Poor White by Sherwood Anderson
The Woodburns of Columbus were wealthy by the standards of their day. They lived in a large house and kept two carriages and four servants, but had no children. Henderson Woodburn was small of stature, wore a gray beard, and was neat and precise about his person. He was treasurer of the plow manufacturing company and was also treasurer of the church he and his wife attended. In his youth he had been called "Hen" Woodburn and had been bullied by larger boys, and when he grew to be a man and after his persistent shrewdness and patience had carried him into a position of some power in the business life of his native city he in turn became something of a bully to the men beneath him. He thought his wife Priscilla had come from a better family than his own and was a little afraid of her. When they did not agree on any subject, she expressed her opinion gently but firmly, while he blustered for a time and then gave in. After a misunderstanding his wife put her arms about his neck and kissed the bald spot on the top of his head. Then the subject was forgotten.
Life in the Woodburn house was lived without words. After the stir and bustle of the farm, the silence of the house for a long time frightened Clara. Even when she was alone in her own room she walked about on tiptoe. Henderson Woodburn was absorbed in his work, and when he came home in the evening, ate his dinner in silence and then worked again. He brought home account books and papers from the office and spread them out on a table in the living room. His wife Priscilla sat in a large chair under a lamp and knitted children's stockings. They were, she told Clara, for the children of the poor. As a matter of fact the stockings never left her house. In a large trunk in her room upstairs lay hundreds of pairs knitted during the twenty-five years of her family life.
Clara was not very happy in the Woodburn household, but on the other hand, was not very unhappy. She attended to her studies at the University passably well and in the late afternoons took a walk with a girl classmate, attended a matinee at the theater, or read a book. In the evening she sat with her aunt and uncle until she could no longer bear the silence, and then went to her own room, where she studied until it was time to go to bed. Now and then she went with the two older people to a social affair at the church, of which Henderson Woodburn was treasurer, or accompanied them to dinners at the homes of other well-to-do and respectable business men. On several occasions young men, sons of the people with whom the Woodburns dined, or students at the university, came in the evening to call. On such an occasion Clara and the young man sat in the parlor of the house and talked. After a time they grew silent and embarrassed in each other's presence. From the next room Clara could hear the rustling of the papers containing the columns of figures over which her uncle was at work. Her aunt's knitting needles clicked loudly. The young man told a tale of some football game, or if he had already gone out into the world, talked of his experiences as a traveler selling the wares manufactured or merchandized by his father. Such visits all began at the same hour, eight o'clock, and the young man left the house promptly at ten. Clara grew to feel that she was being merchandized and that they had come to look at the goods. One evening one of the men, a fellow with laughing blue eyes and kinky yellow hair, unconsciously disturbed her profoundly. All the evening he talked just as the others had talked and got out of his chair to go away at the prescribed hour. Clara walked with him to the door. She put out her hand, which he shook cordially. Then he looked at her and his eyes twinkled. "I've had a good time," he said. Clara had a sudden and almost overpowering desire to embrace him. She wanted to disturb his assurance, to startle him by kissing him on the lips or holding him tightly in her arms. Shutting the door quickly, she stood with her hand on the door-knob, her whole body trembling. The trivial by-products of her age's industrial madness went on in the next room. The sheets of paper rustled and the knitting needles clicked. Clara thought she would like to call the young man back into the house, lead him to the room where the meaningless industry went endlessly on and there do something that would shock them and him as they had never been shocked before. She ran quickly upstairs. "What is getting to be the matter with me?" she asked herself anxiously.
