In the fall of 1920, Sinclair Lewis began a novel set in a fast-growing city with the heart and mind of a small town. For the center of his cutting satire of American business he created the bustling, shallow, and myopic George F. Babbitt, the epitome of middle-class mediocrity. The novel cemented Lewis's prominence as a social commentator. Babbitt basks in his pedestrian success and the popularity it has brought him. He demands high moral standards from those around him while flirting with women, and he yearns to have rich friends while shunning those less fortunate than he. But Babbitt's secure complacency is shattered when his best friend is sent to prison, and he struggles to find meaning in his hollow life. He revolts, but finds that his former routine is not so easily thrown over.
In the beginning of the book Babbitt is paraded around by the author. We see him at home and socializing with friends. We see him at
Halfway through the book he starts going out with a different social set. He is attracted to a mysterious woman and she encourages their "friendship". The more time he spends with this crowd the more it gets noticed. But Babbitt is having a good time. He's doing some things he never did before.
Then Babbitt gets the word from his business buddies. Time to straighten up and fly right. No more hanging around with those wierdos you're a married man. As I recall there is some brief resistance by Babbitt. He likes having fun. Then he caves. He wasn't really like that.
Babbitt returns to his life as an upstanding, prosperous citizen.
There is some poignancy in Babbitt's return to his old life. It's like his heart isn't in it like it was before. He goes through the motions. Is Babbitt happy? Lewis never really tells us. This is satire with a real edge. The author did not seem to like the character. Babbitt kind of swings in the wind as the archetype of a bad example.
Lewis' triumph here lies in taking a character that no one could possibly like-the self-important conformist, and aggressively bigoted American businessman-and evoking not only barbed humor but vivid human feeling. Babbitt works as a political critique, piercing the smug veil worn by interwar American capitalism, but trancends mere amusing satire. Life in Zenith has a surprising depth; as such, it reminds us of the redemptive power of looking past ideology to the human relations beneath.
Sinclair is commenting on conformity and the deadening comfort of modern American life in Babbitt. While many of his points may still valid, they're not as true today.
The writing was good. The main character, Babbitt, had considerable depth and we really got into his head. The environment/setting/etc was well presented and really gave me a good feel for 1920s middle America. The ending wrapped up the various elements into a nice
And yet, I left this novel feeling unsatisfied and unfulfilled.
There are a few ways to take this novel. From a high level, it's a great sociological exploration into the American upper-middle-class family of the 1920s. It does a great job of showing work life and family life...of exploring the various issues a worker and a family may face...from labor unions to college to prohibition to the overly peppy youth.
From a plot standpoint, it's more difficult to evaluate. We follow this man Babbitt through his business days and his time with family and friends. We really get into his head and get a feel for the large variety of things that leave him discontented. And yet through many of the chapters, there doesn't seem to be much "plot" at all other than just randomly following this guy around.
There are, backing out to the overall novel, elements of a story arc that takes Babbitt's discontent and allows it to rise and fall and thus driving him to some action. But the elements of action felt sparse within the context of the novel. When the story arc finally reached its first climax, we got a few chapters of self destructive behavior and it looked as though our hero was in for a fall that would spur him either to disaster or into some radical action. Unfortunately, neither came to pass and the climax petered out.
I think part of the problem too for me is that I read this in a moment when I was already personally discontented with some elements in my life (work, school...) and so I found myself relating too closely to the overly depressive side of Babbitt. So as he spiraled downward, I felt my own mind reeling, though grateful that I could personally avoid his type of behavior. And yet, once the conclusion of his actions wrapped up, it felt very anti-climactic for me and I felt like nothing was truly resolved the way it could be resolved in real life. Thus, it was as though I got wrapped up in the emotions of a self-destructive mid-life crisis without feeling any resolution to pull me out of the disparaging pit the novel dug. Fortunately, things aren't that bleak for me and I'll quickly dig myself out.
If you're interested in the 1920s...or middle america...or the emotions and turmoil of a midlife crisis...then by all means, give this book a read. There are moments of humor and, if pieced together, can make an engaging narrative. Otherwise, the novel itself is rather boring and I personally feel that it can largely be passed by.
2.5 stars out of 5
This portrait of a stodgy conformist in the early part of the 20th century holds up well in today's world. More character study than plot-driven adventure, the novel follows George F. Babbitt through what might be considered a mid-life crisis. Motivated almost exclusively by his desire to be liked, respected, and successful, Babbitt is steeped in the class judgments of upper class America. He is absolutely blind to the imbedded paradoxes: his disdain for those with less money or prestige and his resentment and longing for the attention of those with more are beautifully rendered by Lewis. The reader can see the tongue planted firmly within the author's cheek.
I would no more desire to spend an evening with George F. Babbitt than I would desire to have a root canal, but reading the novel about his foray into self-determination was oddly enjoyable.
If you wish to read a brilliant political satire than this is the book for you. Lewis has a simple but thought provoking style which combines the best qualities of storytelling and Orwellian satire to create a new masterpiece which is Babbitt.
Some reviewers complain about being able to follow the storyline, but that is simply not true. You must enter the novel with both an open mind and an understanding of satire in order to understand Lewis' creative style. Well worth any effort you may instow upon it.
A must for any bookshelf!
Within weeks of Trump’s inauguration, the main shop window of one of London’s largest bookstores was filled with copies of It Can’t Happen Here. And that’s a pity, because Lewis’ forgotten earlier books, and in particular Babbitt, may offer a greater insight into the Trump era. Babbit and Lewis’ previous work, Main Street, are the reasons he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, the first American author to receive the honour.
