Sunday, January 20, 2013

*Babbitt, by Sinclair Lewis

365 pp

[#722 on's list of 1001 books to read before you die]

"It was coming to him that perhaps all life as he knew it and vigorously practiced it was futile..."

Before launching into my thinking about this novel, I'll tell you something straight up: do not read it when you have the flu and you feel like you're dying.  I went to San Diego for a week of getting away from home, having fun and hanging with family, and brought home a particularly nasty case of the flu.  Normally when I read while I'm sick I tend to choose books I don't particularly have to think about -- this one demanded my participation, and I had a difficult time trying to give my full attention to it while my head was pounding and I was in and out of fever fog.  There's a lot of minutiae (for a reason) and a lot of long stretches where points are made and yet the scenes go on and on.  I was tempted to skim but pushed those thoughts aside thinking that there has to be a purpose to all of this. As it turns out, I'm happy I gave it as much attention as I could muster -- not only is it a fine novel, but there is more than a lot of relevance to our modern world to be found in Babbitt's America of the 1920s.

George F. Babbitt is a real estate agent in Zenith, a Midwestern city of of "towers of steel and cement and limestone"  where the population has grown to "practically 362,000."   While anyone visiting its business center would be hard pressed to distinguish it from other major cities, George finds every inch of it "individual and stirring."  He is married, has two children, and is above all wrapped up in his community standing. He belongs to a number of civic organizations, most prominently, the Zenith Boosters’ Club, where his like-minded, middle-class associates bow to the gods of business, money and progress and work to keep out any elements that they believe might possibly upset their collective and lucrative apple carts.

from the movie, via
 George  lives in a modern house with the latest technologies, belongs to a church, plays golf, and his opinions are shaped by the institutions and people with whom he associates and his political party.  Underneath his public persona, however,  he's starting to think that perhaps there's something missing, that he's not "entirely satisfied."   George has an ongoing and secret dream fantasy of a "fairy child" who will help him to escape to places  “more romantic than scarlet pagodas by a silver sea,” but the dreams are short lived; when daybreak comes it's back to more practical things.    One of his old college buds and  best friend, Paul Riesling, dreamed of becoming a concert violinist, but he too has jettisoned his dreams and has become a member of Zenith's middle-class business community. Unlike Babbitt, however, he is not afraid to confide his personal dissatisfaction:  he's bored,  his wife Zilla is a constant nag who makes him unhappy enough to have affairs,  and he has come to the realization that in the business world, "all we do is cut each other's throats and make the public pay for it."  Paul is the only one of Babbitt's associates that recognizes the need for responsibility -- something that Babbitt and his other cronies don't get.  When Paul's problems with Zilla come to a head and he literally can no longer take it, he snaps -- and his actions and their consequences send Babbitt into introspective mode where he comes to realize that his way of life has been "incredibly mechanical:"
 "Mechanical business -- a brisk selling of badly built houses. Mechanical religion -- a dry, hard church, shut off from the real life of the streets, inhumanly respectable as a top-hat. Mechanical golf and dinner-parties and bridge and conversation. Save with Paul Riesling, mechanical friendships -- back-slapping and jocular, never daring to essay the test of quietness." 
prodding George into full-on rebellion.

I won't say any more -- the novel is an excellent piece of satire on conformity and middle-class culture, business or otherwise.  It is set in a time when unions, Socialism and any other form of organization among workers constituted a perceived threat to the American way of life; a time when the "American way of settling labor-troubles was for workmen to trust and love their employers."  As Lewis remarks on an organization called the Good Citizens' League, the members of this group believed that
 "the working-classes  must be kept in their place ... that American Democracy did not imply any equality of wealth, but did demand a wholesome sameness of thought, dress, painting, morals and vocabulary." 
hmmm.... let's think about that for a moment, shall we? Democracy?

There is also a very purposeful delineation of class in this novel, and Lewis has a way of juxtaposing one against the other in well-crafted scenes.  The above-mentioned tedious minutiae which I wanted to end while my head was pounding also has a purpose that is not readily apparent, but which gains in importance over the course of the novel.   Obviously there's much more to it, and there are some hefty critiques and reviews to be found where perhaps more can be gleaned. 

It is rather difficult to read, I suspect, under the best of conditions, so if you are contemplating it as a choice from the 1001 books you must read, my advice is not to give up.  The book is constructed as a series of events and vignettes that eventually all come together in an ending which was not so predictable yet powerful,  at least for me.  Recommended -- but take your time with it.

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