Babbitt by Sinclair Lewis
Genre: Adult, American Lit, Prohibition, mid-life crisis, Boosterism (which I don’t explain at all, lol)
Rating: 4.? out of 5 stars
Summary: George F. Babbitt is a realtor in the fictional town of Zenith in the 1920s. He’s successful, he has a wife who likes to host dinner parties, three kids whom he generally loves, a good house and a car, and despite constantly trying to convince himself otherwise, he is extremely unhappy. The novel is a slow process of self-realization as Babbitt comes to terms with his discontentment, and ultimately shows that while the American Dream might be empty, not all dreams have to be.
Y’all, this is going to be a gross simplification because I’m too busy writing a paper (part of which is about this book) to properly discuss the book here. Here’s what I think: It’s beautiful. Really. It’s amazing. But I’m not recommending it to you unless you like Literature (note the capital L).
One reviewer on Amazon points out that you shouldn’t read Babbitt for “entertainment purposes” and I think that’s somewhat true. I mean (despite all evidence to the contrary, all evidence being what I have thus far discussed on this blog) I DO enjoy Literature, and I enjoyed Babbitt. But it wasn’t something I was able to breeze through in an afternoon. And it’s not something you should read if you’re looking to escape your life, because it is going to make you think about it.
There is something to be said of reading Babbitt in a modern context, which is basically: we ALREADY KNOW the “American Dream” is a flop.
I think people reading this book in the 1920s may have been shocked and dismayed to see Babbitt struggle with his day-to-day routine and growing unhappiness with his seemingly-perfect life. But these days we’re all so, I don’t want to say cynical, maybe aware is the better word, it doesn’t come as much a surprise that a middle-aged businessman might feel a bit trapped. Actually, it’s kind of expected. (See: every movie ever made about a dad who works too much, misses his kid’s baseball game in the beginning, and goes on to learn a Valuable Lesson about what’s really important in life.)
This was a point of frustration for me in the novel. Babbitt has some moments of clarity, but they are few and far between. Most of the time, he refuses to confront his own unhappiness and thus cannot determine its cause. For example, one night laying in bed (on the “sleeping porch,” which is where men sleep while they’re wives take the bed inside), he realizes that his life centers around:
“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 golf 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.”
Then the rest of the time he’ll be like, “Well, why am I not happy! Respectable men are happy, so I should be too!!” Sometimes I really just wanted to slap him. But again, that’s because I’m one of those new-fangled MODERN readers who isn’t surprised if the world is disappointing, whereas the character Babbitt comes from a time when a man could surely achieve PERFECT HAPPINESS just by working hard enough.
Besides that, the only other issue I took with the book was the dialogue. It is AMAZINGLY ACCURATE. You can hear these people talking in your head, and it’s all really cleverly done. I mean, it’s basically pointless to say that since the book is such a classic, and Lewis such a noted genius, but I’m listing it here as bad thing for the following reasons:
“Well, all right then! If you think I’m a buttinsky, then I’ll just butt in! I don’t know who your May Arnold is, but I know doggone good and well that you and her weren’t talking about tar-roofing, no, nor about playing the violin neither!”
“Well, zize saying: You see I happen to know what a big noise Senny Doane is outside of Zenith, but of course a prophet hasn’t got any honor in his own country, and Senny, darn his old hide, he’s so blame modest…”
Just listening to the characters (you can HEAR them) go back and forth and back and forth in this crazy 1920’s cadence is enough to give you a headache after a while. It’s really brilliant.
Ultimately this book is about people who are desperate to succeed, but really have no idea what the hell they’re doing. The characters spend so much time trying to be “good” and “regular guys” and “respectable,” the moments that really shine are when real human connections are made. I think that’s the main genius of the ending. Babbitt comes to the conclusion that his whole life is fake, wasted maybe. But then he finds connections with the people around him, and he realizes that maybe he is deluding himself about this too. By confronting his own discontentment with his life head-on, he finally finds meaning in it.
It’s not a perfect ending for Babbitt by any means, but it is a happy one (spoilers).
This really hardly gets into all that goes on in Babbitt, which is at once both a very complicated and very simple story. I have glossed over many of the charming political and cultural details which give the book life in their realism, but that’s the kind of thing you’re going to have to see for yourself if/when you read it.
-The writing is so good, man
-Thoughts for Thinking
-Big Questions, and little questions
-Interesting look at people and political attitudes in 1920s U.S.
-The dialogue is oh-so-dialoguey
-It’s boring if you’re not into this kind of thing
So am I recommending this book? Maybe. I’ll leave off with this, the first lines. They set up the novel so well it kind of takes my breath away:
The towers of Zenith aspired above the morning mist; austere towers of steel and cement and limestone, sturdy as cliffs and delicate as silver rods. They were neither citadels nor churches, but frankly and beautifully, office-buildings.