Thursday, November 27, 2008


Oh, Sinclair Lewis! As I read Babbitt, I'm beginning to mix Sinclair Lewis up with Upton Sinclair. Such good ideas, such insightful sociology, such clumsy sentences. What is (was) America of the '20s and '30s? These two documented it unflinchingly.

Sinclair Lewis's Main Street is a beautifully written classic--Carol Kennicott gives us the middle-class, liberal arts-educated perspective on the horrifyingly closed-minded materialism of prairie towns . Upton Sinclair's Lanny Budd novels operate on a broader canvas--Lanny Budd, over a period of 20 years, analyzes international politics, often living in Europe and dealing with politicians (as did Sinclair in his lifetime).

But Lewis's Babbitt has almost defeated me. This satire is so broad, and the style much more florid than in Main Street. The style itself condemns George Babbitt. Yet I feel so sorry for the babbling, boosterish Babbitt. Babbitt's Zenith is a super-sized Gopher Prairie, a city of 300,000 people characterized by dog-eat-dog businessmen, state-university-educated vs. Yale-educated clubs, desperate housewives in modern housing developments, aimless daughters (graduates of Bryn Mawr with nothing to do), and punk sons who want to drop out and take correpsondence classes. It's a sad society, but of course they don't feel sad. Babbitt, a realtor who lives to shop and chomp cigars, is immensely proud of his self-made man status but also empty and bewildered as he wishes inarticulately for something better.

Babbitt and his overly-sensitive friend Paul (of whom he is proud) go to Maine for a week without their wives. Babbitt finds himself gradually descending into enuui, breaking down, wanting silence, relieved to escape the "chumminess" of his everyday life.. He becomes more lethargic when his wife arrives. He doesn't feel well until the last day of vacation.

Some of the scenes are really hysterically funny--a seance scene at one of Babbitt's dinner parties (the guests are Vergil Gunch, Chum Frink, Eddie Swanson, Orville Jones, Howard Littlefield, and their wives): and the wives want to "talk to Dante."

Vergil Gunch says: "I suppose Dante showed a lot of speed for an old-timer--not that I've actually read him, of course--but to come right down to hard facts, he wouldn't stand one-two-three if he had to buckle down to practical literature and turn out a poem for the newspaper-syndicate every day, like Chum does.:

But Babbitt thinks privately--and this is why we love him--"We're all so flip and think we're so smart. There'd be--A fellow like Dante--I wish I'd read some of his pieces. I don't suppose I ever will, now."

1 comment:

Ellen said...

You're doing just beautiful work here. I wonder if there's a telepathy for I've just recommended _Main Street_ and _Dodsworth_ to Judy on her classic movies blog.

I'll come back later tonight to comment on _Main Street_ and Howells too.