One hundred years ago, Sinclair Lewis’s satirical novel Babbitt skewered 20th-century America’s booming midsize city and the complacency and conformity of its middle-class inhabitants.
One hundred years ago this September, the American suburban satire found its first definitive shape in the plump, pink body of a forty-six-year-old real estate agent. His name was George F. Babbitt, and he lived with his wife and three children in a Dutch Colonial home in the desirable neighborhood of Floral Heights, on the outskirts of Zenith, a fictional city of around three hundred thousand in an unnamed Midwestern state.
In the morning, Babbitt wakes to the sound of the “best of nationally advertised and quantitatively produced alarm-clocks.” At the breakfast table, he opens the newspaper to taste “the exhilarating drug of Advocate-Times headlines.” To his neighbor, he says that what the country needs is a Republican president to run the government like a business, and his neighbor agrees. At his office, Babbitt is “conventionally honest” and cheats only “as it was sanctified by precedent.” Prohibition, for instance, has done wonders for Zenith’s shiftless working class, but shouldn’t Babbitt and other “Good Fellows” be able to get a drinker’s license, to best exercise their personal liberty, which the state has infringed upon?
Readers of Sinclair Lewis’s 1922 novel Babbitt recognized this titular figure instantly, and a “Babbitt” became a new type of guy, one who was flourishing in the post–World War I boom that had brought more Americans to newer urban areas across the country. Babbitt was the peppy, conservative local businessman who sang his town’s praises and spoke in his own dialect, Babbittry. This eager, conformist, hypocritical, jargon-inflected patter was the voice of a dawning American century. Lewis filled the book with such cartoonishly inane dialogue. For example, here’s what he sounds like when he flirts: “I feel it’s a man’s place to take a full, you might say, a creative share in the world’s work and mold conditions and have something to show for his life, don’t you think so?” Babbitt was the standardized man for a time in which mass standardization was suddenly possible.
Lewis’s mockery of this figure, and his world, made the novel a best seller, a critical hit, and a cultural lightning rod. As an ethnographic portrait, the novel carried the shock of the new. “All the other novelists and journalists and Babbitt himself were equally blind to Babbitt and Zenith and the United States of America until 1922,” said writer John O’Hara. Unsurprisingly, Lewis’s fresh caricature of staid, conservative businessmen irked some staid, conservative businessmen. Real estate agents and national social organizations lamented in their newsletters that Lewis had missed the whole truth — they wouldn’t be defined by mindless local “boosting” and shallow conformity. “Aren’t they bound to describe the Middle West when they want to write about real Americans?” one Midwestern businessman told the New York Times when asked about Babbitt. “The kind that own their own homes, and send their children to college, and keep the wheels turning, and the Republicans in power most of the time?” Without Babbitt’s hustle, they argued, nothing would get done.
Like the “deplorables” of 2016, a rising business class appropriated the novel’s label as a badge of honor: “I’m Proud to Be Called a Babbitt,” thumped an editorial headline in Collier’s. Nation’s Business asked readers to “Dare to Be a Babbitt!” and their subscribers wrote letters to show their allegiance. “I am a thirty-three degree all-around champion Babbitt,” wrote one Detroit businessman. “The Babbitts have always won and they always will win.”
A Tour of Main Street
Lewis, who would receive the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1930, had similarly struck the zeitgeist just two years prior to Babbitt with Main Street, a novel that satirized the small-minded small town of Gopher Prairie, Minnesota, and a college-educated city woman’s naive attempts at reforming it. Main Street, which was by one metric the best-selling novel of the first quarter of the twentieth century, broke through into national consciousness in a way few other novels of the time had. The scandal of its biting caricatures of humble “Main Streeters,” amplified in the national and regional press, brought in curious readers who came for the fuss and stayed for the modern depiction of romance and underlying nostalgia for small-town life. (The census, meanwhile, marked 1920 as the first year urban Americans outnumbered their rural counterparts.) Families with barely more than the Bible on their bookshelves bought Main Street. Babbitt, Sinclair’s follow-up, was a midsize-city equivalent.
Part of Lewis’s talent for catching the national mood lay in the fact that he worked more like a sociologist than a novelist. For Babbitt, he conducted extensive interviews, immersed himself in real estate agents’ “pompous pamphlets,” and drew up floor plans for characters’ houses, down to the apple barrel in the basement. As part of his own background research, he wrote Zenith’s history, including the “Solemn Covenant” made between its founders in 1792. His prose is not stylish, in part because it is choked with material life; he’s funniest when making use of his research to give everyday language a ludicrous ring: “The Pompeian Barber Shop was in the basement of the Hotel Thornleigh, the largest and most dynamically modern hotel in Zenith.”
Socially conscious turn-of-the-century novelists such as Theodore Dreiser and Upton Sinclair had concentrated on titans of industry or the proletariat ground down in industrial gears. Their books were set in great metropolises or else in rural hamlets where great systems of exploitation battled individual and collective will. Before Babbitt, no one had given such reportorial attention to the increasingly affluent American midsize city or its “Tired Business Man” as great subjects for realistic fiction. In Britain, H. G. Wells had written his “salarist” novels about small shopkeepers, and Lewis read them carefully; in 1914, he praised Wells as “the greatest living novelist.” But the postwar American milieu had an uncharted strangeness, and Lewis outpaced his influences as its ambivalent chronicler. “I love America,” he later said, looking back on his career, “but I don’t like it.”
