Reading Sinclair Lewis’s Babbitt (1922) ninety years after it was first published is an unsettling experience. I first read the novel in the 1950s when Lewis was a major literary icon, taught in numerous literature courses that I took as an undergraduate. But, alas, Lewis is rarely even mentioned these days in universities, let alone taught. Though he won the Nobel Prize in 1930, most of Lewis’s novels are available only in paperbacks from obscure publishers, though you can download many of his major works on Kindle for no charge, and The Library of America issued a two-volume collection of his novels in 1992. Generally, you won’t find Lewis’s novels among the mass-marked paperbacks, which is quite a pity.
Lewis can be long-winded, and our short-winded readers these days have little interest in sustained or demanding reading. Babbitt moves along quite swimmingly with plenty of crisp dialogue and plot surprises—enough for the Nobel Committee to cite him “for his vigorous and graphic art of description and his ability to create, with wit and humor, new types of characters.” It is the characters many of us remember from our reading of his novels years ago, especially Babbitt, the archetypal middle-American, because of the novel’s setting and his Republican values.
Babbitt is set in Zenith, somewhere in the vast mid-West, though on a recent trip to Iowa (where I hadn’t visited in forty years but where I grew up) I thought that George Babbitt would be quite comfortable in the town where I was raised. He’s 46 years old at the beginning of the novel, married twenty years with three children, and as a real estate broker, Lewis describes him as “prosperous, extremely married and unromantic.” He regards himself as a Solid Citizen, is skeptical of Europe and socialism, anti-immigrant, and he tells one of his children, “The sooner a man learns he isn’t going to be coddled, and he needn’t expect a lot of free grub and, uh, all these free classes and flipflop and doodads for his kids unless he earns ‘em, why, the sooner he’ll get on the job and produce—produce—produce! That’s what the country needs, and not all this fancy stuff that just enfeebles the will-power of the working man and gives his kids a lot of notions above their class.”
Babbitt is a member of several business organizations: the Elks, the International Organization of Booster’s Clubs, the Chamber of Commerce, the state Real Estate Board; and he’s a Presbyterian, especially active with the “Busy Folks Bible Class” at his church. But it’s his business ethic—the term may be an oxymoron—that orients much of his life and his world view. He shares his friend’s Littlefield’s perspective: “What the country needs—just at this present juncture—is neither a college president nor a lot of monkeying with foreign affairs, but a good—sound—economical—business—administration, that will give us a chance to have something like a decent turnover.”
No surprise, then, that Babbitt is intolerant of unions: “…there oughtn’t to be any unions allowed at all; and as it’s the best way of fighting the unions, every business man ought to belong to an employers’-association and to the Chamber of Commerce.” One of his friends in the roofing business tells Babbitt, “You know, my business isn’t distributing roofing—it’s principally keeping my competitors from distributing roofing. Same with you. All we do is cut each other’s throats and make the public pay for it.” Twice in the novel, Babbitt benefits from insider information, buying up land cheaply before a public announcement that the city will purchase the land for Zenith’s development. During his speech (“Brass Tacks Facts on Real Estate”) at a real estate convention, besides turning on his cliché machine, Babbitt proclaims, “The worst menace to sound government is not the avowed socialists but a lot of cowards who work under cover—the long-haired gentry who call themselves ‘liberals’ and ‘radicals’ and ‘non-partisan’ and ‘intelligentsia’ and God only knows how many other trick names! Irresponsible teachers and professors constitute the worst of this whole gang, and I am ashamed to say that several of them are on the faculty of our great State University!” Sounds like something Florida Congressman Allen West might say.
The entire story is full of characters who reminded me of this past year’s clutch of Republican presidential candidates. On one occasion, the wife of Babbitt’s best friend informs him, “You’re about as broad-minded and liberal as a razor blade.” And at the end of the story, after he has briefly had a fling with a woman who is not his wife and spent some time with a wild bunch of Zenith’s artsy group, Babbitt returns to conformity—back to the fold of middle-class/conservative convention, solidly back in the business community. Lewis remarks of them, “All…agreed that the working-classes must be kept in their place; and all of them perceived that American Democracy did not imply any equality of wealth, but did demand a wholesome sameness of thought, dress, painting, morals, and vocabulary. [The] American way of settling labor-troubles was for workmen to trust and love their employers.”
Sinclair Lewis—the first American writer to receive the Nobel Prize for literature—had a better understanding of the American character than most of the celebrated writers who have followed him. Although “Babbitry” may have fallen out of most people’s vocabularies, how many novelists besides Lewis have created a character so gung-ho of American conformity? Virginia Woolf said that Babbitt was “the equal of any novel written in English in the present century.” I am indebted to Carlton Stoiber, my friend of many years, who recommended that I re-read Babbitt before the Presidential election. Not a bad suggestion for understanding why America never seems to change.
Sinclair Lewis: Babbitt
Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University in Washington, D.C. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.