77 of 80 people found the following review helpful
Sinclair Lewis wrote a series of satires that exposed the hypocrisy of early 20th century America. “Babbitt” is a snapshot of the life of George F. Babbitt, a somewhat prosperous middle class businessman who lives in Zenith, Ohio. Zenith has a population of 300,000+, and has an active business community. This community has its own rituals and ironclad rules. These rules consist of being one of the gang, being a member of all the right clubs and organizations, and never deviating from the ideals of business and money. These rules cause enormous difficulties for Babbitt when he goes through a midlife crisis at the end of the book and begins spouting liberal ideas and associating with the “wrong” crowd.
This is my first encounter with Sinclair Lewis. I really don’t know why I chose to read “Babbitt” first, as I also have copies of “Main Street” and “Arrowsmith”. I think it was the unusual cover of the Penguin edition, which is a picture of a painting called “Booster” by Grant Wood. To me, that picture IS Babbitt, and I’ll always be able to see Babbitt in my head whenever I’m reminded of this book.There really isn’t a lot of symbolism here (and the symbolism that is here is pretty easy to decipher) and the prose is much closer to our present day writing and speech. This is brilliant satire, and you’ll laugh out loud at many of the situations Babbitt gets himself into. An especially hilarious incident occurs when one of the local millionaire businessmen finally accepts an invitation to dine with Babbitt. The evening goes badly because Babbitt is in a lower social class. Lewis then shows Babbitt going to a dinner at an old friends house who is in a lower class then him. It’s hilarious to see the similarities between the two events, and it brings home how class is strictly enforced in Zenith, and by extension, America.
Babbitt is a person that I found myself both hating and liking, often within the space of one page. He’s ignorant, in that he is a major conformist who often repeats slogans and phrases merely because others in his circle say the same things. He’s a namedropper who refers to people he doesn’t even know as though they were his best friends. He’s also high volume. Babbitt is one of those people we all know who is always boisterous and noisy so they can hide their own insecurities or ignorance. Just when you think you can’t stand Babbitt for another second, Lewis tosses in a situation that makes you feel for the man. Babbitt is the boss at a real estate company, and he worries about his employees liking him. When a confrontation arises with one of his salesmen, Babbitt frets and doesn’t want to fire the guy, although the rules of business eventually force him to do exactly that. He wants all of his employees to like him. He also feels bad about cheating on his wife while she is away and worries about what his children will think of him when he comes in drunk after a night of carousing. Ultimately, although Babbitt can be a major heel, the reader is almost forced to sympathize with him. This is true especially at the end of the book, when Babbitt renounces his liberal ways and rejoins his old colleagues. His return to the pack is not quite complete, however. Babbitt is changed by his transgression, and has learned a few lessons that he imparts to his son on the last page of the book, thus ending the tale on an upbeat note.
I would like to have seen a better section of explanatory notes in this Penguin edition. While some of the more obscure references are defined, many are not. Also, some of the language in the book is very 1920’s slang, and for a 21st century ear, it can be difficult to pick up on some of them. This book is both funny and sad, but well worth reading. Sinclair Lewis eventually won Pulitzer and Nobel prizes for his literary endeavors. It’s not hard to see why. Recommended.
35 of 36 people found the following review helpful
Sinclair Lewis and Thomas Hart Benton, the artist, were about the same age, they both focussed on the American Heartland, and as I read Lewis, I see that they both had something else in common. They both had a tendency to draw cartoonish characters. George F. Babbitt is the main character of a satire by the same name; you might even laugh aloud in some places. Lewis is skillful, but at times, heavy-handed. He has portrayed an average Joe of 1920, the pep- and vim-obsessed go-getting businessman who was the bedrock of our industrial age, hypocritical, materialist, crooked, conformist, even proto-fascist. Babbitt is a real estate agent, a family man surrounded by the wealth of material goods provided by thriving industrial capitalism. He belongs enthusiastically and unquestioningly to any organization dedicated to preserving his and his family's ready access to those goods---professional group (realtors association), Boosters, church, and set social circle. He spouts meaningless platitudes on every subject, knows nothing except the price of real estate and methods of collusion, and ignores his feelings, his family, and the rest of the world, all the while believing that his city, state, and country are the best in the world. The first 90-odd pages of BABBITT are pure genius; one of the best character portraits you are likely to find in American literature---but it is a caricature after all. Lewis' choice of names underlines his cartoonish glee in writing this brilliant novel---Vergil Gunch, Professor Pumphrey, Chet Laylock, Matt Penniman, Muriel Frink, Opal Mudge, Carrie Nork, and Miss McGoun---names that could have been annexed years later by MAD magazine ! "Babbitt" has long been a word in American English, signifying a conforming materialist citizen without a mind of his own. Perhaps this is not entirely fair.
