Babbitt, by Sinclair Lewis ★★★
I don’t recall who recommended that I read Babbitt, but it was that recommendation that led me to download it free and read it on the iPad. Written by Sinclair Lewis in the 1920s, it was one of the books that led to Lewis obtaining the Nobel Prize in literature. Thus, I assumed that it must be an epic, monumental read. It was nothing of the sort. Lewis was born around the turn of the century in Minnesota and seemed to have rebelled against his upbringing. Writing satirical novels about the culture of middle America, Lewis achieved temporary fame, leading to his death by alcoholism.
Babbitt is the story of a go-getter real estate salesman in the town of Zenith, a generic large town located in the mid-west. Babbitt is successful, but not flagrantly so, seeming to be bedeviled by those few people wealthier than him. The initial descriptions in the book paint him as a man lacking true character, constantly hassling with his two children and wife, yet not really heading anywhere in life. He goes to church, but most of his life is led in superficial goodness, while never being ashamed of pulling less-than-honest slick real estate deals to get ahead. His relations at the athletic club, the Presbyterian church, and other social community groups maintain his status in society while demanding little of him. His one friend, Paul R. and he decide to depart on a several-week getaway up to Maine, to be met later by the wives. Not long afterward, Paul ends up in a quarrel with his wife, shoots her, and then ends up several years in prison while she gets religion. Later, Babbitt’s wife takes a long leave of absence, allowing Paul to participate in some trysts, leading to him on a fast downward spiral of alcoholism and liberalism, rejecting everything conservative about his past. Only after his wife returns and lands in emergency surgery for appendicitis does Babbitt realize the errors of his ways and return to his conservative, superficially high-moral friends and is restored to their company.
Lewis spends much time painting religion as either the occupation of deranged and troubled individuals, such as Pauls’ wife or as a superficial gloss of morality without any depth of substance or meaning. Realizing that he also wrote a satire on American religion (Elmer Gantry), it is clear that he has a distinct anti-religious agenda. Lewis desires to paint the typical American as culturally naive and socially stagnant. Life for the typical American in the 1920s according to Lewis lacks originality, is dreadfully goal/success oriented. Unfortunately, Lewis paints two straw characters. Though he is noted to have done “research” for the writing of his book, he perhaps paints a description of himself rather than that of any typical 1920’s American. True, Lewis was a liberal socialist and Babbitt was a conservative Capitalist. Other than that, the character of Babbitt is really that of Lewis. If only Lewis could realize how his life would descend into absolute meaninglessness and eventually “suicide” through alcoholism. The straw man of American religion that Lewis paints is even more sorry. It is true that in the 1920’s already, the mainstream churches of America had lost their heart and soul, and Lewis saw that clearly. Unfortunately, particulars don’t form generalizations, and his jabs at Billy Sunday (called Rev. Monday in Babbitt) are frequent and sadly uninformed.
Perhaps the greatest strength in a book like Babbitt is to induce one to question one’s own life. What is it that gives it meaning? Where does one find an escape from ennui, trivialness, absence of direction? It is the religion that Lewis attempts to satirize that offers his only chance of escape. In the Koheleth (Ecclesiastes), the preacher explores the idea of everything being futile and meaningless. Solomon was able to resolve the issue of meaninglessness in life in a way that Lewis was not. Lewis has unknowingly become the object of his own satire. Pity him and do not make the same mistakes.
Babbitt, by Sinclair Lewis ★★★