Babbitt, first published in 1922, is a novel by Sinclair Lewis. Largely a satire of American culture, society, and behavior, it critiques the vacuity of middle-class American life and its pressure toward conformity. An immediate and controversial bestseller, Babbitt was influential in the decision to award Lewis the Nobel Prize in literature in 1930.
The word “Babbitt” entered the English language as a “person and especially a business or professional man who conforms unthinkingly to prevailing middle-class standards”.
If Lewis’s first widely acclaimed novel, Main Street, sought to shatter early-20th-century romanticizations of small-town America, his next work, Babbitt, turned a critical eye towards the celebrated midsize industrial city, home to the enterprising American businessman. After the social instability and sharp economic depression that emerged in the wake of World War I, many Americans in the 1920s saw business and city growth as foundations for stability. The civic boosters and self-made men of the middle-class represented particularly American depictions of success, at a time when the promotion of the American identity was crucial in the face of rising fears of communism. At the same time, growing Midwestern cities, usually associated with mass production and the emergence of a consumer society, were also celebrated emblems of American progress. George F. Babbitt, the novel’s main character, is described by the 1930 Nobel Prize committee as “the ideal of an American popular hero of the middle-class. The relativity of business morals as well as private rules of conduct is for him an accepted article of faith, and without hesitation he considers it God’s purpose that man should work, increase his income, and enjoy modern improvements.”
Although many other popular novelists writing at the time of Babbitt’s publication depict the “Roaring Twenties” as an era of social change and disillusionment with material culture, modern scholars argue that Lewis was not himself a member of the “lost generation” of younger writers like Hemingway or Fitzgerald. Instead, he was influenced by the Progressive Era; and changes in the American identity that accompanied the country’s rapid urbanization, technological growth, industrialization, and the closing of the frontier. Although the Progressive Era had built a protective barrier around the upstanding American businessman, as one literary scholar writes: “Lewis was fortunate enough to come on the scene just as the emperor’s clothes were disappearing.” Lewis has been compared to many authors, writing before and after the publication of Babbitt, who made similar criticisms of the middle class. Although published in 1899, long before Babbitt, Thorstein Veblen’s The Theory of the Leisure Class, which critiqued consumer culture and social competition at the turn of the 20th century, is an oft-cited point of comparison. Written decades later, in 1950, David Riesman’s The Lonely Crowd has also been compared to Lewis’s writings.
Zenith is a typical midsize Midwestern city. Lewis was very critical of the similarities between most American cities, especially when compared to the diverse—and by his lights, culturally richer—cities of Europe. Frowning on the interchangeable qualities of American cities, he wrote: “it would not be possible to write a novel which would in every line be equally true to Munich and Florence.” This is not true of Zenith, Babbitt’s literary home. Zenith is a fictitious city in the equally fictitious Midwestern state of “Winnemac,” adjacent to Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and Michigan. (Babbitt does not mention Winnemac by name, but Lewis’s subsequent novel Arrowsmith elaborates on its location.) When Babbitt was published, newspapers in Cincinnati, Duluth, Kansas City, Milwaukee, and Minneapolis each claimed that their city was the model for Zenith. Cincinnati had perhaps the strongest claim, as Lewis had lived there while researching the book. Lewis’s own correspondence suggests, however, that Zenith is meant to be any Midwestern city with a population between about 200,000 and 300,000.
While conducting research for Babbitt, Lewis kept detailed journals, in which he drafted long biographies for each of his characters. For his title character this biography even included a detailed genealogy, as well as a list of Babbitt’s college courses. Zenith’s major names and families are well-documented in these journals, and many of them emerge again in Lewis’s later writings. Zenith’s layout is also imagined in careful detail. Lewis drew a series of 18 maps of Zenith and outlying areas, including Babbitt’s house, with all its furnishings.
