“I wish I could have written Babbitt” – H.G. Wells
Babbitt is an oddity for me: not only because it’s literary fiction, and social realism at that, but also because it doesn’t really need a review. It’s one of the iconic works of the 20th century. Its title became a common noun – you can still find it in dictionaries – and a word that symbolised one of the great social divides of the 1920s and 1930s. Babbitt was a bestseller: the tenth-best-selling book of 1922, and the fourth-best-selling book of 1923. It was one of five top-ten bestsellers by Lewis that decade, the most by any author of that era (tied with Zane Grey). Two of those novels hit number one, and another hit number two. Meanwhile, in 1930, Lewis became the first American to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature; Babbitt was widely considered to be the book that won it for him.
To summarise what Lewis meant in the 1920s, perhaps imagine that Tom Clancy (who, like Lewis, had two number-one bestsellers) and Gabriel García Márquez (who, like Lewis, was a Nobel laureate) were the same person. Or perhaps, given the political nature of Lewis’ writing, a better combination would be Dan Brown (two bestsellers) and Harold Pinter (Nobel laureate).
In other words, you don’t need my review on this one. If you have any interest in literature, whether for historical or for artistic purposes, Babbitt should already be on your to-read list.
But since I’ve read it, I may as well say a few words for those who haven’t read it yet…
Babbitt is a 1922 novel by Sinclair Lewis, a thematic sequel-of-a-sort to 1920s Main Street, the work that had catapulted him to fame (Main Street has been described as the publishing sensation of the century, and ‘not so much a novel as an incident in American life’). Main Street was a dissection of the life of the American small town – so fundamental in its critique that Americans still use its title to symbolise ordinary people and small businesses; in Babbitt, Lewis moved his attention to the big city. In this case, the city is Zenith, a booming Midwestern town, and the focus is middle-aged Republican real estate broker George F. Babbitt, proud upstanding member of the Chamber of Commerce, the Athletic Club, the Boosters Club, and the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks.
The plot is, for the most part, non-existent. Rather than following a simple, coherent narrative, Babbitt meanders back and forth, displaying step by step haphazardly the breakdown of Babbitt’s world of certainty and contentment. Babbitt, you see, may be prosperous, successful, blessed with a wife, three children, a business, the respect of the community, and most importantly a motor car, but all is not quite well somehow. At night, he dreams of a beautiful fairy child, and in dark moments, he remembers that he always wanted to be a lawyer and a statesman – just as his friend Paul Riesling always wanted to be a violinist – and wonders how and why that never happened. He is, in short, in modern terms, a man on the precipice of a mid-life crisis.
This core conceit – a picaresque tale of the crisis of a frankly not wholly admirable and yet still pitiably sympathetic respectable man – is highly reminiscent of Cabell’s Jurgen, which I strongly suspect is not a coincidence given Lewis’ admiration for his contemporary. [Cabell’s works are namechecked in Babbitt, and I think a few of the lines are homages, or in-jokes for fellow fans]. But where Jurgen is a timeless flight of whimsy into fantasy, Babbitt is a work of pedantic social realism, rooted obsessively in its place and period. Lewis isn’t writing Babbitt just to tell the story of Georgie Babbitt: he’s telling that story at least in part as an excuse to write the first Great American Novel in the modern sense, a sprawling, encyclopaedic summary of the totality of American life in the 20th century. Or, at least, one chapter of the GAN: later novels would reach into areas George Babbitt couldn’t penetrate, such as the medical and academic subcultures of Arrowsmith, the fundamentalist revivalism of the banned Elmer Gantry, and the upper echelons of society (who spend most of the novel on tour in Europe) in Dodsworth.
The realism and observation of Babbitt are remarkable, and are the basis of the reader’s primary reaction to the novel. Most striking is Lewis’ decision to accurately reflect the contemporary patois of the American middle-classes, with a sensitivity that allows us to discern the changes between generations and the gradations between social classes. To the modern reader, however, the effect is nothing like what is intended. On the one hand, the constant barrage of “swell”, “slick”, “fourflushing”, “gee whillikins”, “gosh all fishhooks”, “takes the firebrick necklace” and “pep” is inherently ridiculous in the modern age – it probably was for Lewis too, but in an entirely opposite way (Lewis is writing about cool new slang that sounds silly and uncouth to his paternal ears, whereas for the modern reader anybody who actually says “gee whiz!” is hopelessly antique, quaint, postcard-picturesque). On another hand, the slang is intriguing, magnetic, interesting in the way a crossword puzzle or a mysterious photograph in a family album may be interesting: what in Lewis’ time was unprecedentedly real, lifelike, ordinary, to us has become alien and other (the way that the prefix “he-” is used as an all-purpose indicator of admiration and respect and manliness (sorry, he-manliness) is both disarmingly, charmingly quaint and at the same time subty horrifying). The interest has been inverted. And there is also the unfortunate fact that between rampant he-slang, gradual but vital shifts in word usage, and changes in cultural and material life, there are occasionally moments of real puzzlement and confusion, and of unintended humour. These may tantalise; they may also distract.
