Review: Babbitt

Babbitt, the 1922 novel by Minnesotan writer Sinclair Lewis, might be one of the most misunderstood books ever written. This comes from the back of my old copy:

With his portrait of George F. Babbitt, the conniving, prosperous real-estate man from Zenith, Sinclair Lewis created one of the ugliest, but most convincing, figures in American fiction-the total conformist. Babbitt’s demons are power in his community and the self-esteem he can only receive from others. In his attempts to reconcile these aspirations, he is loyal to whoever serves his need of the moment: time and again he proves an opportunist in business practice and in domestic affairs. Outwardly he conforms with “zip and zowie,” is a big “booster” before the public eye; inwardly he converges day by day upon the utter emptiness of his soul-too filled with rationalizations and sentimentality to sense his own corruption. Babbitt gives consummate expression to the glibness and irresponsibility of the hardened, professional social climber.

Did the author of this read the book? To the extent that Babbitt has a plot — which isn’t a very great extent, by the way — it is about Babbitt rebelling against the norms of life for man of his station in the Midwestern city of Zenith. He gets involved in liberal politics, has an affair, and tools around town with assorted bohemians and flappers, all to the consternation of his peers. True, towards the novel’s end Babbitt returns to their fold when his wife falls ill, but even then their relationship has a new intimacy absent at the start of the novel. And, at the book’s end, there is the following scene when it emerges that Babbitt’s son Ted has secretly married their neighbor’s daughter:

A new voice, booming, authoritative, dominated the room. It was Babbitt. “Yuh, there’s too darn many putting in their oar! Rone, you dry up. Howard and I are pretty strong, and able to do our own cussing. Ted, come into the dining-room and we’ll talk this over.”

In the dining room, the door firmly closed, Babbitt walked to his son, put both hands on his shoulders. “You’re more or less right. They all talk too much. Now what do you plan to do, old man?”

“Gosh, dad, are you really going to be human?”

“Well, I-Remember one time you called us ‘the Babbitt men’ and said we ought to stick together? I want to. I don’t pretend to think this isn’t serious. The way the cards are stacked against a young fellow to-day, I can’t say I approve of early marriages. But you couldn’t have married a better girl than Eunice: and the way I figure it, Littlefield is darn lucky to get a Babbitt for a son-in-law! But what do you plan to do? Course you could go right ahead with the U., and when you’d finished-“

“Dad, I can’t stand it any more. Maybe its all right for some fellows. Maybe I’ll want to go back some day. But me, I want to go into mechanics. I think I’d get to be a good inventor. There’s a fellow that would give me twenty dollars a week in a factory right now.”

“Well-” Babbitt crossed the floor, slowly, ponderously, seeming a little old. “I’ve always wanted you to have a college degree.” He meditatively stamped across the floor again. “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 to in my whole life! I don’t know’s I’ve accomplished anything except just get along. I figure out I’ve made about a quarter of an inch out of a possible hundred rods. Well, maybe you’ll carry things on further. I don’t know. But I do get a kind of 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!”

Arms about each other’s shoulders, the Babbitt men marched into the living-room and faced the swooping family.

George F. Babbitt is, then, not a hateful caricature but a tragic figure who, like Newland Archer, can see the world changing, recognizes that he is unable to change with it, but who hopes that his children will be part of this brave, new world.

Main Street probably remains Lewis’ best-known work, but I can imagine few people reading it now unless they were required to do so for a course; in its grinding accumulation of detail it reminds you of a Zola novel or a Dustin Hoffman performance. Unlike Carol Kennicott, George F. Babbitt lives. He is worth visiting once in a while.