As much as Babbitt is about the American businessman, it is also about American cities. Zenith’s chief virtue is conformity, and its religion is “boosterism.” (Prominent boosters in Zenith include Vergil Gunch, the coal dealer; Sidney Finkelstein, the ladies’ ready-to-wear buyer for Parcher & Stein’s department store; Professor Joseph K. Pumphrey, owner of the Riteway Business College and “instructor in Public Speaking, Business English, Scenario Writing
, and Commercial Law”; and T. Cholmondeley “Chum” Frink, a famous poet of dubious talent.) As a realtor, George Babbitt knew well the virtues of his home city. In a speech to the Zenith Real Estate Board, he states: “It may be true that New York, Chicago, and Philadelphia will continue to keep ahead of us in size. But aside from these three cities, which are notoriously so overgrown that no decent white man, nobody who loves his wife and kiddies and God’s good out-o’-doors and likes to shake the hand of his neighbor in greeting would want to live in them.” Zenith is thus presented as more than simply prosperous; it is safe and wholesome.
Lewis has been both criticized and congratulated for his unorthodox writing style in Babbitt. One reviewer said “There is no plot whatever… Babbitt simply grows two years older as the tale unfolds.” Lewis presents a chronological series of scenes in the life of his title character. After introducing George F. Babbitt as a middle-aged man, “nimble in the calling of selling houses for more than people could afford to pay,” Lewis presents a meticulously detailed description of Babbitt’s morning routine. Each item Babbitt encounters is explained, from the high-tech alarm clock, which Babbitt sees as a marker of social status, to the rough camp blanket, a symbol of the freedom and heroism of the West. As he dresses for the day, Babbitt contemplates each article of his “Solid Citizen” uniform, the most important being his Booster’s club button, which he wears with pride. The first seven chapters follow Babbitt’s life over the course of a single day. Over breakfast Babbitt dotes on his ten-year-old daughter Tinka, tries to dissuade his 22-year-old daughter Verona from her newfound socialist leanings, and encourages his 17-year-old son Ted to try harder in school. At the office he dictates letters and discusses real estate advertising with his employees.
Babbitt is professionally successful as a realtor. Much of his energy in early chapters is spent on climbing the social ladder through booster functions, real estate sales, and making good with various dignitaries. According to Babbitt, any “decent” man in Zenith belonged to at least two or three “lodges” or booster clubs. They were good for potential business partnerships, getting time away from home and family life, and quite simply because “it was the thing to do.” Babbitt admits that these clubs “stimulated him like brandy” and that he often finds work dull and nerve-wracking in comparison. Lewis also paints vivid scenes of Babbitt bartering for liquor (despite being a supporter of Prohibition) and hosting dinner parties. At his college class reunion, Babbitt reconnects with a former classmate, Charles McKelvey, whose success in the construction business has made him a millionaire. Seizing the opportunity to hobnob with someone from a wealthier class, Babbitt invites the McKelveys to a dinner party. Although Babbitt hopes the party will help his family rise socially, the McKelveys leave early and do not extend a dinner invitation in return.
Gradually, Babbitt realizes his dissatisfaction with “The American Dream,” and attempts to quell these feelings by going camping in Maine with his close friend and old college roommate Paul Reisling. When Babbitt and Paul arrive at the camp they marvel at the beauty and simplicity of nature. Looking out over a lake Babbitt comments: “I’d just like to sit here – the rest of my life – and whittle – and sit. And never hear a typewriter.” Paul is similarly entranced, stating: “Oh it’s darn good, Georgie. There’s something eternal about it.” Although the trip has its ups and downs, the two men consider it an overall success, and leave feeling optimistic about the year ahead.
On the day that Babbitt gets elected vice-president of the Booster’s club, he finds out that Paul shot his wife Zilla. Babbitt immediately drives to the jail where Paul is being held. Babbitt is very shaken up by the situation, trying to think of ways to help Paul out. When Paul is sentenced to a three-year jail term, “Babbitt returned to his office to realize that he faced a world which, without Paul, was meaningless.” Shortly after Paul’s arrest, Myra (Babbitt’s wife) and Tinka go to visit relatives, leaving Babbitt more or less on his own. Alone with his thoughts, Babbitt begins to ask himself what it was he really wanted in life. Eventually, “he stumbled upon the admission that he wanted the fairy girl – in the flesh.” Missing Paul, Babbitt decides to return to Maine. He imagines himself a rugged outdoorsman, and thinks about what it would be like to become a camp guide himself. Ultimately, however, he is disenchanted with the wilderness and leaves “lonelier than he had ever been in his life.”
