For Sinclair Lewis, ”Babbitt” was a vehicle through which to explore and critique American society during the 1920s. The eponymous hero of the novel finds himself trapped in a conflict between the man he is and the man he wants to be, between the demands of society and the desires of the heart. Lewis sought to expose the conditions of life that prevailed in a nation dominated by the profit motive and the obligation to conform, to think and believe just like everyone else.

I.

In 1922, Harold Stearns compiled a volume of thirty essays that examined virtually every aspect of American life and culture, save religion.[1] Stearns identified three main themes that unified the collection. First, Americans were hypocritical. There was an appalling dichotomy between the profession and practice of American ideals, values, and standards. At the same time, few Americans troubled themselves to achieve intellectual and moral consistency. Rather, as Stearns put it, the “cardinal heresy” for Americans was “being found out” and “the fear of what people will say.” Second, the United States was diverse, composed of vast “heterogeneous elements” that were, nevertheless, unified in myriad ways. It was, Stearns concluded, a threat to American national identity and survival to pretend that the United States was and would ever be only Anglo-Saxon. Third, the American people were emotionally, aesthetically, and spiritually deprived and impoverished. The discipline and regimentation necessary to sustain material prosperity had reduced, if not eliminated, all that was emotionally, aesthetically, and spiritually gratifying—all that was essential to the preservation of the humane tradition and human life, which, as Stearns lamented, was already withering and turning to dust. Stearns and his fellow contributors, of course, intended to offer what, by their estimate, was a truthful and forthright assessment of American problems and prospects, in the expectation that they could reverse disturbing trends and encourage the American people along the path to maturity and enlightenment.[2]

Sinclair Lewis’s novel Babbitt, also published in 1922, was perfectly timed to address the mood and concerns articulated in Civilization in the United States. H.L. Menken, who wrote the essay on politics, for example, found in George Babbitt the quintessential American of his time, the perfect specimen to embody the restless conformity of modern American life. With Babbitt, Lewis departed from the recent, though promising, literary genre that twenty years later Walter Fuller Taylor designated the “economic novel in America.”[3] Henry James, William Dean Howells, Hamlin Garland, Frank Norris, Jack London, Upton Sinclair, Edith Wharton, and Theodore Dreiser had all previously written about American business and businessmen. Most of these writers, with the partial exception of James and Howells, had regarded business culture as nearly synonymous with social, political, and ethical corruption. The world of business was ruthlessly competitive, a veritable war of all against all, with power, wealth, and prestige as the rewards to be had at any cost. Yet, in this body of literature, the principal representative of American business was the tycoon: the powerful manufacturer, the wealthy merchant, the affluent financer, the Robber Baron who devised grand schemes and supervised colossal enterprises.

Lewis replaced this economic colossus with the small businessman or middle manager as the protagonist of the economic novel. No longer independent or self-reliant, the entrepreneur or manager was not an individual but was rather, as at least Lewis portrayed him in Babbitt, a conformist. Unlike the economic giants of the Gilded Age, men such as Babbitt do not command. They follow the crowd. Motivated less by human relationships than by public relations, they shun difference and fear dissent. In general, previous economic novels introduced solemn denunciations of ruthless exploitation and oppression. Taylor concluded that in these works “unquestionably the central charge brought against capitalistic industrialism is the destructiveness to our democratic, middle-class pattern of life.” The cumulative program that the authors of economic fiction devised, he continued, rested on the principles that:

the national economy must be brought under intelligent control; that control must be exercised in behalf of the security and welfare of the whole people; and the ultimate authority over the economic system must remain with the people themselves.[4]

Babbitt, by contrast, is raucously satirical, depicting a collection of fools who, if they are malicious, are also more ridiculous and even pathetic.

To his publisher at Harcourt, Brace, and World, Lewis explained that he intended George Babbitt to represent “all of us Americans at 46, prosperous but worried, wanting—passionately—to seize something more than motor cars and a house before it’s too late.” The novel, he elaborated, was to be the story of “the typical T.B.M. [tired business man], the man you hear drooling in the Pullman smoker, of our American ruler.”[5] Babbitt and his environment, the city of Zenith, represent the United States during the 1920s. Only in the United States, Lewis believed, was life so uniform that a novelist could use one character and one city to depict the entire nation and its people. As the archetypical American, George Babbitt is an upright and respectable member of the middle class. At forty-six years old, he is overweight, (“exceedingly well feed” as Lewis put it), earns an annual salary of $9,000, and lives in the fashionable suburb of Floral Heights. The father of two children, he earns his living as a real estate agent. Everything about his life is, or rather seems to be, upright, ordinary, and predictable.

