A friend of mine was asking about this book a few weeks ago, and I’d never read it, or anything by Lewis, so I gave it a go. I studied literature because I wanted to read books and talk about them with intelligent people, so the emailed conversation we’ve been having has been a rare joy. And I’ve realized that I’ve been conflating Sinclair Lewis and Upton Sinclair, which sort of happens when you’ve never really read anything by either.

George F. Babbitt, as my friend pointed out, is the classic Trump supporter, only back in 1920. He’s solid middle class, at a time when that was possible. His is the America that people look back to as being great, prosperous and conformist and sexist and anti-immigration and would probably be racist if there were any other races represented.

Which of them said which has never been determined, and does not matter, since they all had the same ideas and expressed them always with the same ponderous and brassy assurance. It if was not Babbitt who was delivering any given verdict, at least he was beaming on the chancellor who did deliver it.

The people in Babbitt’s life are all pretty much the same. Their god is named Pep, and they all go around “boosting” each other, which I take to mean they advertise each other’s businesses in a loudly jovial fashion. Even their poetry sounds like an ad campaign. Relationships are kind of weird. He never really wanted to marry his wife, he never even asked – one night she was crying on his shoulder and he kissed her and she assumed that meant marriage, so he never contradicted her.

And the strange thing is that the longer one knew the women, the less alike they seemed; while the longer one knew the men, the more alike their bold patterns appeared.

I’d like to talk about gender, because that is one of those things I habitually do, but there’s not a whole lot here. Babbitt tries to avoid spaces that are coded feminine; he doesn’t even sleep in the bedroom, but on a sleeping-porch. He flees his house to get back to masculine spaces, like his real estate office.

The novel is organized as a three-act tragedy. The first part establishes Babbitt’s normal life, with his iron-clad habits and habitual dissatisfaction. The blurbs keep saying this is a book about complacency, but I don’t see the joint pleasure that word implies. His phonograph needle is stuck in this one groove, but he doesn’t like it.

He was conscious of life, and a little sad. With no Vergil Gunches before whom to set his face in resolute optimism, he beheld, and half admitted that he beheld, his way of life as incredibly mechanical. Mechanical business – a brisk selling of badly built houses. Mechanical religion – a dry, hard church, shut off from the real life of the streets, inhumanly respectable as a top-hat. Mechanical gold and dinner-parties and bridge and conversation. Save with Paul Riesling, mechanical friendships – back-slapping and jocular, never daring to essay the test of quietness.

He turned uneasily in bed.

He saw the years, the brilliant winter days and all the long sweet afternoons which were meant for summery meadows, lost in such brittle pretentiousness. He thought of telephoning about leases, of cajoling men he hated, of making business calls and waiting in dirty anterooms – hat on knee, yawning at fly-specked calendars, being polite to office-boys.

“I don’t hardly want to go back to work,” he prayed. “I’d like to – I don’t know.”

But he was back next day, busy and of doubtful temper.

Paul Riesling is important – he and Babbitt complain about their mutual unhappiness, and that releases the pressure so Babbitt can go back to his boringly successful existence. This is the part where I usually speculate on the possibility of their being gay, but no. There are opportunities for that, but I don’t think they go there. It is possible for two heterosexual men to enjoy each other’s company without either of them secretly wanting to have sex.

Act Two describes Babbitt’s rise to power. Lewis always points out the ways that Babbitt is successful, but not the most successful. He belongs to the second-best clubs – nothing is ever quite of the best. But then he starts getting a reputation for being an orator, and makes some well-received public speeches (that to me sound like meaningless jingoism), and he starts climbing the social ladder. In this part of the book, Babbitt is frequently reminded of the fact that there is a pecking order and what his place is in that order – knocked down by those above, slavishly adored by those below.

Frankly, this first two-thirds was sort of dull to me. Conspicuous consumption and the expected indiscretions, like having whisky at a dinner party during Prohibition. His neighbors on either side represent his superego and his id, and it’s all sort of predictable and episodic and boring. Babbitt’s life is boring. It’s hard for me because I see so much of this in my family; they follow the round of business and church and the collective life. There’s a certain degree of comfort in all of it, but it feels like a hairshirt to me. The thing is, that life in gay land isn’t much different. The gay men I’ve met are just as conformist as everyone else, and the cultural push to marriage equality celebrated this fact. Look at us, we’re just as boring as straight people. Don’t get me wrong, I’d like some more prosperity in my life, but I’d prefer a home life with fewer possessions and organizations. Frequent moving has made my life fairly Spartan, both in design choices and social activities. Home is where I go to relax, not to be overstimulated by a lot of people who need attention and a mountain of stuff that needs to be cleaned.

Babbitt’s story gets interesting (to me) when he starts to fall. It starts with Paul Riesling shooting his (own) wife and going to jail. Without that safety valve to release the pressure, Babbitt goes off the rails. His wife goes off for a visit to her sick sister, and he starts going out with a lovely widow who was a lot of young scandalous friends. But as he gets farther and farther into this group, they demand an equal amount of conformity, just of a different variety. They’re just as involved in every aspect of each other’s lives, they just prefer a different sort of life. It’s kind of sad. He learns to hold his liquor and dance the latest steps, but he’s not actually more independent than he was before. His rebellion is as neatly prescribed as his previous life. But then the old crowd cuts him, and he pulls himself out of the new crowd, and he sinks to the bottom. Unlike a good many tragedies, though, he rights himself. His wife gets appendicitis and spends two or three weeks in the hospital. It may seem like the crowning tragedy, but the sympathy generated brings him back into the fold of conservative, right-thinking people. He ends where he began, but with a little less rigidity.

As he began to drift away he also began to see her as a human being, to like and dislike her instead of accepting her as a comparatively movable part of the furniture, and he compassionated that husband-and-wife relation which, in twenty-five years of married life, had become a separate and real entity.

The whole thing does improve his relationship with his wife; at least, he has more respect and consideration, and I guess that can take the place of love. I want to live with someone who is kind, and that seems the most important quality to me these days. My current he is kind to me, and good to his family and friends generally. We have some cultural differences that may be irreconcilable – he doesn’t find the strange to be beautiful – but it works for right now.

This week I read Emerson’s “Self-Reliance” with my advanced class, and Babbitt is the sort of person the essay decries. He flies from one conformity to another, and never really settles into living by his own values and opinions. His independent thoughts are only for private time and aren’t permitted to dictate changes to his public life. I’m not saying that I never do this. It’s not like Emersonian self-reliance is easy, and I don’t think an extreme devotion to it is healthy because we do need to live in communities. But living according to one’s own opinions and values is important; it’s a vital part of what being American means to a lot of us. Maybe twenty-first century mobility and communication have been necessary to both embrace one’s own priorities and still live in a community. If so, the internet is a great gift to the world.

Sinclair Lewis’s style matches his subject matter. It’s clear and impartial, occasionally descriptive but never really effusive. The book is a good one for people who are interested in the daily lives of the Midwestern middle-class in 1920, but my final evaluation is pretty much the same as my evaluation of the protagonist: not bad, but not interesting enough to keep my attention.

Advertisements
Comments
  1. It’s interesting in contrast to Steinbeck. In Dubious Battle was published in ’36 and Grapes of Wrath in ’39. I imagine the concept of middle-classdom was actually much more limited than people imagine.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s