even as she lay at night in her husband's arms the wall reared itself up in the darkness of the sleeping room.
Over the farmhouse on such nights dense silence brooded and she and Hugh, as had become their habit together, were silent. In the darkness she put up her hand to touch her husband's face and hair. He lay still and she had the impression of some great force holding him back, holding her back. A sharp sense of struggle filled the room. The air was heavy with it.
When words came they did not break the silence. The wall remained.
The words that came were empty, meaningless words. Hugh suddenly broke forth into speech. He spoke of his work at the shop and of his progress toward the solution of some difficult, mechanical problem. If it were evening when the thing happened the two people got out of the lighted house where they had been sitting together, each feeling darkness would help the effort they were both making to tear away the wall. They walked along a lane, past the barns and over the little wooden bridge across the stream that ran down through the barnyard. Hugh did not want to talk of the work at the shop, but could find words for no other talk. They came to a fence where the lane turned and from where they could look down the hillside and into the town. He did not look at Clara but stared down the hillside and the words, in regard to the mechanical difficulties that had occupied his mind all day, ran on and on. When later they went back to the house he felt a little relieved. "I've said words. There is something achieved," he thought.
* * * * *
And now after the three years as a married woman Clara sat in the motor with her father and husband and with them was sent whirling swiftly through the summer night. The car ran down the hill road from the Butterworth farm, through a dozen residence streets in town and then out upon the long, straight roads in the rich, flat country to the north. It had skirted the town as a hungry wolf might have encircled silently and swiftly the fire-lit camp of a hunter. To Clara the machine seemed like a wolf, bold and cunning and yet afraid. Its great nose pushed through the troubled air of the quiet roads, frightening horses, breaking the silence with its persistent purring, drowning the song of insects. The headlights also disturbed the slumbers of the night. They flashed into barnyards where fowls slept on the lower branches of trees, played on the sides of barns sent the cattle in fields galloping away into darkness, and frightened horribly the wild things, the red squirrels and chipmunks that live in wayside fences in the Ohio country. Clara hated the machine and began to hate all machines. Thinking of machinery and the making of machines had, she decided, been at the bottom of her husband's inability to talk with her. Revolt against the whole mechanical impulse of her generation began to take possession of her.
And as she rode another and more terrible kind of revolt against the machine began in the town of Bidwell. It began in fact before Tom with his new motor left the Butterworth farm, it began before the summer moon came up, before the gray mantle of night had been laid over the shoulders of the hills south of the farmhouse.
Jim Gibson, the journeyman harness maker who worked in Joe Wainsworth's shop, was beside himself on that night. He had just won a great victory over his employer and felt like celebrating. For several days he had been telling the story of his anticipated victory in the saloons and store, and now it had happened. After dining at his boarding-house he went to a saloon and had a drink. Then he went to other saloons and had other drinks, after which he swaggered through the streets to the door of the shop. Although he was in his nature a spiritual bully, Jim did not lack energy, and his employer's shop was filled with work demanding attention. For a week both he and Joe had been returning to their work benches every evening. Jim wanted to come because some driving influence within made him love the thought of keeping the work always on the move, and Joe because Jim made him come.
Many things were on the move in the striving, hustling town on that evening. The system of checking on piece work, introduced by the superintendent Ed Hall in the corn-cutting machine plant, had brought on Bidwell's first industrial strike. The discontented workmen were not organized, and the strike was foredoomed to failure, but it had stirred the town deeply. One day, a week before, quite suddenly some fifty or sixty men had decided to quit. "We won't work for a fellow like Ed Hall," they declared. "He sets a scale of prices and then, when we have driven ourselves to the limit to make a decent day's pay, he cuts the scale." Leaving the shop the men went in a body to Main Street and two or three of them, developing unexpected eloquence, began delivering speeches on street corners. On the next day the strike spread and for several days the shop had been closed. Then a labor organizer came from Cleveland and on the day of his arrival the story ran through the street that strike breakers were to be brought in.
