Lewis won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1930 on the strength of a number of significant works, including Arrowsmith (1925), Elmer Gantry (1927), and Babbitt, a satire of the prosperous and conservative business class of 1920s America. Published in New York in 1922, Lewis's novel follows two years of realtor George F. Babbitt's life, during which Babbitt goes from a lifestyle of complete conformity with the business world, to a period of rebellion including heavy drinking and adultery, and back again to conformity. Throughout this journey, Lewis skillfully highlights the lack of culture in medium-sized American cities during the Prohibition Era, the hypocrisy and corruption of pro-business organizations, and the emptiness in typical businessmen's lives.
Babbitt is more than an embodiment of what is wrong with America, however. He is a vivid and lifelike character searching for meaning in a life dominated by conformity and loneliness. Babbitt tries to rebel in every way he knows until a conservative organization threatens his business because of his new liberal ideas, at which point he falls back into the lifestyle of what Lewis called a "Standardized Citizen." In a society that, today, retains many of the basic values that Lewis attacks, Babbitt's struggle continues to engage readers and expose some of the deepest and most longstanding infirmities of American culture.
On February 7, 1885, Lewis was born in the prairie town of Sauk Centre, Minnesota, where he spent a childhood biographers have described as awkward and lonely. He did not find much social success at Yale University either, but he began to develop his talents as a poet and short story writer, and he took time away from the college to travel to England and Panama. After he graduated in 1908, Lewis worked as a journalist and an editor in California, Washington D.C., and New York. In addition, he traveled more extensively throughout Europe and America.
In 1914, Lewis married Grace Livingstone Hegger, and they had a son, Wells Lewis, who would eventually die in World War II. In 1928, he divorced Grace and shortly thereafter married journalist Dorothy Thompson. They had one son named Michael.
By the end of World War I, Lewis was regularly selling short stories and had published his first novel. In the 1920s he became a prolific novelist. Main Street (1920) was his first widely successful satire, followed by Babbitt (1922), Arrowsmith (1925), Elmer Gantry (1927), and Dodsworth (1929), all of which satirize American culture. In 1926, Lewis was the first writer ever to decline the Pulitzer Prize, citing the award's emphasis on the "wholesome atmosphere of American life," although he did not turn down the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1930.
Ironically, the Nobel Prize marked the turning point of Lewis's critical and popular success. He continued to write novels through the 1930s and 1940s, including one of his more successful portrayals of interpersonal relationships, Cass Timberlane: A Novel of Husbands and Wives (1945). None of these were as successful as his previous efforts, partly because of an alcohol problem and increasing fatigue. Meanwhile, Lewis began an affair with a young actress in 1939 and divorced his second wife in 1942. He then lived in Duluth, Minnesota for two years before moving to Massachusetts. In 1950 he moved to Italy, where he died of heart troubles on January 10, 1951.
The first seven chapters of Babbitt follow one day in the life of its title character, beginning with his process of waking up, talking to his wife, and squabbling at breakfast with his three children. Babbitt starts his car and drives to work, stopping to chat with his neighbor Howard Littlefield, and to pick up a man waiting for the trolley, before he parks outside his real estate office. After a morning of dictation, taking advantage of a grocer looking to expand his shop, and smoking cigars—which he promises himself he will quit—Babbitt meets his best friend Paul Riesling at their club for lunch.
The Athletic Club is chiefly a meeting place for Republican businessmen, and Paul does not fit in there very well, as he talks to Babbitt about his marital problems and complains about their meaningless lifestyle. Babbitt and Paul plan to take a trip to Maine without their wives, and Babbitt goes to pick up his partner and father-in-law Henry T. Thompson. After Babbitt denies his salesman Stanley Graff a raise at the office, Babbitt goes home, has a talk with his son about college, takes a long bath, and falls asleep. Chapter 7 reveals glimpses of the intrigue in other parts of Zenith while Babbitt slumbers.
Time moves forward more rapidly after chapter 7, and the major event of the spring is the Babbitts' dinner party, for which Babbitt makes bootleg cocktails. The dinner party seems to go well despite its commonplace conversation. But Babbitt is anxious for his guests to leave, and when they do he explodes to his wife, "I'm sick of everything and everybody!" He tells her he wants to go to Maine alone with Paul. The Babbitts visit the Rieslings in their apartment and, after Paul's wife has a fit and Babbitt yells at her, she agrees to let the men spend some time alone.
Babbit and Paul have a nice and peaceful time fishing, sleeping, and playing poker before their wives come to meet them, although Babbitt is just beginning to feel "calm, and interested in life" when it is time to go home. Chapter 12 describes Babbitt's leisure time. In chapter 13, Babbitt attends the annual State Association of Real Estate Boards conference, followed by a trip to a brothel. The speech he gives at the conference is the first step in Babbitt's social climbing, and he follows it with political talks against the liberal lawyer Seneca Doane's candidacy in the local election, as well as a long speech about "sound business" values to the Zenith Real Estate Board.
Trying to ingratiate himself with his wealthy and powerful classmate Charley McKelvey, Babbitt chats to him at their class reunion and has him and his wife to dinner. This is not a success, but Babbitt has more luck with the banker William Eathorne during their campaign to improve the Presbyterian Sunday school. Babbitt pays the young reporter Kenneth Escott to give the Sunday school favorable press, and Kenneth begins a friendship with Babbitt's daughter Verona. Babbitt's son Ted, meanwhile, is beginning a relationship with their neighbor Eunice Littlefield, and her father Howard is angry to find them dancing together at Ted's high school party.
At work, Babbitt makes a corrupt deal with a loan off the books from Eathorne, fires his salesman Stanley Graff, and then takes a business trip to Chicago with his son. After Ted goes back to Zenith, Babbitt happens to meet the Englishman Sir Gerald Doak, who had been a guest of Charles McKelvey while in Zenith, and entertains him thoroughly. Then Babbitt sees Paul Riesling with a suspicious woman and waits for him in his hotel room. Paul tells him that he can't stand his marriage anymore, and Babbitt tells him he will make an excuse to Paul's wife, Zilla. After Babbitt is elected vice-president of the Boosters, he finds out that Paul has been arrested for shooting his wife. Paul's lawyer will not allow Babbitt to testify on his behalf, and Paul is given a three-year prison sentence.
Paul's imprisonment deeply affects Babbitt, and it inspires a series of increasingly rebellious activities. He goes to the movies during work hours, flirts with three women including a client named Tanis Judique and a young girl from the barber-shop, whom he takes out to dinner. Babbitt goes to Maine by himself but fails to stop thinking about all of his problems in Zenith or to be satisfied by the "woodsman" life. On his way back to Zenith, Babbitt meets Seneca Doane, who inspires him to hold increasingly liberal opinions and even take the side of the strikers in the big walkout. This earns Babbitt the suspicion and contempt of his conservative friends at the Boosters.
Babbitt then begins a love affair with Tanis, after he goes to her apartment ostensibly to fix a leak. He makes no protest when his wife says she is going to visit her sister, and after she leaves he sees Tanis frequently, meets her socialite friends called the "Bunch," and becomes a heavy drinker and party-goer. His liberal sympathies increase, and when Vergil Gunch, the president of the Boosters, asks him to join the conservative "Good Citizens' League," Babbitt says he has to think it over.
Babbitt finally writes to his wife that he misses her, and she is somewhat suspicious on her return. But Babbitt spends time with her and takes her to a spiritualist talk she wants to hear before he goes back to Tanis. Dissatisfied with this relationship as well, he breaks it off and assures himself that he's going to "keep free" and "run my own life!" After he takes a stand against the prominent citizens asking him again to join the Good Citizens' League, he begins to lose business; even his stenographer goes to a competing firm.
But Babbitt's wife's appendicitis and his devotion to her during and after the operation, cause him to return to his old ways, and he accepts when he is once again invited to join the conservative Good Citizens' League. Returning to his prominent conformist role, Babbitt's business prospers (through corruption), and he even partially confesses his sins to the uninterested Presbyterian priest. Verona marries Kenneth Escott and the Babbitts find, to their shock, that Ted has eloped with Eunice Littlefield. Although the rest of the family are very critical, Babbitt takes his son aside and tells him he has his support because, as Babbitt could never do, he has ignored what others think and done what he really wants.
George Follansbee Babbitt
The oblivious and conforming, yet inwardly restless, character of George Babbitt has penetrated American culture and become a pervasive cultural symbol. An unthinking, cultureless, greedy, and corrupt businessman can still be called a "Babbitt" and reactionary, selfish, absurd, and conservative behavior can still be called "Babbittry" with wide recognition. Babbit has come to represent the absurd and corrupt aspects of the American business world that Lewis was so effective at satirizing.
In many ways, Babbitt has been created to be the perfect target; he holds none of his own opinions, has no genuine passions, and rarely even manages to be a good or dependable husband and father. Yet there is an unmistakable inner life in Babbitt that fascinates readers and makes them sympathetic to his vivid character even if they finds all of his opinions and beliefs detestable. Chubby, pink-skinned, and wrinkled, with thinning hair and thick glasses, Babbitt makes an unlikely hero, yet he inevitably draws the reader into his struggle and his hollow life. Despite all of his falseness and emptiness, he is an unmistakably real character.
In the course of the novel, Babbitt undergoes the only major rebellion against the meaninglessness of his life that he will ever have. This is sparked by the imprisonment of his friend Paul Riesling, and it extends from a search for the calm outdoor life to debauchery and adultery. Afterwards, Babbitt once again becomes the corrupt, ignorant businessman content to oppress the poor and the standardized, dutiful husband who does not love his wife.
Myra Thompson Babbitt
Paul Riesling's second cousin, Myra is a "nice" and "gentle" person who does not have many opinions except for a desire to be a social climber and an interest in hokey spiritualism, but her own struggles and thoughts in the novel are undeveloped. She began to spend time with Babbitt while he was studying to go to law school and Paul was falling for Zilla. Babbitt did not love Myra then, but merely grew used to her after she assumed (without his proposal) that they were engaged, and he never really loves her during their marriage except with a bland sort of affection. Myra's feelings for her husband are not so clearly stated. She is upset, however, when he is having an affair with Tanis, and he fails to show her the expected level of devotion.
Babbitt's slightly pert son, named after Theodore Roosevelt, graduates from high school, begins college, and elopes with Eunice Littlefield in the course of the novel. His two main interests are Eunice and cars, and he does not want to study anything except mechanical engineering, but Babbitt does not allow him to transfer colleges. Nevertheless, Ted has an increasingly close relationship with his father, and Babbitt is the only one to support his elopement at the end of the novel.
Tinka is Babbitt's youngest daughter, with "radiant red hair and a thin skin which hinted of too much candy and too many ice cream sodas." Despite his fondness for her, Babbitt does not seem to spend much time with his daughter, and Tinka does not play an important role in the novel.
A "dumpy brown-haired girl of twenty-two," Verona is Babbitt's socially conscious child. She talks earnestly about all kinds of liberal social issues with her friend and eventual husband Kenneth, and the rest of the family often makes fun of this. She has graduated from college and works as a secretary, although she would like to work for a charity of some kind.
Dr. A. I. Dilling
Dr. Dilling is a prominent member of the Good Citizens' League and the surgeon who operates on Babbitt's wife. He is a chief influence in the group that warns Babbitt he must join the league and then ostracizes him from the community until he turns back to conservative conformity.
Sir Gerald Doak
Charles McKelvey's guest when he visits Zenith, "Sir Gerald" is something of a celebrity and considered to embody the stereotypes of the old English gentry. However, as Babbitt finds out when he makes friends with him in Chicago, Doak is an uncultured conservative businessman much like Babbitt.
Doane is Zenith's most radical lawyer and politician, as well as Babbitt's former college peer. He loses the mayoral election to a corrupt Republican but remains committed to social change through the strike. He even briefly draws Babbitt into his liberal thinking.
Babbitt's neighbor and the "secretary of an excellent firm of bathroom-fixture jobbers," Sam and his wife throw wild parties and go for late-night car rides.
Dr. John Jennison Drew
Dr. Drew is the reverend of Babbitt's Presbyterian church, but he is much less interested in religion than in conservative politics. He uses his sermons as a platform for Republican ideas including anti-labor sentiments. Drew fails to pay any attention to Babbitt when the confirmed rebel tries to confess his sins.