* * * * *
One evening in the month of May, during her third year at the University, Clara sat on the bank of a tiny stream by a grove of trees, far out on the edge of a suburban village north of Columbus. Beside her sat a young man named Frank Metcalf whom she had known for a year and who had once been a student in the same classes with herself. He was the son of the president of the plow manufacturing company of which her uncle was treasurer. As they sat together by the stream the afternoon light began to fade and darkness came on. Before them across an open field stood a factory, and Clara remembered that the whistle had long since blown and the men from the factory had gone home. She grew restless and sprang to her feet. Young Metcalf who had been talking very earnestly arose and stood beside her. "I can't marry for two years, but we can be engaged and that will be all the same thing as far as the right and wrong of what I want and need is concerned. It isn't my fault I can't ask you to marry me now," he declared. "In two years now, I'll inherit eleven thousand dollars. My aunt left it to me and the old fool went and fixed it so I don't get it if I marry before I'm twenty-four. I want that money. I've got to have it, but I got to have you too."
Clara looked away into the evening darkness and waited for him to finish his speech. All afternoon he had been making practically the same speech, over and over. "Well, I can't help it, I'm a man," he said doggedly. "I can't help it, I want you. I can't help it, my aunt was an old fool." He began to explain the necessity of remaining unmarried in order that he could receive the eleven thousand dollars. "If I don't get that money I'll be just the same as I am now," he declared. "I won't be any good." He grew angry and, thrusting his hands into his pockets, stared also across the field into the darkness. "Nothing keeps me satisfied," he said. "I hate being in my father's business and I hate going to school. In only two years I'll get the money. Father can't keep it from me. I'll take it and light out. I don't know just what I'll do. I'm going maybe to Europe, that's what I'm going to do. Father wants me to stay here and work in his office. To hell with that. I want to travel. I'll be a soldier or something. Anyway I'll get out of here and go somewhere and do something exciting, something alive. You can go with me. We'll cut out together. Haven't you got the nerve? Why don't you be my woman?"
Young Metcalf took hold of Clara's shoulder and tried to take her into his arms. For a moment they struggled and then, in disgust, he stepped away from her and again began to scold.
Clara walked away across two or three vacant lots and got into a street of workingmen's houses, the man following at her heels. Night had come and the people in the street facing the factory had already disposed of the evening meal. Children and dogs played in the road and a strong smell of food hung in the air. To the west across the fields, a passenger train ran past going toward the city. Its light made wavering yellow patches against the bluish black sky. Clara wondered why she had come to the out of the way place with Frank Metcalf. She did not like him, but there was a restlessness in him that was like the restless thing in herself. He did not want stupidly to accept life, and that fact made him brother to herself. Although he was but twenty-two years old, he had already achieved an evil reputation. A servant in his father's house had given birth to a child by him, and it had cost a good deal of money to get her to take the child and go away without making an open scandal. During the year before he had been expelled from the University for throwing another young man down a flight of stairs, and it was whispered about among the girl students that he often got violently drunk. For a year he had been trying to ingratiate himself with Clara, had written her letters, sent flowers to her house, and when he met her on the street had stopped to urge that she accept his friendship. On the day in May she had met him on the street and he had begged that she give him one chance to talk things out with her. They had met at a street crossing where cars went past into the suburban villages that lay about the city. "Come on," he had urged, "let's take a street car ride, let's get out of the crowds, I want to talk to you." He had taken hold of her arm and fairly dragged her to a car. "Come and hear what I have to say," he had urged, "then if you don't want to have anything to do with me, all right. You can say so and I'll let you alone." After she had accompanied him to the suburb of workingmen's houses, in the vicinity of which they had spent the afternoon in the fields, Clara had found he had nothing to urge upon her except the needs of his body. Still she felt there was something he wanted to say that had not been said. He was restless and dissatisfied with his life, and at bottom she felt that way about her own life. During the last three years she had often wondered why she had come to the school and what she was to gain by learning things out of books. The days and months went past and she knew certain rather uninteresting facts she had not known before. How the facts were to help her to live, she couldn't make out. They had nothing to do with such problems as her attitude toward men like John May the farm hand, the school teacher who had taught her something by holding her in his arms and kissing her, and the dark sullen young man who now walked beside her and talked of the needs of his body. It seemed to Clara that every additional year spent at the University but served to emphasize its inadequacy. It was so also with the books she read and the thoughts and actions of the older people about her. Her aunt and uncle did not talk much, but seemed to take it for granted she wanted to live such another life as they were living. She thought with horror of the probability of marrying a maker of plows or of some other dull necessity of life and then spending her days in the making of stockings for babies that did not come, or in some other equally futile manifestation of her dissatisfaction. She realized with a shudder that men like her uncle, who spent their lives in adding up rows of figures or doing over and over some tremendously trivial thing, had no conception of any outlook for their women beyond living in a house, serving them physically, wearing perhaps good enough clothes to help them make a show of prosperity and success, and drifting finally into a stupid acceptance of dullness--an acceptance that both she and the passionate, twisted man beside her were fighting against.
