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on 26 November 2012
...as well as a fantastic satire of the American middle-classes in the 1920s.

George F Babbitt is a successful businessman in the American Midwest who starts, slowly at first, to rebel against the conformity of respectable society in the (fictional) small city of Zenith, initially bringing confusion from family and friends, and later his causing his own ostracism from the local respectable set. Lewis described in a letter to his publisher how "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."

It's a wonderful novel, and if you've never read any Sinclair Lewis before then this is a great place to start. He combines gentle humour through fantastic observation of characters with biting satire. You can be chuckling happily one moment and wincing the next. He also manages to create a character here who is entirely believable, likeable for all his follies and weaknesses, and eventually quite inspiring. Set over two years in Babbitt's life, with a somewhat ambiguous ending, it is a great piece of writing judged either as satire or as a touching portrait of a changing man. I really would recommend this novel to anyone.
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on 10 March 2003
If you are at all curious about why American society and culture is the way it is today, you could do a lot worse than read this novel to find out something of its history. It's fascinating as a picture of a period (the 1920s) and the story of how business and the desires of the individual small town middle class American became wholly entangled together.
Lewis' prose is not for everyone. If you want a rollicking good read and enjoy a speedily moving story-line, then this may not be your cup of tea. His language and style can sometimes seem dated, but if you can get beyond this you will want to read Babbitt instead for the naturalistic description, the humour, the biting satirical comment and the wicked character portraits and excruciating -- and fascinating -- detail about the period and the individuals who inhabit it.
I don't think Sinclair Lewis wrote a better book than Babbitt, so if you enjoy this book and the themes it explores, you might want to read some Theodore Dreiser (try The Financier) or, better still, go a little earlier and try William Dean Howells' A Hazard of New Fortunes or The Rise of Silas Lapham.
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Sinclair Lewis was born and raised in a small town in America's heartland, Sauk Centre, Minnesota, in 1885. "Boosterism" and the gods of growth have by-passed his birthplace. Today it still has a population of not much more than 4,000. Like Faulkner, who knew well the people around Oxford, Mississippi, Lewis knew the people who lived in the small towns of mid-America between the World Wars, and portrayed them, often in an unflattering light. His first commercial success was Main Street, published in 1920, followed by "Babbitt," in 1922, and then Arrowsmith and Elmer Gantry. "Babbitt" is now an official word in the American language, meaning "a smugly conventional person interested chiefly in business and social success and indifferent to cultural values," in short, a Philistine. Sinclair Lewis was the first American to win the Nobel Prize for Literature; it was awarded in 1930. I read all four of the aforementioned works of his in the 1960's, and as the centennial of his works approach, thought I'd give one or more a re-read to see how the works aged, as well as my perspective of them.

George F. Babbitt is 46 years old, with a wife, Myra, who is described as being dumpy, ignored and corseted. They have three children: Verona who has just graduated from Bryn Mawr, and is seeking to be a secretary; Theodore Roosevelt (Babbitt) who is in high school, and into cars, and Tinka, a daughter age 10. George makes his money "glad-handing" and selling pieces of the earth (real estate). They live in Zenith, Indiana, a town of around 300,000. The first fourth of the novel is in the format of "one day in the life of...", and I thought a lot about Thornton Wilder's Our Town and Other Plays (Penguin Modern Classics). The difference is that Lewis portrays virtually everyone in a scathingly negative manner.

After the one day, there are a series of vignettes that could be virtually interchangeable, and involve dinner parties and social climbing; life at the (not-so) Athletic Club, and his business buddies; Presbyterian Church life; boozing it during the age of Prohibition; and a taste of the outdoor life in Maine. Over half way through the novel, George shows some rare introspection into the "poverty of his existence" and flirts, actually and metaphorically, with a wilder side of his character. He attempts a brief fling at escaping the mind-numbing - also in a couple senses - routine of his existence. Alas though, the utter necessity of conformity in thought, word and deed, for even a tolerable social and business existence is overwhelming, and he must succumb, and "repent" his unorthodox behavior.

For me, one of the high-lights of the novel was a fleeting set-piece observation on the commencement of the "Roaring Twenties" that seems to be equally valid today. It is the "world view" of the guys in the proverbial backroom with the cigars and brandy. Jake Offutt, a politician and Henry T. Thompson, Babbitt's father-in-law are conferring: "Wonder how long we can keep it up, Hank? We're safe as long as the good little boys like George Babbitt and all the nice respectable labor-leaders think you and me are rugged patriots. There's swell pickings for an honest politician here Hank: a whole city working to provide cigars and fried chicken and dry martinis for us, and rallying to our banner with indignation, oh, fierce indignation, whenever some squealer like this fellow Seneca Doane comes along. Honest, Hank, a smart codger like me ought to be ashamed of himself if he didn't milk cattle like them, when they come around mooing for it!"

My 95 cents, 1960's Signet copy has an afterword by Mark Schorer, who quotes Joseph Wood Krutch, the naturalist, that Lewis: "reported a range of grotesque vulgarity which but for him would have left no record of itself because no one else could have adequately reported it."