Captain Clarence Drum
The leader of the force to suppress the strikers during Zenith's major walkout, Drum wishes he could use violence to solve labor conflicts.
William Washington Eathorne
Eathorne is the president of the First State Bank and a prominent member of Zenith's old-fashioned rich and powerful folk. He is also a member of Reverend Drew's Presbyterian church, and he befriends Babbitt during the drive to make a better Sunday school. Because Eathorne approves of Babbitt, he later allows him to take loans off the books for Babbitt's corrupt real estate ventures.
The reporter that Babbitt hires to publicize the Presbyterian Sunday school, Kenneth is a young liberal writer at the newspaper. He begins a relationship with Babbitt's daughter Verona that eventually leads to marriage.
The buyer for a department store, Sidney is a loyal Booster and Elk.
T. Cholmondeley Frink
"Chum" is the Booster and a good friend of Babbitt's that writes poetry and advertisements for a living. He is one of those disturbed by Babbitt's rebellion. Lewis uses his character to satirize the ridiculous platitudes of popular newspaper and magazine poetry.
Graff is the outside salesman of the real estate office until Babbitt fires him for tricking a tenant. Graff takes much of the abuse for Babbitt and Thomson's corrupt practices. He resorts to trickery because Babbitt has denied him a much-needed raise.
Vergil is the President of the Boosters, a model for the conservative businessman, and a good friend of Babbitt's, except when Babbitt refuses to join the Good Citizens' League.
Orville Jones is in the Babbitts' dinner party circle, although Myra does not want to invite him to their dinner party because he owns a common laundry shop.
Tanis is a lonely widow of forty or forty-two who has an affair with Babbitt. Babbitt meets her because she rents one of the office's apartments. She is a "slender woman" that Babbitt sometimes finds very attractive in one of her black frocks, although he is generally more interested in hearing her praise him than in her physical affection. Part of a "Bunch" of socialites and "Midnight People" that drink and party through the night, Tanis and her friends prove to be no more substantial, and their lives no more meaningful, than those lived by the conservative business types. Tanis eventually fails to excite Babbitt, and he leaves her, realizing that she is old and lonely.
The daughter of Babbitt's neighbor and Ted's eventual wife, Eunice is obsessed with the movies. Babbitt, who like his son is charmed by her short skirts and bobbed hair, suspects her of smoking. In this sense, she represents some of the typical characteristics of the "flappers," women of the 1920s who defied traditional roles.
Dr. Howard Littlefield
Howard Littlefield, father of Eunice, is Babbitt's neighbor and close friend. Full of trivia and obscure facts supporting conservative politics, Howard is a welcome accessory to the Babbitts' dinner parties, and Babbitt considers him extremely knowledgeable. In fact, Littlefield is full of nonsense, which Babbitt only begins to suspect during his rebellious phase. Otherwise, their only conflict comes over Eunice's relationship with Ted Babbitt.
Babbitt's able and efficient stenographer, Miss McGoun is much better at letter-writing than her employer and does a good deal of his work. This is why, in addition to his attraction to her despite her consistent refusal to so much as have a conversation with him, Babbitt is so upset when she briefly goes to a competing firm.
McKelvey is one of the most rich and powerful men in Zenith, and Babbitt and his wife aspire to his social position. During their college reunion, Babbitt convinces McKelvey and his wife to come to dinner, but the party is a failure. Afterwards the McKelveys do not return the invitation.
Mrs. Opal Emerson Mudge
A pudgy, ridiculous lecturer that Myra enjoys, Mrs. Opal Emerson Mudge is a satire of trendy spiritualists.
Like Babbitt's relationship with Charles McKelvey, Ed wants to ingratiate himself with a college classmate who is higher on the social ladder. The Babbitts ignore him after they go to his failure of a dinner party.
Half Native American, Joe is Babbitt's guide for both of his trips to Maine. Although Babbitt thinks of him as the perfect outdoorsman, Joe would rather set up a shoe store if he had enough money.
Professor Joseph K. Pumphrey
Owner of the "Riteway Business College," Professor Pumphrey is a fellow Booster.
Ida is the "small, swift, black-haired" young girl that works in Babbitt's barber shop. Babbitt asks her out to dinner while he is getting a manicure, and she agrees mostly for a free meal and a joke at Babbitt's expense.
Babbitt's best friend and the only person around whom he feels calm and happy, Paul Riesling is a misfit and an outcast in Zenith. Because of his sensitivity and his lack of business skills, the conservative and standardized society simply does not accept him. After his wife, Zilla, nearly drives him insane, he spends a period with another woman. Paul then shoots his wife and is imprisoned for three years, which completely breaks his spirit. At this point Paul disappears from the story and is "dead" to Babbitt. Although, during his rebellious phase, Babbitt imagines that Paul is in Maine with him at the front of a canoe. Since his role is to bring out the genuine aspects of Babbitt's character, Paul has no place in the novel as it becomes more and more clear that Babbitt and Zenith are empty and false.
Paul Riesling's wife, Zilla is characterized by her vanity, her moodiness, and her constant nagging of her husband. After Paul shoots her, she becomes fanatically religious and bitter. As Babbitt's wife understands, however, Zilla justifiably feels locked-in and unappreciated during her life with Paul, and as she says, if she did not nag Paul he would not motivate himself to do anything.
Smeeth is the educational director of the Y.M.C.A. and is active in the Presbyterian church, where he conducts the musical program.
Louetta, who lives across the street from the Babbitts with her husband Eddie, is a "pretty and pliant" woman full of excitement and flirtatiousness. The Swansons and the Babbitts attend each other's dinner parties, and Louetta is the first woman Babbitt tries (unsuccessfully) to seduce.
Henry T. Thompson
Babbitt's father-in-law and partner in the real estate business, Thompson is made to represent the "traditional, stage type of American business man." He is an "old-fashioned, lean Yankee," and he lacks the "subtlety" of the modern businessman. This is why, for example, Thompson is more willing to be outwardly corrupt while Babbitt prefers to lie even to himself when bending the law.
Babbitt has chiefly been understood as a satire of the prosperous, conservative business class of which Babbitt is a prominent member and a perfect example. At a point in the political and social climate where, Lewis felt, private enterprise and the economic interests of the business and ruling classes were valued above cultural endeavors or basic ethics, the novel struck an important critical tone.
The novel has a host of targets for its business satire, and most of them are institutions of which Babbitt is a member or a co-conspirator: the Boosters, the Elks, the Chamber of Commerce, the Good Citizens' League, the fraudulent financial powers of big cities such as William Eathorne's bank, and underhand political interests like the Street Traction Company. Lewis stresses that these institutions create a greedy and corrupt business atmosphere in Zenith. They ruin anyone who seems to go against their agenda (as they begin to ruin Babbitt before Myra becomes ill), they are only interested in cultural endeavors like a symphony orchestra if it brings money to the city, and, as becomes clear during the suppressed telephone-workers' strike, they ruthlessly exploit the working classes.
Lewis also penetrates the deep hypocrisy of conservative American businessmen (that they say one thing and do another). The men of Babbitt's organizations preach the value of free competition and then ostracize all those who do not hold the same religious and social values, they support Prohibition but frequently drink themselves, they cheat on their wives, they suppress labor unions but organize into pro-business action groups, and they support religious groups like the Young Men's Christian Association (Y.M.C.A.) without holding any real Christian convictions.
One of the most condemning features of the American business class as portrayed in Babbitt, however, is its lack of any culture, imagination, or conviction. Babbitt's beliefs and those of his fellow Boosters and Elks are simply a conglomeration of the day's presiding commonplaces, and their only reason for holding an opinion is to fit in with their peers. Babbitt seems briefly to encounter some of his actual feelings in the course of the novel, but these "liberal" sentiments come more from a general discontentment he doesn't understand than from any genuine conviction. Presenting a culturally destitute society controlled by an insensitive and unthinking business class, Lewis launches a biting attack against the predominant American ideology of the 1920s.
Topics For Further Study
- The critic David Pugh has suggested that Lewis's satire is no longer powerful or applicable to young Americans today. Do you agree? Discuss the implications of Babbitt in contemporary American culture. What would Lewis say about today's government and today's business world? How would you describe a modern-day Babbitt and how would he or she differ from the original? Which lessons from the novel remain important and which remain poignant?
- Babbitt is full of references to the political and cultural life of 1920s America. Do some research on the era and discuss whether the novel is a justified and accurate portrayal of life in medium-sized American cities in the late 1910s and early 1920s. Is the fictional Zenith grounded in research and fact? How much, if any, of the satire is an unfair exaggeration?
- Read another of Lewis's novels from the 1920s, such as Dodsworth or Main Street. How does the novel you have chosen compare with Babbitt? Does Lewis use similar methods to satirize other aspects of American society? Are the plot and the melodrama of the novel more or less effective and engaging?
- Writers have approached the business world in many different ways. What makes Babbitt unique? Why has it been so influential? Does its approach have anything in common with other famous works that take American business as their theme, such as Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman (1945) or David Mamet's Glengary Glen Ross (1984)? How is Babbitt suited to its era?
Religion, Marriage, and Social Life in the Prohibition Era
Lewis's satire is not confined to the business world; he exposes many of the contradictions and absurdities in American private life during the era of Prohibition, focusing on family and social life in medium-sized cities such as the fictional Zenith. Ridiculing Babbitt's passionless marriage, his uninteresting social clubs, and even his depraved yet ultimately unexciting period of rebellion and adultery, Lewis highlights the emptiness of this social world. It is taken for granted that men do not love their wives, that couples rarely enjoy their dinner parties except as a chore, and that parents show a minimum of care or attention to their children. The alternative, emblematized by Tanis Judique and her "Bunch," is shown to be equally tiresome.
Religion and spirituality in Zenith are also absurd and unfulfilling. Babbitt has no conviction whatsoever in the Presbyterian Church, and when he tries to partially confess he meets with nothing but an uninterested reverend fitting in his prayer before a political meeting. Reverend Drew uses his sermons to make Republican political statements, and religion seems to have no more meaning than Mrs. Opal Emerson Mudge's ridiculous spiritualism. Lewis incorporates the emptiness of religious and social pursuits into the discontentment of the business world to more effectively satirize the American lifestyle in cities like Zenith.
Babbitt is forty-six at the beginning of the novel and forty-eight by its end. In these two years, triggered by the imprisonment of his one real friend, he has undergone the major rebellion of his life. The various aspects of this crisis, from his trip to the movies during office hours and his developing liberal convictions, to his adulterous love affair and his drinking bout, represent his only departure from conformity. Babbitt had some liberal ideas in college but these do not represent serious, earnest, or original ideas. He stresses that he wants to stop all of his dirty dealing before he retires in twelve years.
Babbitt's one revolt, then, however much it is merely a tame and ineffectual attempt at escapism, is extremely important to Lewis's ambitions in the novel. Babbitt is more than a simplistic satire; it is the study of a character trying to escape from the standardized culture of which he is so prominent a member. And it is not simply that Babbitt cannot escape the business culture because he is fundamentally a conformist; his livelihood is severely threatened by his mildly liberal ideas when he sees his business start to disappear after failing to join the Good Citizens' League. Lewis is exploring the fears and doubts that result from half a lifetime in the American system, the dissatisfaction that can result from conformity, and the futility of outward rebellion at such a late stage.
Lewis's insightful exposure and condemnation of American values and institutions in the 1920s is effective and compelling mainly because he is such an adept satirist. He understands the conventions of humor, mockery, and social commentary, and he is able to draw a full and compelling portrait of an insecure and doubtful businessman in order to draw his readers into his way of thinking. By weaving his satirical points and attacks on American society into the various characters and dilemmas in Babbitt's life, Lewis establishes a convincing argument and wins over his readers.
Lewis is also effective because he so thoroughly understands the elements of American society he wishes to attack. One of the author's particular talents is in satirizing characters, ideas, and organizations by exposing their hypocrisy. Sometimes he forms the observation into a joke, as in Babbitt's thoughts about the Chamber of Commerce:
No one ought to be forced to belong to a union, however. All labor agitators who try to force men to join a union should be hanged … In union there is strength. So any selfish hog who doesn't join the Chamber of Commerce ought to be forced to.