And on that evening of many adventures another element was introduced into the already disturbed life of the community. At the corner of Main and McKinley Streets and just beyond the place where three old buildings were being torn down to make room for the building of a new hotel, appeared a man who climbed upon a box and attacked, not the piece work prices at the corn-cutting machine plant, but the whole system that built and maintained factories where the wage scale of the workmen could be fixed by the whim or necessity of one man or a group of men. As the man on the box talked, the workmen in the crowd who were of American birth began to shake their heads. They went to one side and gathering in groups discussed the stranger's words. "I tell you what," said a little old workman, pulling nervously at his graying mustache, "I'm on strike and I'm for sticking out until Steve Hunter and Tom Butterworth fire Ed Hall, but I don't like this kind of talk. I'll tell you what that man's doing. He's attacking our Government, that's what he's doing." The workmen went off to their homes grumbling. The Government was to them a sacred thing, and they did not fancy having their demands for a better wage scale confused by the talk of anarchists and socialists. Many of the laborers of Bidwell were sons and grandsons of pioneers who had opened up the country where the great sprawling towns were now growing into cities. They or their fathers had fought in the great Civil War. During boyhood they had breathed a reverence for government out of the very air of the towns. The great men of whom the school-books talked had all been connected with the Government. In Ohio there had been Garfield, Sherman, McPherson the fighter and others. From Illinois had come Lincoln and Grant. For a time the very ground of the mid-American country had seemed to spurt forth great men as now it was spurting forth gas and oil. Government had justified itself in the men it had produced.
And now there had come among them men who had no reverence for government. What a speaker for the first time dared say openly on the streets of Bidwell, had already been talked in the shops. The new men, the foreigners coming from many lands, had brought with them strange doctrines. They began to make acquaintances among the American workmen. "Well," they said, "you've had great men here; no doubt you have; but you're getting a new kind of great men now. These new men are not born out of people. They're being born out of capital. What is a great man? He's one who has the power. Isn't that a fact? Well, you fellows here have got to find out that nowadays power comes with the possession of money. Who are the big men of this town?--not some lawyer or politician who can make a good speech, but the men who own the factories where you have to work. Your Steve Hunter and Tom Butterworth are the great men of this town."
The socialist, who had come to speak on the streets of Bidwell, was a Swede, and his wife had come with him. As he talked his wife made figures on a blackboard. The old story of the trick by which the citizens of the town had lost their money in the plant-setting machine company was revived and told over and over. The Swede, a big man with heavy fists, spoke of the prominent citizens of the town as thieves who by a trick had robbed their fellows. As he stood on the box beside his wife, and raising his fists shouted crude sentences condemning the capitalist class, men who had gone away angry came back to listen. The speaker declared himself a workman like themselves and, unlike the religious salvationists who occasionally spoke on the streets, did not beg for money. "I'm a workman like yourselves," he shouted. "Both my wife and myself work until we've saved a little money. Then we come out to some town like this and fight capital until we're busted. We've been fighting for years now and we'll keep on fighting as long as we live."
As the orator shouted out his sentences he raised his fist as though to strike, and looked not unlike one of his ancestors, the Norsemen, who in old times had sailed far and wide over unknown seas in search of the fighting they loved. The men of Bidwell began to respect him. "After all, what he says sounds like mighty good sense," they declared, shaking their heads. "Maybe Ed Hall isn't any worse than any one else. We got to break up the system. That's a fact. Some of these days we got to break up the system."
* * * * *
Jim Gibson got to the door of Joe's shop at half-past seven o'clock. Several men stood on the sidewalk and he stopped and stood before them, intending to tell again the story of his triumph over his employer. Inside the shop Joe was already at his bench and at work. The men, two of them strikers from the corn-cutting machine plant, complained bitterly of the difficulty of supporting their families, and a third man, a fellow with a big black mustache who smoked a pipe, began to repeat some of the axioms in regard to industrialism and the class war he had picked up from the socialist orator. Jim listened for a moment and then, turning, put his thumb on his buttocks and wriggled his fingers. "Oh, hell," he sneered, "what are you fools talking about? You're going to get up a union or get into the socialist party. What're you talking about? A union or a party can't help a man who can't look out for himself."
The blustering and half intoxicated harness maker stood in the open shop door and told again and in detail the story of his triumph over his employer. Then another thought came and he spoke of the twelve hundred dollars Joe had lost in the stock, of the plant-setting machine company. "He lost his money and you fellows are going to get licked in this fight," he declared. "You're all wrong, you fellows, when you talk about unions or joining the socialist party. What counts is what a man can do for himself. Character counts. Yes, sir, character makes a man what he is."
Jim pounded on his chest and glared about him.
"Look at me," he said. "I was a drunkard and down and out when I came to this town; a drunkard, that's what I was and that's what I am. I came here to this shop to work, and now, if you want to know, ask any one in town who runs this place. The socialist says money is power. Well, there's a man inside here who has the money, but you bet I've got the power."
Slapping his knees with his hands Jim laughed heartily. A week before, a traveling man had come to the shop to sell machine-made harness. Joe had ordered the man out and Jim had called him back. He had placed an order for eighteen sets of the harness and had made Joe sign the order. The harness had arrived that afternoon and was now hung in the shop. "It's hanging in the shop now," Jim cried. "Go see for yourself."