More generally, the impact of Lewis’ he-realism has been blunted by the passage of time: we have nothing but the amazed testimony of contemporaries to reassure us that this picture he paints is indeed an accurate one: Lewis’ mirror of life has become (for those of us who are not professional historians) our only testimony to the nature of that extinct existence. As for the finer points Lewis makes, the subtleties that rely on our contextual knowledge, these are lost entirely in our ignorance of the past, in a way that more stylised, universalised classic he-novels are more able to sidestep. Oliver Twist does not rely on us knowing precisely the relative social status of a syndicated poet and a traction company land-purchaser, nor does it hope to pack a world of import into a short description by saying simply that a man looked like the sort of man who would work as a soda fountain clerk. What is the social significance attached to a 1920s realtor’s decision whether or not to let his manicurist apply protective nail varnish?
Yet after we have struggled through the shock of the old, what really hits us is how modern this all is, or how antique we all are. As Babbitt wanders through his world, from business meetings to domestic arguments, from evangelical preachers to over-eager, over-friendly episcopalian priests and to lectures by new thought gurus on cultivating the inner sun spirit, from derided old socialists to tub-thumping anti-immigrant he-populism, from celebrity culture to industry conferences, from worker’s strikes to the difficulties women have in finding employment, from teenage revellers to over-earnest young activists, to lower-middle-class guys who spend all week waiting to get hammered at the weekend, to ‘phone-fixated
hipsters Bohemians (they have real he-names like ‘Capitolina’), to young girls looking for sugar daddies, from Republican primaries and the need for “a sound business administration” (Warren Harding is duly elected – a real swell he-President) to the way science is corrupted into the service of big business, from advertising jingles to learn-in-a-week-with-this-one-weird-trick-discovered-by-a-Zenith-housewife postal scams, from corrupt real estate deals to torturous suburban dinner parties… the world of Zenith is our world. The paraphernalia may have changed – more people have cars now, and fewer have maids, and these days we don’t have to go through the rigmarole of pretending to observe Prohibition (in the West, at least). But in all the important ways, Zenith feels modern in a way that other writing I’ve encountered of this era and before it just doesn’t.
Part of that may be Lewis’ unromantic realism, and his interest in depicting the way the world was going, rather than the way it saw itself or the way it had been. I think also that some of it is about place, not time. When I have read about the early 20th century, it has usually been the early 20th century of England – as in the recently-read Lady into Fox, for instance – a time and place that feel familiar yet very distant. How much things have changed, I thought. But the contemporaneous Babbitt makes me instead wonder how much that change has less been historical progress and more simply the rise to preëminence of America: the world, or at least the UK, has become part of America, an America little-changed from the America of Babbitt (just as, in fairness, the America of Babbitt still feels like a colony, like a strangely-warped province of the British Empire, still looking to London and its aristocracy for approval and guidance the way that people now look to America).
In fact, it’s all a bit depressing. Sure, some things have changed for the better. The position of women and of African-Americans (and Jews) has improved massively since the time of Babbitt: the treatment of women now reads as unpleasantly antiquated, while the treatment of African-Americans is positively cringe-worthy, to the extent that they’re present at all (Zenith is a northern city before the mid-20th century migration of the black population to the northern cities, and is clearly not very multicultural). That’s intentional – Lewis is writing a satire here – and Lewis would be overjoyed to see how much progress we have made in these areas, which were particular personal passions of his. The plight of women in particular is a common thread throughout his novels, and highlighted in 1917’s The Job (about the difficulties a woman faces in attempting to have it all and juggle both a working career and a family life) and 1933’s Ann Vickers (about suffragettes, progressives, abortion, women’s prisons and so forth). He turned explicitly toward race relations in one of his last works, 1947’s Kingsblood Royal, in which a respectable white man discovers he has African ancestors and, adrift and purposeless in life, begins to adopt an African-American identity and in the process provokes increasing prejudice from his white friends and family: the novel was rubbished as unrealistic by white critics (why would anybody want to suggest that there was still racism in America in the 1940s? Nonsense!), but praised by black intellectuals for its perceptive and honest treatment not only of racial prejudice but of issues of class, identity and ‘passing’ in black America.