George goes through a mid-life crisis, rebels against his static, materialistic life with its know-nothing attitudes, its moral certitudes, and its boring routines. His closest friend (aren't there certain unspoken overtones of homosexual love ?) commits a dastardly deed, breaking George's heart. "On the rebound", he meets the fantastically-named Tanis Judique, femme fatale à la Midwest. Certain consequences arise, Lewis brings in his ever-present fear of American fascist tendencies, and there's a rather hopeful ending, also in the American tradition. If you are looking for a place to begin reading Sinclair Lewis, BABBITT is an excellent choice. If you already know other Lewis novels, don't miss this one. I would say that with "Main Street", "Elmer Gantry" and "Dodsworth", BABBITT is at the solid gold core of Sinclair Lewis' work. He certainly did deserve that Nobel Prize.
27 of 27 people found the following review helpful
George F. Babbitt is middle-aged and middle-class. He lives in a medium-sized home in a medium-sized city in the Middle West. He's a middleman--he sells real estate. He went to a state university and depends on his secretary to fix the spelling and grammar in his letters. His children fight over who gets to use the car. His life is pretty straight and narrow, until he begins an affair when his wife is out of town and all of a sudden things aren't so middle-of-the-road anymore.
Sound like anyone you know? But "Babbitt" was published--almost unbelievably--in 1922. Funny how little some things have changed. Lewis's satire on suburban life and its conformities was an instant hit. Even today, we know what a Babbitt is--a guy who's all show and no go--whose lifestyle and opinions have been furnished for him but maybe whose soul is a little out of whack. It's a pity that schools usually assign the much slower-paced "Main Street". Read "Main Street" to see what life used to be like. Read "Babbitt" to see how we got to where we are today.
26 of 26 people found the following review helpful
on July 27, 2010
Sinclair Lewis has to be one of the "great" writers of all time. In Babbitt he describes an era using fictional characters to represent the times in which many changes were taking place in the social environment of our country. America was coming out of the rural age and into the age of technical development, and characters reflected the effects of these changes in Lewis' novel. Great reading, and an opportunity to reflect on an important stage in America's development.
23 of 25 people found the following review helpful
on September 14, 2005
In April 1920 George F. Babbitt was a moderately successful, reasonably honest real estate man in the mythical midwestern American industrial city of Zenith. Product himself of a virtuous small town, Catawba, Babbitt rose to become a college graduate, married man and father of three. He was a joiner (Elks, Boosters), political activist (Republican precinct leader), churchman (Presbyterian) and believer in the power and beauty of advertising. Over the next year or so, George or "Georgie" became favorably noticed by his betters through previously muted oratorical and advocacy skills. But as he rose in public and kingmakers' esteem, he also stumbled by admitting weakly to a certain sympathy (but not solidarity) with labor unions, strikers and a radical local lawyer, college friend Seneca Doane.
When another and much closer friend went to prison for a crime of personal violence, Babbitt lost his bearings. Zenith, its mores and values, no longer defined for Babbitt the outer imaginable limits of human striving. Yet he could not create anything better. All he could rouse himself to do was to experiment with a couple of amours, run around for a few weeks with a fast crowd, drink too much, hurt his wife's feelings, slip out of the office to go to movies and slide into mild disrepute with his business peers and his betters.
In the end, however, Babbitt lost energy and all pretense to be a free wheeling libertine and slipped back to being Good Old Georgie. Once again he was predictable. That is, "he cheated only if it was sanctified by precedent" (Ch. 4). He championed with conviction "the spiritual and mental side of American supremacy ... spiritual and, uh, dominating movements like Efficiency, and Rotarianiam, and Prohibition, and Democracy" (Ch. 6). While transforming himself back to what American businessmen were intended to be, George F. Babbitt left posterity a name synonymous with dull mediocrity, caution and conformity.
9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
on April 25, 2010
1922's Babbitt is one of Sinclair Lewis' best works and one of the best twentieth century American novels, essential for anyone interested in Lewis or the era.