Zenith itself is a mid-size city in the typical Midwestern state of Winnemac, a compilation of Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Michigan. The model American city, Zenith personifies the desires of its residents. Zenith aspires. Having already reached a lofty pinnacle, as its name suggests, Zenith seeks to rise further still. Its skyline is dominated by towers of steel, concrete, and limestone that pay homage neither to statecraft nor religion, but to business and commerce. On the distant hills surrounding the commercial center are “shining new houses, homes,” that “seemed” to be made “for laughter and tranquility.” This splendid city “seemed” to have been built “for giants.”[6]

The qualifications in Lewis’s language are deliberate. Although charming and prosperous, Zenith only “seems” to be a place of happiness and tranquility, a land of giants. In the initial description of Zenith, Lewis hints at a less pleasant reality concealed behind this grand and blissful façade. Life in Zenith is fraught with tension and anxiety; it is tormented by the specter of vanity and meaninglessness. The inhabitants more closely resemble the status of moral pygmies. Babbitt’s person and world are “altogether unromantic.” Yet, he dreams of a different life, which takes the form of a beautiful but elusive fairy child who provides mystery and excitement. Beckoning him in sleep, she has for years enabled him to escape his tiresome wife, his spoiled children, his clamoring friends, his dull existence, and ultimately, reality itself. Lewis wrote that “where others saw but George Babbitt, she discerned gallant youth. She waited for him, in the darkness beyond the mysterious groves. When at last he could step away from the crowded house he darted to her.” [7] Always reality intrudes. Babbitt is called out of sleep and back to the monotony by the rumble and bang of the milk truck, the thump of the morning newspaper against the front door, the irritating rattle and whir of someone cranking a Ford, and the alarm clock that rings every morning at precisely 7:20: all reminders of another tedious work day that awaits him.

Trivialities define Babbitt’s waking hours. Lewis details his wife, Myra’s, matronly appearance, his morning shave, his desperate search for a clean towel, his method of dressing, his eyeglasses, his tie, the contents of his pants pockets, his various aches and pains, including his alcohol-induced headache, a remnant of playing poker at Vergil Gunch’s house until midnight, the state of his digestion, his opinion about such diverse subjects as his dress shirts and his children, his automobile, his attitude toward the neighbors, and the route he travels to the office. Once at work, Babbitt dictates letters, prepares a sales campaign, and composes advertisements to sell burial plots. He lunches at the Zenith Athletic Club, which is “not athletic and isn’t exactly a club,” where he engages in predictably vapid conversation with friends and associates, such as the aforementioned Vergil Gunch, a coal dealer, Sidney Finkelstein, a buyer of ladies’ clothing for Parcher & Sons Department Store, and Professor Joseph K. Pumphrey, the owner of the Riteway Business College. At the end of the day, Babbitt contemplates his world from a warm bath, admiring the bathroom fixtures, commanding his treacherous soap dish and nail brush, drying off with a slightly worn Turkish towel, and feeling himself altogether a proud, virtuous, solemn, and upstanding citizen amid the splendor of his possessions.

Like other members of the American middle class, Babbitt is an insignificant man imprisoned in a joyless life. Conspicuous in its material comforts, Babbitt’s house is not a home.[8] His stolid wife and his pampered children, who insult one another and argue about who next gets to use the car, are more insipid than Babbitt himself. He performs no useful labor, but is successful and well compensated. Although a realtor engaged in buying and selling properties, he knows nothing, and cares less, about landscaping, architecture, interior design, or, for that matter, economics. He considers himself a decent citizen, but is ill-informed about his local community and city government. He remains ignorant about the work of the police force and the fire department, the quality of the schools that his children attend, or the fundamentals of municipal sanitation. He profits without rendering a service or producing a commodity of any value. For Babbitt, wealth has replaced honor as the source of prestige and meaning. Necessary to buy the possessions that confirm his status, money is even more important as the means whereby he gains the respect of his peers. Yet, as he descends into middle age, Babbitt must face the nagging truth that the accumulation of wealth and things has left him unsatisfied. At first, he seeks to earn more money, even if his prosperity comes at the expense of his neighbors and friends.

