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By Sinclair Lewis
Waterville, Maine: Thorndike Press, originally published in 1922
No date on this edition, but say: “now in Public Domain in the U.S.”
ISBN: 0-7862-8211-8, large print, unabridged
607 pages

Comments by Bob Corbett
January 2014

It’s 1920 and George F. Babbitt is 46. He lives in the up and coming city of Zenith. He is has a real-estate company with his father-in-law, Henry Thompson. Babbitt lives with his wife, Myra, a 22 year old daughter, Verona, who’s recently graduated from Bryn Mawr, his restless son, Ted who is 17 and in high school. The last child is Tinka (Katherine), a 10 year old elementary school student.

He’s been married for 23 years, is a Presbyterian and Elk. George’s main interests are baseball and the Republican Party. He smokes lots of cigars and in incessantly trying to quit smoking. He also smokes cigarettes.

These were good days for the Babbitt-Thompson Realty Company

“. . . a real-estate broker could make money by guessing which way the town would grow. This guessing he called Vision.”

He lives in an up-scale suburb (Floral Heights) of Zenith, a largish city between 300,000 and 400,000. His lovely home is 5 years old.

Yet early on we do read of a slight caution in the air:

“In fact there was but one thing wrong with the Babbitt House: It was not a home.”

His best friend and long-time friend is Paul Riesling – Babbitt can be honest with him. Life’s not so great for either of them.

Babbitt tries to ignore any problems, concentrate on the good things, and basically go along with the crowd, the fairly wealthy and comfortable crowd, with whom he lives in their fairly isolated and quite comfortable neighborhood. They are Presbyterian Christians, politically conservative and proud of it.

Yet there is certain restlessness in Babbitt, and the sole person whom he can talk with any honesty is Paul Riesling, himself a violin player in the local orchestra.

“Now and then Babbitt suddenly agreed with Paul in an admission which contradicted all his defense of duty and Christian patience, and at each admission he had a curious reckless joy.”

This admission doesn’t come until we are 1/6th the way through the book, which shows how much Babbitt hides this even from himself.

The novel is a carefully crafted, slow-moving tale which is fascinating on two very different levels:

  1. The story itself
  2. Being written in 1920-21 the author naturally treats of everyday affairs as well known to the readers of the time. This is like a detailed look at a long-time past culture. This “inside” look is simply fascinating.

An example of this second facet is their car issues: They want a new car. The family wants a sedan, a closed car. Dad is cheap and likes the “open car.” I’d never thought about that issue before. I loved the discussion:

“Verona, the older daughter, cried, ‘Oh Dad, if you do why don’t you get a sedan? That would be perfectly slick! A closed car is so much more comfy than an open one.’

‘Well now, I don’t know about that. I kind of like an open car. You get more fresh air that way.’

‘Oh shoot, that’s just because you never tried a sedan. Let’s get one. It’s got a lot more class,’ said Ted.

‘A closed car does keep the clothes nicer,’ from Mrs. Babbitt; ‘You don’t get your hair blown all to pieces,’ from Verona; ‘It’s a lot sportier,’ from Ted; and from Tinka, the youngest, ‘Oh let’s have a sedan! Mary Ellen’s father has got one.’ Ted winds up, ‘Oh, everybody’s got a closed car now, except us.’”

Lewis uses a device which John Dos Passos polishes and gains some fame from just over 10 years later in his USA Trilogy. Lewis lists a number of items from everyday culture, in this case ads. Ted does this in relation to trade school ads and the local poet does it in relation to ads in general. Dos Passos uses this device extensively in his work.

The novel is sort of a sociological tour-de-force analysis, cleverly done in this fictional form.

Babbitt earns $8,000 a year and is wealthy. Not wildly rich, but wealthy. However he is a good deal conflicted, but for much of the novel he doesn’t really know this or face it. After a meeting with Mr. Eathorne, a rich banker, about church reform business, Babbitt resolves to use more “proper” language and less slang. He is much impressed with Mr. Eathorne who is in a richer class and seen by Babbitt and “superior” because of his wealth.

Early on we discover that the up and coming generation, especially in the persons of Babbitt’s two oldest children, is going to be a source of conflict.

Young press agent, Kenneth Escott came for dinner and hits it off with Verona. They are seen as young “radicals.” They are highly intellectual, not much interested in money or upward mobility, something that Babbitt just can’t imagine. His son Ted has the audacity to tell his father he doesn’t really want to go to college, but wishes to get into the work world right after high school. Again, Babbitt is just aghast.

Babbitt is getting some recognition within the area, especially his work with the Sunday school. This, much to his delight, seriously advances Babbitt’s reputation. He also leans on the local newspaper editor, Escott, to publicize the pastor, Dr. Drew. Escott does this and it gains Babbitt some favors with his community.

In the main he is very “straight” but he does get into some slightly shady bank/real estate deals with the rich banker from the church.

However, Babbitt, in his late 40s is beginning to begin to wonder: is this all there is? He has a strange feeling that is not what he “should” be having if he wants to advance in this world, but there is some spark of dissatisfaction. He begins to find himself bored with his wife and wanting to have some experience with some younger women, a new thing for him.

Babbitt is fairly easily influenced and he meets an old college friend on a train, the very liberal Seneca Doane and soon Babbitt is beginning to have “liberal” ideas, a very dangerous thing in his world.

Before long he is admitting to himself his discontent with his wife, who’s nice enough, but he isn’t really deeply in love with her. He meets a younger (but not that young) woman, Tanis Judique and is fairly much swept off his feet and begins what most today would consider an extremely “tame” affair.

Both his “liberal” ideas he enjoys spouting (as much for the notice as they are deeply held beliefs), and his affair, which is soon public knowledge, put him into difficulty in this society where no one’s business is private.

The crucial moment is less the affair than politics. The very conservative right wing community decides all the men should be in the Good Citizens’ League (G.C.L.). Babbitt is feeling his oats and is quite resistant. He won’t join and is attacked by friends.

Up to this point in the novel I thought Sinclair Lewis was doing a fantastic job of building this man and his difficult conflict, but I was disappointed in the author’s refusal to take Babbitt himself seriously enough. Yes, he is a bit weak, and uncertain, but when he decides to break off his affair, I felt Lewis was too judgmental and unsympathetic to his own character:

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

On the other hand, Lewis does well describe the attitude of Babbitt’s community toward the working class and poor:

“. . . all of them perceived that American Democracy did not imply any equality of wealth, but did demand a wholesome sameness of thought, dress, painting, morals, and vocabulary.”

In the end it is much more his wife’s appendicitis than his own moral courage that is the turning point. He rushes to her aide and realizes he simply has to make a decision. He chooses his wife and family, which definitely seems a good decision for Babbitt. He just wasn’t fully cut out to be a rebel to his class or culture.

Nonetheless, Lewis holds out a great deal of hope for the lives of his two older children. His daughter seems on her way to a more enlightened life and son, Ted, just in college, elopes with next-door sweet-heart and decides to do blue collar work and get on with life.

There seems to be more hope for the children that for Babbitt himself.

The novel is a wonderful read and, having been written in 1920-21; it carries the language of the day and the values and technology and culture of the day. It’s a marvelous learning experience and

Bob Corbett


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Bob Corbett