Marching Men

by Sherwood Anderson

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

Book IV: Chapter II

McGregor began to attend some classes at Chicago University and walked about among the massive buildings, erected for the most part through the bounty of one of his country's leading business men, wondering why the great centre of learning seemed so little a part of the city. To him the University seemed something entirely apart, not in tune with its surrounding. It was like an expensive ornament worn on the soiled hand of a street urchin. He did not stay there long.

One day he got into disfavour with the professor in one of the classes. He sat in a room among other students, his mind busy with thoughts of the future and of how he might get his movement of the marching men under way. In a chair beside him sat a large girl with blue eyes and hair like yellow wheat. She like McGregor was unconscious of what was going on about her and sat with half-closed eyes watching him. In the corners of her eyes lurked a gleam of amusement. She drew sketches of his huge mouth and nose on a pad of Paper.

At McGregor's left with his legs sprawled into the aisle sat a youth who was thinking of the yellow-haired girl and planning a campaign against her. His father was a manufacturer of berry boxes in a brick building on the West Side and he wished he were in school in another city so that it would not be necessary to live at home. All day he thought of the evening meal and of the coming of his father, nervous and tired, to quarrel with his mother about the management of the servants. Now he was trying to evolve a plan for getting money from his mother with which to enjoy a dinner at a downtown restaurant. With delight he contemplated such an evening with a box of cigarettes on the table and the yellow-haired girl sitting opposite him under red lights. He was a typical American youth of the upper middle class and was in the University only because he was in no hurry to begin his life in the commercial world.

In front of McGregor sat another typical student, a pale nervous young man who drummed with his fingers on the back of a book. He was very serious about acquiring learning and when the professor paused in his talk he threw up his hands and asked a question. When the professor smiled he laughed loudly. He was like an instrument on which the professor struck chords.

The professor, a short man with a bushy black beard, heavy shoulders and large powerful eye-glasses, spoke in a shrill voice surcharged with excitement.

"The world is full of unrest," he said; "men are struggling like chicks in the shell. In the hinterland of every man's mind uneasy thoughts stir. I call your attention to what is going on in the Universities of Germany."

The professor paused and glared about. McGregor was so irritated by what he took to be the wordiness of the man that he could not restrain himself. He felt as he had felt when the socialist orator talked on the streets of Coal Creek. With an oath he arose and kicked out his foot to push his chair away. The pad of paper fell out of the large girl's lap and scattered its leaves about the floor. A light burned in McGregor's blue eyes. As he stood in the classroom before the startled class his head, big and red, had something of nobility about it like the head of a fine beast. His voice rumbled out of his throat and the girl looked at him, her mouth standing open.

"We go from room to room hearing talk," began McGregor. "On the street corners downtown in the evenings and in towns and villages men talk and talk. Books are written, jaws wag. The jaws of men are loose. They wabble about--saying nothing."

McGregor's excitement grew. "If there is all this unrest why does it not come to something?" he demanded. "Why do not you who have trained brains strive to find the secret of order in the midst of this disorder? Why is something not done?"

The professor ran up and down on the platform. "I do not know what you mean," he cried nervously. McGregor turned slowly and stared at the class. He tried to explain. "Why do not men lead their lives like men?" he asked. "They must be taught to march, hundreds of thousands of men. Do you not think so?"

McGregor's voice rose and his great fist was raised. "The world should become a great camp," he cried. "The brains of the world should be at the organisation of mankind. Everywhere there is disorder and men chatter like monkeys in a cage. Why should some man not begin the organisation of a new army? If there are men who do not understand what is meant let them be knocked down."

The professor leaned forward and peered through his spectacles at McGregor. "I understand your kind," he said, and his voice trembled. "The class is dismissed. We deprecate violence here."

The professor hurried through a door and down a long hallway with the class chattering at his heels. McGregor sat in his chair in the empty class room and stared at the wall. As the professor hurried away he muttered to himself: "What's getting in here? What's getting into our schools?"

       *       *       *       *       *

Late on the following afternoon McGregor sat in his room thinking of what had happened in the class. He had decided that he would not spend any more time at the University but would devote himself entirely to the study of law. Several young men came in.

Among the students at the University McGregor had seemed very old. Secretly he was much admired and had often been the subject of talk. Those who had now come to see him wanted him to join a Greek Letter Fraternity. They sat about his room, on the window sill and on a trunk by the wall. They smoked pipes and were boyishly eager and enthusiastic. A glow shone in the cheeks of the spokesman--a clean- looking youth with black curly hair and round pink--and--white cheeks, the son of a Presbyterian minister from Iowa.

"You have been picked by our fellows to be one of us," said the spokesman. "We want you to become an Alpha Beta Pi. It is a grand fraternity with chapters in the best schools in the country. Let me tell you."

He began reeling off a list of names of statesmen, college professors, business men and well known athletes who belonged to the order.

McGregor sat by the wall looking at his guests and wondering what he would say. He was a little amused and half hurt and felt like a man who has had a Sunday School scholar stop him on the street to ask him about the welfare of his soul. He thought of Edith Carson waiting for him in her store on Monroe Street, of the angry miners standing in the saloon in Coal Creek plotting to break into the restaurant while he sat with the hammer in his hands waiting for battle, of old Mother Misery walking at the heels of the soldiers' horses through the streets of the mining village, and last of all of the terrible certainty that these bright-eyed boys would be destroyed, swallowed up by the huge commercial city in which they were to live.

"It means a lot to be one of us when a chap gets out into the world," the curly-haired youth said. "It helps you get on, get in with the right people. You can't go on without men you know. You ought to get in with the best fellows." He hesitated and looked at the floor. "I don't mind telling you," he said with an outburst of frankness, "that one of our stronger men--Whiteside, the mathematician--wanted us to have you. He said you were worth while. He thought you ought to see us and get to know us and that we ought to see and get to know you."

McGregor got up and took his hat from a nail on the wall. He felt the utter futility of trying to express what was in his mind and walked down the stairs to the street with the file of boys following in embarrassed silence and stumbling in the darkness of the hallway at his heels. At the street door he stopped and faced them, struggling to put his thoughts into words.

"I can't do what you ask," he said. "I like you and like your asking me to come in with you, but I'm going to quit the University." His voice softened. "I would like to have you for friends," he added. "You say a man needs to know people after awhile. Well, I would like to know you while you are what you are now. I don't want to know you after you become what you will become."

McGregor turned and ran down the remaining steps to the stone sidewalk and went rapidly up the street. A stern hard look was in his face and he knew he would spend a silent night thinking of what had happened. "I hate hitting boys," he thought as he hurried away to his evening's work at the restaurant.

Return to the Marching Men Summary Return to the Sherwood Anderson Library

It ain't what you don't know that gets you into trouble. It's what you know for sure that just ain't so.