To augment his income, Babbitt begins to relax his business ethics. “The great events of Babbitt’s spring,” for example, “were the secret buying of real-estate options in Linton for certain street-traction officials, before the public announcement that the Linton Avenue Car Line would be extended.”[9] He begins to condone bribery, fraud, and coercion, although he discharges a subordinate for restoring to similar tactics. Right and wrong are transactional, determined by expediency and profit. Babbitt no longer asks whether an action is right or wrong, but whether the strategy he has adopted will enable him to achieve the end that he desires. Rather than examine his conscience and acknowledge the moral confusion into which he has allowed himself to fall, Babbitt justifies his practices in the name of the smart business required to compete with his rivals. His peers reward the effort not only because he is successful but also because he reinforces and justifies their own unscrupulous behavior. George Babbitt plays the game according to the established rules. He wins the accolades with which the group always repays obedient conformity.

Everywhere congenial friends and acquaintances surround Babbitt, slap him on the back, and engage in affectionately insulting banter, referring to one another by such epithets as “old Bolsheviki,” “old horse-thief,” “poor shrimp,” and “second-hand hunk o’ cheese.” They speak of their businesses, but with the demeanor of adolescent school boys. In Zenith, this sort of juvenile camaraderie is essential for professional and personal advancement. A man such as Babbitt, who wants to get ahead, must be a “joiner,” belonging at least to one and preferably to two or more of the numerous lodges, clubs, and organizations that dominate respectable society: the Rotarians, the Kiwanis, the Boosters, the Oddfellows, the Moose Lodge, the Masons, the Woodman, the Owls, the Eagles, the Maccabees, the Knights of Pythias, the Knights of Columbus, or, as Lewis wrote, any of the “other secret orders characterized by a high degree of heartiness, sound morals, and reverence for the Constitution.”[10]

Babbitt is most at home among the Boosters Club. The good fellowship, punctuated by genial name-calling and boyish pranks, suits his temperament. He expresses the spirit of the Boosters in his address to the Zenith Real Estate Board. His pretentious oratory is little more than a collection of boastful tributes to the city, but such banal platitudes are just what his audience wants to hear. Zenith, Babbitt intones, “is the finest example of American life and prosperity to be found anywhere. . . . the home of manly men, womanly women, and bright kids.” After all, among its many distinctions, Zenith can pride itself on having the “first school-ventilating system in the country bar none . . . magnificent new hotels and banks and the paintings and carved marble in their lobbies . . . an unparalleled number of miles of paved streets, bathrooms, vacuum cleaners, and all the other signs of civilization.” Saving the best for last, Babbitt informs his listeners that Zenith has “one motor car for every five and seven-eighths persons.” In addition, Zenithites manufacture “more condensed milk and evaporated cream, more paper boxes, and more lighting-fixtures, than any other city in the United States, if not in the world. . . . We also stand second in the manufacture of package-butter, sixth in the giant realm of motors and automobiles, and somewhere about third in cheese, leather findings, tar roofing, breakfast food, and overalls!”[11] As with the glad tidings and good news of Holy Scripture, Babbitt insists that reciting these facts and statistics, although they are familiar, is always timely and never fails to invigorate the mind and enliven the soul.

The businessman of Zenith is, in essential respects, the ideal American. “Busier than a bird dog,” this industrious fellow has no time for frivolity or idleness. Devoted to work and family, he is constantly on the go, “putting the zip into some store or profession or art.” In the evening, he mows the lawn, practices his putting, smokes a cigar, reads the newspapers, or a Western novel “if he has a taste for literature,” treats his children to a story or a movie, visits with the neighbors, and “goes happily to bed, his conscience clear, having contributed his mite to the prosperity of the city and to his own bank account.”[12] The only peril to Zenith and the United States, Babbitt cautioned, came from the critics and pessimists, who everywhere see problems and who are never satisfied. “The worst menace to sound government,” Babbitt complains:

is not the avowed socialists but a lot of cowards who work under cover—the long-haired gentry who call themselves ‘liberals’ and ‘radicals’ and `non-partisan’ and `intelligentsia’ and God only knows how many other trick names. Irresponsible teachers and professors constitute the worst of this whole gang, and I am ashamed to say that several of them are on the faculty of our great State University![13]

