Thursday, 1 March 2012

SINCLAIR LEWIS Babbitt (1922)

Dover Thrift Editions, 2003

As he approached the office he walked faster and faster, muttering, ‘Guess better hustle.’ All about him the city was hustling, for hustling’s sake. Men in motors were hustling to pass one another in the hustling traffic.  Men were hustling to catch trolleys, with another trolley a minute behind, and to leap from the trolleys, to gallop across the sidewalk, to hurl themselves into buildings, into hustling express elevators.  Men in dairy lunches were hustling to gulp down the food which cooks had hustled to fry.  Men in barber shops were snapping, ‘Jus’ shave me once over. Gotta hustle.’ Men were feverishly getting rid of visitors in offices adorned with the signs, ‘This Is My Busy Day’ and ‘The Lord Created The World in Six Days You Can Spiel All You Got to Say in Six Minutes.’ Men who had made five thousand, year before last, and ten thousand last year, were urging on nerve-yelping bodies and parched brains so that they might make twenty thousand this year; and the men who had broken down immediately after making their twenty thousand dollars were hustling to catch trains, to hustle through the vacations which the hustling doctors had ordered.
   Among them Babbitt hustled back to his office, to sit down with nothing much to do except see that the staff looked as though they were hustling.

The Novel:  Not only was the 1920s the era of wealth, glamor, jazz and unprecedented sophistication in American life, it also saw the rise of the businessman, the Booster, the ‘good fellow trying to get ahead for his family’s sake.’ George F Babbitt is one of these minor league tycoons –– a successful, college-educated real estate salesman with a wife, three children, a home in the pretty suburb of Floral Gardens and a firmly-established position in the second tier of ‘important personages’ in the growing Midwestern town of Zenith.

Babbitt eats too much, smokes too much and has a tendency to become loud and overbearing after drinking too much bootleg whiskey or putting away one too many cocktails at dinner parties.  He's overweight and doesn't exercise half as much as he should.  He tolerates, rather than loves, his simpering wife Myra and frequently dreams of escaping his dull workaday world with a lissome young 'fairy child' on his arm to which end he flirts with a neighbor's wife and makes a date with a manicurist young enough to be his daughter, only to have the latter embarrassingly reject him when he attempts to make a pass at her.  He argues with his children, craves the friendship of the rich and the respect of the poor and does a good job of pretending not to notice or care when neither is forthcoming.

But Babbitt is no fool.  He realizes what a walking cliché he is and can't help feeling miserable about it.  He dreams of cutting out the booze and ditching all the gladhanding he's forced to do to stay one step ahead of the competition in the real estate game, finding himself a quiet place to live where, at long last, he'll be able to settle down and get some 'proper thinking' done.

When his best friend, Paul Riesling, henpecked husband and failed violinist, is arrested and imprisoned for shooting and seriously wounding his complaining shrew of a wife, Babbitt finds himself suddenly cut adrift from his normal life, lacking the support system which, up till then, had made it tolerable if not always exciting, romantic or professionally satisfying.  Tired and disillusioned, he takes up with the imaginatively named Tanis Judique –– a semi-refined woman who has rented an apartment from him – and her 'fast' set, regularly attending their parties in preference to meeting his responsibilities as husband, father and somewhat unsteady pillar of the Zenith community.  He even defends the local socialist, declaring that he's not such a bad fellow to his horrified business associates when they get together to kick around the idea of running the alleged troublemaker out of town.  But little by little Babbitt finds himself returning to his former 'safe' habits, trading this brief taste of social and intellectual freedom for the familiar banalities of a suburban existence which remains as predictable as it does frustrating.

Babbitt was one of the first truly 'modern' men to be depicted in twentieth century American fiction, the forerunner of characters like John Updike's Harry 'Rabbit' Angstrom ('Rabbit'/'Babbitt' – coincidence or homage? I tend to think the former), Richard Ford's Frank Bascombe and a dozen others like them whose alleged 'ordinariness' is, to some degree, an intrinsic part of what makes them so fascinating.  George F Babbitt's world isn't the glamorous 1920s milieu inhabited by Jay Gatsby, Daisy Buchanan and their loose-living friends.  Nor would you have found George living la vie artistique on the Left Bank in Paris alongside Hemingway's Jake Barnes. The 1920s saw the birth of the world as we know and love (?) it today –– a world unashamedly obsessed with money, status and celebrity (the idea that anyone could make a living from, let alone be idolized for being a 'movie star,' was unthinkable before the phenomenal success of Mary Pickford and Charlie Chaplin proved it could be done in the years immediately following World War One), rushing to embrace the new and reject everything it considered to be even remotely outré or old-fashioned. 

Bantam Books, c. 1950
Babbitt, and 'Babbittism' as this phenomenon quickly came to be known, both symbolized and defined this frantic quest for modernity at any cost, a world where greed was revered and the poor man was only believed to be poor because he lacked the required amount of 'pep' and 'know-how' to go out and make himself a millionaire.  As the critic HL Mencken so perceptively wrote when the book first appeared:  'I know of no American novel that more accurately presents the real America.'  But it was Lewis himself who best understood that 'real America,' a place where the Boosters and the go-getters were becoming increasingly desperate 'to seize something more than motor cars and a house before it's too late.'  Ninety years later it could be argued that not all that much in the Western world has changed. 

