A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
Since the U.S. election, I’ve noticed people seem to have been reading certain classic novels, perhaps out of an impulse to connect today’s events with themes in such books as 1984 and It Can’t Happen Here. It occurred to me to read Sinclair Lewis’s Babbitt (1922), with some vague notion of examining a Trump-like figure. It’s been many years since I first read the book, and I found myself mistaken; it’s true that George Babbitt is a real estate salesman (sorry, realtor, as he himself insists) of sleazy professional ethics operating with a puffer-fish hypocrisy of moral trumpeting. There the comparison with Trump ends; for Babbitt is a small man, of respectable but limited success in Zenith, the fictional 1920s Midwestern town where Lewis set several novels. Babbitt has no grandiosity, no vaulting ambitions for power. He is only “nimble in the calling of selling homes for more than people could afford to pay,” and his world is bounded by the limits of a deadening surburban conformity.
The novel isn’t highly plotted, more a slice of Babbitt’s small-minded daily life in his representative American small-town milieu. Yet he thinks of his commonplace Zenith as “big – and Babbitt respected bigness in anything; in mountains, jewels, muscles, wealth, or words.” Lewis is brilliant in the details, his minute description of Babbitt’s home (“very much like mahogany was the furniture,”) family (“Myra – Mrs. George F. Babbitt – was decidedly mature…she had become so dully habituated to married life that in her full matronliness she was as sexless as an anemic nun”), and office (“It was the very best of water-coolers, up-to-date, scientific, and right-thinking”). Babbitt struggles to rise a step higher in “sassiety with a big, big S,” to join the elite club of rich men in town, though his natural niche is with the good fellow Boosters. Yet he possesses a knack for making speeches, which brings him some local prominence. Until, that is, his closest and most genuine friend, the melancholy roofing salesman Paul Reisling, shoots his harridan wife and goes to prison. Suddenly Babbitt’s life seems meaningless to him, and he undergoes a brief but alarming rebellion, involving a love affair and temporary refusal to agree with all the platitudes expected by his Booster friends: “Babbitt chose this time to be publicly liberal.” He eventually finds his way back to his normal, comfortable conservatism, yet through this crisis he becomes a more human, more likeable man, bonding with his own gently rebellious teenage son.
The richest delight of the novel lies in Lewis’s exuberant satiric play with the commercial language of Middle America, especially its advertising cant. Here, Babbitt and son Ted admire the promotional literature of correspondence courses: “The advertisements were truly philanthropic. One of them bore the rousing headline: ‘Money! Money! Money!’ The second announced that ‘Mr. P.R., formerly making only eighteen a week in a barber shop, writes to us that since taking our course he is not pulling down $5000 as an Osteo-vitalic Physician.”
Then there’s T. Cholmondeley “Chum” Frink, the phenomenally successful newspaper poet and lecturer on “Ads that Add,” examples of whose prodigious work are laced through the book, as when he gleefully drinks Prohibition era cocktails immediately after writing, “I sat alone and groused and thunk, and scratched my head and sighed and wunk, and groaned ‘There still are boobs, alack, who’d like the old-time gin mill back…’”
Reading Babbitt bore no real relation to the Trump phenomenon, but I did recognize an America surprisingly unchanged, although a century in the past: many cultural traits have endured and thrived like vigorous weeds, with commercialism, for example, still just as American as apple pie. Babbitt himself, accepting what the Presbyterian Church and Republican Party tell him is important (“a good, sound business administration!”), is a type still readily recognizable, and somehow we can guess how he’d have voted in 2016.
(Apologies to those expecting a review of ‘ A Line Made by Walking’ – which will now appear next week. Blame the technology ….)