Other times, particularly towards the end of the novel when Babbitt joins the Good Citizens' League and the fraudulence of his business endeavors become less silly and more contemptible, Lewis engages in more earnest social commentary. When the Good Citizens' League burns down the Zenith Socialist Headquarters, throws their desks out the window, and beats their office staff, it is a significantly less funny instance of hypocrisy. In fact, Lewis is here using a classic satirical device, which is to make the audience laugh and later reveal the brutal reality behind the joke, implicating the audience in the problem.
Lewis balances his satire with the building action of Babbitt's social rise and midlife crisis. His novel develops Babbitt's struggle to reconcile his vibrant inner life with the meaninglessness around him into a plot with rising action of his dissatisfaction, the climax of his rebellion, and the denouement (resolution) of his renewed conformity. But one of the principal criticisms of the novel has been that its plot is poorly managed, and it lacks a compelling struggle against the corruption and standardization in Zenith. For critics such as Mark Schorer, in his afterward to the 1961 edition of Babbitt, the details of Babbitt's life and Lewis's episodes of parody and satire do not provide the convincing dramatic action of a finely crafted plot.
The Roaring Twenties
After World War I, American politics and social life became increasingly conservative. Republican Warren G. Harding defeated Woodrow Wilson in the 1920 presidential election on a very conservative platform claiming to be a "return to normalcy." Cutting government expenditures, vetoing bonuses for World War I veterans, and lowering income taxes for the wealthy, Harding vigorously supported private enterprise and suppressed labor unions. Harding's conservative administration also, in some ways, set the stage for a decade that enjoyed unprecedented prosperity, at least for the middle and upper classes. As was notoriously exposed after his death in 1923, however, his administration was involved in a great deal of corruption and bribery.
The social conservatism of the 1920s was evidenced most notably by the prohibition of alcohol. Supported by claims that alcohol is bad for health and productivity, as well as by religious groups and post-war racist sentiments towards the German Americans who owned much of the alcohol trade, the Eighteenth Amendment went into effect in January of 1920 and persisted until 1933. Prohibition was, ultimately, a failure; it increased health risks because of unsafe bootleg alcohol and led to a sharp rise in organized crime since illegal brothels and saloons were so popular. But it was also a policy in line with a puritanical and conservative culture that frowned upon socialism, organized labor, and deviations from convention. The decade saw a major rise in the activities of the Ku Klux Klan, a sharp decrease in the immigration allowance, and the raiding and suppression of suspected "radicals."
There was, however, an active counterculture to the mainstream, although it was not always much more socially conscious. The decade showed considerable progress in women's rights, however, as the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution allowing women to vote was passed by Congress in 1919 and ratified in 1920. This was the era of "flappers," or women who defied domestic social constraints and were often associated with smoking and short hair. Jazz music was becoming increasingly popular, the film industry was thriving, and America was becoming increasingly inundated with technological advances such as cars and household appliances.
Late American Realism and Social Comedy
Nineteenth-century authors such as Mark Twain and William D. Howells, though committed to the "realist" goals of accurate representation by detailed description, were often involved in social satire. Like Lewis's chief English influences, Charles Dickens and H. G. Wells, Twain wrote comedic novels that attacked and parodied unjust social and governmental institutions. Howells's novels, like those of Henry James, were less comedic and more staunchly realist, but they also raised questions about social institutions such as marriage and business.
Realism began to split into a variety of factions in the late nineteenth century, however. Among the chief new influences on writers such as Edith Wharton was the "naturalist" movement, which concentrated on the inevitable helpless rise and fall of an individual character's fortunes. Also, novelists including Stephen Crane were deeply influenced by symbolist and romantic tendencies, while later expatriate American writers such as T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound turned to the developing influence of European modernism.
There remained a strand of writers, however, that were chiefly interested in social comedy and satire that posed as American realism. Upton Sinclair's "muckraking" books and pamphlets, written to expose social injustice, and with a specific political agenda, were one aspect of this strand, although they were perhaps less concerned with strict realism than with propaganda. Nevertheless, Sinclair was very influential over one of the most famous and bestselling realist satirists of the early twentieth century: Sinclair Lewis. Creating his own brand of late American realism with a heavy emphasis on comedic satire, Lewis was the chief writer to bring the convention of American realism and social comedy through the 1920s.
In his introduction to Critical Essays on Sinclair Lewis, Martin Bucco writes that the literary community reviewed Babbitt very positively and saw it as an improvement on Main Street (1920) despite the fact that: "Reviews in business and club magazines naturally remonstrated against Lewis's bestselling raillery of a 'standardized' American businessman discontented amid zippy fellow Rotarians, Realtors, and Boosters." H. L. Mencken and Rebecca West were among the most influential early critics to praise Babbitt. West wrote in the New Statesman that the novel "has that something extra, over and above, which makes the work of art."
In 1930, Lewis won the Nobel Prize, and this award secured the place of the novel as a classic in American and international literature. Afterwards, however, Lewis suffered a major decline in reputation from which he never fully recovered. He was possibly less successful during the 1930s because America was no longer enjoying the prosperity of the 1920s; critics have suggested that the privileged circumstances of the 1920s caused people to be more receptive to Lewis's satirical talents. Interest in Lewis revived after his death in 1951, but critics continued their skeptical reevaluation of all of his novels, including Babbitt.
Compare & Contrast
1920s: Prohibition is in effect throughout the United States, making it illegal to manufacture or consume alcohol. Although supporters of Prohibition argue that it increases health and safety, organized crime has skyrocketed and over four times as many people will die of alcohol-related causes, due largely to unregulated bootleg liquor.
Today: The legal drinking age in the United States is twenty-one, and the major alcohol-related health concerns are injuries and deaths from drinking and driving.
1920s: The conservative culture of the early 1920s is characterized by conformity, pro-business politics, Puritanism, and a desire to return to normalcy after World War I.
Today: The election of George W. Bush's Republican administration and the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 have marked a shift in American culture. Legislation such as the Patriot Act, the attempt to outlaw certain types of late-term abortion, and the pro-business shift in environmental policy suggest an increasing promotion of conservative agendas and values.
1920s: Upper middle-class businessmen and their families continue to live near the center of medium-sized American cities, although the decade will see the development of the first automobile suburbs.
Today: Families of the Babbitts' class typically live outside of congested urban areas, in the suburbs. This trend exploded in the 1950s and continues to dominate American demographics.
Critics have most often treated Babbitt as a satire of the American business world, although topics have ranged from Clare Virginia Eby writing on the influence of social critic Thorstein Veblen over the novel, to Stephen Conroy writing on the popular-culture trend in Lewis's work. David Pugh discusses whether the novel is applicable to the modern world in his 1975 essay "Baedekers, Babbittry, and Baudelaire," and he continues the debate about Lewis's critical appraisal by asking: "Babbitt: alive, readable? … or cold, boring, and very dead?" This question of whether Babbitt and Lewis's other works will stand the test of time continues. John Updike observes in a 1993 article in The New Yorker that, "Sinclair Lewis is at last fading from the bookshops." However, in his lengthy biography Sinclair Lewis: Rebel from Main Street, published in 2002, Richard Lingeman highlights "the apparent consensus among scholars and general readers that it was time for a fresh look at Lewis."
Trudell is a freelance writer with a bachelor's degree in English literature. In the following essay, Trudell discusses the role that Babbitt's homoerotic relationship with Paul Riesling plays in Lewis's novel.
Babbitt is primarily a satire that exposes the emptiness and discontent in the life of its main character, but it is not always clear that Babbitt's life has no value or meaning. From his occasional pleasant drive to his self-satisfaction with his rise in the social hierarchy, Babbitt sometimes revels in and enjoys his conformity. He has moments of bonding with his children, particularly with Ted, although the children can seldom hold his interest. Although he finds his wife distasteful, he sometimes feels a passionless affection for her. And the various aspects of his rebellion, such as his relationship with Tanis, are initially very exciting until they are revealed to be nothing more than unsuccessful attempts at escapism.
All other relationships fade, however, in comparison to Babbitt's one worthwhile relationship, with the one person around whom Babbitt feels truly and consistently happy. Paul Riesling is not only Babbitt's best friend; he represents all that is genuine and valuable in Babbitt's life, a fact that Babbitt himself acknowledges after Paul is given a three-year prison sentence: "Babbitt returned to his office to realize that he faced a world which, without Paul, was meaningless." With Paul "dead" to him, Babbitt loses the only person around whom he can express his real thoughts and be silent and calm, and he can no longer face his family or the business world. Babbitt is willing to perjure himself for Paul, ignoring the effect this would have on his career and social status. Paul's imprisonment sparks a major mid-life rebellion in which Babbitt overturns nearly all of his beliefs and habits to escape his now "meaningless" existence.
Lewis is careful to emphasize that Paul is a misfit whose sensitivity, lack of business acumen, and inability to endure his wife are incompatible with the standardized business world of Zenith. Indeed, the satirist seems eager to stress that Paul represents the genuine side of Babbitt that cannot conform to his outward life. Just as Zilla is a foil (a character whose purpose is to reveal something about another character) that emphasizes the vain, insecure, and nagging aspects of Myra that repel her husband and do not fit into Zenith domestic life, Paul is a foil for his best friend. Lewis makes this point most overtly after Babbitt's visit to Paul in prison:
Babbitt knew that in this place of death Paul was already dead. And as he pondered on the train home something in his own self seemed to have died: a loyal and vigorous faith in the goodness of the world, a fear of public disfavor, a pride in success.
Paul does not embody these characteristics, but he has always been the one to reveal them in Babbitt. So, in order to drive the plot and test Babbitt's character, Lewis imprisons him and removes him from Babbitt's struggle. Paul is an expendable device in Lewis's satire, which needs to demonstrate that Zenith has no place for him, that Paul's genuineness, his "moodiness, his love of music," and his inability to conform are incompatible with Lewis's satirical vision. The author seems intent on refuting the possibility of a meaningful relationship for someone like Babbitt, although this is initially a realistic possibility. As D. J. Dooley observes in his book The Art of Sinclair Lewis, it is after Paul's imprisonment that this possibility is extinguished, the plot begins to fail, and the story-line loses its vitality:
But in the melodramatic story of how Babbitt, now a hero, battles his former friends, now villains, the characters are simple and unreal, the plot is full of improbabilities, and Lewis does not come close to pulling it off.
This is because Lewis has abandoned Babbitt's central hope and purpose, turning the struggle of his main character into a desperate but ultimately futile attempt at escapism. The futility of the plot becomes particularly clear when Babbitt fails to enjoy his time in Maine; whereas before the outdoors had been his only truly calm and completely happy moment, without Paul: "He was lonelier than he had ever been in his life."
As is clear from Babbitt's pursuit of women around the same time, this loneliness is for both a friend and a lover. Babbitt's wife sometimes makes him feel less lonely, but he has never loved her and finds her completely repulsive sexually. Tanis also makes a brief dent in Babbitt's loneliness, but their affair is (like her) superficial and desperate, and it is shortly extinguished. Indeed, Babbitt never seems to be genuinely attracted to women; even his "fairy child" is a completely unconvincing fantasy, as Virginia Woolf notes in her 1947 essay, "American Fiction." With Paul, on the other hand, he feels "a proud and credulous love passing the love of women," and their relationship is far more erotically charged than any of Babbitt's encounters with women.
There are a number of hints of this homoerotic aspect of Paul and Babbitt's relationship. During their trip to Maine, for example, where they need to abandon their wives and "just loaf by ourselves and smoke and cuss and be natural," this idea of the "natural" comes to a climax with the reaction one might expect from a taboo erotic encounter: "The shame of emotion overpowered them." And, when Babbitt returns to Maine, he has a desire for male affection, to "be a regular man, with he-men like Joe Paradise—gosh!" that culminates in a vision of Paul playing his violin at the end of Babbitt's canoe. Perhaps the most convincing example, however, comes as Babbitt is considering Paul at the only moment in which he considers the carnal and sexual aspects of his otherwise quite frigid fairy girl:
But he did know that he wanted the presence of Paul Riesling; and from that he stumbled into the admission that he wanted the fairy girl—in the flesh. If there had been a woman whom he loved, he would have fled to her, humbled his forehead on her knees.
