Impressions of an Inauguration

By Sherwood Anderson

Editor’s note: These impressions of the inauguration of Herbert Hoover, which took place on March 4, 1929, were published in Anderson’s Smyth County News, March 7, 1929, 1,4. The text is edited from a later typescript.

I had got into Washington from New York in the morning. The railroad yards were filled with trains. Our train moved forward a few hundred yards at a time. At last we got in. I lost myself in the crowd.

The crowd was centered about Pennsylvania Avenue. All along the streets, wherever there were a few feet of vacant space, a stand with seats had been put up. The side streets, coming into Pennsylvania Avenue, were roped off. Enterprising men had built a series of tents on trucks and had backed them into the street ends. The papers say there are three hundred thousand curious visitors, like me, in the city. How do the papers know such things? One paper says one hundred and fifty thousand, another three hundred thousand. Evidently they do not know. There is a vast crowd.

The little stores along Pennsylvania Avenue, down near the Capitol, have narrow windows facing the street. They have put two or three chairs that are for rent in each of the windows.

They are all rented. Middle aged women and girls sit in the chairs. They sit for hours patiently. Nothing happens. They look like wax figures. No woman can sit so, nowadays, without showing a great deal of leg. The legs are not particularly attractive.

It is a day when no pretty women are to be seen. It is odd about a man’s reactions to pretty women. It may be that on some days all women look pretty, and even lovely, while on others they nearly all look rather sad. Well, they never do all look pretty.

I have been wandering about with friends. Among them is a fair Russian aristocrat [Baroness Marie Louise Koskull]. She is tall, strong, magnificent. I keep thinking of the old days in Russia, the days of Gogol and Turgenev and of the Russian grand dukes. This fair, tall Russian woman has what the painter Renoir was always speaking of as “a skin that takes the light.” What a subject for a magnificent painting she would make.

She is speaking to me of the Americans in the crowd. She has lived a great deal in Europe. She says American crowds always impress her by their patience. “In Europe on such an occasion,” she says, “there would be all sorts of protesting organizations out marching.

“There would be the socialists, the anarchists, the labor people. They would march and shout, the police would rush upon them.

“At the same time there would be more gaiety. People would dress in brighter colors, they would dance and sing.”

The Baroness has got an idea that the Americans have no nerves. “There are no neurotics here, are there?” she asks, and I laugh.

I think of the queer little outbreaks of neuroticism all about me, everywhere I go, of my own neuroticism.

In a European city, on such a gala occasion, everyone would be sitting in comfortable chairs, in the sidewalk cafes. They would be drinking wine. There would be little or no drunkenness.

I see a good many drunken people in this crowd. These drunken young men brush against us. They laugh. One of them says he slept the night before in a park in Washington. (It must have been cold sleeping.) Obviously he is lying. I like imaginative liars. He says that during the night a squirrel bit him. The others in his party gather about me and laugh. They have all been bitten by the same squirrel. They can just stand on their legs. “You have got the squirrel in your pocket now,” I suggest to the man who had addressed me. “Yes,” he says. He invites me to go somewhere with him, to also be bitten by the squirrel, but I decline.

Pennsylvania Avenue is a broad street. It runs straight down from the White House to the Capitol. Once it was lined with trees but there are no trees now. The street has been roped off with heavy wire ropes.

Cars are going with terrific speed along the avenue, forty, fifty, sixty miles an hour. Along the street, on the broad sidewalks, among the crowd, move strange figures.

Tall Indians, dressed in their former war regalia, go past. They are magnificent creatures. There are innumerable people, evidently intent on getting into the picture pages of the newspapers. Young girls have put on Texas cowboy hats. There are no marks of the plains on them. Their cheeks are not wind-burned. The accommodating newspaper photographers, mingling with the crowd, are glad to take pictures. A little flapper with a pert face tells the newspaper men that they would all feel better on a bronco on the plains than on the pavement. The newspaper man takes it down. It is wonderful what the movies have done for our civilization. I look closely at the flapper. She is a stenographer. There is a way you can tell by looking at the hands.

And, at that, stenographers have lovely hands. So have waitresses for that matter. Women who work have, almost without exception, lovely expressive hands.

O, how well dressed are the women of an American crowd. Where do all these furs come from? Who pays for them? The men look tired. They must have to work hard to pay for all these furs. Untold thousands of animals slaughtered. Many of the furs are imitations but the real ones are seen by the thousands.

In the street within the wire ropes there is a roar and bustle. Police rush past at sixty miles an hour. They are in cars and on motorcycles. Gaudily dressed diplomats are passing. Now there comes a troop of cavalry. The horses are beautiful. The faces of the soldiers are set and stern looking.

It may be they are like the cowgirls from Texas. The movies may have taught them their trade.

Surely the officers are not inspired. Living the life of a military man does not make for a sensitive face. The faces of the officers look dull.

The politicians in their tall black hats have dull faces. The officers are wearing all of their medals. The breasts of some of the officers are loaded with decorations.

Most of the politicians have piggish-looking faces. They are amazingly fat.

I have followed the crowd and have gone to see the inauguration. The skies are grey and cold. Mr. Hoover and Mr. Coolidge have gone to the Capitol in a slow moving car. Mr. Coolidge looks happy. It is as though he were saying to himself”This lets me out. Now I can go freely about. People will bow to me. ‘Good morning, Mr. President.’ I can keep out of trouble.” He bows to the right and left. Walking beside me is a man in a hunter’s jacket and a coonskin cap. He tells me he is impersonating Daniel Boone for the Governor of Pennsylvania. We pass a statue of General Grant and talk about it. “He was a good man all right,” the Pennsylvania Daniel Boone says. “Let’s see, wasn’t he President once? Or was he just a general.”

“He was both. Poor man, he was both,” I say and laugh.

In the Capitol grounds a vast crowd has gathered. We cannot hear the words of the new President. He is talking about prohibition, as we learn later from the newspapers. Near me a political marching club is passing a bottle of whiskey from hand to hand. They drink openly, without attempt at concealment. They also are from Pennsylvania.

It has begun to rain now and, although the crowd stands patiently in the rain, hearing nothing, I go away. I have lunch in a side street, away from the crowd. When I come back into Pennsylvania Avenue the bands, the sailors, the soldiers, the marching clubs–all their gay feathers drooping-are marching patiently. It rains harder and harder. Four huge airships float in the air above. They nose their way slowly through the mist. The crowd sits patiently in the rain. I hear no cheers, although tomorrow the newspapers will speak of “cheering crowds.”

As there is no place to get dry and as my friends have long since gone to their homes, I go to a movie house. It is the only place I can find to sit. The hotel lobbies are crowded.

On the screen they are showing the ideal American woman. She is called “Miss America.” She spends her time putting on and taking off expensive clothes. We see her in bed in her bedroom, at tea, in the theater. She wears pajamas, tea gowns, bathing suits, party gowns without number. The women in the theater watch her breathlessly. Their eyes are filled with envy.

When I come out of the theater, the parade is over. It still rains. The new president has gone to his home in the White House. The Washington newspapers take a great amount of space to tell about the gowns worn by the various wives of the new men, just come into power.