“The Towers of Zenith aspired above the morning mist; austere towers of steel and cement and limestone, sturdy as cliffs and delicate as silver rods. They were neither citadels nor churches, but frankly and beautifully office-buildings” -opening lines
Despite being the first American to win the Nobel Prize for Literature (on top of a Pulitzer Prize) today Sinclair Lewis is not widely as embraced as other American Nobel Prize winners such as Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, or John Steinbeck. Why? Perhaps it has something to do with Lewis’s condescending caricature of 20th century American life. When reading the satires of Sinclair Lewis, I imagine him sneering at the American middle class, publicly slaying sacred cows, laughing at the older generation, shaking his head in disgust at the ordinariness of small town life. There is something cynical about his novels. His general demeanor is apparent in all of his major works: Main Street, Babbitt, and Arrowsmith.
Published nearly 100 years ago Babbitt is largely regarded as Sinclair Lewis’s masterpiece and in many ways I have to agree. I appreciated Babbitt far more than his rather nasty characterizations in other books like Main Street and Arrowsmith. In particular, the searing attack on small town provincial life in Main Street hit a little too close to home for me.
Even before he finished Main Street, Lewis had started work on Babbitt. It takes place in the fictional city of Zenith in the fictional state of Winnemac (which also appears in Lewis’s Arrowsmith). The time period is the 1920s. The protagonist is George F. Babbitt, a 46 year old salesman of real estate and insurance among other things. He is a mediocre man who is filled with all manner of troubling anxieties. He nad his wife Myra live in the middle-class suburb of Floral Heights. Like all modern men, he worries about his job and the future, however he also feels his life slipping away so he fills his head with mundane things -the price of shampoo, the value of his alarm clock, mowed lawns, the cost of collared shirts, motor cars and gasoline, milk, social clubs like the Elks and the Boosters, a hatred of all things “liberal” that do not conform to the Republican Party and good business practices, and he yearns for fellow businessmen with “Vision and Ideals.”
As with most Sinclair Lewis novels, the protagonist George Babbitt is a romantic hero albeit clumsy and foolish. He lives in a drab world of material middle-class complacency and he longs to transcend it. In his dreams he is visited by a fairy girl who takes him away from his life. In reality, he goes on vacation to Maine with his vivacious friend, Paul Riesling, from whom he finds inspiration. However, when they return to Zenith life continues as normal until Babbitt begins to notice Riesling having an extra marital affair in Chicago. Babbitt is elected Vice President of the Boosters Club and on the same day Riesling shoots his wife in an escalated argument. Distraught, Babbitt loses his sense of stability. He goes on a variety of vacations, has his own extramarital affair with one of his real estate clients, and begins spending time with a younger, more ‘liberal’ crowd. Some of them are union members and protestors (i.e. “agitators”). Babbitt’s relationship with these “hooligans” ultimately costs him his prosperous business and his upstanding position in the community. It nearly costs him his marriage as well, but Myra suddenly contracts appendicitis. Babbitt returns home to nurse her back to health and their intimacy is repaired. Gradually, Babbitt is welcomed back into the fray among his peers in Zenith. In the end, his son Ted spontaneously marries the neighbor’s daughter, and Babbitt remarkably supports the marriage and his son’s desire not to become a conformist.
The extraordinary thing about Babbitt is how little actually happens in the novel. In the first 100 pages or so we are introduced to George Babbitt, his employment, friends, and a neighborhood dinner party. Conversations mostly concern a litany of petty consumer interests. And by the end of the novel what has truly happened? At the very least George Babbitt has become a more open and tolerant person, yet he is still trapped in a cultural cage. The themes of conformity and alienation loom large over the novel not just for George Babbitt but for many of his peers as well. The term ‘babbittry’ entered the American lexicon in 1920s as a pejorative to describe a vapid, complacent, middle-class, businessman who subscribes to the religion of consumerism. Today the term is rarely used in our culture and the reference is mostly lost.
In 1921 the Novel Jury recommended Main Street as the winner of the Pulitzer, but the Pulitzer Advisory Board at Columbia University dramatically denied the award on the grounds that it did not meet the standard for ‘wholesomeness.’ After this scene in 1922-23 the Novel Jury again rather unenthusiastically recommended the award to Willa Cather’s One of Ours but it has been widely speculated that they preferred to grant the award to Sinclair Lewis for Babbitt. Remarkably, Babbitt is dedicated to Edith Wharton with whom Sinclair Lewis developed a friendship after she won the Pulitzer for The Age of Innocence in 1921 over Main Street.
The following are some notable quotations from Babbitt:
“‘Good Lord, I don’t know what ‘rights’ a man has! And I don’t know the solution to boredom. If I did, I’d be the one philosopher that had the cure for living. But I do know that about ten times as many people find their lives dull, and unnecessarily dull, as ever admit it; and I do believe that if we busted out and admitted it sometimes, instead of being nice and patient and loyal for sixty years, and then nice and patient and dead for the rest of eternity, why, maybe, possibly, we might make life more fun'” (50, Paul Riesling to George Babbitt).
“Vast is the power of cities to reclaim the wanderer. More than mountains or the shore-devouring sea, a city retains its character, imperturbable, cynical, holding behind apparent changes its essential purpose” (235).
“‘Well… But I’ve never- Now, for heaven’s sake, don’t repeat this to your mother, or she’d remove what little hair I’ve got left, but practically, I’ve never done a single thing I’ve wanted too do in my whole life! I don’t know if I’ve accomplished anything except just get along… But I do get a sneaking pleasure out of the fact that you knew what you wanted to do and did it. Well, those folks in there will try to bully you, and tame you down. Tell ’em to go to the devil! I’ll back you. Take your factory job, if you want to. Don’t be scared of the family. No, nor all of Zenith. Nor of yourself, the way I’ve been. Go ahead, old man! The world is yours!'” (304-305 -Babbitt speaking to his son, Ted, at the close of the novel).
Lewis, Sinclair. Babbitt. New York, New York, Dover Thrift Edition, 2003 (1922).