Eventually Babbitt finds the cure for his loneliness in an attractive new client, Tanis Judique. He opens up to her about everything that happened with Paul and Zilla, and Tanis proves to be a sympathetic listener. In time, Babbitt begins to rebel against all of the standards he formerly held: he jumps into liberal politics with famous socialist/’single tax’ litigator Seneca Doane; conducts an extramarital affair with Tanis; goes on various vacations; and cavorts around Zenith with would-be Bohemians and flappers. But each effort ends up disillusioning him to the concept of rebellion. On his excursions with Tanis and her group of friends, “the Bunch,” he learns that even the Bohemians have rigid standards for their subculture. When Virgil Gunch and others discover Babbitt’s activities with Seneca Doane and Tanis Judique, Virgil tries to convince Babbitt to return to conformity and join their newly founded “Good Citizens’ League.” Babbitt refuses. His former friends then ostracize him, boycotting Babbitt’s real estate ventures and shunning him publicly in clubs around town.
Babbitt slowly becomes aware that his forays into nonconformity are not only futile but also destructive of the life and the friends he once loved. Yet he continues with them – even after Myra suspects Babbitt’s affair, though she has no proof or specific knowledge. Unrelated to these events, Myra falls seriously ill with acute appendicitis. Babbitt, in a near-epiphany, rushes home and relinquishes all rebellion in order to care for his wife. During her long recovery, they spend a lot of time together, rekindling their intimacy. In short time, his old friends and colleagues welcome Babbitt back into the fold. The consequence of his disgruntled philosophical wanderings being met with practical events of life, he reverts into dispassionate conformity by the end; however, Babbitt never quite loses hold of the sentimentality, empathy, and hope for a meaningful life that he had developed. In the final scene, all has been righted in his life and he is back on a traditional track. He is awakened in the night to find that his son Ted and Eunice, the daughter of his neighbor, have not returned from a party. In the morning his wife informs him that the two have been discovered in the house, having been married that night. While an assemblage of friends and family gather to denounce this development, Babbitt excuses himself and Ted to be alone. He offers his approval of the marriage stating that though he does not agree he admires the fact that Ted has chosen to lead his life by his own terms and not that of conformity.
Although Lewis sought to portray the middle-aged American in Babbitt, he includes tidbits of his character’s youthful dreams and ideals. Babbitt often reflects on his failed goal of becoming a lawyer. In college he dreamed of defending the poor against the “Unjust Rich,” and possibly even running for governor. He began practicing real estate in college to earn money for living expenses, but settled into real estate permanently shortly after marriage. Babbitt’s best friend, Paul, is similarly haunted by unfulfilled dreams. A talented violinist, he had hoped when younger to study in Europe. When he and Babbitt leave for their trip to Maine, they stop off in New York, where Paul looks longingly at ocean liners set to cross the Atlantic. Paul still plays the violin on occasion; when he does “even Zilla was silent as the lonely man who lost his way … spun out his dark soul in music.” Despite having abandoned his former goals and ideals, Babbitt still dreams of a “fairy child”: an imaginary woman full of life and gaiety who sees him not as a stodgy old businessman but as a “gallant youth.” He imagines various women as his fairy child, including his secretary, a manicurist, his son’s girlfriend, and finally Tanis Judique.
Having failed in his aspirations to become a lawyer himself, Babbitt hopes his son, Ted, will go to law school. Ted, however, is hardly interested in finishing high school. Rather than focusing on college, Ted clips advertisements for correspondence courses and money-making schemes. In the novel’s dramatic final scene Ted announces that he has eloped with his girlfriend, Eunice Littlefield, and intends to forgo college to become an engineer. Eunice is described as “movie crazy” and very modern in appearance, wearing her hair in a short bob and skirts that show off her knees.