However generous and benevolent he may be, the American businessman, submerged in anti-intellectualism, can neither tolerate difference nor abide dissent. He exercises his God-given right to demand that all teachers, lecturers, and journalists advance the cause of national prosperity, and never mock or criticize a great nation. As for the “blab-mouth, fault-finding, pessimistic, cynical University teachers,” Babbitt continues, it is as much the responsibility of all decent Americans, such as the esteemed members of the Real Estate Board, “to bring influence to have those cusses fired as it is to sell all the real estate and gather in all the good shekels we can.” The rising generation must be made to understand that “a lot of cranks sitting around chewing the rag about their Rights and their Wrongs,” are not the ideal, or even the real, Americans. Rather, the genuine article is a “God-fearing, hustling, successful, two-fisted Regular Guy, who belongs to some church with pep and piety in it, who belongs to the Boosters or the Rotarians or the Kiwanis, to the Elks or Moose or Red Men or Knights of Columbus or any one of a score of organizations of good, jolly, kidding, laughing, sweating, upstanding, lend-a-handing, Royal Good Fellows, who plays hard and works hard.” This industrious, devout, and jovial American replies to “the grouches and smart alecks” with “a square-toed boot” that will teach them to respect the American “He-man” and do their utmost to champion the U.S.A.[14]

Babbitt’s friends are in complete agreement with him. They tell each other earnestly that radicals ought to be silenced, labor unions dismantled, immigrants restricted, and blacks kept in their place. Like them, Babbitt accepts unthinkingly the ideas and beliefs that others have formulated for him:

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 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.[15]

But such miserable conformity comes with a price. Privately dissatisfied and unhappy (he can only admit his true feelings to his friend Paul Riesling), Babbitt tries to break out of his dreary routine, while maintaining the semblance of propriety, by taking a vacation to Maine with his wife. When the trip ends in disappointment, he gets drunk on bootleg liquor and, with unconcealed pride, visits a brothel while attending an out-of-town real estate convention. But even that more audacious and desperate excursion does nothing to calm the enveloping restlessness that he feels at his constricted life.

At a party, the success of which is a testament to his popularity, Babbitt experiences another impulse: revulsion. For a fleeting moment, he senses how monotonous his life is, how stupid his friends are, and how artificial their congeniality. He realizes that he neither understands nor loves his children and that they neither understand nor love him. When he falls ill for a few days, he even begins to feel the purposelessness of his work, which has always provided a refuge from life and in which he has always taken a certain delight. For the first time in his life, Babbitt takes a hard look at himself, and begins to retreat from the crowd and to search for his own identity. This act of defiance threatens to upset the established order, a disruption that society cannot permit.

Babbitt’s rebellion begins predictably and unimaginatively with a furtive attempt at romance. He makes a feeble pass at his secretary and a more determined one at a neighbor’s wife. He gets a date with a manicurist. Finally, he has an affair with a pretty widow. Polite society, of course, frowns on such philandering, but the group does not forbid it or ostracize those guilty of it as long as they proceed with discretion. But when Babbitt’s affair becomes known, and worse, when he defends the cause of organized labor during a strike, it is time for the maverick to be driven back to the herd. Babbitt has strayed too far from propriety. Representatives of the Good Citizens’ League encourage Babbitt to join their organization. When he initially refuses, the members continue to apply pressure. He begins to lose business. After his wife falls ill, he realizes how much she and the safe, comfortable life they have made together means to him. He renounces his independence and freedom, joins the Good Citizens’ League, and pledges to uphold the ideal of equality in all things but wealth and for all Americans except members of the working class. The only optimism that Babbitt entertains is that his son, Ted, will not make the same choices and the same mistakes that he has made. At least, Babbitt permits himself to hope, his son may grow up to be his own man.

II.