There is no woman Babbitt loves; his only true love is a man in prison. The end of chapter 6 reveals that even the passionless and insubstantial love of Babbitt's marriage is an extension of his romantic feelings for Paul. Myra became a replacement for Paul's companionship while Paul was "bespelled by Zilla Colbeck," and Myra's role of ineffectively substituting for Paul is underscored by the fact that she is Paul's second cousin. Lewis is (wittingly or unwittingly) emphasizing that his novel is describing a homoerotic love story.
Unfortunately for Babbitt, this story comes to an abrupt end in chapter 21. It is at this point that, in the novelist's struggle between his satirical goals and his desire to develop the dramatic conflicts of his characters, the love story is sacrificed to the demands of Lewis's satire. Genuine homoerotic love is the central aspect of Babbitt's search for meaning, but it is certainly not something that Lewis is willing to accept into his satirical agenda. Just as Paul is a misfit who has no place in the cultureless and standardized Zenith, Babbitt and Paul's love must be eradicated from a city that does not tolerate deviations from passionless and duty-bound marriage.
There is seldom any love at all in Zenith, either among the married Boosters and Realtors who cheat on their wives and pay no attention to them, or among Tanis's escapist and insincere "Bunch." The only instances of passion, aside from that of Babbitt and Paul, are the relationships of Babbitt's children, particularly of Ted and Eunice Littlefield. So it is no coincidence that Ted's bonding with his father and the escalation of his relationship with Eunice begin to develop just before Paul shoots Zilla. Lewis requires the developing dramatic energy of Paul and Babbitt's relationship to move along his reader and power his satire, but it is too vivid and taboo to follow to its natural destination. Not only is a homoerotic relationship unacceptable in Zenith, it is unacceptable to Lewis and to his readers. It is as if, recognizing that the course of Paul and Babbitt's relationship as the central dramatic energy of the novel was becoming too dangerous and developing too fully, Lewis forcefully steers the plot towards the safer Ted.
Ted is not too safe; his dislike of college and his elopement are edgy enough to create a potential dramatic conflict against the empty, satirical Zenith. And Babbitt is shown to enjoy a sort of genuine, though compromised, passion by proxy at the end of the novel: he allows Ted to follow his dreams although he cannot follow his own. Despite the fact that it does not ring true or genuinely address Babbitt's struggle, Lewis manages to power his satire to the end of the novel with this secondary dramatic action.
"With Paul, on the other hand, he feels 'a proud and credulous love passing the love of women,' and their relationship is far more erotically charged than any of Babbitt's encounters with women."
After Lewis abandons the central conflict of the novel and imprisons its only real solution, however, his novel loses steam. As discussed above, the plot flattens and dies after Paul's imprisonment, and Babbitt's relationship with Ted fails to convince or even interest many readers and critics. Lewis has crafted a thorough and compelling satire, but his suppression and abandonment of the main love story leaves his famous main character unhappy, unchanged, and undeveloped. It sucks the life out of the novel and leaves the reader wondering whether, had Lewis not succumbed to a cheap plot trick, Babbitt might have fought a successful battle for meaning.
Scott Trudell, Critical Essay on Babbitt, in Novels for Students, Gale, 2004.
Clare Virginia Eby
In the following essay, Eby explores parallels between Babbitt and the ideas of social critic Thorstein Veblen, focusing specifically on Veblen's critique of manliness.
"The well-worn paths are easy to follow and lead into good company."
—Thorstein Veblen, The Place of Science in Modern Civilization
The significance of Thorstein Veblen to American literary realism and, more widely, to the early twentieth century intellectual climate has been often noted. The "dean" of American realism, William Dean Howells, wrote one of the reviews of The Theory of the Leisure Class (1899) which launched Veblen's reputation, significantly titled "An Opportunity for American Fiction." Veblen scholars have also noted his importance to literary history. His biographer Joseph Dorfman claims "the book [Leisure Class] or at least its language relatively early made its appearance on the stage and in novels." Veblen's message and style were especially welcome to antagonists of the status quo. As Max Lerner puts it, "Veblen was more than a thinker" for his generation; he was "a symbol by which men measured their rejection of the values of the established order." So pervasive was Veblen's social critique that Maxwell Anderson wrote in 1918 in The Dial, "I once asked a friend if he had read The Theory of the Leisure Class. 'Why no,' he retorted, 'why should I? All my friends have read it. It permeates the atmosphere in which I live.'"
Yet in the case of Sinclair Lewis one need not rely on claims of Veblen-by-osmosis, for these two Midwesterners (Lewis was born in Minnesota, where Veblen moved at age eight) and Yale graduates were familiar enough with each other's work to cite some details. The "pariah," Red Swede in Main Street (1920), is not only Veblenian in his iconoclasm, in his failure to "'decently envy the rich,'" in his analyses of "'your leisure class'"; he also has a book of Veblen's on his shelf. Indeed, according to Mark Schorer, "in some ways the major contribution of Lewis's novels was their continuation (or, at least, popularization) of certain leading ideas of Veblen, especially as to the leisure class and business enterprise." More surprising given Veblen's tendency to avoid citing authorities other than himself is his allusion in Absentee Ownership and Business Enterprise in Recent Times (1923) to Main Street. He opens his chapter on the country town by invoking "the perfect flower of self-help and cupidity … Its name may be Spoon River or Gopher Prairie, or it may be Emporia or Centralia or Columbia."
Noting the parallels between Veblen and Lewis can help to clear up what has seemed a problem to many readers of Babbitt (1922). Many have complained that in this novel Lewis' method of characterization seems at war with itself. The title character splits into "two Babbitts," a boosting conformist and a rebel wannabe, which coexist uncomfortably. Lewis' insistence that George F. Babbitt is not a type—a claim which sits uneasily with most readers—has only contributed to the devaluation of his art. The author, it is said, must be as confused as his character, for he cannot choose between satire and sociology, or between romance and the novel. The result, claim many critics, is disappointingly static, a museum piece or a portrait done in a morgue. Lewis was indeed torn between individualizing a sympathetic Babbitt and satirizing a member of a herd, but the criticisms seem to me to miss the point. Lewis provides a valuable chapter of cultural history by tracing Babbitt's rebellion against "the duty of being manly": a duty to manifest boosterism, clannishness, chauvinism, and anti-intellectualism.
This definition of white, middle class, middle America manliness and Lewis' understanding of the damage it causes the autonomous self point to the author's correspondence with Veblen's works, which, in turn, provides a theoretical explanation for the perceived gap perceived between the "two Babbitts." The typical and often stereotypical qualities of Babbitt and his friends conform to the broad strokes of Veblen's critique of manliness. In contrast, the reader sympathizes with Babbitt only insofar as the realtor casts off his "He-Man" role that his cohorts rightly perceive as a challenge to the status quo. The horror of the novel's closed circle, the meaning of Babbitt's aborted rebellion, lie not in revealing a static life but in illustrating Veblen's theory of how an unruffled surface is maintained by institutional coercion.
The works of Lewis and Veblen exist within a wider field of concerns, one of which historians have identified as the American "crisis of masculinity." Although the crisis has been variously defined and dated, its broad outlines can be traced. The nineteenth century witnessed an extraordinary rigidity in gender roles that increasingly strikes analysts as compensatory. With the process of industrialization came a "new uncertainty about what it took to be a man" and, as traditional ways of proving individualistic manhood become increasingly difficult to sustain, sex roles became dichotomous. Add to these technological and industrial challenges the ferment for women's rights in the latter half of the century, particularly the "New Woman" movement of the 1890's and the result is manhood beseiged, a "paradigmatic revolution in self-perception [for males] during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries." One of the responses to the masculinity crisis was hypermasculine behavior, such as that seen in Babbitt. Peter N. Stearns sums up this state when he writes: "As it became harder to be a man … it became vital to prove one's manhood, especially to oneself."
The relevance of this crisis in the male paradigm to Babbitt becomes clearer as we move into the 1920s. Women's suffrage, achieved in 1920, seemed apocalyptic to those bewailing the erosion of masculine privilege. After 1920, as males lost even the illusion of remaining in control which had sustained them in the previous century, there was a "shift in … masculinity-validating criteria" from active to reactive behaviors. The decade of the 1920s, according to several historians, marks a new period of American men's history. Elizabeth and Joseph Pleck's categorizations are useful: the Strenuous Life Period characterized by substantial male bonds (1861–1919) gave way to more interdependence between men and women during the Period of Companionate Providing (1920–1965). But, as Veblen was fond of noting, most people can't keep up with historical change; institutional lag keeps us hanging on to "imbecile" models of behavior. Babbitt reveals the anxieties of this transition from macho to domesticated man: George Babbitt runs from (and, ultimately, back to) women in a frenzied search for a separate men's culture that would help him to prove his manhood. Babbitt's behaviors respond unconsciously to the marked decline in beliefs about distinctive "male" and "female" traits that was characteristic of the 1920s.
Little wonder that Veblen would write in the same year Babbitt was published of the "Dementia Praecox" (precocious dementia) afflicting so many American males, which reduced their behavior to adolescent hysteria. Well known for deconstructing "woman's sphere" as conspicuous consumer, Veblen joined many other social scientists in reassessing early twentieth-century masculinity. In this time when the male gender became suddenly visible, Veblen argued for the social construction of masculinity—or, more precisely, for the social coercion of masculinity. While other social scientific analogies might well be drawn, Veblen's unique approach to the masculinity crisis is especially akin to Lewis' in Babbitt; both combine two unlikely poses, as satirists and as anthropologists of everyday life.
Readers who dispute the effectiveness of Lewis' novel can nevertheless agree on its satiric target: the monotonously ugly faces of standardization. Veblen foresaw in 1904 this "standardization … of the details of everyday life," even of "conduct and knowledge." A prescient observer of turn-of-the-century capitalism, Veblen accused it of breeding standardization not only in commodities but in consumers themselves—an insight fundamental to Babbitt. (Business, 7, Instinct, 313). Babbitt's rebellion against the pull of standardization provides the key which unlocks the satire and his critique of manliness.
"Veblen's unique approach to the masculinity crisis is especially akin to Lewis' in Babbitt; both combine two unlikely poses, as satirists and as anthropologists of everyday life."
Lewis examines several possible interpretations of this monotonous world. The unwary reader can follow Babbitt, who thinks he is in revolt against the pressures imposed by women: in the first chapter he "resent[s] … return from this fine, bold man-world to a restricted region of wives and stenographers, and of suggestions not to smoke so much," and toward the end, his fling with Tanis Judique leaves him again "want[ing] to flee out to a hard, sure, unemotional man-world." But Babbitt incorrectly identifies the source of the pressures on him to function like a standardized product. As Nina Baym explains,
we all … experience social conventions and responsibilities and obligations first in the persons of women, since women are entrusted by society with the task of rearing young children … Thus, although women are not the source of social power, they are experienced as such.
Joe Dubbert's distinction between women's influence and men's power is also useful here. Babbitt is actually rebelling against social power—against, that is, regulation manliness.
In Zenith, which prides itself on producing "manly men and womanly women," males are the true conformists. The narrator makes this point while providing two levels of commentary on the Babbitts' dinner party:
there were six wives, more or less—it was hard to tell so early in the evening, as at first glance they all looked alike, and as they all said, "Oh isn't this nice!" in the same tone of determined liveliness. To the eye, the men were less similar … and the strange thing is that the longer one knew the women, the less alike they seemed; while the longer one knew the men, the more alike their bold patterns appeared.
The comparison is certainly, as Veblen might say, invidious. Lewis distinguishes not only between surface (women's) and deep (men's) conformity here, but also between levels of observation: only those able to see beneath the surface will recognize the true agents of conformity. Babbitt is too myopic to see that his revolt against standardization enlists him in a battle against manliness.
According to Veblen, who relished the "masculinity crisis," the contemporary American model of manliness rests on the foundation of business enterprise. His paradigm begins with the premise that modern business derives from primitive humans' distinction between "industry" (the "effort that goes in to create a new thing") and "exploit" ("the conversion to [one's] own ends of energies previously directed to some other end"). Productive industry, diminished in status as it comes to be aligned with drudgery, falls to women, while the honorific and counterproductive exploits are valorized into men's sphere (Leisure, 12–13; also see Business). Hence business, evolved from exploit, is predatory, competitive, and destructive. These same traits, Veblen contends, define American male prowess: business is manly, and manliness is businesslike.