[Kingsblood Royal was based on extensive research (all his novels reflect extensive research!) with the aid of the NAACP, and particularly of its president, the blond-haired, blue-eyed, white-skinned black man Walter White. White’s father, born a slave, once collapsed and was taken to hospital, where he received excellent care, because nobody could tell he was black; when they discovered that, despite his colouration he was ‘really’ a black man, they dragged him through a rainstorm to the Negro Ward instead – he died in the process. White would later go on to make use of his flawlessly European appearance in investigating and publicising over forty lynchings in the South: passing as black, he could persuade witnesses to talk to him, but passing as white he could avoid being lynched himself, and even at times joined up with KKK groups as an undercover agent. On one occasion, a lynch mob was indeed sent after him when the KKK discovered that there was ‘a black man pretending to be white’ in the area –he escaped because a helpful lynch mob enthusiast told him about the plan, not realising that White was in fact the black man in question. An acclaimed novelist, journalist, activist, and president of the NAACP for twenty years, he was eventually disavowed by much of the black civil rights movement, and disowned by his own family, for the sin of marrying a white woman (black commentators couldn’t agree on whether the marriage proved that he had always been a white man who had merely been passing as black, or just proved that he was a race-traitor, but neither interpretation was positive; the accusations from black and white alike that White was only ever a man who was, as one commentator put it, “negro by choice”, may be why he, apart from the pun, he named his autobiography A Man Called White). None of this really has anything to do with Babbitt, except thematically… it just seemed like something people should mention…]
So, racial and gender issues have improved. It’s also true that the general… well, the babbitry has improved. The extent to which people were entirely and ruthlessly controlled by fashion and by public opinion. The same pressures that confronted Babbitt confront us now, but with more room for mercy and tolerance and heresy (at least, if you don’t count internet progressivism…). Part of that I suspect is the lingering effect of our encounter with fascism. Lewis is also known for his 1935 alternative-history novel It Can’t Happen Here, about an authoritarian regime rising to power in America, and reading Babbitt you can already see the groundwork being laid. In 1920, there already is a totalitarian control of civil society, Lewis tells us… it’s just disorganised. The Elks, the Boosters, the Republicans, the Chamber of Commerce, the Athletic Club, the Episcopalians, the banks, the newspaper barons… they have the power, they just aren’t united enough to use it. The structures are in place, they’re just waiting for a single charismatic leader to take them over (and the modern reader can’t help but be a little worried by the rise of the new Good Citizens League during the course of the novel…), and a dictatorship of optimistic niceness will be enforced… to some extent, I think that the rise of genuinely fascistic states perhaps has helped us be more skeptical of the sort of deeply controlling, deeply (and vacuously) idealistic society that Lewis describes.
So that’s improved. But not entirely for positive reasons. For one thing, civil society now is less powerful because civil society now has collapsed. These organisations, the clubs and leagues and secret orders, that gave support and comfort and a sense of place and belonging to the lost little Babbitts of the world, have largely ceased to be, or at least have lost their size and power. That they can no longer wield the club of public opinion so surgically is good; but we are also now without their potential benefits.
Particularly striking is the rise of income inequality. We don’t tend to see the roaring twenties as a time of equality and fraternity, but even in Lewis’ horrified, condemning satire, his world seems like utopia by modern standards. Babbitt is a man in an exalted position: owner of his own real estate company, a seriously important local businessman. And yet he is constantly aware of his own smallness. He looks up to more connected comrades like Vergil Gunch, or to more educated comrades like the professor Howard Littlefield and the commercial poet Cholmondeley Frink, but more than that he is aware of the profound distance between him and the real success stories, men like the industrialist Charles McKelvey, who owns a string of national enterprises. At one point Babbitt notes that Charles is always friendly to him when they happen to meet, yet never seems to invite him to dinner. At another, he sees Charles’ wife alone in a railway carriage, but she ignores him as though he were not there. At another, we discover that George and Charles went to university together.
The thing is, the depressing thing is, today men like Babbitt would not have gone to university with men like McKelvey. McKelvey would have gone to private school, and then to Harvard or Princeton or Yale or the like, not the local state university with Babbitt. He would not bump into Babbitt at lunch, or at the golf club, or at the chamber of commerce, or at the barber, or the church, or at a meeting of the local Republican party, or anywhere else: he would eat his lunch, play his golf and have his hair cut somewhere altogether exclusive, or at his own home, and he would not go to the chamber of commerce because that part of civil society is almost dead, and he would not have anything to do with the local Republican party but would only send dollars and demands to the national committee or to a superPAC, and he would not go to church, though he might have personal spiritual advisor. His wife would not have to blank men like Babbitt on the train because his wife would not travel by public train, but by private helicopter. Throughout the novel, Lewis wants us to get this sense of there being many Zeniths all living side-by-side, different worlds all lived in the same space, but overlapping; at one time, Babbitt is on a committee alongside the august old-money banker/aristocrat William Eathorne, and at another, prohibition forces him into a low dive to source some alcohol from people from an entirely different Zenith… the worlds of drug traffickers and prostitutes, of business, of high-society, are all just moments away from one another.