The Writer:  Harry Sinclair Lewis (he earned the nickname 'Red' thanks to the colour of his hair) was born on 7 February 1885 in the Minnesota town of Sauk Center –– a place still considered to be part of the rapidly vanishing American frontier at that time.  His father was a doctor and his mother, a consumptive, died when he was six. 

An indifferent and often troublesome scholar, Lewis nevertheless absorbed enough knowledge from his own prodigious reading to gain admission to Yale, from which he graduated with a BA in 1908 following a brief hiatus which saw him quit school to work as a janitor in a socialist commune, take a trip to Panama and fail to make any headway whatsoever as a freelance journalist.  After losing the religious faith which had inspired his boyhood dream of traveling overseas to do missionary work, he dedicated himself with equal fervor to establishing a career in literature, writing children's adventure stories, verse and articles for magazines and periodicals first in New York City and then in San Francisco and Washington DC before returning to New York to accept a job in publishing.  Always disgusted and appalled by the miserable living conditions the working-class poor were forced to endure, Lewis joined the Socialist Party in 1912 and remained a committed Socialist all his life, his beliefs both inspiring and underscoring the biting sense of outrage which defines so much of his fiction.

His first novel, Our Mr Wrenn, appeared in 1914 and in that same year he married his first wife, Grace Livingston Hegger, instigating what was to become a lifelong love of traveling from city to city and, eventually, from continent to continent. His second novel, The Job, was published in 1917, as was his third, the poorly received The Innocents.  It was only with the publication of his fourth novel, Main Street, that Lewis was to find the fame and financial success which had eluded him up until this point.  The tale of a strong-willed bride who moves to a stuffy Midwestern town (closely based on Sauk Center) with her new husband and unsuccessfully tries to 'civilize' it, Main Street would go on to sell 180,000 copies by the end of 1920 and earn its author praise from the likes of John Galsworthy, Willa Cather, Upton Sinclair, Sherwood Anderson and the young (and then very fashionable) F Scott Fitzgerald.  Babbitt appeared in 1922, selling 141,000 copies by the end of the year and guaranteeing Lewis' continued financial independence.  This allowed him to leave his first wife and visit Europe and the UK for extended periods, where he was befriended by many celebrated English writers of the day including Somerset Maugham, Lytton Strachey and the Socialist philosopher Bertrand Russell.

Other successes followed.  His novel Arrowsmith, about an idealistic doctor, appeared in 1925 and earned him a nomination for the Pulitzer Prize –– a nomination he rejected because he felt the prize should be awarded on literary merit alone rather than because the nominated work happened to meet all the patriotically inspired selection criteria.  (He was a harsh and outspoken critic of the American literary establishment in general, once referring to American professors as people who 'like their literature clear and cold and pure and very dead.')  His next book, Elmer Gantry, was roundly condemned by religious leaders when it appeared in 1927 because its title character happened to be a hypocritical minister who takes financial, moral and sexual advantage of his gullible parishioners.  Despite being banned in some American cities, the novel would go on to become another runaway bestseller.

SINCLAIR LEWIS and DOROTHY THOMPSON on their honeymoon, 1928
In 1928, Lewis divorced his first wife and married the journalist Dorothy Thompson, whom he proposed to the first time they met and allegedly kept on proposing to every time their paths re-crossed until she finally accepted him. He continued to lead his usual peripatetic life with her and in 1929 published the novel Dodsworth –– another satire about a wealthy American couple traveling through Europe who come to realize how empty and pointless their lives are that would win him the 1930 Nobel Prize for Literature. (He was the first American writer to win the award.)  A heavy drinker all his life, Lewis made several attempts to give up alcohol, none of which lasted for more than a few weeks despite his frequent stays in various sanitariums, hospitals and rest homes.  His last truly 'great' novel was It Can't Happen Here –– one of the first American novels to attack Fascism, a political system which was widely seen in 1935, the year the book was published, as being the potential 'savior' of a world still badly affected by the Depression.

Lewis divorced Dorothy Thompson in 1942 and spent the last nine years of his life traveling, writing still more novels, stories, articles and plays (some of which he acted in), unsuccessfully romancing women much younger than himself and drinking like a fish.  He died in Rome in January 1951 of what was described by the attending physician as 'advanced alcoholism.' 

Click HERE to visit the website of THE SINCLAIR LEWIS SOCIETY.  You can also download Babbitt in its entirety –– and many other novels by SINCLAIR LEWIS –– as free online eBooks by clicking HERE.  There are many biographies and critical studies of his work available, including a memoir by DOROTHY THOMPSON which charts the course of their stormy and ultimately disastrous marriage. 

DOROTHY THOMPSON was an amazing woman in her own right.  She was one of the first foreign journalists to interview Adolf Hitler and the first foreign journalist to be expelled from Nazi Germany.  After the war she became an avid supporter of Zionism and, when that movement became 'too imperialistic' in her view, began to support the even more contentious cause of Palestinian liberation.  Click HERE to read her Wikipedia entry

You might also enjoy:
EDITH WHARTON Ethan Frome (1911)
THOMAS WOLFE Of Time and the River (1935)
BRIGITTE HAMANN Hitler's Vienna: A Dictator's Apprenticeship (1999)

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