Lewis employs the Veblenian sexual division of labor while equating manliness with business and exploit in Babbitt. Zenith cautiously segregates men's from women's spheres; "the realms of offices and of kitchens had no alliances." The Floral Heights matrons with "nothing to do" illustrate Veblen's theory that contemporary women's work includes conspicuous leisure. Against this backdrop, Babbitt fights the "manly battle" of business. Driven by his need to feel heroic, Babbitt's mock epic behaviors illustrate Veblen's conflation of business with predation: his "preparations for leaving the office to its feeble self … were somewhat less elaborate than the plans for a general European war." The iconoclastic Paul Riesling translates the point into colloquial terms: "'All we do is cut each other's throats and make the public pay for it!'"
Veblen's analysis of businessmen finds them as dazzlingly inept at making things as they are skilled at making money. Producers "only by a euphemistic metaphor," businessmen profit from "the higgling of the market" (Place of Science 294). A realtor who knows nothing about architecture, Babbitt personifies the Veblenian businessman as do few characters in American literature. As Lewis says, Babbitt "made nothing in particular, neither butter nor shoes nor poetry, but he was nimble in the calling of selling houses for more than people could afford to pay." This description of the parasitic businessman follows Veblen's explanation that
To "do well" in modern phrase means to engross something appreciably more of the community's wealth than falls to the common run … Men are conceived to serve the common good somewhat in proportion as they are able to induce the community to pay more for their services than they are worth. (Instinct, 349–50)
Veblen considers it ironic that Americans venerate business, for the worshipping attitude permits the rapacious individual to profit at communal expense (Business, 291).
What Veblen says about "the types of manhood which the life of sport fosters" characterizes as well his view of business: "the reason for the current approval and admiration of these manly qualities, as well as for their being called manly, is the same as the reason for their usefulness to the individual" (Leisure, 263). Manliness, in other words, is divisive, self-serving, and counter-productive. Lewis evidently agrees about the host willingly supporting the parasite, for the self-interest and smug complacency of Babbitt and his friends are unthinkable without their culture's approval of business. Babbitt illustrates the point: "He serenely believed that the one purpose of the real-estate business was to make money for George F. Babbitt." Why the serenity? Veblen pins down what is ultimately at stake here: pecuniary success constitutes "the final test of manhood" (Higher Learning, 82). So ingrained are pecuniary criteria that "when we say that a man is 'worth' so many dollars, the expression does not convey that moral or other personal excellence is to be measured in terms of money, but it does very distinctly convey the idea that the fact of his possessing many dollars is very much to his credit" (Place of Science, 393).
What Do I Read Next?
- F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby (1925) uses techniques associated with European modernism to display the empty and hollow under-current in American life in the years following World War I. It is one of the most influential masterpieces of the era.
- Main Street (1920), Lewis's novel written just before Babbitt, is a satirical portrait of small-town American life based on Lewis's home town of Sauk Center, Minnesota.
- A famous muckraking novel about the working conditions in a slaughterhouse, Upton Sinclair's The Jungle (1906) is one of the enduring satires of the early twentieth century. It greatly influenced Lewis's work.
- Arthur Miller's play Death of a Salesman (1949) centers on the tragedy of Willy Loman, a salesman whose life becomes meaningless except for his love of his sons. It focuses on a very different kind of family. The play employs distinct melodramatic methods in order to examine family and business culture after more than two decades of vast social and economic change, but it sharply resonates with Babbitt's struggle.
- Charles Dickens's Hard Times (1854) tells the story of a hardware merchant with firm beliefs in rationality and fact coming into conflict with the world of imagination and culture. The novel, by the famous and influential satirist of English culture, is one of Dickens's shorter and more readable works.
- John Dean's new biography Warren G. Harding (2004) examines the controversy and scandal behind Harding's presidency and illustrates the political environment of the early 1920s.
But Veblen's successful male does not live by individual and invidious business success alone. As much modern research into male identity formation has demonstrated, manhood demands a more public form of testing than that expected for women. According to anthropologist David Gilmore, "true manhood is a precious and elusive status beyond mere maleness, a horatory image that men and boys aspire to and that their culture demands of them as a measure of belonging." This is certainly the case in Veblen's writings, as in Babbitt. Veblen concluded that manhood is sustained by group affiliation. Indeed, since he repeatedly contrasts ceremonial with functional behaviors to the detriment of the former, men's public, competitive, and ritualistic behaviors only make the social construction of masculinity an even easier satiric target for him to hit. Veblen considers the back-slapping, herding tendency fundamentally masculine, and traces it from the "instinct of sportsmanship" in The Theory of the Leisure Class (1899) to patriotism in his war writings. By The Nature of Peace and the Terms of its Perpetuation (1917) he is defining patriotism as "the prime attribute of manhood" (40). Clannish acts, whether in war or in sport, share the competitive spirit of business enterprise, but they differ in being collective endeavors, forcefully binding the individual man to his habitat. Hence the American male's "sentiment[al] … approval" of patriotism along with property necessitates an unsteady psychic balance between "servitude" and "predation" (Business, 290). Veblen's brilliantly homely metaphor which explains patriotic behavior nicely characterizes his view of all manly clannishness:
The analogy of the clam … may at least serve to suggest what may be the share played by habituation in the matter of national attachment. The young clam, after having passed the free-swimming phase of his life, as well as the period of attachment to the person of a carp or similar fish, drops to the bottom and attaches himself loosely in the place and station in life to which he has been led; and he loyally sticks to his particular patch of oose and sand through good fortune and evil. It is, under Providence, something of a fortuitous matter where the given clam shall find a resting place for the sole of his feet, but it is also, after all, "his own, his native land" etc. It lies in the nature of a clam to attach himself after this fashion, loosely, to the bottom where he finds a living, and he would not be a "good clam and true" if he failed to do so … [A]ll men of sound, or at least those of average, mind will necessarily be of a patriotic temper and be attached by ties of loyalty to some particular establishment. (Nature of Peace, 134–5)
Babbitt provides a veritable stew of such bivalves. The realtor knows well that being a He-Man is not only about looking out for Numero Uno. The compulsion to attach himself to the right groups in order to sustain his manhood is the downfall of the sympathetic side of Babbitt. A deep and insidious peer pressure influences his actions at the Realtors' Convention where he stirs himself into a state of "hysteric patriotism." Lewis aligns his views with Veblen's as he documents Babbitt's speech on, appropriately, manhood:
"the ideal of American manhood and culture isn't a lot of cranks sitting around chewing the rag about their Rights and their Wrongs, but a God-fearing, hustling, successful, two-fisted Regular guy, who belongs to some church with pep and piety to it, who belongs to the Boosters or the Rotarians or the Kiwanis, to the Elks or Moose or Red Men or Knights of Columbus or any one of a score of organizations of good, jolly, kidding, laughing, sweating, upstanding, lend-a-handing Royal Good Fellows, who plays hard and works hard, and whose answer to his critics is a square-toed boot that'll teach the grouches and smart alecks to respect the He-man and get out and root for Uncle Samuel, U.S.A.!"
To adopt the phrase of Gilmore, Babbitt's speech confirms that masculinity is preeminently about "the need to establish and defend boundaries." This policing of boundaries may involve vehement defenses of "male" versus "female" territory, or, as it does here in Babbitt's speech, necessitate declaring a specific version of manhood as the norm, the natural, the right.
One of Lewis' most satirical deflations of the American businessman is surely this revelation that the "self-made man" is, in fact, group-made. John Remy's discussion of the "men's hut" illuminates this aspect of Babbitt. Distinguishing between patriarchy and fratriachy, the latter, argues Remy, "is based simply on the self-interest of the association of men itself" rather than the needs of the family unit protected by the partriarch. Most of Babbitt's male bonding rituals are, likewise, fratriarchal—as Lewis depicts them, reactive measures to counter female influence and to prop up flaccid egos. Yet the seat of power in both patriarchal and fratriarchal societies is the "men's hut" which defines itself by setting up boundaries, excluding women as well as any dissident males. Such is clearly the intent of Babbitt's speech at the Realtors' Convention which defines who are, and who are not, his cohorts.
It is fitting that Lewis lodges his satirical vision of "the ideal of American manhood" in Babbitt's oratorical triumph, its cliches and slogans revealing the grammar of standardization. Lewis discloses a frightening territory with this map showing how manliness sanctifies chauvinistic and violent response to dissidents. Babbitt's cliches lead us into the land of institutional coercion and, indeed, "Babbittry" has passed into general circulation to mean conformity of a most depressing sort. The contrast with Veblen's prose is, at first glance, striking. Far from following predictable paths, Veblen startles readers by using unfamiliar juxtapositions. He is remembered most often for the arcane rather than the familiar. While Lewis revels in documenting slogans and banalities as surely as Veblen resists using language like anyone else, I would like to resist the temptation to use the contrast to (invidiously) privilege one writer's discourse over the other's. Lewis and Veblen's contrasting prose styles illustrate how different methods can work toward a similar end. Lewis' deadening cliches, like Veblen's idiosyncratic phrases, make readers uncomfortably conscious of the prisonhouse of language. Raising our awareness of the extent to which language entraps its user is precisely their shared goal. Parroting contemporary platitudes, Lewis shows from the inside how langage restricts thought and, therefore, action. Situating his writing on the outside, Veblen illustrates the subversive possibilities of discourse that does not bow to received wisdom. Yet Veblen, too, invents cliches, however unwittingly—"conspicuous consumption" being only the most famous example. The "Man from Main Street" and "Man from Mars" both use language to illustrate the brilliantly transformed cliche which lies at the heart of Veblen's most famous work: "Whatever is, is wrong" (Leisure, 217).
Babbitt, however, prefers Whatever Is. The compulsion to belong to the right groups insinuates itself into all facets of his life. Babbitt's business ethics—"he followed the custom of his clan and cheated only as it was sanctified by precedent"—directly follow Veblen's characterization of American business as "a spirit of quietism, caution, compromise, collusion, and chicane." (Veblen illustrates the idea with another homely metaphor: "the silent hog eats the swill" [Higher Learning, 70–71].) Men's play follows the same pattern as their work. Lewis uses the precise terms of Veblenian conflationary logic to describe Babbitt's enthusiasm for baseball: "the game was a custom of his clan, and it gave outlet for the homicidal and side-taking instincts which Babbitt called 'patriotism' and 'love of sport.'" Veblen could easily explain Lewis' odd comment that Babbitt "honestly believed … he loved baseball." According to Veblen, the "lower motive of unreflecting clannishness … stands out perhaps most baldly in the sentimental rivalry … shown at intercollegiate games and similar occasions of invidious comparison" (Higher Learning, 235). Even the rebelliousness of Babbitt's sexual play, his fling with Tanis Judique, is compromised by the need for acceptance by "The Bunch."
Although Babbitt's business ethics, sportsmanship, and general love of boosting provide targets for raucous satire, his inability to realize a sense of self apart from his clan identification is chilling. The compulsion to remain identifiably male prohibits self-realization. Existing beneath the back-slapping, mutually re-enforcing surface of Zenith's He-Men is a core of self-immolation. This is the dark center of American manhood percieved by Veblen, who finds the effacement of individual desires in the service of the clan's wishes characteristic of the masculine patriotic spirit (Nature of Peace, 46). What follows is that acceptable men, who recognize themselves only by their group identification, cannot be autonomous.
It follows as well that manliness can only be confirmed by other males. Myra Babbitt, for instance, is "too busy to be impressed by that moral indignation with which males rule the world" and ignores her husband's cries for kudos as Vice President elect of the Boosters Club. Once Babbitt's business contacts begin to erode and he faces retribution for "treachery to the clan," the ceremonial proofs of his identity vanish. This process again illustrates the breakdown of the traditional male role. As Peter Stearns says, the more difficult the process of "male self-definition," the more crucial becomes "proof before other men." Babbitt faces a frighteningly uncharted territory without the familiar signposts to confirm his masculinity and responds with hypermasculine behaviors.
