Monday, May 20, 2019

Babbitt by Sinclair Lewis

An indelible portrait of American conformity
Babbitt, originally published in 1922, is a novel of biting social commentary by Sinclair Lewis, who won the 1930 Nobel Prize in Literature. When I first started reading Babbitt, I didn’t much care for it, but it is a book that just kind of sneaks up on you over time. Despite my initial aversion to this novel, by the time I was finished I had to admit that it truly is a literary masterwork.

George F. Babbitt is a realtor in the city of Zenith, a fictional Midwestern metropolis of about 300,000 inhabitants. He is in his late forties, married, with three children. The
Babbitt family lives a respectable middle-class life in a suburban residential community, well-off but not wealthy. He is friends with other businessmen in the city, belongs to the local athletic club, and is involved in various professional associations and community organizations. For a while, that’s about all the plot that Lewis provides. It is basically an extended character study. Whereas in Main Street Lewis pointed out all the conceits, banalities, and pettiness of small town life, in Babbitt he does the same for the city. Babbitt is painted as a buffoon, a caricature with exaggerated negative qualities, the most glaring of which are his conformity to conservative middle-class conventions and his faith in consumerism. For the first several chapters, Babbitt is defined primarily by his possessions. His clothes, furnishings, and so on are lovingly described in minute detail by Lewis, who revels in every mundane detail. Quite frankly, the entire first third of the book is a bit off-putting. Lewis’s social criticism, though humorous, comes with a tinge of cynical smugness that leaves a bad taste in the mouth. Who exactly is he making fun of? Pretty much everyone; not just the middle-class but the rich whom they envy and the poor upon whom they look down. There isn’t a positively portrayed character in the entire book, and everyone is a target, even the reader, who can’t help but see him or herself reflected in some of these caricatures.

About a third of the way through, however, things start happening. Babbitt discovers a talent for oratory and starts participating in local political campaigns. He plans a trip with an old college classmate, Paul Riesling, his one true friend. Over time, Babbitt starts to become more open to liberal ideas, which is an improvement in his character, even if it happens for all the wrong reasons. As the book progresses, an interesting thing happens: In short, Babbitt becomes a human being. The reader can’t help but identify with and root for this man who came across as so disgusting in the initial chapters. Not only is Babbitt guilty of blind conformity and rampant materialism, he is also a victim of them, trapped by his faith in the American Dream. In addition, the latter half of the book morphs into a brilliantly realistic portrait of a mid-life crisis, painted with psychological complexity, brutal frankness, and tragic pathos. As the book becomes less funny and more socially conscious, delving into topics of politics, labor, and marriage, it begins to resemble a novel by Upton Sinclair rather than Sinclair Lewis.

Given the time period, Babbitt is likely to remind you of your father’s or grandfather’s generation, but its lessons are still applicable to our lives today. Babbittry is alive and well in our government, in our economy, in our social lives. Lewis helps us laugh at it, but not without a hint of fear as well. Babbitt is an eye-opening wake-up call that forces readers to question narrow-mindedness, greed, and self-centered values in themselves and their society. This insightful and innovative work of literature is a true American classic.
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