Now they aren’t. That’s what’s changed, the idea that these worlds could be permeable to one another: visible, if not attainable. Now, these worlds barely have the slightest material contact. The McKelveys and the Dodsworths and the Eathornes now live on an entirely unrelated planet to the Babbitts. Actually, I’m not sure the Dodsworths and the Eathornes – the pioneer families turned banking oligarchs – even exist anymore, except perhaps in relic form, as curiosities, somewhere in Connecticut, retaining some of their money, little of their conservativism and almost none of their power. Their place in the world has been adsumed by the McKelveys. Except it hasn’t really, because how many industrialist magnates are there now? Some, mostly in tech companies. Mostly we’re ruled by… well, Stanley Graffs, I guess, people even Babbitt would have looked down on, but who have somehow elbowed their way to the top of the pole, and had the morals and manners skinned off them in the process. Babbitt himself is hard to find these days, the Prominent Local Businessman. Most of them have lost their jobs to the growth of the great national and international chain stores, that were no doubt once founded by the McKelveys, but are now run for them by distant Graffs. Babbitt, if he survives at all, is probably a put-upon middle-manager now, come a long way down in the world.
If I sound depressing, that’s the point; because that’s what’s changed, in a way. Lewis’ satire is aimed at the horrors of the modern world, but in particular at modern optimism. The everyday American of Babbitt is relentlessly positive, bursting with pep, committed to boosting, filled with hope and zing. Sure, part of that is a steadfast denial of their real problems, and part of it is a scared façade, nobody wanting to be the one to let the team down. Lewis’ America is a nation of brutally enforced mass happiness, in which to acknowledge pain or discontent is tantamount to treason – only socialists, or worse, those damn long-haired liberal ‘intelligentsia’ speak that way about America. Don’t they know America is the greatest, swellest he-country in the world? U – S – A! (to quote the novel). Gee whiz.
[If you’ve seen Pleasantville… Babbitt is the perfect world those guys in the 1950s were trying to recreate after the horrors of war and Depression. The chief difference in tone is that in the 50s, it was an imitation, and a settling – in the 20s, it was real and it was striving]
And yet… there is also a real sense of hope here, a sense of progress, a sense of a brighter future, a sense of growth (Zenith’s inhabitants keep close count of the city’s population, which is its score in its competition against all the other growing young cities). The very blind optimism that is the chief target of Lewis’ derision seems now… charmingly young. Endearingly, painfully, sincere. You poor saps, the modern reader is likely to think, don’t you know that this is (nearly) as good as it gets? And Lewis may mock it, but he carries it too. Why satirise American society this way, we might think, when there is no alternative? Nothing can ever change, so why bother to complain? Sure, Sinclair, capitalism sucks, but it’s not like there’s any alternative. Seneca Doane isn’t a pioneer of socialist progressivism, he’s a deluded old dinosaur ensnared by the false audacity of hope. Yes, we’ll invent all sorts of technologies and liberating forms of communication, but obviously they’ll just be used to enact, so much more efficiently, the same sort of personalised repressions that they needed Athletic Clubs to enforce back in 1920, and in a more depersonalised way. Bohemianism won’t offer a way out – the respectable, commercial world will simply accommodate it, and sell to it, and market it. Lewis mocks the idea of “competition”… doesn’t he know that that will be unchallengeable dogma for the rest of human history? He puts his faith in the new generation – Babbitt’s daughter, we discover, reads Cabell and Hergesheimer, and Mencken, and the poetry of Vachel Lindsey* – doesn’t Lewis know that Babbitt’s son and daughters will grow up to be the Gatsby generation**, no less facile or less money-grubbing than their parents? Doesn’t he know that the Great War that he fears has indelibly scarred the psychology of the older generation is only going to be reiterated in the lives of Babbitt’s future grandchildren? And doesn’t he know that Cabell, and Hergesheimer, and Lindsey, and to a lesser but still considerable degree Mencken and Lewis himself will be swept aside in a tide of Faulkners and Hemingways*** and Steinbecks – real swell manly he-literature, as Georgie Babbitt would admiringly call it – and erased from public consciousness almost entirely? [Oh, sure, Babbitt and co. would frown and tut about Steinbeck being a dangerous socialist who needed to be kept an eye on, but better a misguided socialist than some punk longair – and Steinbeck did make some real he-sales!] There is an eager earnestness about Lewis, and about his characters, that is at once amusing, embarrassing, and somewhat pitiful. It’s all a bit depressing…
*Lindsey returned the favour by writing a poem all about babbittry.