Readers of scholarly journals hardly need reminders that American culture has a history of excluding intellectual work from the approved masculine realm—that the athlete need not share his laurels with the academic. Lewis' treatment of this scenario is Veblenian in spirit and in detail. He recognizes how the clannishness fundamental to middle class manliness would breed anti-intellectualism. He makes the equation explicit when he comments that Paul, by "becom[ing] highbrow," "committed an offense against the holy law of the Clan of Good Fellows." Babbitt's son, Ted, must be herded away from such blasphemy. (Ted's full name, Theodore Roosevelt Babbitt, harkens back to a favored model of masculinity.) The father instructs the son about anti-intellectualism, illustrating again how men confirm each other's identity, and the faith:
"Course I'd never admit it publicly—fellow like myself, a state U. graduate, it's only decent and patriotic for him to blow his horn and boost the Alma Mater—but smatter of fact, there's a whole lot of valuable time lost even at the U., studying poetry and French and subjects that never brought in anybody a cent."
This conflation of patriotism, boosting, and education illustrates Veblen's observation that "invidious patriotism has invaded [academia], too." It is manly to boost the local university, but effeminate to learn about culture. Recommending the study of Business English over Shakespeare, Babbitt pushes for a business degree—a specialization which Veblen drily describes as "thereby widening the candidate's field of ignorance." Babbitt's opposition to Ted's pursuit of an engineering degree fits the Veblenian pattern perfectly. In his most revolutionary work, The Engineers and the Price System (1921), Veblen argues that productivity would be increased by anywhere from three-thundred to twelve-hundred-percent were the engineers to overthrow businessmen and run industry themselves.
Lewis' satirical treatment of Babbitt's educational values also corresponds to Veblen's argument about the decline of The Higher Learning in America (1918). He finds that the bastion of manliness, business, has "infect[ed]" the university (Higher Learning, 62). The result is monstrous: "corporations of learning" run by "captains of erudition" and operated as if they were "business house[s] dealing in merchantable knowledge" (85). He warns against the confinement of knowledge to the "quantitative statement" or the "balance-sheet" (86). Lewis illustrates the effects of this contamination with Babbitt's speech about "'Those profs.… If we're going to pay them our good money, they've got to help us by selling efficiency and whooping it up for rational prosperity!'" The correspondence course advertisement, crowned by "an inspiring educational symbol—no antiquated lamp or torch or owl of Minerva, but a row of dollar signs," reiterates the point.
Lewis' characterization of the professional academic, Howard Littlefield, particularly shows the influence of Veblen's critique of the higher learning. Littlefield holds, appropriately, a Yale Ph.D. in Economics; Veblen a Yale Ph.D. in Philosophy. Veblen would appreciate Lewis' character's name, with its insinuation that his "field" is narrow, for he dedicated his career to railing against colleagues who upheld business as usual. Economists, says Veblen, "ten[d] to work out what the instructed common sense of the times accepts as the adequate or worthy end of human effort.… [They justify] a projection of the accepted ideal of conduct" (Place of Science, 65). The reigning "quasi-science" in economics "necessarily takes the current situation for granted as a permanent state of things … It is a 'science' of complaisant interpretations, apologies, and projected remedies" (Higher Learning, 187). Rather than pursue disinterested research, economists conform to the "homiletics and wool-gathering" that the common man mistakes for science: "the conclusive test of scientific competency and leadership, in the popular apprehension, is a serene and magniloquent return to the orthodox commonplaces" (Higher Learning, 182). In short, they specialize in "taxonom[izing] … credenda" (Place of Science, 21).
Lewis illustrates this co-optation of the academic economist through Littlefield, who,
confirmed the business men in the faith. Where they knew only by passionate instinct that their system of industry and manners was perfect, Dr. Howard Littlefield proved it to them, out of history, economics, and the confessions of reformed radicals.
He is what Veblen describes as a "spokesman for the competitive system" (Place of Science, 189) and one of the queries put to him, to define the meaning of "sabotage," seems an unmistakable allusion to Veblen's lengthy discussion of the word in the first chapter of Engineers, which appeared in book form the year Lewis was working on Babbitt. Boosting business, justifying the clan's exploits, and curtailing dissident thought, Littlefield is the only sort of academic likely to seem manly in Zenith. He belongs, and rationalizes the belonging of others. Babbitt understandably admires him for "'put[ting] the con in economics!'" Littlefield illustrates Veblen's point that economists, like the patriotic clam, are "due to be the creatures of their heredity and environment" (Essays in Our Changing, 3).
Lewis' treatment of Zenith's anti-intellectualism draws strength from Veblen's fears that higher education had lost its integrity by serving the manly interests of boosting, conformity, and business. Veblen was horrified that the university should be the handmaid of business, considering these "two extreme terms of the modern cultural scheme" antithetical and predicting that only the intelligentsia could save "the substantial code of Western civilization" after the great war (Higher Learning, 76, 52). He contends that "the two lines of interest—business and science—do not pull together; a competent scientist or scholar well endowed with business sense is as rare as a devout scientist—almost as rare as a white blackbird" (Higher Learning, 149–50). Clearly, the insistence that science serve business lies at the heart of Zenith's anti-intellectualism. He-Men fear any method of reckoning other than the pecuniary. Knowledge is acceptable to them only insofar as it furthers business as usual. Littlefield illustrates the point nicely.
But, according to Veblen, the true intellectual does not confirm the faith; he subverts it: "Intellectual initiative … [cannot] be reduced to any known terms of subordination, obedience, or authoritative direction" (Higher Learning, 86). He was well aware that this, his alternative model of manhood, did not correspond to "the current ideal of manhood" (Place of Science, 30). Veblen's description of the scientist suggests why Zenith cannot tolerate intellectual initiative: it would mean challenging "habitual convictions" and looking at,
the nature of the conventions under which men live, the institutions of society,—customs, usages, traditions, conventions, canons of conduct, standards of life, of taste, of morality and religion, law and order… Skepticism is the beginning of science. (Higher Learning, 180, 181).
Rather than policing established boundaries, Veblen's model of manhood would trespass them. His skepticism is devoutly to be feared by the custodians of convention.
Veblen names this skeptical spirit of inquiry "idle curiosity." We who read Veblen—much less, scholarship on Veblen—manifest this trait. Idle curiosity is Veblen's construct to explain—and to celebrate—the academic's devaluation in an anti-intellectual culture. Although the "most substantial cultural achievement of the race" (Instinct, 86), idle curiosity is not pragmatic. Indeed, idle curiosity has no "ulterior purpose"; it is wholly "fortuitous" when the fruit of scientific investigation is turned to useful ends (Place of Science, 18, 16). Because the spirit of free inquiry threatens to unmask what passes as practical knowledge—and "'practical' in this connection means useful for private gain; it need imply nothing in the way of serviceability to the common good" (Higher Learning, 193)—it must be co-opted or suppressed.
Littlefield, as much a police of the status quo as Vergil Gunch, illustrates the process of co-optation. Babbitt's retribalization illustrates the suppression. Early in the novel, Babbitt patrols his own thought and self-censors any opportunity for idle curiosity. For instance, he tells his son, "'what's the use of a lot of supposing? Supposing never gets you anywhere. No sense supposing when there's a lot of real facts.'" Strategically, Babbitt's rebellion consists of a lot of supposing: suppose he sat at a different table at the club? suppose he went on a trip alone? suppose Paul were right? suppose he cross the line of acceptable flirtation? Lewis describes Babbitt's moment of crisis as the glimmering of an intellectual awakening: "he was thinking… perhaps all life as he knew it and vigorously practiced it was futile … What was it all about? What did he want?" He senses how his known "world …, once doubted, became absurd." As Babbitt grows intoxicated with the heady freedom of supposing, he manifests such independent behaviors as "enjoy[ing] the right to be alone" and declaring to Myra, "'I know what the League stands for … the suppression of free speech and free thought.'" These rebellious suppositions illustrate Veblen's point that idle curiosity, by definition, breaks the rules. Babbitt's rebellion lets him peer beyond the sportsmanlike clannishness and anti-intellectualism of Zenith men into the subversive territory of independent thought.
But Babbitt, of course, is no Arrowsmith, the scientist whose idealistic and intellectual principles lead him to renounce civilization. The realtor's story is about the inexorable pull of the status quo. Veblen's theory of institutional coercion accounts for the failure of the realtor's rebellion and the triumph of the status quo. Babbitt succumbs to what Veblen, in an unusually paranoid moment, describes as "those massive interests that move obscurely in the background." Babbitt had long parrotted what Veblen calls the Vested Interests. His words and thoughts have always been those of the advertisers, the press, ultimately of the Republican Party and big business. Veblen comments upon this phenomenon: "farmers, workmen, consumers, the common lot, are still animated by the fancy that they themselves have something to say" (Vested, 175). Babbitt illustrates how "bias of loyalty" and "civic duty" allow the Vested Interests to control duped citizens (Nature of Peace, p. 10). So strong are the ties that bind that Veblen prophecies in The Engineers and the Price System the inevitable failure of revolution in America:
By settled habit, the American population are quite unable to see their way to entrust any appreciable responsibility to any other than business men …This sentimental deference of the American people to the sagacity of its business men is massive, profound, and alert.
Babbitt, finally unable to let go of this valued cultural identification of power, respect, and manliness, illustrates Veblen's point. As he succumbs to the pressure of the aptly named Good Citizens' League he affirms, "'I'm a business man, first, last, and all the time!'" With these words he returns to the men's hut.
Internal pressures such as habits of thought play as large a role in Veblen's theory of institutional coercion as do the external pressures exerted by the Vested Interests. All customs "exercise a selective surveillance" over mankind: partly a "coercive, educational adaptation" (as we see in the case of Babbitt); partly "a selective elimination of the unfit" (as the instance of Paul Riesling illustrates) (Leisure Class, 212). Habits of thought, "sanctioned by social convention, … become right and proper and give rise to principles" (Instinct, 7). On this observation rests Veblen's brilliant theory of institutional lag, according to which any innovation comes to be seen as "bad form" (Leisure Class, 200). Babbitt's aborted rebellion illustrates the ingrained oppositions to change: he discovers "that he could never run away from Zenith and family and office, because in his own brain he bore the office and the family and every street and disquiet and illusion of Zenith" (242). Veblen explains the point nicely: "The most tenacious factor in any civilization is a settled popular frame of mind" (Vested, 147).
Veblen means "popular" in two senses: widespread and favored. Perhaps most chilling about his theory of institutional coercion is the part that the duped common man plays in sustaining the status quo. The common man,
beset with the picturesque hallucination that any unearned income which goes to those Vested Interests whose central office is in New Jersey is paid to himself in some underhand way, while the gains of those Vested Interests that are domiciled in Canada are obviously a grievous net loss to him,
is in fact indispensible to the maintenance of the status quo (Vested, 133, 16). This is the ultimate purpose served by clannishness. Men pride themselves on their affiliation with the expensive, the impressive, the large—with the Vested Interests. Babbitt, like Zenith's other He-Men, sustains the status quo by "respec[ting] bigness in anything; in mountains, jewels, muscles, wealth or words," by feeling "clever and solid … to bank with so marbled an establishment" as The Miners' and Drovers' National Bank. Lewis puns in his description of another bank to emphasize Veblen's point: "the tower [was] a temple-spire of the religion of business, a faith passionate, exalted, surpassing common men" (emphasis added). The common man, says Veblen, "pays the cost [for the Vested Interests] and swells with pride" (Vested, 137). This is why even so petty a character as Babbitt must be reclaimed: he is part of the skeleton to which the muscle of the Vested Interest attaches.
Reading Babbit as a Veblenian critique of manliness sheds light on the problem of the "two Babbitts": one a stereotype and the object of Lewis' satire; the other an appealing, if failed, individual. The alleged conflict vanishes once we recognize a sustained treatment of the crisis of American masculinity. The end of the novel depicts Babbitt reaffirming his manliness at the expense of his individuality. He returns to the sanctuary of "facile masculine advice" and "true masculine wiles." The status quo of Zenith is restored, and Lewis has demonstrated the pressure and even coercion needed to maintain the unruffled surface. He-men marshal the battle to uphold the established order, receiving in return the confirmation of their manliness. All this so that the Vested Interests can continue business as usual—which, says Veblen, "means working at cross-purposes as usual, waste of work and materials as usual, restriction of output as usual, unemployment as usual, labor quarrels as usual, competitive selling as usual, mendacious advertising as usual, waste of superfluities as usual by the kept classes, and privation as usual for the common man" (Vested, 140–1). Babbitt's aborted rebellion against business as usual illustrates Veblen's ironic truism: "history records more frequent … instances of the triumph of imbecile institutions over life and culture than of peoples who have by force of instinctive insight saved themselves" (Instinct, 25).
