Saturday, May 16, 2009
Sinclair Lewis: Babbitt (1922)
“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. These standard advertised wares – toothpastes, socks, tires, cameras, instantaneous hot-water heaters – were his symbols and proofs of excellence; at first the signs, then the substitutes, for joy and passion and wisdom.” Sinclair Lewis satirizes the supposedly "modern" business class in this story of real estate man George F. Babbitt. Living with his family in the suburbs of Zenith (an imaginary Midwest city), Babbitt is popular among the other prosperous business men of the city, whom he meets and schmoozes with at Booster meetings and at their private social Club. He spends his days using insider information to buy lucrative pieces of real estate or assisting his business-class brothers Boost the city and their pocketbooks. Lewis relentlessly takes aim at Babbitt's hypocrisy, emphasizing the gulf between Babbitt's self-image and his actual actions. Lewis writes: "Babbitt was virtuous. He advocated, though he did not practice, the prohibition of alcohol; he praised, though he did not obey, the laws against motor-speeding; he paid his debts; he contributed to the church, the Red Cross, and the Y.M.C.A.; he followed the custom of his clan and cheated only as it was sanctified by precedent." Babbitt is largely able to maintain such an elevated image of himself because he prides himself on having acquired Culture, Science, and all of the trappings of the Modern. Lewis uses Babbitt's conversations with his fellow business men to mock the conceits of their class by comically contrasting their soaring vocabulary with their mundane interests. Indeed, perhaps the most important thing the novel does is amplify and expose the emptiness of the language of capitalism. Babbitt is able to incorporate ideas and language from the arts and sciences, but only by rendering them in a business discourse that is full of empty metaphysical Concepts. For example, Lewis writes, “They went profoundly into the science of business, and indicated that the purpose of manufacturing a plow or a brick was so that it might be sold. To them, the Romantic Hero was no longer the knight, the wandering poet, the cowpuncher, the aviator, nor the brave young district attorney, but the great sales-manager, who had an Analysis of Merchandizing Problems on his glass-topped desk, whose title of nobility was ‘Go-getter,’ and who devoted himself and all his young samurai to the cosmic purpose of Selling – not of selling anything in particular, for or to anybody in particular, but pure Selling.” Lewis obviously found in the character of Babbitt a perfect instrument for exposing all manner of capitalist hypocrisies. Most of the narrative is therefore composed of loosely related episodes that demonstrate Babbitt's shady business dealings or the self-serving activities of various community groups composed of business men. In the final third of the novel, a plot does finally develop when Babbitt, ever desiring to be thought highly of by his fellow man, befriends a socialist leader with whom he once went to college. Babbitt enters into a period of decadence, bohemianism, and liberalism, taking a lover, objecting to his friend's attacks on socialism, and spending long nights boozing around town while his wife is away. Turning to the left for the most superficial of reasons, Babbitt soon finds his way back into the right-wing business class, fortunately just before the newly-formed "Good Citizens League" is able to completely cut him off from the insider business deals from which he handsomely profits. At home, Babbitt appears as a standardized member of the middle class, one who fights with his nagging wife, worries about his son's college education, and is proud about how he looks in his automobile. That this part of Lewis' book could have taken place at almost any time during the last century reveals just how impervious the American middle class, despite its new models of commodities, has been to history. Indeed, Babbitt demonstrates how the story of the American middle class was a cliché from its first telling, a cliché always already accompanied by a critical-satirical commentary.