George F. Babbitt is a real estate dealer in the fictional mid-western city of Zenith. His life revolves around his business, his family and his network of friends who he meets through his church and the various clubs he joins — the Elks, the Boosters, and so on. Babbitt sees the world through the eyes of a businessman; if he were to write an autobiography, he might well have entitled it The Art of the Deal. He is not intellectually curious, has no interest in foreign travel, is convinced that his country (and state, and city) are the very best in the whole world. He detests immigrants and labor unions. Does any of this sound familiar?
Babbitt is deeply opinionated and develops a reputation as an orator of sorts, though he has nothing particularly interesting or original to say. In the world of business, and later at home, he lies and cheats with impunity and without remorse.
Babbitt is a particular “American type” and this book, even more than It Can’t Happen Here, offers insights into today’s American president.
Then his wife gets appendicitis and he rushes to her side to be the perfect husband once again, and he conforms to the standards he was living by before, with just a bit of niggling doubt left in his mind. He places his hope of ever breaking out of society's mold in his son and hopes he does a better job of it.
For someone who basically upholds views I disagree with for most of the book, Babbitt is wonderfully human and loveable. He struggles with real-life questions which I think nearly every one can relate to. His life gets too routine and he experiments, but returns to the safe, straight and narrow path before long. And the dialogue is tip-top!
Babbitt ‘s family consists of his devoted wife, Myra, and his three children, Verona, Ted and Tinka. The social status of the Babbitt family is important to George and they constantly are on the lookout to improve their status in the community. Yet, there is a bit of a rebel inside George and when his best friend ends up going to prison and his wife goes away to nurse her sister, George mounts his own small rebellion, but eventually realizes that it is too late for him to change and retreats back into the security of conformity. He does however, encourage his son, to explore his possibilities and not just settle into life.
I thought Babbitt was a very interesting read. Instead of the glamour and glitz of the 1920’s, this book gives us a glimpse of middle class American life in ways that are both insightful and humorous. The middle class became a recognizable force during this decade and this book helps us to understand it’s place and importance in society. My opinion of George Babbitt went through a number of changes during the course of the story for which I credit the author for developing such a well rounded character. And although the slang and much of the dialogue was dated to it’s time, in many ways this was a timeless story.
[Using the term melancholy in an uber-modern world, so aware of the somber establishment—does little for my reputation.]
Once again, I listened to an audiobook. It's hard for me to say whether it was a good performance of the novel or not, since I so hated the novel itself. From the first, I really wanted to punch Colacci in the face to make him stop talking. His voice is grating and annoying. This inclines me to say that thus this is not a great audiobook, but, still, such a voice does fit perfectly with the truly awful people in the story. I do imagine that Babbitt sounds exactly like that.
A more fair criticism of the performance than my personally not liking the sound of Colacci's voice is that it was often difficult to tell the characters apart. During conversations, I really could not follow who was speaking, unless there was some sort of note as to who said what. One conversation between Paul Riesling and Babbitt, for example, left me unsure as to whose wife was being annoying and who was praising whom. Surprisingly, though, this gruff-voiced man did a really good job with the female voices, although, again, they all sounded pretty similar. Of course, the women never really have a conversation, so that didn't matter much.
Pretty much the only interesting thing in this novel is the setting (1920s), but I would recommend getting that from An American Tragedy instead, which has some really strange parallels. Babbitt is repetitive (he constantly mentions his desire to quit smoking and then forgets and then announces he'll do it this time and then...) and obnoxious (Babbitt spends the first half of the novel being sanctimonious about things and behavior, then goes and does all those things and is sanctimonious about those that judge him for it). If that's your thing, then go for it.
"He was somewhere among unknown people who laughed at him. He slipped away, ran down the paths of a midnight garden, and at the gate the fairy child was waiting. Her dear and tranquil hand caressed his cheek. He was gallant and wise and well-beloved; warm ivory were her arms; and beyond the perilous moors the brave sea glittered."
After a friend's life takes a disastrous turn, Babbitt rebels and for a time searches for the fairy child among women of his acquaintance. He is reminded of his more liberal views when young, and begins to see his own rebellious son differently.
The book was a huge success in its time, and in 1930 Lewis won the Nobel Prize, the first American to do so. He writes really well, and more than once I thought this was what Updike was trying to do, with less success. Babbitt is a satire of crass American commercialism and superficial optimism, but the book also has a heart. "Babbitt" became a word in our lexicon defined as ""a person and especially a business or professional man who conforms unthinkingly to prevailing middle-class standards". To me, that definition is unfair, as Georgie Babbitt wasn't an unthinking conformist. He yearned for escape with the fairy child, but determinedly, with "pep", he tried to make the best of the hand he saw himself dealt. A four star read.
Sinclair Lewis does not sympathize with Babbit's values. There are parts of the book that are satirical in highlighting Babbitt's hypocrisy. Nevertheless, Lewis appears sympathetic to Babbit the man; the man who is not quite happy with his choices, and is trying to be open to alternatives.
Lewis's book is naturalism at its best. The actors introspect, and make choices, and direct their lives... and yet, the summarizing message is that this is extremely difficult, and perhaps essentially futile. We do not see someone being absolutely carried along with the trend; but, we surely do not see any heroic battles either. The actors are not born with some inherent flaw that they cannot will away; yet, we find them constrained by their own values and choices, unable to radically change the choices they have made.
While I cannot recommend this as inspiring fiction, I think it is definitely worth reading a few such books. I think this type of naturalism has didactic (and "cautionary tale") value. While the naturalism will leave the reader uninspired, the plot carries one along as if one were watching a real reality show.
Personally, I will probably read more Sinclair Lewis, but primarily as part of my interest in that period of American history from the 1880s to WW-II.