**Its worth noting how fresh it is to read a story about the parents of the Gatsby generation – to see the famous Roaring Twenties from the other direction, as it were. Lewis, to his credit, despite putting his faith in that generation, allows us to be under no illusions about their virtues, or their general annoyingness…
***Lewis admired Hemingway, called him one of the few truly important, “and almost savagely individual” writers living in their age. He not only mentioned him in his Nobel acceptance speech as a future winner, but went ahead and nominated him. In return, Hemmingway, the true American he-man, mocked Lewis mercilessly for years, in conversation, in journalism and even in his novels, mostly for his physical appearance, which Hemingway found insufficiently he-masculine. He even took a detour in Across the River and Into the Trees to taunt his older cheerleader, through a very specifically-described background character, a compatriot of the American protagonist who has ‘outlived his talents’, specifically with the purpose of mocking Lewis’ skin cancer. The Lewis-stand-in character, Hemingway says, is Goebbels, if Goebbels had ever been trapped in a burning plane. He peers about constantly, as though truth could be discovered through query. His skin is pockmarked, and his soul and heart are pitted in the same way. Where Hemingway’s Mary Sue sits with his adoring teenage sex-toy and thinks about sex, Lewis’ image is trapped talking to a respectable old woman. He looks like a disappointed weasel. He looks like he has been run half-way through a meat grinder and then been boiled, lightly, in oil. Spit runs down his face from the corner of his mouth when he speaks. He drinks too much. He is a waste of time not worth talking about. His face looks like the hills around Verdun after the war. In Italy, nobody bothers to pay attention to him – he arouses neither love nor hate nor fear nor suspicion. He writes rapidly, late into the night – “I dare say that makes marvelous reading” mocks Mary Sue; “I dare say,” sniffs the sock puppet on Hemingway’s second hand, “but it was hardly the method of Dante.” He is a drawing by Goya. He is so ludicrous (surely that’s a wig?) that Mary Sue will hope to have him by to laugh at whenever he feels sad.
The difference in how they speak of their rivals rather encapsulates the difference in approach from the two men; and indeed it can hardly be a surprise, given this, that Babbitt and his fellow he-men soon fell in love with Hemingway, and forgot about old, querying, liberal, effeminate Lewis.
And some of that depression is intentional. Lewis may not realise quite how pitiable his dreams are, but he does realise how pitiable the dreams of the Babbitts of the world are. Babbitt is not a maudlin book – too full of boosting, and he-pep, and zing!!! and zip! and zow! and “LIFE’s ZIPPINGEST ZEST”!!!!– but it has maudlin moments. There is a soul of melancholy and of desperation under the shell of fixed smiles: from the quite moments, driving through the streets at night, to the dreams of a fairy child, to the moments of doubt and dread and existential anger. There is a sense that everybody in the book is perhaps only a few feet from self-destruction – that society itself is walking on ice over a cold abyss. There is at the best moments a suggestion of duality, of ambiguity: are the characters tied up with ropes, constrained, imprisoned… or are they roped to one another, to pitons, are the ropes all that are holding them up?
At times, in its quiet, restless, sad moments, the novel approached beauty.
That, however, was not its selling point. That side of things may have helped it with the critics, but it isn’t why it sold. [And in Babbitt, everything must be evaluated by whether its sells, pulls, and/or earns]. It sold because it’s funny. What Lewis did was write a novel that was not only breathtakingly, precisely realistic, and shockingly, unprecedentedly modern (the novel attempts to capture the era of 1920-1921, and was published in 1922… there can have been few novels that so audaciously combined scholarly attention to time and place and a hot-off-the-press, journalistic recency)… but took that world that people saw around them and mocked it mercilessly, to the extent that even Lewis’ enemies were soon admitting the veracity of its barbs. Even the Babbitts owned up to being Babbitts. And that’s because of Lewis’ combination of ferocious satire with a fundamental humanity: everybody is mocked, but nobody is rubbished. There are many conflicting viewpoints, all are flawed, and none are precisely promoted: the pervading sense, indeed, is one of confusion, of being at a loss as to how to proceed.
It’s the humour that sold the copies. Unfortunately, it’s also the humour that comes close to sinking the whole novel.
Lewis, you see, has all the subtlety of a concrete block to the head. It begins in the prose. Lewis just isn’t a great prose stylist: he imitates Cabell, but does it worse. That’s not to say he’s bad – mostly it’s perfectly adequate, and there are moments, particularly the more sincere, slower moments, when he approaches beauty. He also gets in the odd well-formed, memorable line. But there isn’t the deftness, the subtlety, of a great stylist, so when he tries for deadpan irony, there’s never the slightest ambiguity about it, the slightest consideration for the tone or the context. It’s like the guy who always uses the same ultra-sarcastic voice to make jokes, no matter where you are, whether it’s a wedding or a funeral. It’s not necessarily that he shouldn’t make the jokes, but just…. can’t you try to have a little delicacy about it? It grates. And it’s not just the delivery. Lewis is paranoid that you might not get the joke. So he makes you get it. He makes you get it twice, just in case. When a couple talk about how horrid it is to deal with people of a lower social class than them, or a middle-aged person talks about how boring the elderly are, you can be sure that Lewis isn’t going to leave the interpretation up to common sense, reading ability, and intense sarcasm. No, he’s going to give you word-for-word mirroring scenes, immediately after, when the complainer is complained about in exactly the same terms by someone of even higher class, or who is even younger.