Main Street, Lewis' prior novel and breakthrough, satirizes American small town life and depicts the New Woman; Babbitt satirizes American urban life and depicts the American Everyman. The latter is its best-known and most insightful aspect. The character of Babbitt epitomizes 1920s' middle class values; obsessed with consumerism and money making, he embodies conservatism, Republican politics, and WASP supremacy. In short, Lewis deftly drew the kind of American then growing more common each year - and more importantly, the ideal to which, outwardly at least, more and more people aspired. Babbitt is one of the most vividly drawn and fully lifelike characters I have seen in the hundreds or thousands of books I have read; he not only seems real in himself but the very image of many people I have known. It may be very hard to like him; he is vain, ignorant, narrow-minded, shallow, hypocritical, temperamental, and many other unsavory things. That said, it is almost impossible to hate him; he is truly kind to his friend Paul and has occasional insight as well as admirable if thwarted ambition. Despicable as his thoughts and actions sometimes are, we cannot shake the feeling that he is decent at heart. An early reviewer made the all-important point that few will see themselves in Babbitt, but all will see people they know - probably many. He is the apotheosis of an important American type, perhaps the era's dominant one and still very prominent. More fundamentally, he is essentially human; for all his faults, any honest person will feel with and for him, because his failings and many of his strivings are central to the twentieth/twenty-first century human condition. Nearly everyone in current Western society can sympathize greatly with his doubts and struggles. Babbitt is at times nothing less than loathsome and often risible, yet it is hard to laugh at him, much less anything harsher; he is really more pitiable than anything.
This gets to the book's more important American dream critique. Babbitt is ostensibly successful in a way most Americans would envy yet plagued by uncertainty. He has gone about life unthinkingly for years but is suddenly haunted by dissatisfaction and a dreadful feeling of hollowness. Lewis was ahead of his time in depicting this malaise, which was not generally admitted for decades. He exposes American society as not only superficial but largely artificial, dominated by crass, anti-intellectual commercialism and unthinking conservatism. The novel rigorously condemns capitalism at its worst, vibrantly showing how it dehumanizes and saps culture. Much of this is done via brilliant speech evocation; Lewis was one of the first to use contemporary American speech fictionally, and Babbitt is perhaps its height. H. L. Mencken, author of The American Language, rightly praised it. Lewis had a great ear for slang and uses it with aplomb; one of his key insights is just how thoroughly commercialism had invaded speech. He also invented slang terms, several of which entered popular use, as did "Babbitt" and "Babbitry." This is such an essential part of the work that a glossary was necessary in European editions, and the book did much to make Europeans aware of American slang.
Babbitt also searchingly dramatizes a range of other related and important issues, including masculinity, femininity and feminism (a core Main Street theme), religion (the focus of Lewis' later Elmer Gantry), race, and class. It is often satirical but sometimes ponderously thought-provoking and occasionally tragic. Lewis is typically called a satirist, but this sells him rather short; his range is significantly wider, but even more important is his strong artistic skill. Anyone who likes Main will like this, though the latter's good humor profusion is largely missing, but Lewis' artistry had clearly improved. The episodic plotting that many criticize him for is mostly gone; Babbitt initially seems episodic, but a closer look reveals a very deliberate progression. This is all the more remarkable in that hardly anything really important seems to happen; the book begins with a near hour-to-hour account of Babbitt's everyday life and continues focusing on apparent minutia. However, these small events are more meaningful in retrospect and form an important whole. The primary improvement over Main is that the ending is not arbitrary but extremely deliberate and indeed, given the writing's steady march, all but inevitable in the best artistic sense. It is also unusually hopeful for Lewis, suggesting that, however savage his critiques, he believed things might change for the better.
This sadly has not occurred; Babbittry has grown ever more pervasive. The novel was written at an important time in American history - between World War I and the economic boom preceding the Great Depression. All this shows up; WWI is hardly mentioned openly but looms like a ghastly demon, fueling dissatisfaction and insecurity. Lewis memorably dramatizes the poor economy's effects: labor unrest, growing radicalism, emboldened reactionaries, etc. The Jazz Age decadence famously chronicled by contemporaries like Fitzgerald and Hemingway is also on display. It was a dark period, and Lewis chronicles brilliantly; his realism and attention to detail ensure that one can learn more about the era here than in any history book. We not only see what daily lives were like but absorb much about a wide variety of subjects: politics, speech, gender roles, sexuality, fashion, music, cinema, economics, and practically everything else. Perhaps most revealing is a candid picture of Prohibition era drinking. The book answered several questions I had always had and taught me much.