In a class in the University Clara had met, during that her third year there, a woman named Kate Chanceller, who had come to Columbus with her brother from a town in Missouri, and it was this woman who had given her thoughts form, who had indeed started her thinking of the inadequacy of her life. The brother, a studious, quiet man, worked as a chemist in a manufacturing plant somewhere at the edge of town. He was a musician and wanted to become a composer. One evening during the winter his sister Kate had brought Clara to the apartment where the two lived, and the three had become friends. Clara had learned something there that she did not yet understand and never did get clearly into her consciousness. The truth was that the brother was like a woman and Kate Chanceller, who wore skirts and had the body of a woman, was in her nature a man. Kate and Clara spent many evenings together later and talked of many things not usually touched on by girl students. Kate was a bold, vigorous thinker and was striving to grope her way through her own problem in life and many times, as they walked along the street or sat together in the evening, she forgot her companion and talked of herself and the difficulties of her position in life. "It's absurd the way things are arranged," she said. "Because my body is made in a certain way I'm supposed to accept certain rules for living. The rules were not made for me. Men manufactured them as they manufacture can-openers, on the wholesale plan." She looked at Clara and laughed. "Try to imagine me in a little lace cap, such as your aunt wears about the house, and spending my days knitting baby stockings," she said.
The two women had spent hours talking of their lives and in speculating on the differences in their natures. The experience had been tremendously educational for Clara. As Kate was a socialist and Columbus was rapidly becoming an industrial city, she talked of the meaning of capital and labor and the effect of changing conditions on the lives of men and women. To Kate, Clara could talk as to a man, but the antagonism that so often exists between men and women did not come into and spoil their companionship. In the evening when Clara went to Kate's house her aunt sent a carriage to bring her home at nine. Kate rode home with her. They got to the Woodburn house and went in. Kate was bold and free with the Woodburns, as with her brother and Clara. "Come," she said laughing, "put away your figures and your knitting. Let's talk." She sat in a large chair with her legs crossed and talked with Henderson Woodburn of the affairs of the plow company. The two got into a discussion of the relative merits of the free trade and protection ideas. Then the two older people went to bed and Kate talked to Clara. "Your uncle is an old duffer," she said. "He knows nothing about the meaning of what he's doing in life." When she started home afoot across the city, Clara was alarmed for her safety. "You must get a cab or let me wake up uncle's man; something may happen," she said. Kate laughed and went off, striding along the street like a man. Sometimes she thrust her hands into her skirt pockets, that were like the trouser pockets of a man, and it was difficult for Clara to remember that she was a woman. In Kate's presence she became bolder than she had ever been with any one. One evening she told the story of the thing that had happened to her that afternoon long before on the farm, the afternoon when, her mind having been inflamed by the words of Jim Priest regarding the sap that goes up the tree and by the warm sensuous beauty of the day, she had wanted so keenly to draw close to some one. She explained to Kate how she had been so brutally jarred out of the feeling in herself that she felt was at bottom all right. "It was like a blow in the face at the hand of God," she said.