Babbitt is the tale of one man’s ultimately failed struggle against the forces of conformity that beset him. George Babbitt finds himself trapped in a conflict between the man he is and the man he wants to be, between the life he has and the life he wants, between private aspirations and public necessity, between the demands of society and the desires of the heart. Unsurprisingly, he becomes dissatisfied with his daily routine, his work, his friends, his home, his wife, his children, and himself. He seeks an illicit relationship because he hopes that it will revitalize the sense of excitement, adventure, and danger that he recalls feeling as a young man. For Sinclair Lewis, Babbitt was a vehicle through which to explore and critique the American society during the 1920s. Lewis sought to expose the conditions of life that prevailed in a nation dominated by the profit motive and the obligation to conform, not only to become, but to think and believe, just like everyone else.

Babbitt’s friends and associations comply. Theirs seems to be the happy, satisfied existence of happy, satisfied men. Appearances notwithstanding, they share the same frustrations and doubts. Paul Riesling, Babbitt’s closest friend, revolts in a more blatant and shocking way than Babbitt himself does. Riesling is overtly contemptuous of, and even hateful toward, his wife Zilla. Babbitt is stunned at Riesling’s flagrant violation of social conventions when Riesling brazenly carries on an extramarital affair. He is horrified when Riesling physically assaults Zilla, and finally tries to murder her so that he can evade imprisonment in a desolate world. There is a profound, although unacknowledged, dread that underlies the characters’ lives. The boisterous companionship of the Athletic Club, the Booster’s Club, and the Good Citizens’ League conceal a weariness, a malaise that distinguishes the lives of Babbitt and almost everyone he knows, almost everyone with whom he comes in to contact. Everyone tries to forget, or keep at bay, their inner torment by arranging a busy schedule or immersing themselves in an endless assortment of fads, gadgets, and possessions. They have transformed their relentless and frenetic pursuit of money and status into a virtue.

Babbitt especially respects the urgency and initiative of the modern businessman. He calls it “hustling.” All the ambitious men of Zenith feel the same compulsive admiration:

Men in motors were hustling to pass one another in the hustling traffic. Men were hustling to catch trolleys, with another trolley a minute behind, and to leap from the trolleys, to gallop across the sidewalk, to hurl themselves into buildings, into hustling express elevators. Men in dairy lunches were hustling to gulp down the food which cooks had hustled to fry. Men in barber shops were snapping, “Jus’ shave me once over. Gotta hustle. . . .” Men who made five thousand, year before last, and ten thousand last year, were urging on nerve-yelping bodies and parched brains so that they might make twenty thousand this year; and the men who had broken down immediately after making their twenty thousand dollars were hustling to catch trains, to hustle through the vacations which the hustling doctors had ordered.[16]

Lewis, of course, intended the description to provoke a different response. So exhausting is the chase after wealth and success that no energy remains to enjoy the accomplishment. The accumulation of wealth becomes an end in itself, and never quite delivers the promised emotional, or even material, contentment.

Automobiles provide a case in point. For Babbitt, the automobile is more than a means of transportation, or even a status symbol with which to impress friends, neighbors, and associates. The “motor,” on the contrary, revealed:

an aspiration for knightly rank. In the city of Zenith, in the barbarous twentieth century, a family’s motor indicated its social rank as precisely as the grades of the peerage determined the rank of an English family . . . The details of procedure were never officially determined. There was no court to decide whether the second son of a Pierce Arrow limousine should go into dinner before the first son of a Buick Roadster, but of their respective social importance there was no doubt; and where Babbitt as a boy had aspired to the presidency, his son Ted aspired to a Packard twin-six and an established position in the motored gentry.[17]

In this world, the attainment of individuality and self-knowledge are difficult if not impossible. More ominously, they are unnecessary and irrelevant.

The judgment that Lewis pronounced against American business civilization in the pages of Babbitt approximates the indictment of business that other thinkers leveled during the 1920s. “Modern business,” observed Garet Garrett, “derives from three passions in this order, namely:”

The passion for things, the passion for personal grandeur and the passion for power. Things are multiplied in use and possession when people exchange with each other the products of specialized labor. Personal grandeur may be realized in wealth. Gratification of the third passion in this way is new. Only in recent times has business become a means to great power, a kind of substitute for kingship, where man may sate his love of conquest, practise private vengeance, and gain dominion over people.[18]

Social life in Zenith provides no real sense of community based on shared needs, common problems, and collective values. How could it? Why should it? Rather, it imposes a stubborn uniformity upon egotistical men who would otherwise seek their own advantage in pursuit of the main chance. Under such circumstances, individualism is an unbearable liability.