But that’s still sort of implicit, and it also takes time. So Lewis doesn’t stop there. When, for instance, he describes a soulless, perfectly-provisioned fashionable house without the slightest indication of personality or romance… he finishes by explaining that the house is perfectly provisioned except for lacking any personality or romance. “In fact there was but one thing wrong with the house: it was not a home.” Really, Sinclair? That was the point you were trying to make, was it? I hadn’t realised.
Thanks for clarifying that for me!
But although I thank him for clarifying it for me, really I understood it all along, and I was only thanking him sarcastically. Because, you see, he’s explaining his jokes?
Just to clarify that for you.
So he’s the guy who follows you around 24 hours a day, keeping up a thoroughly sarcastic commentary/catalogue of all your actions, and then explaining why he’s being sarcastic and what he really means. In other words, he’s really, really annoying. That doesn’t stop him sometimes being funny, I should be clear. Sometimes he is funny. He’s just really annoying too.
Of course, the cynic may now point out that Jurgen may have been a publishing success, but Babbitt was a publishing behemoth. So maybe assuming a slow audience and spelling everything out carefully was a successful business decision. Certainly, it provides at least a floor of enjoyment for the novel. With something more subtle, like Jurgen, you may worry that a reader might miss the joke; they won’t miss the joke of Babbitt.
Unfortunately it’s mostly the same joke every paragraph for 400 pages, and it’s not a subtle joke the first time.
[Though, to be fair, the sheer violence with which Lewis mocks his readers is in its own way impressive to behold, and is probably not just part of why people liked reading it, but also part of why they were so shock-and-awed by it. In today’s atmosphere, few writers go quite as full-bore in eviscerating readers, critics, and society, even though that pose of contempt has become a fashionable posture for literary authors – in Lewis’ day, that’s not what writers were meant to be for! (more on which in the postscript). You can almost hear the collective gasp, echoing across the decades…]
Where does that leave us? With three different novels. On the one hand, there is an encyclopaedic survey of American society circa 1920. This is fascinating, but rather dry, particularly as large sections seem to be there solely for the purposes of cataloguing an aspect of society, with or without any thematic or narrative motivation. On a second hand, there is a broad satire of social attitudes. This is often annoying, but is sometimes genuinely funny – occasionally very funny – and although it lacks subtlety, if you like this sort of thing it’s better than a lot of other things you could be reading. It’s funnier than a lot of modern comedians. And then there’s our third hand, on which Babbitt is an intense and melancholy psychological novel about ennui, alienation, culture clashes, but also hope, progress, community, and so forth.
Unfortunately, not only do these three novels not quite hit the mark individually, they all seem to be tugging in different directions. Then again, sometimes that’s for the best: when one novel lags, the others can sometimes fill the gaps.
The serious novel is the quietest but by far the best, and it comes increasingly to the fore in the second half of the novel. I fear that many readers won’t make it that far. To be honest, here: many, many readers will quite rightly find most of Babbitt plotless, dreary, irritating and dull.
Personally, my reaction followed a curve: brief delight when I found it much funnier than I was expecting; irritation when the joke just kept repeating and we struggled through a terribly boring Day In the Life of a Boring Man; boredom alleviated by historical curiosity and amused delight at the dated language; the beginning of a feeling that actually things might end up interesting; real engagement and enjoyment near the end.
So in conclusion, it’s a novel with really good material in it, both comic and serious, and I enjoyed it in the end, and don’t regret reading it, and I would recommend it to people who might like this sort of thing. But you’ve got to really like the humour, or else really be interested in the era, or else just be really patient, because it’s 80% filler and it takes a long time to get going. You can totally see why generations of authors were deeply influenced by Babbitt, and why he got the Nobel; it’s got great ideas, great moments, it’s stunningly original for its day (but endlessly imitated); but you can also see why so many authors thought that they could do it better…
In other words, Lewis was an author badly in need of an editor…
Adrenaline: 2/5. I’m being generous. Most of it is a 1/5. But toward the end, the creeping oppression of Babbitt’s society does get quite tense – and the boredom of the book, frankly, is part of that. It leaves you, like Babbitt, frustrated and desperate to escape… overall, however, it’s a book that intrigues rather than excites.
Emotion: 3/5. Much of it is unemotional, intentionally – it’s a sterile world where any real emotion that might exist is concealed. But there are moments where it breaks through to the surface, only more powerful for having been pushed down under such pressure.
Thought: 4/5. Between the historical parallels, the everyman applicability, and the continual puzzle of working out what these people are talking about what is that expression even meant to mean?, it kept my head very active indeed.
Beauty: 3/5. There are beautiful moments… but a lot of other material to wade through to find them.
I’m sorry, did I just give 2/5 for the craftsmanship of a Nobel Laureate? Yes, yes I did. OK, I did, but then I put it up a notch. In some ways, you could argue 2 was deserved. The prose is often too clunky, the structure is too flaccid, the characterisation frequently far too broad, and the jokes spelled out. He does have his moments. But most of the time, it’s not one of those moments. That said, the writing is never terrible, and there are good bits, and moving beyond the prose to the content I do think was able to capture certain characters and moods very well. He also captures the era with a great deal of attention to detail. So… good and bad, I think a par score is fair.