A Phobia for Hypocrisy
Like those other writers, Lewis was a socialist, or at least social-ish. The son of a family of doctors in small-town Minnesota, Lewis moved to New York in 1910 and leapt into bohemian art and politics. He handed out flyers with suffragettes, attended the annual Anarchists’ Ball, spent a month as a janitor on Upton Sinclair’s experimental commune upstate, and joined the New York Socialist Party’s Branch One. This was the intellectuals’ wing of the party — the workers were elsewhere — and Lewis’s name barely appears in its records, according to his biographer Richard Lingeman.
Lewis tried to study Karl Marx but found Capital “dreadful” reading, “a dusty collection of terms which seem to refer to use, profit & rent & wages & things,” he wrote a friend. “I’d rather read that antiquated anthology of superstitions, the Bible.” Those were strong words from a man whose self-proclaimed nemesis was “bunk.” Anything false set Lewis alight, but he was somewhat less clear about what he wanted to stand for. Ever the flaw-seeker, he recognized this negative capacity in himself. In an acerbic “Self-Portrait,” he wrote that he “seems to have no virtues whatever save a real, almost reckless hatred of hypocrisy.”
This sense was surely inflamed by the tensions in his own career as a writer. From 1915 to 1920, before the success of Main Street, Lewis was a regular short story contributor to the Saturday Evening Post, a hegemonic magazine of the era, the gold standard in Babbittry. By the end of his five-year tenure, he was earning today’s equivalent of $16,000 per short story, for light-hearted fiction in which bohemians only made appearances to get their comeuppance and no woman ever smoked or drank. Here was where the small businessman, the prototypical suburbanite, found a home in American fiction, in a sunny form that could stand a little good-natured joshing.
Lewis wrote this type very well, even as he worried over the need to bend his stories, most often through omission or an injection of sentimentality, to the magazine’s increasingly conservative, anti-immigrant, anti-labor, red-baiting America First stance (which progressed parallel to that of World War I). He called himself, in that period, a “facile Post trickster.” “When [Saturday Evening Post editor] George Horace Lorimer rejects a story with a regretful, ‘I fear that this is not quite Posty,’” Lewis’s wife and literary confidant, Gracie, wrote to a friend, “you feel the iron hand upon your shoulder and tho you shrug it off, you write a little more carefully next time.” Lewis had to keep his household running — he and Gracie had hired help, and they moved often — and he had to buy himself time for his serious novels, where his bitter mimicry of the reactionary, confused status quo found full flower.
The Transitional Metropolis
One of Lewis’s most potent lines of attack in Babbitt is his dramatization of the spiritual bankruptcy of perpetual growth. Zenith is conceptualized by Babbitt and his strata less as a community than as an appreciating asset. In a sea of growing “transitional metropolises,” as Lewis called them, each one must anxiously compete to lure the expanding businesses and newly car-mobile citizens. The history of every midsize city, in this sense, can be reduced to consortiums of landowners looking at every civic decision as if they were shareholders treating per-acreage value as the bottom line. The Zenith Booster Club decides to support a symphony orchestra because it will help them “CAPITALIZE CULTURE” and advertise their name to New York millionaires looking to open regional factories.
But Lewis saved his most withering writing for his protagonist. Especially early in the novel, the narrator practically sneers over Babbitt’s shallowness:
Just as he was an Elk, a Booster, and a member of the Chamber of Commerce, just as the priests of the Presbyterian Church determined his every religious belief and the senators who controlled the Republican Party decided in little smoky rooms in Washington what he should think about disarmament, tariff, and Germany, so did the large national advertisers fix the surface of his life, fix what he believed to be his individuality.
The intensity of Lewis’s vision of an inner life in thrall to consumer goods, mass media, and inherited mores makes it easy to imagine subsequent technologies finding their place in Babbitt’s routine: radio, TV, microwave, SUVs, social media. These noisy contrivances would only supplement his cacophonic world of readymade distraction. The intrusive kitsch and swarming groupthink of contemporary American life is already there, one hundred years earlier, in sentimental magazines, ersatz architecture, New Thought spiritualism, and dinner club chatter.
Searching for Higher Ground
As suburban white-collar heroes will forever be wont to do, Babbitt cracks in these stultifying environs — he gives in to the temptations of sex and liberalism. An affair he conducts with a widow who lives in one of his properties scandalizes the Good Fellows, especially when he takes her out to lunch at Zenith’s aforementioned “largest and most dynamically modern hotel.” But what really alienates his clubs, clients, secretary, neighbors, bank, and other bank for shady deals is when he speaks positively about immigrants, unions, and strikers.
