Several years ago, I picked up an original edition of Sinclair Lewis's 1922 novel Babbitt at some swap meet or garage sale. My recent enforced vacation from federal employment presented an excellent chance to read this acclaimed and once-controversial book. For much of the story, I had to labor to continue reading. But the effort paid rich -- and as George Babbitt might say, "properly-earned" -- dividends.
Babbitt is generally regarded as a satire of American business culture and values. True to the genre, the book employs all the irony, ridicule, and exaggeration that characterize satire -- but little of the humor. This occasionally makes for a sneering, somewhat elitist criticism of its subjects. For most of the book, the titular main character is a pathetic and wholly unsympathetic caricature. I couldn't help thinking that a more balanced treatment of the protagonist would have enhanced the story. But by the book's end, although I still would have welcomed more empathy, I came to regard Babbitt as a brilliant -- and even timely -- work of American literature.
Over the past 90 years, Babbitt's plot has been chronicled many times over, and I can add little to that. In summary, the book details the mid-life crisis of a realtor in a thriving Midwestern city. George Babbitt uncritically espouses the "boosterism" and near-religious fervor for commerce and patriotism embraced by his fellows in the chamber of commerce. But Babbitt also constantly struggles with a nagging sense that he could and should have done more with his life -- and that his views are flawed, even destructive.
George Babbitt begins to rebel against his solid-citizen prohibition-era values. His life detours to a debauched hedonism that threatens not only his business but also his marriage. He even develops sympathy for more progressive social views (read, Socialism). But a family medical crisis douses him like a pitcher of ice water. Babbitt returns to his old ways and views -- albeit not completely. He rejoins his social club and business and civic organizations, but the unquestioning acolyte has been replaced by a man now willing to think for himself.
There is hope for George Babbitt after all.
I enjoyed Sinclair Lewis's portrait of quaint early-twentieth-century American life. But what struck me more were the similarities between modern Americans and those of that era. The tenor and substance of the current debates in Congress and the not-forgotten Wall Street excesses no doubt color this impression, but Babbitt is a book for our times. Although it may be preachy, redundant, and even snarky in places, this masterpiece has renewed relevance.
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