The fact that Babbitt so completely embodies its era unsurprisingly led to a decline in its and Lewis' reputation when the era became a dim memory. However, those who wrote him and it off were unrealistically optimistic. The realization that later prosperity was mostly illusory and the continuing existence of nearly everything the book criticizes make it seem newly relevant. It may indeed be more relevant than ever, but the unfortunate truth is that it has always been relevant. The novel is certainly a timepiece in many ways, giving it great historical value, but several core themes - not least its conformity send up - are eternal, and its depiction of existential unease is central to the present human condition. We were unwise to write Babbitt off and must not repeat the mistake; it has much to teach us and is also highly entertaining with much to provoke thought and emotion - an essential early twentieth century American novel.
8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on November 24, 2006
For those unfamiliar with American history's dance with itself, "Babbitt" (1922) is shockingly modern. As eye-opening as "American Beauty" was for a certain suburban teen, this book is a delightful illustration of the travails and solemn duties of middle-class middle-aged white men. Since the content has become familiar, the mild inoculation of self-criticism (repackaged as entertainment a la Desperate Housewives) that remains is no longer the powerful strain it was in the period between the World Wars. This was a period of Dada denunciation of Hitler, widespread cynicism and thanks to a few bold writers, an era that made the public aware of its critics. These critics were resentfully thanked for their troubles but never invited to the right sort of parties.
America's curious balance of boastfulness and anti-intellectualism finds no better metaphor than in business, and this is where Sinclair Lewis directs our gaze. Who is George Babbitt? To what can we attribute his remarkable ability to get paid exactly what he earns? Is it Pep? Efficiency? Rotarianism? Lewis deftly shows us it is his gentle insensitivity to hypocrisy, and a well-meaning, lazy self-obsession that gets him what he's got coming. Much as our modern American protagonist Homer Simpson, Babbitt knows how to say just the right things to his wife so we don't hate him for his insensitivity. He expresses just enough empathy for the people he cheats. His ability to proudly repeat a cohesive, easily digestible set of morals is his best evidence of a free nation of thinkers. And that is, thinkers that think one mustn't spend too much time thinking instead of jawing with the neighbor, or giving lectures to the Chamber of Commerce. To possess self-reference without self-deference, that means you're a bleeding-heart Buttinski.
Yet somehow, the pervading sense one gets when reading Babbitt is that rather than part of a tradition of disenfranchised literary criticism, the book is part of an American tradition. Lewis, in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech:
"I had realized in reading Balzac and Dickens that it was possible to describe French and English common people as one actually saw them. But it had never occurred to me that one might without indecency write of the people of Sauk Centre, Minnesota, as one felt about them. Our fictional tradition, you see, was that all of us in Midwestern villages were altogether noble and happy; that not one of us would exchange the neighborly bliss of living on Main Street for the heathen gaudiness of New York or Paris or Stockholm. But in Mr. Garland's Main-Traveled Roads I discovered that there was one man who believed that Midwestern peasants were sometimes bewildered and hungry and vile- and heroic. And, given this vision, I was released; I could write of life as living life."
Lewis argues it is the lack of a coherent American voice that enables writers like himself to be heard without comparison. But perhaps most disheartening is that not only do the traditions of hypocrisy seen in the book persist, but the vilifications of independent thinkers remain. The business world analogue exposes the entrepreneur as the all-desirable, but salaciously free-thinking, and displaces the ordinary business man thinking he is safe in conformity. Claiming intellectualism is a class act, and consequentially condemning them is a sleight of hand to eliminate the role of the everyday thinker, the man on the street who one evening decides to pick up a pen instead of the paper. Perhaps there is no better way to close a meditation on the role of the individual and the public than to return to Lewis:
"I salute them, with a joy in being not yet too far removed from their determination to give to the America that has mountains and endless prairies, enormous cities and lost far cabins, billions of money and tons of faith, to an America that is as strange as Russia and as complex as China, a literature worthy of her vastness."
8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on October 27, 2002
Lewis was an enormously successful writer in the 1920s (really on the same level as Hemmingway and Fitzgerald), but he has faded and is hardly read today. This, however, has no bearing on the importance of his writing. His writings reveal the social realities and concerns of his time. He focuses on individuals not communities (not bound together in any organic way). He is also skeptical about success and the American dream. There is a real sense of contempt toward the middle-class in Lewis. He really fills in a gap in The Great Gatsby, which included old money, new money, and the working class, but where is the middle class. As a result, Lewis' is famous for satirizing the middle class.