Reading Babbitt in this way may also help to rejuvenate the decidedly old-fashioned reputation Lewis has in most quarters. Recent findings in "Men's Studies" suggest the currency of Lewis' Veblenian views on male identity formation. Part of the "ubiquitous" pattern located by anthropologist David Gilmore is that "the manhood ideal is not purely psychogenetic in origin but is also a culturally imposed ideal to which men must conform whether or not they find it psychologically congenial." Sociologist Michael Kimmel extends this troubling insight further: "The constitution of men's power over women is simultaneously the power of one version of masculinity over multiple masculinities. Women are subordinated by men in different but parallel mechanisms by which nonnormative men are marginalized from the hegemonic construction." Veblen and Lewis were early subscribers to this belief that masculinity coerces men as well as women. If, as Joe Dubbert says, American males are "trapped by a masculine mystique," dating from a "crisis of the male paradigm" threatening men in the last two decades of the nineteenth century with "urbanization, civilization, and feminization," it is little wonder that the next generation would all the more belligerently assert their manhood. In an ingenious new reading of literary naturalism, Mark Seltzer speaks of the "statistical persons" which abound in early twentieth century texts and cautions, "This is not, however, to replace individuality with standards … but to make the achievement of the standard the measure of individuality." Babbitt and the writings of Veblen document a concern that coercive standards for masculinity were strangling the autonomy of individual males. They disclose the operations of the imbecile institution of white, middle class, middle American manliness in the early decades of this century.
Clare Virginia Eby, "Babbitt as Veblenian Critique of Manliness," in American Studies, Vol. 34, No. 2, Fall 1993, pp. 5–24.
Bucco, Martin, "Introduction," in Critical Essays on Sinclair Lewis, G. K. Hall, 1986, pp. 4–5.
Dooley, D. J., The Art of Sinclair Lewis, University of Nebraska Press, 1967, pp. 82–95.
Lewis, Sinclair, Babbitt, New American Library of World Literature, 1961; originally published by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1922.
Lingeman, Richard, Sinclair Lewis: Rebel from Main Street, Random House, 2002, p. xii.
Pugh, David G., "Baedekers, Babbittry, and Baudelaire," in Critical Essays on Sinclair Lewis, edited by Martin Bucco, G. K. Hall, 1986, pp. 204–13; originally published in The Twenties: Fiction, Poetry, Drama, edited by Warren French, Everett Edwards Press, 1975.
Updike, John, "Exile on Main Street," in the New Yorker, Vol. 69, No. 13, pp. 91–97.
West, Rebecca, "Babbitt," in Sinclair Lewis: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Mark Schorer, Prentice-Hall, 1962, pp. 23–26; originally published in New Statesman, No. 23, October 1922.
Woolf, Virginia, "American Fiction," in The Moment, and Other Essays, Hogarth Press, 1947, pp. 99–100.
Allen, Frederick Lewis, Only Yesterday: An Informal History of the 1920s, John Wiley & Sons, 1997; originally published by Harper & Row, 1931.
This book, written with the atmosphere of the 1920s fresh in the author's mind, provides a useful glimpse into the politics and intrigue of the era.
Hutchisson, James M., The Rise of Sinclair Lewis: 1920–1930, Pennsylvania State University Press, 1996.
Hutchisson's book offers a further critical perspective on Lewis's years of critical and popular success.
Lewis, Sinclair, If I Were Boss: The Early Business Stories of Sinclair Lewis, edited by Anthony Di Renzo, Southern Illinois University Press, 1997.
These stories, which Lewis wrote during his early career as a short story writer, are important examples of his developing ideas about American business, and they expand upon some of the key themes in Babbitt.
Love, Glen A., Babbitt: An American Life, Twayne Publishers, 1993.
Love's study follows the influence of the "Babbitt type" throughout the literature of the twentieth century. It is a very useful source in determining Lewis's influence over the American literary scene.
Schorer, Mark, Sinclair Lewis: An American Life, McGraw-Hill, 1961.
Schorer is perhaps Lewis's most famous biographer, and this work was instrumental in re-evaluating Lewis's reputation in the latter half of the twentieth century.
THE LITERARY WORK
A novel set from 1920 to 1922 in Zenith, an imaginary midwestern American city; published in 1922.
Tracing two years in the life of George Babbitt, a self-proclaimed “representative business man,” lewis offers a sharp satire of America’s prosperous white middle-class.
Born and raised in Sauk Centre, Minnesota, Harold Sinclair Lewis (1885-1951) suffered a relatively awkward childhood. His mother died when “Harry” was five, and the orange-haired, gangly youth was less popular than his older brothers, remaining something of an outsider both at his hometown school and at Yale. His first novel, Our Mr. Wren, appeared six years after he received his Yale degree in 1908, and was followed by his best-known works, which were written during and about the rapidly changing America of the 1920s. The success of Main Street (1920), a novel that depicted the ways of a little midwestern town rather like Sauk Centre, earned him widespread acclaim. Babbitt, his next effort, succeeded even more impressively; largely on its strength, Lewis became the first American to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, in 1930.
Surprisingly, perhaps, for a novel that opens in the spring of 1920, Babbitt seldom refers directly to the first world war. An armistice was declared on November 11, 1918, and the Treaty of Versailles, which set down the terms of peace, was signed the next spring. In the war’s aftermath, the country entered a period of drastic social, technological, and economic transformation; in politics, on the other hand, conservatism dominated the American scene during the 1920s, often taking the form of reaction against new developments that were perceived as threatening. In the novel, when Babbitt talks politics with his neighbors, it is generally agreed that the nation needs a probusiness administration. This attitude affected the outcome of the presidential election of 1920, in which voters chose the Republican, Warren Harding. While his Democratic predecessor, Woodrow Wilson, envisioned a continuation of America’s political and financial commitments in warweary Europe, Harding offered a comparatively easy and profitable return to peacetime industry and commerce. Harding promised, in campaigning for office, a return to normalcy.
Yet just what was this “normalcy” to which Americans wished to return? It would prove to be a rather conservative one in some ways. Wartime propaganda had successfully inspired the nation with a sense of its patriotic duty to hate and combat an insidious foreign enemy, and many sought new enemies to replace the German kaiser and his agents when the war ended. This resulted in official attacks against the American Left. Alarmed by the successful revolution of the Bolsheviks in Russia (1917) and by an increasingly organized and recognized labor movement at home, the American business community and its supporters condemned communism, socialism, and labor unionism as barely distinguishable parts of a dangerous conspiracy involving dirty, ungrateful immigrants and their dupes. In 1919, faced with high inflation and increasing resistance in their efforts to bargain with employers, over a million workers took part in labor union strikes of one form or another. Repeatedly, these strikes failed as the public and the judiciary supported corporate interests against “the radicals.” At the height of the crisis, Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer ordered a series of notoriously unconstitutional raids on communist meetings, making wholesale arrests without warrant. Although massive New Year’s Day raids on communist headquarters across the country yielded no evidence of any violent plot— despite the jailing of six thousand men and the seizure of all materials and documents found— fears of Bolshevism continued to haunt the popular imagination well into the 1920s.
Organized intolerance thrived in other forms. Zealous patriots formed various independent groups in order to keep a vigilant eye on “Reds,” or communists, and their sympathizers. Perhaps the most extreme of these groups, the Ku Klux Klan (KKK), enjoyed a massive revival throughout the country at this time; its members persecuted as “un-American” black, Jewish, and, depending on the locale, Catholic, Asian, and other minorities, not excluding whites judged to be politically or morally undesirable.
In accordance with the times, the mushrooming growth of the KKK (a few hundred members strong in 1919, but an estimated 4.5 million in 1924) owed much to salesmanship; for every $10 membership a Klansman, or “Kleagle,” managed to sell, he could pocket four dollars. By encouraging its members actively to solicit other joiners, the Klan merely followed the example set by many of the more respectable brotherhoods, organizations, and clubs that also prospered during the 1920s—service clubs such as the Boosters and the Rotarians, and fraternal orders such as the Elks, the Knights of Pythias, and the endless college fraternities. The novel’s Babbitt—a Booster, an Elk, an active Republican, a Chamber of Commerce member, an Athletic Club member, a Sunday school committee member, a real-estate brokers’ association member, and a member of the antisocialist “Good Citizens’ League”—embodies this craze for belonging. The question of who or what Babbitt would be without the official identities these associations confer is one the novel returns to repeatedly.
The Eighteenth Amendment, which forbade the manufacture, transport, and sale of alcoholic beverages, passed into law in 1919, and took effect on January 16th, 1920; it was repealed in 1933. Called the Prohibition Amendment, it enjoyed widespread support from women. Also supporting the amendment were rural voters (Prohibition came to be regarded as the revenge of rural America on an increasingly urbanized nation), and a good number of drinkers who, possibly inspired by a spirit of self-discipline left over from the war, appear to have thought that they could quit anytime. However, the postwar peace brought with it a celebratory mood of self-indulgence that had to be reckoned with in the nation.
Although Babbitt was written well before the heyday of bootleggers like Al Capone, whose career was made possible by Prohibition, some of the weaknesses of this legislation were already obvious by 1922—for example, the tremendous difficulties of enforcement and the illicit glamour that drinking gained from illegalization. Sophisticates or would-be sophisticates, whether they came from major cities or towns anxious to become major cities, all hastened to dissociate themselves from the hick-town “Puritan” aura that clung to the advocates of “dryness.” This impulse comes into play in the novel when Babbitt, carousing at a sleazy burlesque show in Monarch, where he is attending a realtors’ convention, insists drunkenly that his hometown is just as disreputable: “Snothin you can’t find in Zenith. Believe me, we got more houses and hootch-parlors an’ all kinds o’ dives than any burg in the state” (Lewis, Babbitt, p. 175). Many ordinary citizens (thirsty, but otherwise beyond reproach) took to patronizing the “dives” where alcohol remained available.
In the same years that saw the failure of Prohibition, American culture went through other changes that disturbed moral traditionalists, especially in regard to courtship and sex. Women in particular showed the effects of this shift, not just in their daring new fashions (higher hemlines, higher heels, short hairstyles, and sleeveless, open-throated evening gowns), but in the cigarettes they now enjoyed and the alcohol they now imbibed. Additionally, the women showed more daring in taking part in new dance styles that involved much more physical contact and—as parents worried—while sitting in the cars that more and more young people were driving. Lewis’s novel calls attention to these new customs by comparing Babbitt’s memory of his engagement to Myra (in which the first kiss was trustingly accepted as implying a marriage proposal) to the more carnal understanding between Babbitt’s son and Eunice Littlefield.
This relaxation of the moral code—which did not affect the younger generation alone—sprang from other causes in addition to the unsupervised privacy offered by cars, the drinking habits altered by Prohibition, and the temptation sparked by immodest clothes. First, thanks to America’s participation in the war, over 2 million American soldiers had been sent to Europe, where many of them encountered a more tolerant attitude toward sex. Secondly, conventional American ideas on this topic were shaken by the popularization of Sigmund Freud’s psychological theories, which were interpreted (or misinterpreted) as an argument against sexual taboos. Finally, moral conservatives complained that the popular new motion pictures, with their passionate kissing scenes, were encouraging lewd behavior. While this last observation might make fears of a moral breakdown seem ridiculous from a more modern perspective, the change in moral standards could hardly be denied; even those who took part in it sometimes observed it with concern. Lewis’s novel raises some moral questions about the extramarital affairs of the characters Babbitt and Paul Riesling that were timely concerns during the era.