In any event, for Babbitt, the insurrection has come too late. Not only does he fear what neighbors, friends, and colleagues might say should he pursue his heart’s desires with too much ardor, but he is also lulled by the rhythms of his former life and has already lost his capacity to feel or care. However discontented, he has long been too comfortable to believe in heaven or hell, in redemption or damnation. Not talented or dedicated enough to find sure and lasting fulfillment in work or life, Babbitt takes what relief he can from believing all that the newspapers, his friends, his minister, and the politicians who control the Republican Party say a man like him ought to believe. That way, at least, he is assured of the solace that comes from never having to think, never having to exert himself beyond subscribing to the local newspapers or attending church on Sunday. The membership in clubs and groups, which impart his ready-made opinions, the aversion to independent thought and judgment, and the capacity for trivial diversion mark Babbitt as a perpetual child wandering through an endless fairy tale. Yet, once he knows that the gods he has worshipped are but shameless idols, once he discovers that they lie to him, he is never quite so complacent again. Never will he know another moment of genuine peace. Never will he permit himself to entertain the illusion that he belongs, that he is not alone. He has come to appreciate the truth about himself and his world, even if he does his best to ignore or deny it.

Lewis tried to redeem Babbitt and America by imagining a different future, for, as he said in his Nobel Prize lecture of 1930, “America, with all her wealth and power, has not yet produced a civilization good enough to satisfy the deepest wants of human creatures.”[19] A coward, a braggart, a hypocrite, a liar, a cheat, a poor husband and father, and a businessman who contributes nothing to human wellbeing and improvement, Babbitt still hopes that the sins of the father will not be visited upon the son. Having never done “a single thing” that he wanted to in his entire life, he prays that his children, especially his son Ted, will be brave enough to defy the world and pursue their own dreams.[20] Utterly to condemn George Babbitt would have meant utterly to condemn America, and that sentence Lewis could not bring himself to pronounce.

Neither could he allow himself to exalt the emotional, aesthetic, and cultural sterility that he associated with middle-class life during the 1920s, celebrating a “return to normalcy” that, in his mind, amounted to nothing more than a defense of General Motors or U.S. Steel. To the haughty, self-righteous men and women who compose Babbitt’s social circle, “there are no under-paid workers, no social evil, no subsidized press, no restraint on free speech, no insanitary plants, no child-labour, no infant mortality due to an absence of maternity legislation, no good strikers, and no questionable public utility corporations. Everything is as it should be, and anyone who attempts to effect a change is a socialist, and that ends it all.”[21] Americans, Lewis lamented, “not readers alone but even writers – are still afraid of any literature which is not a glorification of everything American, a glorification of our faults as well as our virtues. . . . Being forever sunny and full of song and virtue . . . befits authentic Americans.”[22]

But Lewis himself was hardly a congenital pessimist, or even the hardened, unsentimental realist that he fancied himself to be. He never abandoned his fundamental commitment to the ideals of freedom and progress. Lewis refused to see Americans, and especially the younger generation, as confined to prisons of choice or circumstance. He had faith that Americans could at last overcome the sterile condition of their lives. His is not entirely a world of the damned. Salvation will come to Zenith, as it will come to the United States, through greater tolerance and kindness, more sincere friendship, and more resolute commitment to integrity, justice, and love. These virtues, Lewis hinted in Babbitt, will salvage lives mangled by indifference to truth and beauty; they will counterbalance the mindless boosterism, the hollow optimism, and the false cheeriness that led first to ignorance, then to hypocrisy, and finally to despair.

Just as he put his faith in the younger generation of novelists and playwrights, such as Ernest Hemingway, Thomas Wolfe, Thornton Wilder, John Dos Passos, and William Faulkner, to revitalize American literature, so he remained confident that the next generation of Americans would realize their individuality and save the country from its own conformist delusions. Trust the young could have been his slogan, those astute revolutionaries who can deflate the clichés and pretensions of the Chamber of Commerce, the Boosters Club, the advertising executives, the professors, the politicians, and the priests; who question the prevailing standards and the received wisdom of their elders; who reveal the hateful lies of the Good Citizens’ League; who have the courage to follow their own hearts and minds. If Babbitt and his entire generation are inhibited, frightened, and constrained, if they are the real lost generation, already old before their time, the young—Babbitt’s children—can rescue the nation by abandoning conformity and embracing individualism, the original promise of American life.