Endearingness: 3/5. I’m conflicted (nothing new there). I enjoyed bits a lot; I… unenjoyed? bits a lot. Will I be rushing to reread it? I doubt it. And yet I’m left with some sort of lingering affection for it. Much like the character of Georgie Babbitt, I guess, who is so visibly stuffed with flaws, much too full of himself, and yet somehow is impossible not to have some creeping fondness for, like a particularly idiotic dog who constantly misbehaves accidentally, and then looks at you with big sad puppy eyes…
Originality: 3/5. Fair’s fair: in terms of the actual novelty of the book, when it came out, this was culturally world-shattering. The problem is, we’ve now had 94 years of flagrant imitators. Thanks in large part to Babbitt, “realistic, witty novel about middle-aged middle-class white guy suffering ennui as he goes about his day-to-day life, occasionally tempted to have an affair” has basically become the archetype for the “literary fiction” genre. If you want a Platonic Ideal of Literary Fiction, this isn’t far off it (except perhaps that it’s more overtly humorous than most). But it does gain some marks for being so pedantically researched, so precisely and pervasively of its time. You may have read about this guy before, and you may know this plot already, but you probably haven’t seen it set in exactly the summer of 1920 in a Midwestern city… there are a lot of imitators, but you’re not going to confuse Babbitt itself with any of them, I don’t think.
OVERALL: 5/7. GOOD.
I originally gave it 4/7 (‘not bad’) and wrote:
…and now I feel embarrassed. Nobel Prize, idiot! Seminal work of 20th century literature! The Guardian rates it in the top 50 novels of the century! How the bloody hell do you wind up giving it the same score as (pulp horror-fantasy undead killfest D&D novel) Dance of the Dead!?
But… is that wrong? I mean, really? I’m not rating Babbitt for its historical significance, which is obviously tremendous, its influential even beyond the bounds of literature. No argument there. And I’m not really rating it for its value as a histeriosociographical source document, although in that regard it’s fascinating, and by all accounts painstakingly researched and true to life. But none of that really makes it a good novel, does it? Novels aren’t just there to tell us about the past in an informative manner (although that’s nice, don’t get me wrong).
Babbitt does show us a window into the human soul. That’s worth something. And at times its funny, and often interesting, if it interests you. But a lot of novels show us a window into the human soul. I can’t honestly say that what Babbitt showed was informative and novel in that regard, nor that it was particularly emotionally powerful, at least when counterbalanced with all the pages that did not display any particular insight into human existence. But Dance of the Dead had zombies, and weremink, and a talking psychopathic rabbit, and Babbitt did not have any of these things, and there is also that to consider.
After letting passions cool for a while, however, I’ve reconsidered and pushed it up to a 5. I stand by the above, in that I do believe the gap between a good pulp entertainment novel and a historical important literary novel can be much less than you’d imagine. Just because something is Important and is read by Cultured People, that doesn’t automatically make it a great work.
But… I think it’s more accurate to describe Babbitt as ‘good’ than as ‘not bad’. It has a lot of flaws, and frankly anybody calling it one of the books of the century on artistic, rather than historical, grounds is either very badly read, or more likely is a weak-willed charlatan reciting a line they’ve been given and don’t dare challenge. In prose, in structure, in themes, in vividity and acuity, the novel is nothing special. And yet Babbitt is genuinely an interesting, moving, funny, and impressive novel.
We live in an age in which everything is either brilliant or terrible – and The Classics, in particular, are either Overrated (probably due to racism/sexism) or else True Immortal Works of Genius. Babbitt… isn’t either of those things. It’s somewhere inbetween – worthwhile, valuable, impressive, worth reading, and yet frankly not all that earth-shattering.
I began by saying that Babbitt should be on your reading lists. I still agree with that, if we mean a list of Books You Ought To Have Read – and if it is on your lists, don’t treat it with dread, there is enjoyment to be gotten out of it. But at the same time, I’m not going to be putting it anybody’s Books You Must Read Because You Will Love Them list – not unless I think they’re really a perfect fit for it.
That said, while critics may still mention it, I don’t think many people are reading it still. And I think that given its quality, and its continued relevance to the modern world, it ought to be read by more people. Because Babbitt is… well, it may be odd and heavy-handed and meandering, but it’s also… actually pretty good.
P.S. Babbitt did not win the Pulitzer Prize. There’s probably a story behind that. I don’t know it, but I do know the stories behind the Lewis novels that flanked it, and those stories, ironically, get to the heart of why he wrote Babbitt in the first place.