Americans fell in love with the automobile in the 1920s; the number of cars on the road nearly quadrupled between 1919 and 1929, reaching well over 23 million. Mass production techniques pioneered by Henry Ford just after the turn of the century had continued to improve, and combined with successful mass marketing, yielded a phenomenal growth in ownership. By 1921, though, Ford’s reliable but primitive Model T was losing ground to faster, more comfortable, and more stylish competitors. With advances in paint technology, cars became available in dazzling colors; high-pressure “balloon” tires enhanced the handling and the ride; and roads improved to smooth the way for these gorgeous new machines. Those with old-fashioned tastes, like Babbitt, might hang on stubbornly to their old, open-air roadsters, but the future plainly belonged to the covered sedan, as Babbitt’s son points out to his father at one point in the novel.
SOUND THE ALARM!
Journalist Parkhurst Whitney wrote an ironic headline-to-headline description of concerns in the turbulent early ’20s for H.L. Mencken’s magazine, American Mercury: “The Bolsheviks are Coming! So is Christ! Japan Preparing to Attack the U.S.! So is Russia! So is Everybody! U.S. Getting Drier, Says Anti-Saloon Leaguer! Strikes Ruining Industry! Petting Parties Ruin Younger Generation!… Anglo-Saxon Supremacy Menaced by Inferior Race… Rotary Speaker Says Business is Service!” (Whitney in Smith, p. 36).
Cars began to take on a special symbolic value during the 1920s, a mysterious importance they would retain in future decades. They stood for the wonders of technology and industry; Ford was hailed as a hero, the genius of the modern era. Repeatedly, Lewis’s novel pokes fun at the car-worship indulged in by his hero: “To George F. Babbitt, as to most prosperous citizens of Zenith, his motor car was poetry and tragedy, love and heroism. The office was his pirate ship but the car his perilous excursion ashore” (Babbitt, p. 24).
American agriculture suffered terribly when the high wartime demand for food crops decreased in 1920. Overproduction brought down the price of wheat and other foodstuffs, which brought down rural real estate values as a result. Many farmers went bankrupt, unable to keep up mortgage payments that had been based on the inflated land values of the war era. As a result, millions left the countryside for the more prosperous cities and towns, creating a boom in the urban and, above all, suburban real estate business. Developers bought and subdivided rural properties at the edges of urban centers at a record rate, quickly erecting houses of all styles: colonial, Tudor, or, for more exotic tastes, Venetian (complete with canals) and Spanish-Alhambra.
Speculators did their best to anticipate the developers’ moves, sometimes unethically, with the help of information from friends in public office or in industry. In Lewis’s novel, a corrupt deal between the Babbitt-Thompson Realty Company and the Zenith Street Traction Company (a streetcar company) offers a fair illustration of how the land market could be exploited. By a secret agreement, Babbitt-Thompson and the officers of the Traction Company cooperate on land deals when, for example, a new repair garage is to be built in a suburban town. The streetcar company officers illegally inform the Babbitt-Thompson real estate firm of the plan for the new garage before the plan is made public. The Babbitt-Thompson realtors quietly and cheaply buy up land in the suburb; since the law only permits realtors to act as brokers in such purchases, they pretend to act on behalf of a wealthy, well-connected politician who, for 10 percent of the take, also distributes bribes to a few key friends in public office who might otherwise uncover and blow the whistle on the scam. The property, in high demand because it is needed for the repair garage, then gets sold to the streetcar company at inflated prices. The streetcar company’s officers pretend to be horrified at such gouging, knowing all along that once Babbitt-Thompson secretly rewards them for their cooperation, the streetcar company’s loss will have become their personal gain.
Broadly, this scam suggests just how well business and government could get along together. Although it only came to light in 1923, the Teapot Dome scandal confirms Lewis’s depiction of current government corruption; in the spring of 1922, Albert Fall, Harding’s Secretary of the Interior, leased federal oil-reserve lands to private oil companies, secretly and without competitive bidding, in return for bribes.
Though his review praised Babbitt enthusiastically, H. L. Mencken said that the novel had “no plot whatever” (Babbitt, p. 20). Certainly the early chapters support this claim to the extent that they describe George Babbitt’s comfortable daily life without giving many hints of a noteworthy event or chain of events that might affect it. The reader learns about Babbitt’s suburban neighborhood, Floral Heights; his house, with its many convenient electric sockets; his kindly, unglamorous wife, Myra; and his children—Rona (stuffy), Ted (fashion-conscious), and Tinka (the baby). Also introduced are the real estate office that Babbitt and his father-inlaw own, the local socialites whom he envies, and, somewhat ominously, the “fairy child” who visits him in his dreams.
The central plot line emerges more clearly in the fifth chapter: Babbitt confesses to vague feelings of discontent when he lunches at the Athletic Club with his dearest friend, the discontented and unhappily married Paul Riesling. Solid and complacent as he seems, Babbitt shares some of Riesling’s unease: “I belong to the church, I play enough golf to keep in trim, and I only associate with good, decent fellows. And yet, even so, I don’t know that I’m entirely satisfied” (Babbitt, p. 61). Ultimately, Lewis’s novel examines the nature and the consequences of Babbitt’s restlessness.
The consequences weigh heavily because in Zenith, U.S.A., “normalcy” is so much the rule that even such hesitant complaints as Babbitt’s run the risk of social condemnation. As a “Regular Guy” who ordinarily enjoys the stodgy banter of the club’s lunchtime gang, Babbitt knows it is “very bad form” to dine with his old friend in private (Babbitt, p. 60)—all the more so, in view of his social-climbing ambitions. Soon enough, this friendship sets him at odds with the community. After Paul goes to jail for shooting his wife, Zilla, Babbitt goes through a crisis. He drinks to excess; he defends the right to strike and other “liberal” views, he declines to join the “Good Citizens’ League,” he has an affair, and he begins to lead a double life. At last, alarmed by Myra’s appendicitis, he repents and returns to the paths of duty and conformity. In the final chapter, Babbitt’s rebellion against conventional morality and politics is behind him, but he decides (for better or worse) to condone his son’s hasty elopement with the girl next door.
The training ground
As indicated above, Lewis’s career as a fiction writer became successful only after he published Main Street, but he had been writing (some fiction, but also poems, reviews, editorials, and articles) since 1903, his first year as a student at Yale. At different points he held jobs as copy editor at the San Francisco Evening Bulletin; journalist-editor for the Waterloo, Minnesota, Daily Courier; assistant editor for Adventure Magazine and Transatlantic Tales; syndicated book reviewer for the Publishers’ Newspaper Syndicate; and advertising manager for the George H. Doran publishing company. On these jobs Lewis developed a sharp eye for the unintentionally funny moments in the everyday literature of newspapers, advertising, and popular speeches.
“YOU’VE GOT A TREAT COMING”
Lewis was never known for his modesty or tact. As George Jean Nathan, The Smart Set’s theater editor, tells the story, he and his friend H. L. Mencken ran into Lewis for the first time at a cocktail party in New York. The novelist had just finished Main Street, but the novel was still at the printer. Although he was at that point nothing more than a drunken stranger to the two editors, Lewis threw his arms around their shoulders, bellowing: “l’m so far ahead of most of the men you two think are good that I’ll be gottdamned if it doesn’t make me sick to think of it! Just wait till you read the gottdamned thing. You’ve got a treat coming…, and don’t you boys make any mistake about that!” (Lewis in Schorer, p. 284).
In Babbitt, the hero’s own promotional letters and speeches overflow with moments of this sort, and his friends Howard Littlefield (a Ph.D. in economics who works as an advertising consultant). and Cholmondley “Chum” Frink (syndicated newspaper poet, inspirational lecturer, advertising agent) are authors as well. At a dinner party, Frink discusses a “literary problem” with Babbitt and some other guests—namely, the wording of an ad for the Zeeco automobile. Awkwardly, he admits his inferiority to a greater man: “Do you know the fellow who’s really the American Genius? The fellow who you don’t know his name and I don’t either, but his work ought to be preserved so’s future generations can judge our American thought and originality today? Why, the fellow that writes the Prince Albert Tobacco ads!” (Babbitt, p. 120). Of course, Lewis’s novel itself preserves dozens of slogans and sales pitches in the form of barely exaggerated parodies of ads during that era—for example, the ad that impresses Frink so deeply: “Prince Albert is john-on-the-job—always joy’usly more-ish in flavor; always delightfully cool and fragrant! For a fact, you never hooked such double-decked, copper-riveted, two-fisted smoke enjoyment!” (Babbitt, p. 120). Lewis took delight in mimicking the advertisers’ elaborate fantasies of fulfillment and, in so doing, he captured an important early phase in twentieth-century consumer-culture.
In regard to real-life models, Lewis can hardly have chosen the name for Babbitt’s wife without thinking of Myra Hendryx, the girl he worshipped from a distance as a teenager in Sauk Centre. Babbitt’s father-in-law is his business partner; likewise, Lewis worked briefly (and not very happily) at the Sauk Centre Herald for C. F. Hendryx, Myra’s father.
Literary influences can be identified too. Babbitt belongs to a fairly well-established American tradition of businessman-novels; some of the more important authors to contribute to this tradition—authors whose work Lewis knew well— were W. D. Howells (The Rise of Silas Lapham, The Quality of Mercy) and Theodore Dreiser (The Financier). From Upton Sinclair, best known for The Jungle, an investigative novel that exposed the abuses of the Chicago meat-packing business, Lewis learned the power of realistic social criticism. Also, as a regional novel set in the Midwest, Babbitt owes a debt to Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio.
If anyone had an impact on Lewis’s satirical side, it was the magazine editor, H. L. Mencken, who ran The Smart Set from 1914 to 1923 (and, from 1924-1933, the widely read American Mercury). The Smart Set featured a regular section devoted to ridiculous “clippings” (collected in the same spirit as the ones that appear in Babbitt) taken mostly from small-town newspapers. Mencken once lamented that the United States was “the first great empire in the history of the world to ground its whole national philosophy on business” (Mencken in Bode, p. 168), and he always expressed a hearty contempt for the self-satisfied ignorance that— in his opinion—the thriving herd of middle-class Americans constantly displayed. Lewis first met Mencken in 1920 and was understandably delighted when the critic, whom he had admired for some time, praised Main Street in the pages of The Smart Set. A year later, Mencken wrote to inquire about Lewis’s next novel (Babbitt), Lewis replied, “I think you’ll like it—I hope to Christ you do” (Lewis in Bode, p. 186).
Mencken liked Babbitt, as he wrote in a review that probably helped the novel’s sales. Babbitt’s great strength, Mencken claimed, was its faithful depiction of a typical citizen: “I know of no novel that more accurately presents the real America” (Mencken, p. 22). Sherwood Anderson’s review in The New Republic runs counter to this assessment, finding that Lewis had missed something crucial in his depiction of America’s towns and cities: “Here is a man writing who, wanting passionately to love the life around him, cannot bring himself to do so, and who, wanting perhaps to see beauty descend upon our lives like a rainstorm, has become blind to the minor beauties our lives hold” (Anderson, pp. 27-8). “There’s a lot more to America,” concurred Robert Littell in another New Republic review (Littell in Knight and James, p. 318). The question of whether Babbitt is too one-sidedly harsh could not help but arise in the reviews. Certainly the novel offended some readers, as satires typically do. A review in the Greensboro Daily News anticipated the negative responses, then went on to pronounce its own judgment on Lewis’s work
His book will be reviled from one end of this land to the other. It will be hated, spat upon, possibly burned.... But it will be read. And it ought to be read… because it attacks shams and hypocrisies and poltrooneries and dishonesties.”
(G. W. J. in Knight and James, p. 318)
Anderson, Sherwood. “Sinclair Lewis.” In Sinclair Lewis: a Collection of Critical Essays. Edited by Mark Schorer. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1962.
Bode, Carl. Mencken. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1969.
Knight, Marion A., and Mertice M. James. Book Review Digest. Vol. 18. New York: H. W. Wilson, 1923.
Lewis, Sinclair. Babbitt. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1922.
Mencken, Henry Louis. “Portrait of an American Citizen,” In Sinclair Lewis: A Collection of Critical Essays. Edited by Mark Schorer. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1962.
Schorer, Mark. Sinclair Lewis: An American Life. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1961.
Smith, Page. Redeeming the Time: A People’s History of the 1920s and the New Deal New York: Penguin, 1987.