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A negative view of America's heartland between the World Wars...,
This review is from: Babbitt (Paperback)
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.