Sarcastic but sympathetic, 'Babbitt' is premier middle-class novel

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Sinclair Lewis' "Babbitt" is ranked 953,241 on the Amazon sales list, which tells you that not many people read the 1922 novel anymore.

But Lewis was the first American to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, and many consider "Babbitt" to be his greatest creation.

More importantly, some have argued that "Babbitt" is the quintessential middle-class novel, even if it does turn a jaundiced eye on the aspiring suburbanites of the fictional city of Zenith.

There is no escaping the satiric bite in the novel, but Richard Lingeman, a Lewis biographer and a senior editor at The Nation, said a close reading shows that Lewis actually liked George Babbitt and allowed him by book's end to break free from some of his narrow-minded views.

There are also plenty of parallels between Babbitt's world of the bustling 1920s, as it hurtled heedlessly toward Black Tuesday, and the housing boom of the 2000s, as America borrowed its way toward the 2007 housing collapse.

Like many who are suffering in today's downturn, George Babbitt was a real estate agent. He believed America should be run like a business -- although he was not quite sure what that meant -- and he believed in the virtues of family, civic clubs, the church and progress.

Whatever principles he espoused became capitalized in his mind. Chief among them was Vision, and Babbitt felt he was a man with an abundance of Vision.

He also wasn't above using Vision to manipulate a situation if it meant he could turn a profit. In one instance, he signs up a speculator friend to buy an empty lot next to a neighborhood grocery, after hearing the store owner wants to expand and build a butcher shop.

He persuades the friend, Conrad Lyte, to buy the dilapidated store on the lot for $11,000, then invites the grocer, Archibald Purdy, to his office, and tells him he can have the parcel for just $24,000.

Purdy complains, and so Babbitt "persuades" Lyte to bring the price down to just $21,000.

"The work of the world was being done," Lewis wrote. "Lyte had made something over nine thousand dollars, Babbitt had made a four-hundred-and-fifty dollar commission, Purdy had, by the sensitive mechanism of modern finance, been provided with a business building, and soon the happy inhabitants of Linton would have meat lavished upon them at prices only a little higher than those downtown."

Babbitt also was acutely attuned to social classes in Zenith. He belonged with fellow small business owners to the Athletic Club, and they all agreed that they hated the elitist Union Club -- Zenith's version of the Duquesne Club -- because it was a "rotten, snobbish, dull, expensive old hole ... you couldn't hire me to join."

Still, when Babbitt gets a chance later to invite Union Club member Charles McKelvey to his home for dinner, he and his wife work themselves into a lather to make it a success.

Despite all their preparations, though, the evening goes badly, and the McKelveys make excuses to leave early. The Babbitts then wait eagerly for a return invitation that never comes.

Not long after, the Babbitts are talked into a dinner invitation from an old college classmate of his, Ed Overbrook, who was "gray and thin and unimportant."

They go, trade small talk, and soon, Babbitt realizes "they had nothing more to say. Babbitt was sorry, but there was no hope; the dinner was a failure."

On the way home, Mrs. Babbitt starts to worry that they will have to invite the Overbrooks to their place, but in the end, they agree that "the best way [was] just to let it slide. It wouldn't be kind to them to have them here. They'd feel so out of place and hard-up in our home."

In this one brilliant chapter, Lewis showed how eager Babbitt was to be accepted by the elite he usually scorned and how oblivious he was to treating his social inferiors exactly the same way.

As the story unfolds, Mr. Lingeman said, Babbitt is increasingly aware that something about his materialistic life is unsatisfactory, but it doesn't come to a head until his best friend shoots his wife in a domestic argument and is jailed.

Babbitt then suffers a midlife crisis. In the process, he even sympathizes with some striking telephone workers and refuses to join a new anti-immigration group, which infuriates his fellow Athletic Club members.

By the end of the book, Babbitt becomes a wiser and more flexible man, and it is clear that Lewis actually likes his protagonist, despite lampooning his values for most of the story.

The irony of the success of "Babbitt," Mr. Lingeman said, is that "while the '20s was sort of the era where you could satirize the boobs and the businessmen, the '30s was much more political," and when Lewis wrote a later novel called "The Prodigal Parents" in which he "praised the middle class as the basis of civilization, more left-wing authors gave him a lot of grief over it."

Lewis also had serious drinking problems, which hurt his work as the years wore on, and he died of the effects of alcoholism in 1951 at 65.

Lewis had grown up in small-town Minnesota, the son of a doctor, but had been a social outcast when he went east to attend Yale University.

"He was always on the outside looking in," Mr. Lingeman said, "so he didn't admire the aristocracy either." As for the middle class, "he could criticize them and yet he could love them as real people."

In Babbitt, Lewis created a character who shared many of the same questions about life that overspent, status-conscious Americans might have today.

"As a family man, Babbitt finds himself on a treadmill and he talks about how he is just like a machine trying to make money and sometimes wonders what the point of it is," Mr. Lingeman said.

"He asks, 'why do I make this money to send my kids to college when they disrespect me and my wife is passive and doesn't really appreciate me?' and he has to find some meaning in all this, and in the end, he discovers that having the right values are more important than the material things."

As with so many famous novels from the past, "Babbitt" sits far outside the limelight today.

But "I think he is a very quintessential American character," Mr. Lingeman said. "Lewis' publisher said, 'You've invented a character who lives beyond the pages of the book.' I agree with that. His struggles and dilemmas and thoughts and challenges are still valid today."

Mark Roth: or 412-263-1130.


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