Babbitt’s hopes for his elder daughter, Verona, consist mostly of her making a good marriage. Babbitt is concerned about her socialist-leaning political views. The books she reads, including poetry by Vachel Lindsay and essays by H. L. Mencken, particularly disturb him as threatening to the virtues of solid citizenship. Babbitt’s younger daughter, Tinka, only ten at the start of the book, is doted upon and admired.
In writing Babbitt, Lewis had very clear goals. He wanted to create not a caricature but a living and breathing individual with recognizable hopes and dreams. In a letter to his publisher, Lewis wrote: “He is all of us Americans at 46, prosperous but worried, wanting – passionately – to seize something more than motor cars and a house before it’s too late.” Babbitt’s mediocrity is central to Lewis’s hopes of creating a realistic character. He believed the fatal flaw of other authors’ attempts to capture the American businessman was that they always made him out to be exceptional. In early descriptions of Babbitt, Lewis mused: “This is the story of the ruler of America.” As he saw it, the “Tired American Businessman” wielded power not through his exceptionality, but through militant normalcy. But Lewis also strove to portray the American businessman as deeply dissatisfied and privately aware of his shortcomings. He was “the most grievous victim of his own militant dullness” and secretly longed for freedom and romance. Readers praising Lewis for his “realism” eagerly admitted the regularity with which they encountered Babbitts in their daily lives, but could also relate to some of Babbitt’s anxieties about conformity and personal fulfillment.
In its first year alone, Babbitt sold 140,997 copies in the United States. Published only two years after Lewis’s previous bestselling novel, Main Street, the book was highly anticipated, and comparisons between the two were not uncommon. As one reviewer put it, both novels presented a portrait in which “the principal character is brought into conflict with the accepted order of things sufficiently to illustrate its ruthlessness.” Like Main Street, the portrait of American life that Babbitt presented was controversial and had its share of admirers and critics.
Social critic and fellow satirist H. L. Mencken was among Lewis’s most ardent supporters. Calling himself “an old professor of Babbittry,” Mencken declared the novel a stunning work of realism. To Mencken, George F. Babbitt was more than a character; he was an archetype, representing swarms of American city dwellers who touted the virtues of Republicanism, Presbyterianism, and absolute conformity. He wrote, “It is not what he [Babbitt] feels and aspires that moves him primarily; it is what the folks about him will think of him. His politics is communal politics, mob politics, herd politics; his religion is a public rite wholly without subjective significance.” Babbitt, he believed, was the literary embodiment of everything wrong with American society. Followers of Mencken, along with like-minded critics, were sometimes called “Babbitt-baiters.”
While Mencken praised Babbitt as unflinching satire, others argued that Lewis took his depiction of the American businessman too far. One reviewer, comparing Babbitt to the writing of such more “graceful” satirists as Dickens and Twain, argued that Lewis’s “gift is almost entirely for making people nasty” and that his characters therefore wind up unbelievable. Another reviewer, agreeing that Lewis was no Twain, calls Babbitt “a monstrous, bawling, unconscionable satire,” and writes “Mr. Lewis is the most phenomenally skillful exaggerator in literature today.” Although many critics agreed that there was some truth in the depiction of America Lewis put forth, they could not agree that it existed to the extent portrayed in Babbitt.
In the mid-1920s, after spending several years as the subjects of “Babbitt-baiting,” American businessmen, Rotary members, and the like began defending the country’s so-called “Babbitts.” Taking to the radio waves, and publishing in major magazines, they highlighted the virtues of community organization and the positive contributions industrial cities made to society. Some even traced positive examples of Babbitt types throughout American and world history.
Babbitt continued to be used as a negative archetype throughout the 20th century. The Oxford English Dictionary defines Babbittry as “behaviour and attitudes characteristic of or associated with the character George F. Babbitt; esp. materialistic complacency and unthinking conformity.”
Babbitt has been converted into films twice, a feat Turner Classic Movies describes as “impressive for a novel that barely has a plot.” The first adaptation was a silent film released in 1924 and starring Willard Louis as George F. Babbitt. Better known is the 1934 talkie starring Guy Kibbee. That version, while remaining somewhat true to Lewis’s novel, takes liberties with the plot, exaggerating Babbitt’s affair and a sour real estate deal. Both films were Warner Bros. productions.
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