Triumphantly Jim walked up and down before the men on the sidewalk, and his voice rang through the shop where Joe sat on his harness-maker's horse under a swinging lamp hard at work. "I tell you, character's the thing that counts," the roaring voice cried. "You see I'm a workingman like you fellows, but I don't join a union or a socialist party. I get my way. My boss Joe in there's a sentimental old fool, that's what he is. All his life he's made harnesses by hand and he thinks that's the only way. He claims he has pride in his work, that's what he claims."
Jim laughed again. "Do you know what he did the other day when that traveler had gone out of the shop and after I had made him sign that order?" he asked. "Cried, that's what he did. By God, he did,--sat there and cried."
Again Jim laughed, but the workmen on the sidewalk did not join in his merriment. Going to one of them, the one who had declared his intention of joining the union, Jim began to berate him. "You think you can lick Ed Hall with Steve Hunter and Tom Butterworth back of him, eh?" he asked sharply. "Well, I'll tell you what--you can't. All the unions in the world won't help you. You'll get licked--for why?
"For why? Because Ed Hall is like me, that's for why. He's got character, that's what he's got."
Growing weary of his boasting and the silence of his audience, Jim started to walk in at the door, but when one of the workmen, a pale man of fifty with a graying mustache, spoke, he turned to listen. "You're a suck, a suck and a lickspittle, that's what you are," said the pale man, his voice trembling with passion.
Jim ran through the crowd of men and knocked the speaker to the sidewalk with a blow of his fist. Two of the other workmen seemed about to take up the cause of their fallen brother, but when in spite of their threats Jim stood his ground, they hesitated. They went to help the pale workman to his feet, and Jim went into the shop and closed the door. Climbing onto his horse he went to work, and the men went off along the sidewalk, still threatening to do what they had not done when the opportunity offered.
Joe worked in silence beside his employee and night began to settle down over the disturbed town. Above the clatter of many voices in the street outside could be heard the loud voice of the socialist orator who had taken up his stand for the evening at a nearby corner. When it had become quite dark outside, the old harness maker climbed down from his horse and going to the front door opened it softly and looked up and down the street. Then he closed it again and walked toward the rear of the shop. In his hand he held his harness-maker's knife, shaped like a half moon and with an extraordinarily sharp circular edge. The harness maker's wife had died during the year before and since that time he had not slept well at night. Often for a week at a time he did not sleep at all, but lay all night with wide-open eyes, thinking strange, new thoughts. In the daytime and when Jim was not about, he sometimes spent hours sharpening the moon-shaped knife on a piece of leather; and on the day after the incident of the placing of the order for the factory-made harness he had gone into a hardware store and bought a cheap revolver. He had been sharpening the knife as Jim talked to the workmen outside. When Jim began to tell the story of his humiliation he had stopped sewing at the broken harness in his vise and, getting up, had taken the knife from its hiding-place under a pile of leather on a bench to give its edge a few last caressing strokes.
Holding the knife in his hand Joe went with shambling steps toward the place where Jim sat absorbed in his work. A brooding silence seemed to lie over the shop and even outside in the street all noises suddenly ceased. Old Joe's gait changed. As he passed behind the horse on which Jim sat, life came into his figure and he walked with a soft, cat-like tread. Joy shone in his eyes. As though warned of something impending, Jim turned and opened his mouth to growl at his employer, but his words never found their way to his lips. The old man made a peculiar half step, half leap past the horse, and the knife whipped through the air. At one stroke he had succeeded in practically severing Jim Gibson's head from his body.
There was no sound in the shop. Joe threw the knife into a corner and ran quickly past the horse where the body of Jim Gibson sat upright. Then the body fell to the floor with a thump and there was the sharp rattle of heels on the board floor. The old man locked the front door and listened impatiently. When all was again quiet he went to search for the knife he had thrown away, but could not find it. Taking Jim's knife from a bench under the hanging lamp, he stepped over the body and climbed upon his horse to turn out the lights.
For an hour Joe stayed in the shop with the dead man. The eighteen sets of harness shipped from a Cleveland factory had been received that morning, and Jim had insisted they be unpacked and hung on hooks along the shop walls. He had bullied Joe into helping hang the harnesses, and now Joe took them down alone. One by one they were laid on the floor and with Jim's knife the old man cut each strap into little pieces that made a pile of litter on the floor reaching to his waist. When that was done he went again to the rear of the shop, again stepping almost carelessly over the dead man, and took the revolver out of the pocket of an overcoat that hung by the door.