Kate Chanceller was excited as Clara told the tale and listened with a fiery light burning in her eyes. Something in her manner encouraged Clara to tell also of her experiments with the school teacher and for the first time she got a sense of justice toward men by talking to the woman who was half a man. "I know that wasn't square," she said. "I know now, when I talk to you, but I didn't know then. With the school teacher I was as unfair as John May and my father were with me. Why do men and women have to fight each other? Why does the battle between them have to go on?"
Kate walked up and down before Clara and swore like a man. "Oh, hell," she exclaimed, "men are such fools and I suppose women are as bad. They are both too much one thing. I fall in between. I've got my problem too, but I'm not going to talk about it. I know what I'm going to do. I'm going to find some kind of work and do it." She began to talk of the stupidity of men in their approach to women. "Men hate such women as myself," she said. "They can't use us, they think. What fools! They should watch and study us. Many of us spend our lives loving other women, but we have skill. Being part women, we know how to approach women. We are not blundering and crude. Men want a certain thing from you. It is delicate and easy to kill. Love is the most sensitive thing in the world. It's like an orchid. Men try to pluck orchids with ice tongs, the fools."
Walking to where Clara stood by a table, and taking her by the shoulder, the excited woman stood for a long time looking at her. Then she picked up her hat, put it on her head, and with a flourish of her hand started for the door. "You can depend on my friendship," she said. "I'll do nothing to confuse you. You'll be in luck if you can get that kind of love or friendship from a man."
Clara kept thinking of the words of Kate Chanceller on the evening when she walked through the streets of the suburban village with Frank Metcalf, and later as the two sat on the car that took them back to the city. With the exception of another student named Phillip Grimes, who had come to see her a dozen times during her second year in the University, young Metcalf was the only one of perhaps a dozen men she had met since leaving the farm who had been attracted to her. Phillip Grimes was a slender young fellow with blue eyes, yellow hair and a not very vigorous mustache. He was from a small town in the northern end of the State, where his father published a weekly newspaper. When he came to see Clara he sat on the edge of his chair and talked rapidly. Some person he had seen in the street had interested him. "I saw an old woman on the car," he began. "She had a basket on her arm. It was filled with groceries. She sat beside me and talked aloud to herself." Clara's visitor repeated the words of the old woman on the car. He speculated about her, wondered what her life was like. When he had talked of the old woman for ten or fifteen minutes, he dropped the subject and began telling of another experience, this time with a man who sold fruit at a street crossing. It was impossible to be personal with Phillip Grimes. Nothing but his eyes were personal. Sometimes he looked at Clara in a way that I made her feel that her clothes were being stripped from her body, and that she was being made to stand naked in the room before her visitor. The experience, when it came, was not entirely a physical one. It was only in part that. When the thing happened Clara saw her whole life being stripped bare. "Don't look at me like that," she once said somewhat sharply, when his eyes had made her so uncomfortable she could no longer remain silent. Her remark had frightened Phillip Grimes away. He got up at once, blushed, stammered something about having another engagement, and hurried away.
In the street car, homeward bound beside Frank Metcalf, Clara thought of Phillip Grimes and wondered whether or not he would have stood the test of Kate Chanceller's speech regarding love and friendship. He had confused her, but that was perhaps her own fault. He had not insisted on himself at all. Frank Metcalf had done nothing else. "One should be able," she thought, "to find somewhere a man who respects himself and his own desires but can understand also the desires and fears of a woman." The street car went bouncing along over railroad crossings and along residence streets. Clara looked at her companion, who stared straight ahead, and then turned to look out of the car window. The window was open and she could see the interiors of the laborers' houses along the streets. In the evening with the lamps lighted they seemed cosy and comfortable. Her mind ran back to the life in her father's house and its loneliness. For two summers she had escaped going home. At the end of her first year in school she had made an illness of her uncle's an excuse for spending the summer in Columbus, and at the end of the second year she had found another excuse for not going. This year she felt she would have to go home. She would have to sit day after day at the farm table with the farm hands. Nothing would happen. Her father would remain silent in her presence. She would become bored and weary of the endless small talk of the town girls. If one of the town boys began to pay her special attention, her father would become suspicious and that would lead to resentment in herself. She would do something she did not want to do. In the houses along the streets through which the car passed, she saw women moving about. Babies cried and men came out of the doors and stood talking to one another on the sidewalks. She decided suddenly that she was taking the problem of her own life too seriously. "The thing to do is to get married and then work things out afterward," she told herself. She made up her mind that the puzzling, insistent antagonism that existed between men and women was altogether due to the fact that they were not married and had not the married people's way of solving such problems as Frank Metcalf had been talking about all afternoon. She wished she were with Kate Chancellor so that she could discuss with her this new viewpoint. When she and Frank Metcalf got off the car she was no longer in a hurry to go home to her uncle's house. Knowing she did not want to marry him, she thought that in her turn she would talk, that she would try to make him see her point of view as all the afternoon he had been trying to make her see his.
