There are probably millions of people worldwide who think of the USA as a place where a dishwasher can become a millionaire. It’s a cliché and yet the old American dream keeps attracting social climbers. But things aren’t that easy after all, not even in the land of unlimited possibilities. Competition is merciless and upstarts in the USA need to be thick-skinned just like everywhere else. However much personal freedom and entrepreneurial spirit are held in high esteem by her citizens there are complex as well as amazingly strict social conventions which should better not be violated. And beware of showing sympathies for socialist ideas! The Nobel laureate in Literature 1930 conceived a famous literary figure who had to learn it the hard way: Babbitt by Sinclair Lewis.
Sinclair Lewis, in full Henry Sinclair Lewis, was born in Sauk Centre, Minnesota, USA, in February 1885. He made his debut as a writer at Yale University, but depended on working for newspapers and publishing houses and on selling trivial stories to magazines for years. He continued to write short stories all his life. Only in 1914 he brought out his first serious novel Our Mr. Wrenn: The Romantic Adventures of a Gentle Man. His most successful novels appeared in the 1920s, namely Main Street (1920), Babbitt (1922), Arrowsmith (1925), Elmer Gantry (1927), and Dodsworth (1929). In 1930 Sinclair Lewis was the first US-American who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. Best remembered among the later works of the author who was increasingly suffering with alcoholism are the novels It Can't Happen Here (1935) and Kingsblood Royal (1947). Sinclair Lewis died in Rome, Italy, in January 1951. His last novel, World So Wide (1951), was published posthumously.
In April 1920 George F. Babbitt is a settled man in his forties and at the verge of a midlife crisis. The Great War is over, prohibition is in force and the Great Depression is not yet looming. He has everything that he can dream of: a thriving real estate business, a good wife as well as three promising children, a fashionable home. He lives in Floral Heights, a suburb of the fictitious Mid-Western city of Zenith which is just like any other inland settlement with a population of around 300,000. Streets, stores, buildings, individual houses including their interiors, everything is interchangeable. For George F. Babbitt this standardisation is the sound basis of economic success and he welcomes it. He gladly follows the advice of national advertisers because it spares him the trouble to
“… fix the surface of his life, fix what he believed to be his individuality.”
In other words: it spares him to create his very own image. He is proud to have been to college, but his favourite reads are the comic strips in the newspaper and their editorials which supply him with his ‘original’ opinions. As befits a citizen of his rank he is a member of the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks, the Boosters’ Club, the Chamber of Commerce, and the Presbyterian Church. He’s a man of high morals, even prudish, and a pillar of society. However, he’s a middle-class business man striving to be more without success although in the election campaign for the Republican candidate for mayor he distinguishes himself as an orator. The only true friend of George F. Babbitt is Paul Riesling, an able wholesaler and small manufacturer of prepared-paper roofing who used to be a gifted violinist at university and went into his father’s business after graduation because he had to provide for his wife, but the friendship peters out when Paul goes to jail for having shot (not killed) his bad-tempered wife Zilla. George F. Babbitt craves now even more for freedom and understanding because
“… he beheld, and half admitted that he beheld, his way of life as incredibly mechanical. Mechanical business—a brisk selling of badly built houses. Mechanical religion—a dry, hard church, shut off from the real life of the streets, inhumanly respectable as a top-hat. Mechanical golf and dinner-parties and bridge and conversation. Save with Paul Riesling, mechanical friendships—back-slapping and jocular, never daring to essay the test of quietness.”
When George F. Babbitt’s wife Myra leaves Zenith to visit family living in the East, he yields to his growing desire for change and new company. He begins to see the attractive and refined widow Tanis Judique to whom he had recently shown an apartment and is soon drawn into her circle of friends who enjoy parties and heavy drinking (which at the time is against the law). Not only his conduct, also his points of view become more liberal to the great displeasure of his business partners and friends who take action to get him back onto the right, i.e. conventional rut.
In his novel Sinclair Lewis satirised American society in the 1920s of which Babbitt was a typical exponent, but he managed to create a timeless piece of literature. Even in the new millennium the questions this book raises remain topical. While its plot is limited to conditions in the USA during the Jazz Age, standardisation is a global reality today. Our world has become so frighteningly uniform that it doesn’t really matter anymore where you are. The same desires, the same advertisements, the same products, the same shops, the same interior design, the same architecture can be found virtually everywhere on this planet just like in the novel. Success in business and social station are in the centre of all human striving. There true individualism is detrimental. It’s better to swim with the current and to protect the interests of your social group in order to avoid exclusion. Movements which advocate popular ideas including a certain share of racism and chauvinism are part of the game. The language that Sinclair Lewis used in Babbitt is very colloquial and includes many slang expressions which someone like me whose native language isn’t English can find a bit hard to link with known words.
Babbitt by Sinclair Lewis has been my first experience with the work of this Nobel laureate in Literature. I’m afraid that with a few exceptions his books are quite forgotten today. As a matter of fact, many of his novels happen to be out of print. I enjoyed Babbitt although I must admit that I wasn’t overly impressed by it. However, it was an interesting read and certainly deserves my recommendation.
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This review is a contribution to the perpetual Read the Nobels challenge.
For more information and a complete list of books that I already reviewed for it »»» please read my sign-up post!