You see, Main Street, the preceding novel, was a contender for the Pulitzer. More than a contender: the jury decided to award it the prize. Unfortunately for Lewis, however, the jury don’t get the final say – and the Pulitzer Prize Board overruled their expert jury, choosing to instead hand the prize to a supposedly lesser, but much less controversial, nominee (a little novel called The Age of Innocence, by a certain Edith Wharton). This is probably why Babbitt is dedicated to Wharton, though whether this represents an olive branch or a sarcastic slow-clap I’m not quite sure.
Now, the Prize Board weren’t wholly opposed to Lewis, or else with his continued acclaim they finally saw the light. Because the novel after Babbitt, Arrowsmith, DID get the Pulitzer. Or at least, it won the Pulitzer. Because this time it was the author who wouldn’t coöperate: Lewis refused the prize.
Why does any of this matter? Because Lewis didn’t turn down the award purely out of spite or for revenge. He rejected the award in protest at the Prize’s aims. You see, we may think of the Pulitzer as recognising quality, and that’s how it was thought of at the time as well – but literary quality, like all other virtues, was judged differently in the age of Main Street and Babbitt. In the terms of the Pulitzer Prize for the Novel, literary quality is defined very straightforwardly and, for the day, non-controversially: the Prize was “for the American novel published during the year which shall best present the wholesome atmosphere of American life, and the highest standard of American manners and manhood.”
…I’m just letting that sit there for a moment. That is why novels like Cabell’s Jurgen and Lewis’ Babbitt were written. Because in the capitalist-flavour Soviet Realism of twenties America, good art is art that serves the public morality, and public morality is always best served by accurately depicting America, and America can only be accurately depicted by emphasising its manhood, its manners, and its wholesomeness. It is a view of art that George F. Babbitt and his brethren would heartily assent to, would see even as unquestionable. Of course great he-literature has to boost American wholesomeness and manhood. What kind of punk fellow would use literature to do anything other than boost his country, when it’s clearly the best country on earth? Only a bunch of fourflushing liberal punk long-hairs trying to undermine America, that’s who, and we don’t want anything to do with that bunch! U.S.A.!
Babbitt may seem to modern readers to err on the side of exaggeration… but actually it’s just an early example of Poe’s Law. The parody cannot rival reality.
Nor, for that matter, was this simply an ignored issue, though Lewis suggested it was an assumption that went generally unnoticed. This very question had also confused the 1920 Prize, when most of the Jury wished to recognise Java Head, the popular but controversial novel of miscegenation, drug addiction, suicide, illegitimacy, murder and migration, by Lewis’ role-model Hergesheimer, but were prevented from doing so by a single juror who insisted that the novel failed to present American life as adequately wholesome. No award was made that year, and presumably similar motivations explain the snub for Main Street.
P.P.S. As hypothetical long-time readers know, I mostly read/review SF&F novels – and readers looking for more of the same have probably wondered off long before this point in the review. But if any of you have made it this far, here’s a little reward: Babbitt may be one of the most important novels in the history of Fantasy.
Why? Because of a certain Sinclair Lewis fan named John Tolkien. I didn’t realise until now that he was a Lewis fan – it seems, on the face of it, implausible. Realism and fantasy were much closer back then, however, before the walls of the fantasy ghetto were erected, and it turns out that Tolkien claimed to have read every single one of Lewis’ novels. Given that, you might even imagine a certain similarity in style, particularly in the area of humour – Tolkien doesn’t joke that much, but he does sometimes indulge a deadpan wit that isn’t so far removed from Lewis’. Realistically, this is probably more the result of shared influences, like Cabell and indeed a whole tendency in English writing of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, although Lewis’ use of the style may have contributed to Tolkien’s own employment of it.
The important bit, however, is much more concrete than that. It lies in a pair of words: babbitt and hobbit. The similarity in sounds, it seems, is more than a coincidence. Although Tolkien denied a conscious decision in this regard, saying that the word ‘hobbit’, and the novel that followed from it, were plucked out of the top of his head on a whim, he in hindsight came to believe that his hobbits had subconsciously been formed by his fondness for Lewis, through the similarity of these two words. Specifically, the culture of the hobbits of the Shire, while dressed in the details of the English gentry, were in Tolkien’s mind a recreation of the petty-minded babbittry of the American middle classes… and, in particular, of the well-fed, conventional, adventure-avoiding Mr George F. Babbitt himself.
He does not, however, have hairy feet.
[Lewis also had something else in common with fantasy writers: obsessive worldbuilding. Lewis drew up detailed maps of Zenith (including all its suburbs, population nearly 400,000) and the entire state of Winnemac, not to mention biographies and genealogies even for minor characters. If Babbitt were a modern fantasy novel, it would be dismissed for its excessive reliance on worldbuilding and on travelogue.]
P.P.P.S. As you may have noticed, my reviews have been getting stupidly long. In particular, the review for Jurgen was simply ridiculous. That’s why I’ve decided to begin the year by changing how I write reviews, employing rigid discipline and an iron will to ensure that, starting with this review, every review I write will be brief, concise, and to the….
*looks at wordcount*