Joe went out of the shop by the back door, and having locked it carefully, crept through an alleyway and into the lighted street where people walked up and down. The next place to his own was a barber shop, and as he hurried along the sidewalk, two young men came out and called to him. "Hey," they called, "do you believe in factory-made harness now-days, Joe Wainsworth? Hey, what do you say? Do you sell factory-made harness?"
Joe did not answer, but stepping off the sidewalk, walked in the road. A group of Italian laborers passed, talking rapidly and making gestures with their hands. As he went more deeply into the heart of the growing city, past the socialist orator and a labor organizer who was addressing a crowd of men on another corner, his step became cat-like as it had been in the moment before the knife flashed at the throat of Jim Gibson. The crowds of people frightened him. He imagined himself set upon by a crowd and hanged to a lamp-post. The voice of the labor orator arose above the murmur of voices in the street. "We've got to take power into our hands. We've got to carry on our own battle for power," the voice declared.
The harness maker turned a corner into a quiet street, his hand caressing affectionately the revolver in the side pocket of his coat. He intended to kill himself, but had not wanted to die in the same room with Jim Gibson. In his own way he had always been a very sensitive man and his only fear was that rough hands fall upon him before he had completed the evening's work. He was quite sure that had his wife been alive she would have understood what had happened. She had always understood everything he did or said. He remembered his courtship. His wife had been a country girl and on Sundays, after their marriage, they had gone together to spend the day in the wood. After Joe had brought his wife to Bidwell they continued the practice. One of his customers, a well-to-do farmer, lived five miles north of town, and on his farm there was a grove of beech trees. Almost every Sunday for several years he got a horse from the livery stable and took his wife there. After dinner at the farmhouse, he and the farmer gossiped for an hour, while the women washed the dishes, and then he took his wife and went into the beech forest. No underbrush grew under the spreading branches of the trees, and when the two people had remained silent for a time, hundreds of squirrels and chipmunks came to chatter and play about them. Joe had brought nuts in his pocket and threw them about. The quivering little animals drew near and then with a flip of their tails scampered away. One day a boy from a neighboring farm came to the wood and shot one of the squirrels. It happened just as Joe and his wife came from the farmhouse and he saw the wounded squirrel hang from the branch of a tree, and then fall. It lay at his feet and his wife grew ill and leaned against him for support. He said nothing, but stared at the quivering thing on the ground. When it lay still the boy came and picked it up. Still Joe said nothing. Taking his wife's arm he walked to where they were in the habit of sitting, and reached in his pocket for the nuts to scatter on the ground. The farm boy, who had felt the reproach in the eyes of the man and woman, had gone out of the wood. Suddenly Joe began to cry. He was ashamed and did not want his wife to see, and she pretended she had not seen.
On the night when he had killed Jim, Joe decided he would walk to the farm and the beech forest and there kill himself. He hurried past a long row of dark stores and warehouses in the newly built section of town and came to a residence street. He saw a man coming toward him and stepped into the stairway of a store building. The man stopped under a street lamp to light a cigar, and the harness maker recognized him. It was Steve Hunter, who had induced him to invest the twelve hundred dollars in the stock of the plant-setting machine company, the man who had brought the new times to Bidwell, the man who was at the bottom of all such innovations as machine-made harnesses. Joe had killed his employee, Jim Gibson, in cold anger, but now a new kind of anger took possession of him. Something danced before his eyes and his hands trembled so that he was afraid the gun he had taken out of his pocket would fall to the sidewalk. It wavered as he raised it and fired, but chance came to his assistance. Steve Hunter pitched forward to the sidewalk.
Without stopping to pick up the revolver that had fallen out of his hand, Joe now ran up a stairway and got into a dark, empty hall. He felt his way along a wall and came presently to another stairway, leading down. It brought him into an alleyway, and going along this he came out near the bridge that led over the river and into what in the old days had been Turner's Pike, the road out which he had driven with his wife to the farm and the beech forest.
But one thing now puzzled Joe Wainsworth. He had lost his revolver and did not know how he was to manage his own death. "I must do it some way," he thought, when at last, after nearly three hours steady plodding and hiding in fields to avoid the teams going along the road he got to the beech forest. He went to sit under a tree near the place where he had so often sat through quiet Sunday afternoons with his wife beside him. "I'll rest a little and then I'll think how I can do it," he thought wearily, holding his head in his hands. "I mustn't go to sleep. If they find me they'll hurt me. They'll hurt me before I have a chance to kill myself. They'll hurt me before I have a chance to kill myself," he repeated, over and over, holding his head in his hands and rocking gently back and forth.