For an hour the two people walked about and Clara talked. She forgot about the passage of time and the fact that she had not dined. Not wishing to talk of marriage, she talked instead of the possibility of friendship between men and women. As she talked her own mind seemed to her to have become clearer. "It's all foolishness your going on as you have," she declared. "I know how dissatisfied and unhappy you sometimes are. I often feel that way myself. Sometimes I think it's marriage I want. I really think I want to draw close to some one. I believe every one is hungry for that experience. We all want something we are not willing to pay for. We want to steal it or have it given us. That's what's the matter with me, and that's what's the matter with you."
They came to the Woodburn house, and turning in stood on a porch in the darkness by the front door. At the back of the house Clara could see a light burning. Her aunt and uncle were at the eternal figuring and knitting. They were finding a substitute for living. It was the thing Frank Metcalf was protesting against and was the real reason for her own constant secret protest. She took hold of the lapel of his coat, intending to make a plea, to urge upon him the idea of a friendship that would mean something to them both. In the darkness she could not see his rather heavy, sullen face. The maternal instinct became strong in her and she thought of him as a wayward, dissatisfied boy, wanting love and understanding as she had wanted to be loved and understood by her father when life in the moment of the awakening of her womanhood seemed ugly and brutal. With her free hand she stroked the sleeve of his coat. Her gesture was misunderstood by the man who was not thinking of her words but of her body and of his hunger to possess it. He took her into his arms and held her tightly against his breast. She tried to struggle, to tear herself away but, although she was strong and muscular, she found herself unable to move. As he held her uncle, who had heard the two people come up the steps to the door, threw it open. Both he and his wife had on several occasions warned Clara to have nothing to do with young Metcalf. One day when he had sent flowers to the house, her aunt had urged her to refuse to receive them. "He's a bad, dissipated, wicked man," she had said. "Have nothing to do with him." When he saw his niece in the arms of the man who had been the subject of so much discussion in his own house and in every respectable house in Columbus, Henderson Woodburn was furious. He forgot the fact that young Metcalf was the son of the president of the company of which he was treasurer. It seemed to him that some sort of a personal insult had been thrown at him by a common ruffian. "Get out of here," he screamed. "What do you mean, you nasty villain? Get out of here."
Frank Metcalf went off along the street laughing defiantly, and Clara went into the house. The sliding doors that led into the living room had been thrown open and the light from a hanging lamp streamed in upon her. Her hair was disheveled and her hat twisted to one side. The man and woman stared at her. The knitting needles and a sheet of paper held in their hands suggested what they had been doing while Clara was getting another lesson from life. Her aunt's hands trembled and the knitting needles clicked together. Nothing was said and the confused and angry girl ran up a stairway to her own room. She locked herself in and knelt on the floor by the bed. She did not pray. Her association with Kate Chanceller had given her another outlet for her feelings. Pounding with her fists on the bed coverings, she swore. "Fools, damned fools, the world is filled with nothing but a lot of damned fools."