Lewis wrote Babbitt in 1922, and based it on sociological research in Midwestern cities. He spent months simply observing. A little backgroud information: first, George F. Babbitt is a real-estate agent and land has become a commodity in the 1920s. Second, the reader presumes Babbitt to have been a progressive in his younger years since his son is named Theodore Roosevelt Babbitt. Third, Babbitt is going through a midlife crisis. Lewis offers a satirical view of Middle American life. Lewis is closely attuned to the nuances of social classes. Within the middle class Lewis teases out differences in rank (lower-middle and upper-middle). He examines social conformity and the pressures of the group on behavior. Lewis also observes the new mass culture and the automobile's impact.
Also adding to the success and interest of Babbitt is the fact that Babit can be read as an authentic, fully developed character throughout the novel. Babbitt is a success but he has a tremendous feeling of longing for things not accomplished due to social reality. Babbitt is a conservative, but quite amazingly he becomes involved in a socialist's campaign. His character is transforming. He even joins a bohemian circle (Lewis offers a description for the counter-culture). He realizes that there are social conformities that exist in this small group of Bohemians as well as in "normal" middle class.
Lewis also turns away from the city and towards the wilderness. This encounter with nature represents that chance of reenergizing or rejuvenating. Babbitt goes to a fishing camp where Joe Paradise is the guide. But Babbitt realizes that there are no more canoes. Instead they have been replaced with motor boats. However, there are still no cities or stores. Joe tells Babbitt that he would move to the city and open a store if he had the money to do so. This is a pivotal point in Lewis' story. Joe Paradise wants the life that Babbitt has and finds so frustrating. Babbitt realizes that he is shaped by the city.
The one real change that Babbitt makes in his life occur is in the realm of family intimacy. His marriage is dead in the beginning of the book, but his wife has a medical emergency. It is in that situation that Babit rediscovers his love for his wife. It also confirms Babbitt's entrapment. In order to have this intimacy Babbitt has to accept the conformities of the city life.
Babbitt is a tremendously important description of a man and the affect of city life in the new urban America.
8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on April 7, 2011
In this searing novel George Babbitt is a successful 1920's real estate man from the fictional Midwest city of Zenith. At 46 Babbit is a respected family man eager to climb the social ladder through boosterism, materialism, and sucking up to the right contemporaries. Despite his efforts to climb and conform, George suffers increasing unhappiness with his embrace of the so-called American dream. George unsuccessfully attempts to quell these feelings on a camping trip with his best friend Paul. Later, Paul goes to prison for shooting and wounding his wife, leaving George profoundly affected and eager to rebel. Babbitt suddenly throws in with liberal politics and unions, has an affair, and runs around with a partying flapper crowd. Yet he cannot entirely break from his moorings, and he also discovers that rebellion too has its limits (and rigid conformity). In time he returns to the fold, but cannot surrender the appeal of rebellion and living on one's terms rather than societies.
Sinclair Lewis (1885-1951) had a great knack for exposing pretense, societal hypocrisy, and rigid middle-class conformity. His prose can get a touch thick, but his message remains as on key today as when this book arrived in 1922. Readers may also enjoy Lewis' other social critiques like MAIN STREET, ARROWSMITH, ELMER GANTRY, plus his fear of rising fascism from the 1930's, IT CAN'T HAPPEN HERE.
11 of 12 people found the following review helpful
on October 20, 2000
Sinclair Lewis is generally relegated to second-rate status by the academics - despite the fact that he was America's first Nobel Prize winner for Literature. As Robertson Davies, among others, asserted, Lewis is vastly under-rated and under-read among American novelists. He deserves far more attention - because of his literary gifts as well as his ability to mirror and illuminate the American character. Sinclair Lewis understood very well the forces at work in America in the early to mid part of the 20th century - not all of it positive. Perhaps Lewis' unpopularity in America is in part due to his caricatures of Americans in an unflattering light. No one should consider Lewis in the pantheon of literary immortals - but surely he fits somewhere in the curriculum. Lewis is highly readable, his satire is highly amusing, his prose is intelligent and his observations on the pitfalls and hypocrisy of pursuit of happiness in America are brilliant. His portrayal of Babbitt as the Lost Soul, knowing that he is lost but without the willingness or moral courage to find meaning in his existence, is a moving commentary on middle class America "getting ahead" that continues to be contemporary to subsequent generations.