by Sinclair Lewis
Book Review by Christopher Robert Craddock
Silly Babbitt, Trix R 4 Kidz
I really enjoyed Babbitt by Sinclair Lewis. It is a satire of life in the mid-sized, mid-western town of Zenith, in the mid ’20s, as seen from the perspective of George F. Babbitt, Realtor. After some initial dismay at the archaic slang of the so-called ‘Jazz Age’–and I say ‘so called’ Jazz Age because Jazz at that time was far from its eventual zenith, and the tepid tooting of Paul Whiteman’s Orchestra was what passed for Jazz in 1922, the year of Babbitt’s publication. Paul Whiteman was known as The King of Jazz, bitterly ironic in retrospect, though to his credit he did feature the hot cornet styling of Bix Beiderbecke, and it is for that reason that his recordings are still listened to, if at all. But the corny cartoonish crud surrounding Bix’s incandescent solos are why the epitaph ‘Jazz Age’ didn’t stick to the ’20s. The Roaring ’20s proved a more apt description of that era of reckless and irrational exuberance, in spite of or even more so because the roaring ended in 1929 with such a resounding crash.
Like I was saying, once I adjusted to the lingo, I was surprised at how little had changed, especially in regards to the Real Estate business. It was Deja Vu all over again (Yogi Berra, who coined that phrase and many others, and also played a little baseball, has just passed away. May he rest in peace). I had once held a Real Estate license and practiced the Art of Real Estate. It was an exciting time in Real Estate, at least it was for a while until the market crashed and almost destroyed the global economy. It was Deja Vu all over again.
Anyway, the attitudes and beliefs of George F. Babbitt were all too familiar; first and foremost among them was the desire for a good business administration to run our country–like a business. In the time period that Babbitt takes place, Warren G. Harding was just elected. In 1965 he was ranked the worst President since Buchanan. He was elected to run the country like a business. He had one of the most corrupt administrations of all time, and also fathered an illegitimate daughter while in office. He died suddenly in room 804 of the Palace hotel in San Francisco, and there is speculation that he was poisoned by his wife due to his womanizing. Other examples of business oriented politicians fared only slightly better. Hoover was another. That turned out well.
Babbitt gets pulled into politics and finds that he has a talent for rousing the voters with speeches extolling zip, pep, and hustle. He sees these virtues as key to success in life and business. Though he doesn’t run for office, his support is crucial in the election of a mattress manufacturer as mayor over the challenger, Seneca Doane, a dangerous radical Socialist. He is rewarded not only by getting advance knowledge of where the City of Zenith will be expanding, so his clients can buy the property cheaply, then sell at a huge profit, he also benefits from the prestige among his fellow realtors, the city bankers, business contacts, and the Zenith Boosters Club, who elect him their Vice President.
When he strays from political orthodoxy he is ostracized. Babbitt and others of his station are kept in line not by force but by more subtle pressures. Force is used against strikers and labor organizers, but Babbitt’s role is merely to look on with approval, or to deny what is going on altogether. At one point his wife goes out of town and Babbitt falls in with a group of party people who call themselves the Bunch. He also encounters the radical Seneca Doane who he has known previously from college. Their meeting is surprisingly cordial with the revelation that while in college Doane had wanted to become rich while Babbitt had been the idealist, wanting to do something important and good with his life. Now their roles had reversed. The next time Seneca Doane’s name comes up, Babbitt is reluctant to denounce him. This along with him observed out on the town with the Bunch enjoying himself with a woman–not his wife–leads to his being ostracized. He is pressured into joining the Good Citizens League, but refuses, not out of political conviction, but because he doesn’t like being pushed around. The Good Citizens League is really nothing more than a Goon Squad, though they leave the dirty work to the younger, more energetic members. As Babbitt’s stock sinks he rues the day he refused their generous offer of redemption. One of the more glaring examples of Babbitt’s hypocrisy is his support of Prohibition, since it allows the workers to be more productive, but it obviously wasn’t intended for people such as himself. He takes the same hypocritical approach to adultery, condoning it for his friend Paul Riesling, or himself, but condemning others for it.
Speaking of hypocrisy, when Babbitt’s social standing is on the rise he attempts to keep his momentum going by inviting people on the next rung of the ladder to a dinner party. After canceling several times they finally deign to attend. It proves to be a very dull evening, and no future invitations are accepted or extended. Babbitt and his wife bemoan their outcast state, and trouble deaf heaven with their bootless cries, but behave precisely in the same manner towards people on the lower rung.
If Babbitt has a god, that god is money, or business that makes money, and its idols are gadgets and gizmos. He all but worships his fancy cigar lighter, and genuflects to his clock radio. Consumerism is his religion. While he wants his son to attend college, he is hard pressed to come up with valid reasons to study trivial subjects like Shakespeare. His idea of a good poet is Chum Frink, who makes a good living churning out frothy homilies for the local paper. Babbitt is a fan, but even Frink himself, in a later scene, while drunk, admits that his own writing is terrible.
Babbitt is a total philistine. His ideas about Art, Music, Literature, and Education are terrible. Azar Nafisi, who wrote about Babbitt in her book, Republic of Imagination, compares his ideas on Education to the Common Core movement. The thrust of Common Core is to get back to the basics in Education and eliminate such frivolities as Shakespeare from our curriculum. Babbitt, or his progeny, Theodore Roosevelt Babbitt, would approve. Babbitt is wrong about Art, Education, and the benefits of having a business-minded administration. Sinclair Lewis leaves it up to the reader to make those conclusions. The third person narrative voice reserves judgement. One of the best examples of Sinclair Lewis’s craft in not saying his criticism of Babbitt directly, but letting the reader make the assessment, is where Babbitt struggles to write a speech for the Zenith Boosters Club. He frets and procrastinates but finally manages to get something on paper. You never see the actual speech, but I am certain that it was terrible. Once he finishes it, he decides that writing is not very difficult. He fishes for compliments, and gets confirmation from his wife and other unqualified critics that his speech was pure genius.
Azar Nafisi compares Babbitt and his support of a business minded administration to the campaign of Mitt Romney. The upcoming election provides even better examples of Babbittism in action with Donald Trump or Carly Fiorina. Mitt Romney was caught on video saying he thought 47% of citizens were parasites. Contemplating a Trump or Fiorina presidency, you’d have to think that the percentage of citizens they consider parasites is much higher. Trump’s catch phrase was, “You’re fired!” Carly laid off thousands while CEO of HP.
Even though George F. Babbitt is a poor excuse for a rich human being, you can’t help feeling a bit sorry for him because he is so darn lonely. His pal, Paul Riesling gets sent to prison for shooting his nagging wife Zilla. He dies in prison. Babbitt misses him. He often dreams of his Fairy Girl. He tries to befriend a gruff outdoorsman while on a fishing trip, but has so little in common with him that he has to hire him as a guide so they can hang out. I could almost feel sorry for him. Almost.