Lewis’s evocation of unrestrained individualism was somewhat misplaced, for he seems never to have considered that the liberated individual may be no more than another spoiled child or moral idiot. Without the restraints of community, without the perspective of history and religion, Lewis’s liberated individual often turned out to be much worse than the conformist George Babbitt. The liberated individuals who people F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel The Great Gatsby are far more cynical, acquisitive, selfish, and unfeeling. Compared to them, Gatsby is a romantic innocent who has more in common with Babbitt’s futile idealism and thwarted aspirations than he does with the cold-blooded, heartless men and women who reside in East and West Egg, Long Island. Babbitt wants more money and higher status. Gatsby does not. He seeks the love of Daisy Buchanan, who is unworthy of his affection. In the end, Babbitt finds the quest meaningless and Gatsby finds the dream unattainable. Together, they expose the insubstantial essence of reality, or rather, the insubstantial essence of what many Americans think constitutes reality.

The modern individual, like Daisy Buchanan, young and living in an “artificial world . . . redolent of orchids and pleasant, cheerful snobbery,” expects all the delights of life to come without effort, thought, or struggle.[23] Ironically, such expectations and desires lead not to the growth of individualism, but to its extinction. When life, as it invariably does, makes sham of such adolescent fantasies, if it does not lead to a chastened maturity, then anger, frustration, and bitterness are almost certain to prevail. The rebellion of the individual against all the forces and conditions that would impede the pursuit of his desires has not enhanced the dignity and freedom of the individual, but has instead brought him to war against nature and humanity. When circumstances “thwart immediate expressions of his will,” argued Richard M. Weaver, the modern individual, childish and sullen “becomes angry and asserts that there should be no obstruction of his wishes.”[24] “The modern egoist,” as Weaver identified him, determines to see that all complications are immediately removed in the mistaken assumption that the triumph over limits will inexorably yield unlimited prospects for individual gratification.

This adolescent quality characterized much of American life during the Jazz Age, the description that Fitzgerald himself applied to the 1920s.[25] Liberated men and women more readily engaged in vice and excess than cultivated higher art or morality, as Lewis supposed they would when at last freed from the drudgery of having to conform to the outworn requirements of polite society. The decade, of course, ended in crisis, with insomnia, nervous breakdowns, and suicides paralleling the collapse of the economy. “People began to wonder,” recalled Malcolm Cowley, “whether it wasn’t possible that not only their ideas but their whole lives had been set in the wrong direction.”[26] There was, according to Cowley’s memoir Exile’s Return, just as much laughter, drinking, and horseplay as ever, but those once frivolous activities now revealed not excitement and joy, but anguish and hysteria. Calling for a madder music and a stronger wine, men and women at the end of the decade craved a frenzied hallucination that would take them ever further away from the real world.

The citizens of Zenith are affluent, well-fed, stylishly clothed, and comfortably housed. They own the latest trinkets and drive the fanciest cars. They are not doomed to endure some inhumane totalitarian nightmare in which they are kept uninformed and submissive, isolated and weak. Yet, they are boorish, vulgar, and forlorn. If they have lost their sense of dignity and self-worth, it is because they have squandered it rather than had it wrested away. Their lives may be dreary, but the dreariness, again, is of their own making. They have developed bad habits and indulged bad taste. The real horror of their lives is the gradual epiphany that, however wealthy and respected, they and the lives they lead simply do not matter. Babbitt and his contemporaries are no more than terrified, little men whose foremost achievements serve only an empty purpose and who have been equal neither to the burdens nor the challenges of their world.