True enough. But when I was a teen-ager I read Mad Magazine, considering it wonderful satire. And that is the "rap" against this novel, the second time around. The "satire" is SO heavy-handed, so one-dimensional, so negative and sledge-hammer blunt, that at times I thought I would not get through some of the "boosterism" speeches, et al. Thus, for its time and place, the novel was "ground-breaking," in a non-real estate sense, and the central message may be largely true today, but as a work of literature, I rate it 4-stars.
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on 2 February 2014
"All of them 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."

And it's in this claustrophobic, chastening atmosphere that George F Babbitt exists. A successful real estate man in 1930s America - riding the wave of optimistic, entrepreneurial zeal that characterised those boom years of American dreaming, in a mythical town called Zenith - the apotheosis of a civilised society's aspirations (in the middle-class, capitalist 'go-getter' sense).

Yet... "A little grimly he perceived that this had been his last despairing fling before the paralysed contentment of middle-age."

He rebelled. The upstanding business leader, the family man, a paradigm for wholesome and fruitful living, just couldn't quite trust it, trust the foundations his life was built upon. Lewis captures the turmoil and the self-torment Babbitt suffers with deceptive subtlety. Truth is, Babbitt is not a forensic analyst of his thoughts and feeling, he's a proud, insecure blusterer. His dilemmas emerge half-formed and untidily dismissed, nebulous clouds that gather and break. His all too human weakness for the easy option - for security, for regard - is skilfully played against a spiritual discontent, a spiritual revolt he can't quite entirely grasp, can't quite articulate.

The human condition under the microscope. Not Shakespearean high drama and poetry, no kingships or dynasties at stake - hardly, indeed, epic. Yet, in Babbitt, a mediocre man, comfortable and successful, the key questions of existence are sounded out and a genuine tragedy plotted. Underpinned by Lewis's satirical eye for the everyday absurdity of people, their institutions and attitudes, the novel retains a waspish humour that dispels any suggestion of moral ponderousness. In fact, the prose picks up the vernacular idiom of the day with jubilant relish. The words flash from the page with zip and vim and vigour - reflecting as much as any painstaking descriptive passage could the sheer naive positivity and ambition of the milieu.

It's Homeric, if anything. Homer Simpson back in prohibition America, self-seeking, vulnerable, bluff and proud and silly. George F Babbitt means everyone well, and of course he has sturdy and admirable principles learned from the appropriate institutions and oracles, but never so much so that these ideals might inconvenience him.

Does George F Babbitt deserve his tragedy? And is it really a tragedy at all?

"He felt that he had been trapped into the very net from which he had with such fury escaped and, supremist jest of all, been made to rejoice in the trapping."
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on 9 January 2014
Coming late to Sinclair Lewis, I now understand his lasting popularity and why he was awarded a Nobel Prize.It is a laugh-out loud read, while exposing the hypochracy of American business culture Steve Keen in Debunking Economics alerted me to Babbitt.I now intend to try Main Street!
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VINE VOICEon 6 December 2009
I've only recently discovered Sinclair Lewis and am now working my way through his wonderfully absorbing novels about small town American life. His slightly earlier novel `Main Street' (1920) was all about a woman who is disappointed in her husband and bored by her neighbours. George Babbitt is in some ways a parallel figure, a fairly prosperous and conventional salesman who goes through a mid-life crisis and begins to have some doubts about the American Dream. I was struck by the similarities between Lewis's description of 1920s America and our own society. Babbitt's is a world of extravagant advertising campaigns, self help books, New Age style gurus and product lust.

Although we are encouraged to feel some sympathy with Babbitt and his friend Paul, both of whom are tired of their wives, Lewis - as you'd expect from the author of `Main Street' - is careful to show us that these women have problems and disappointments of their own. Paul is actually the person whom Babbitt cares for most - and there is something touching about the way Lewis depicts his inarticulate but protective affection for his friend.

Babbitt is an irritating and not particularly admirable character. Yet somehow it's impossible not to identify with him. As I read I was reminded of Ricky Gervais' character in `The Office' - he makes you cringe, partly because you suspect you might be just a tiny bit like him. Babbitt also made me think of Joyce's Leopold Bloom - and in fact Lewis's novel was published in the same year as `Ulysses'. `Ulysses' may be all very well for those long-hair types - but if you want to read a story about regular folks then buy `Babbitt' - it's swell!
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on 6 December 2014
Masterpiece!! also Read the Scriptwriter by Richard Ford for an update on the character of Babbit ::]]
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on 16 April 2002
What struck me most about Babbitt was the standardisation of life. Everything was about brand names and getting the best product in order to compete with neighbours.
Floral Heights seemed like it was just a cardboard cutout town with every house replicating the other - same decor, same cars, etc.
This was very scary in some sense and it made me realise how dull life would be if everything was so standardised - or maybe the world we live in is standardised but i am so conditioned to this i hadn't noiticed - i hope i am wrong about this though.
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on 28 September 2014
The most boring book I have ever read or at least attempted to read. I was giving up at 10% but pushed on to 15% and then started to skip pages so stopped. I have never done this before, I have always persisted to the end. The story is dull, the literature is dull and one must assume the author is also dull. Their is no story there is no emotion. A diatribe of dullness that does not even justify one star.
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