I finally finished Babbitt (1922) and I didn’t dislike it, although I expected to. Which is strange, since Main Street (1920), Sinclair Lewis’ previous novel, is one of my two favorite books. The other is Anna Karenina. I have a thing for women in literature who pursue their own happiness with a blinding selfishness, even if they are so, so wrong about what will make them happy. (And now, thinking about it, it makes a certain sort of sense that men like Lewis and Tolstoy would write women that way.)
George F. Babbit is a real estate agent who lives in a midwestern city called Zenith. He’s living the American dream, with wife, three kids, shiny new automobile, and enough money to afford silver cigarette lighters for his car and bootleg gin. He’s also boring and bored.
In the middle of the book, Babbitt acquires a reputation as an orator (he muses frequently and regretfully about how he’s not so bad at making up speeches, and how he could have, maybe should have, been a lawyer or a politician instead of a realtor). He delivers a speech on behalf of a local mayoral candidate in which he boosts Zenith and the Regular Guys who live there:
“Our Ideal Citizen–I picture him first and foremost as being busier than a bird-dog, not wasting a lot of good time in day-dreaming or going to sassiety teas or kicking about things that are none of his business, but putting the zip into some store or profession or art. At night he lights up a good cigar, and climbs into the little old ‘bus, and maybe cusses, the carburetor, and shoots out home. He mows the lawn, or sneaks in some practice putting, and then he’s ready for dinner. After dinner he tells the kiddies a story, or takes the family to the movies, or plays a few fists of bridge, or reads the evening paper, and a chapter or two of some good lively Western novel if he has a taste for literature, and maybe the folks next-door drop in and they sit and visit about their friends and the topics of the day. Then he goes happily to bed, his conscience clear, having contributed his mite to the prosperity of the city and to his own bank account.”
This bit is part of a much longer speech — nine pages, deftly handled, in my edition — but it encapsulates the book-as-character-study. This Ideal Citizen that Babbitt describes is a man he fancies himself to be in his prouder moments, and a man he hates in his self-pitying moments. So much of the novel is Babbitt trying to live up to, then rejecting, then pursuing again, this life. I think it’s also why I expected to dislike it. I often find it hard to connect to character studies, something I hadn’t realized until last night when I was attempting, for the third time, to watch Mad Men with a friend. I asked him what he likes about it, and he called on the tension of the period, the acting, and the fascinating characters. That’s when it occurred to me that I vastly prefer watching characters move within a quickly plotted piece than watching them consider their own condition.
Yet, in the hands of the right writer, a novel where “nothing happens” can be deeply moving. Main Street, which follows the life of an educated young woman from the Twin Cities who marries a small town doctor and spends the rest of her life fighting stagnation, is just like Babbitt in many ways. Carol Kennicott, the main character, “does things,” but nothing really changes for her. Years pass with the flip of a page. It ends much as it begins.
Babbitt, though, makes out better than Carol. He, at least, is able to congratulate his son on breaking free from conformity, while he himself is unable to do so. Carol simply settles, her life becoming a minor tragedy. (There is, perhaps, another post here. But I think Lewis chose this on purpose.)
Anyway, I have a ton more books to read, but I just cleaned off my desk and found that copy of Kingsblood Royal (1947) I bought earlier this year. I think I’d like to continue reading Lewis and give that a go first, before I get to anything else.