Lewis admired the youthful optimism of Americans, which presented such a marked contrast to Europe in the aftermath of the Great War. He extolled the impetuous American conviction that anything and everything was possible. What Lewis actually celebrated was not youth but the cult of youth so pervasive during the 1920s (and coming again to the surface of American life in the 1950s and 1960s). There is among the characters in Babbitt no aspiration to maturity. There is only the fear of growing old. Perhaps unintentionally, even unwittingly, Lewis conveyed the juvenile, indeed the puerile, disposition that typified the 1920s.[27] Like myriad thinkers before and since, Lewis envisioned the American Dream as the promise of continual renewal, the quest after perpetual youth for both individual and nation. Just so, it may be that the rejection of adulthood, and of the wisdom that age and experience alone can provide, has constituted the enduring tragedy of American life.

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Notes:

[1] Harold E. Stearns, ed., Civilization in the United States: An Inquiry By Thirty Americans (Westport, CT., 1971; originally published in 1922).

[2] Ibid.,vi-vii.

[3] Walter Fuller Taylor, The Economic Novel in America (Chapel Hill, NC, 1942). Taylor does not discuss Lewis’s fiction.

[4] Ibid., 326, 336. Italics in the original.

[5] See James M. Hutchisson, “ ‘All of Us Americans at 46’: The Making of Sinclair Lewis’ Babbitt,” Journal of Modern Literature 18/1 (Winter, 1992), 95-114; Hutchisson, The Rise of Sinclair Lewis, 1920-1930 (University Park. PA, 1997), 57; Richard Lingeman, Sinclair Lewis: Rebel from Main Street (St. Paul, MN, 2002), 172. Italics in the original.

[6] Sinclair Lewis, Babbitt (New York, 1992), 489. The in-text page references are to The Library of America edition. I have also included the chapter and section numbers to assist those using different editions of the novel.

[7] Babbitt, Chapter I, Section II, p. 490.

[8] Babbitt, Chapter II, Section I, p. 501.

[9] Babbitt, Chapter VIII, Section I, p. 580.

[10] Babbitt, Chapter XVI, Section I, p. 669.

[11] Babbitt, Chapter XIV, Section III, p. 655.

[12] Babbitt, Chapter XIV, Section III, pp. 650-51.

[13] Babbitt, Chapter XIV, Section III, p. 656.

[14] Babbitt, Ibid.

[15] Babbitt, Chapter VII, Section III, p. 573.

[16] Babbitt, Chapter XII, Section III, p. 626.

[17] Babbitt, Chapter VI, Section III, p. 554.

[18] Garet Garrett, “Business,” in Stearns, ed., Civilization in the United States, 397.

[19] Lewis, Sinclair, “The American Fear of Literature” in Nobel Lectures 1901-1967. Amsterdam: Elsevier Publishing Company, 1969.

[20] Babbitt, Chapter XXXIV, Section VI, p. 844.

[21] J. Thorne Smith, “Advertising,” in Stearns, ed., Civilization in the United States, 388.

[22] Lewis, “The American Fear of Literature.”

[23] F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby (New York, 1925), 189.

[24] Richard. M. Weaver, Ideas Have Consequences (Chicago, 1948), 183.

[25] For a different view of the 1920s, see Paul A. Carter’s insightful Another Part of the Twenties (New York, 1977). Mr. Carter writes, for example, that “gazing away from Manhattan’s Great White Way any night during the decade following 1920, one could have seen wide, dark stretches of the continent where the roar of the Twenties was muted indeed; where life was lived in a rhythm in which there was not the faintest echo of jazz.”

[26] Malcolm Cowley, Exile’s Return: A Literary Odyssey of the 1920s (New York, 1979; originally published in 1951), 306.

[27] I am here relying on the discussion of “puerilism” that the Dutch historian Johan Huizinga offered in The Shadow of To-morrow: A Diagnosis of the Spiritual Distemper of Our Times (London, 1936), 150, 162. Huizinga wrote that “Puerilism we shall call the attitude of a community whose behavior is more immature than the states of its intellectual and critical faculties would warrant, which instead of making the boy into the man, adapts its conduct to that of the adolescent age. . . . Puerilism knows no ages, it attacks young and old alike. The adoration of youth, superficially a sign of fresh strength, may also be viewed as a symptom of old age, an abdication in favour of the coming heir. While most strong cultures have loved and honoured youth they never cajoled or exalted it and they always demanded from it obedience and respect for its elders.”

Editor’s Note: The featured image is “Čeština” (1927) by Hugo Boettinger (1880-1934), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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