This political drift, which seems a contrivance to allow Lewis to play such an angle, comes from a mid-novel coincidence: in a train car, Babbitt runs into Zenith’s “successful liberal,” labor lawyer Seneca Doane, who reminds Babbitt that when the two attended college together (another coincidence), it was Babbitt who wanted to represent the poor in court and Doane who only cared to get rich. The reminder comes as a quick cure to Babbitt’s ennui, and he leaves the train with a “new spiritual grandeur” and a desire to “do things, vague but highly benevolent things.”
Is Babbitt’s embrace of progressive politics courageous or merely delusional? Is it a search for interior depth or superficial cynicism? Babbitt’s espousal of liberal values seems, at first, to be just talk, loose lips at the club praising Doane or some other liberal character or cause. Then, however, Babbitt takes something like a stand: he declines to join the Good Citizens’ League, a new, ominous group dedicated to bringing back the wartime attitude of intimidating “parlor socialists” and “the Undesirable Element.”
The stakes of his political dabbling seem to rise. Babbitt’s refusal to join the league gets him a cold shoulder from acquaintances and loses him a few clients, most significantly the Zenith Street Traction Company, for whom he had earlier arranged a crooked, lucrative deal. Three members of the Good Citizens’ League show up to his office to threaten him into joining. They have a new campaign to make every Zenith employer an open shop, with no requirement for labor unions.
Babbitt again says no, with something like a backbone. On the other hand, he also tells them, “I believe in being broad-minded and liberal, but, of course, I’m just as much agin the cranks and blatherskites and labor unions and so on as you are.” Babbitt may look sympathetically at strikers — American cities at the time were sites of great labor unrest, and Zenith is no different — but he does not march with them or offer them material support. His liberalism does not affect his corporeal existence. There’s no financial pinch for the Babbitts, no tragedy. It’s all in small social slights or in his head. His head, in fact, is where the real action is. Babbitt’s liberal talk gives him license to conceive of himself differently. In his own estimation, he is now a rebel:
All day long in imaginary conversations he caught them marveling, “Babbitt? Why, say, he’s a regular anarchist! You got to admire the fellow for his nerve, the way he turned liberal and, by golly, just absolutely runs his life to suit himself, but say, he’s dangerous, that’s what he is, and he’s got to be shown up.”
Babbitt’s liberalism is a mechanism through which to launder his distaste for the confining customs of his age without making any actual effort to undermine them. He takes no actions, reaches out to no one. His liberalism is like a “Science Is Real” yard sign or hand-wringing over protest tactics. He is in constant search, no matter the situation, for the higher ground.
Soon enough, Babbitt is brought back into the Republican fold by his craving for self-righteousness. His wife has a life-threatening appendectomy, allowing Babbitt to realize how much he’s taken for granted, how much his wife and family need his stolidity. Plus, the surgeon who saves her is an upstanding member of the Good Citizens’ League, so how bad can it be? The head of the group soon asks Babbitt for advice, and in that position, Babbitt joins, “almost tearful with joy at being coaxed instead of bullied, at being permitted to stop fighting, at being able to desert without injuring his opinion of himself.” He returns to denouncing unions and immigrants. No one, Lewis adds, does so more loudly than him.
“The World Is Yours”
Lewis could have ended Babbitt there, and perhaps the bleak shock would have preserved the book’s vitality for readers in 2022. But Lewis was ultimately not that kind of writer. As the critic Alfred Kazin noted, “It was the satire that always gave Lewis’s books their design, but the life that streamed out of them impressed people most by giving them a final happy recognition.” In a final chapter, Lewis strikes a suddenly sentimental note, one that would not have been out of place in the Saturday Evening Post.
Babbitt’s son announces that he has eloped with the girl next door, and the two families gather in the Babbitts’ living room to talk the youngsters into an annulment. Babbitt pulls his son into another room for a heart-to-heart, and the son tells him that he doesn’t want his father’s stifling middle-class life. Babbitt, deeply moved, admits to the boy that he himself “never accomplished anything except just get along.” In a turn against his past, he will support the hasty marriage and his son’s plans for the future. “Don’t be scared of the family,” Babbitt continues, working himself up to a righteous lather, “No, nor all of Zenith. Nor of yourself, the way I’ve been. Go ahead, old man! The world is yours!” They walk back into the living room to confront the in-laws as a united front, and the reader wonders what form our hero’s support for his son will ultimately take.
Many contemporary commentators saw the novel, and this final moment, as ultimately hopeful, as evidence that this new Babbitt-type could change. Lewis, too, despite his vitriol, wanted his creation to be something more than a caricature. He wrote, in an unpublished introduction, that his hero was “not a satiric figure, not a Type”; he was “an individual” who was “eager and well-intentioned, credulous of pioneering myths, doubtful in his secret hours.”
Yet, one hundred years later, Babbitt’s individuality seems less a potential path toward greater awareness than a gate shuttered to protect himself from seeing too clearly the rot of his kind. His moral yearnings look like the definition one Booster Club chum gives of liberal: “wishy-washy.” This final scene can be read, from our current vantage point, with its own kind of cynicism. Because what could be more pathetic, more familiarly asinine, more vexingly American, than Babbitt counting on the next generation to exhibit the courage he did not?