Posted by: Lisa Hill | June 26, 2015

Babbitt (1922), by Sinclair Lewis

BabbittMy reading has taken me from one sad marriage to another, though the discontent is about more than gender relations.  In Babbitt, by the Nobel Prize winner Sinclair Lewis, there is alienation between the sexes because women (albeit sympathetically portrayed) are limited creatures who know nothing of the discontent that the anti-hero Babbitt feels, but there is also a piercing satire of the American Dream gone sour.  The emptiness of a successful realtor’s life is stripped bare, and Babbitt’s unease is depicted in ensuing vignettes which show the mindless conformity of his contemporaries; the meaningless consumerism; the careless racism; the selfishness and lack of empathy; and – worst of all – the overwhelming arrogance of their belief in American superiority, by which they mean White American middle-class superiority.  It is a brilliant book.

Lewis was awarded his Nobel in 1930 “for his vigorous and graphic art of description and his ability to create, with wit and humor, new types of characters”  which was perhaps a tactful way of saying that Lewis was satirising an American middle-class who were products of an almost religious belief in capitalism and consumerism.  With Babbitt (1922) he was writing between the wars but before the Depression, and although I have also read Main Street (1920) (see my review) I have yet to read any of his later works.  There are so many, I would welcome suggestions for which one might best show how he responded to the catastrophe…

Reading this on the travel-necessity Kindle, I have highlighted so many excerpts it is hard to know where to start.  This is a scene where Babbitt and his pal Paul Riesling are on the New York express for a getaway in Maine.  Lewis reports the conversation in the carriage without naming the characters because…

Which of them said which has never been determined, and does not matter, since they all had the same ideas and expressed them always with the same ponderous and brassy assurance.

They pontificate on prohibition and a fellow’s personal liberty, business conditions down South, overpricing and service standards in southern hotels, declining standards in clothing manufacturing (except collars, because one of them sells collars) and the science of business:

To them the Romantic Hero was no longer the knight, the wandering poet, the cowpuncher, the aviator, nor the brave young district attorney,  but the great sales manager, who had an Analysis of Merchandising Problems on his glass-topped desk, whose title of nobility was ‘Go-getter’, and who devoted himself and all his young samurai to the cosmic purpose of Selling – not of selling anything in particular, for or to anybody in particular, but pure Selling.  (Kindle location 1803).

Paul Riesling makes the mistake of being highbrow when he sees the beauty in the flame of a factory furnace against the darkening sky, but the conversation recovers to consider the issue of railway punctuality…

The porter entered – a negro in white jacket with brass buttons.

‘How late are we, George?’ growled the fat man.

‘Deed, I don’t know, sir. I think we’re about on time,’  said the porter, folding towels and deftly tossing them up on the rack above the washbowls.  The council stared at him gloomily and when he was gone they wailed:

‘I don’t know what’s come over these n—–s, nowadays.  They never give you a civil answer.’

‘That’s a fact.  They’re getting so they don’t have a single bit of respect for you.  The old fashioned c–n was a fine old cuss – he knew his place – but these young d—-s don’t want to be porters or cotton-pickers.  Oh, no!  They got to be lawyers and professors and Lord knows what all!  I tell you, it’s becoming a pretty serious problem.  We ought to get together and show the black man, yes, and the yellow man, his place.  Now, I haven’t got one particle of race prejudice.  I’m the first to be glad when a n—– succeeds –  so long as he stays where he belongs and doesn’t try to usurp the rightful authority and business ability of the white man.

‘That’s the i! And another thing we got to do, said the man with the velour hat (whose name was Koplinsky) ‘is to keep these damn foreigners out the country.  Thank the Lord, we’re putting a limit on immigration.  These D—-s and H—–s have got to learn that this is a white man’s country, and they ain’t wanted here.  When we’ve assimilated the foreigners we got here now and learned ’em the principles of Americanism and turned ’em into regular folks, why then maybe we’ll let in a few more’.  (Kindle location 1831-2, censored offensive words are my editing.)

Well, George Babbitt’s journey is a kind of road to Damascus… as the plot advances with events that shatter the security of Babbitt’s domestic world he flirts with rebellion, behaving much like an adolescent and earning the ostracism of his business contemporaries.  At the same time he loses his moral compass, engaging in corrupt business practice in order to gain the approval of people he believes to be his social superiors.  It’s easy for a reader to condemn Babbitt, but remarkably, Lewis retrieves sympathy for his wayward character when his wife has a near-death experience and he realises what family means to him.  There is a limited kind of redemption for Babbitt at the end when he responds to his son’s elopement in a way that shows some development in his value system.

Reading this book in the 21st century made me wonder what Sinclair Lewis would have made of contemporary American life and business.  There is a fine intelligence at work in this novel, a capacity to analyse and dissect the world of the early 20th century.  Which author writing today is his heir, critiquing society and local politics with forensic skill?

Author: Sinclair Lewis
Title: Babbitt, first published 1922
Publisher: Project Gutenberg

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