(Since the beginning of 2008 I've been writing an ongoing series of essays here that I call the "CCLaP 100," whereby I read for the first time a hundred books considered by many to be classics, and then write reports here on whether or not I think they deserve this label. For the complete list of books, as well as an explanation behind how the list was compiled, you can click here.)
By Sinclair Lewis
Book #55 in this essay series
The story in a nutshell:
The follow-up to his surprise smash bestseller Main Street, Sinclair Lewis' 1922 Babbitt is basically a continuation of his searing indictment regarding the hypocrisies inherent in middle-class Midwestern society in the years between World War One and the Great Depression, known to us now as the "Roaring Twenties" and which conjures up images of flappers, illegal hooch and fur-coat-wearing undergraduates. Set in the fictional mid-sized industrial powerhouse of Zenith, Winnemac*, it tells the story of one George Babbitt, a pudgy, milquetoast, pink-faced realtor who's the very living embodiment of everything Lewis hated, as we watch during the first half of this novel while he bumbles his way through a typical work week -- where appearances and superficialities count for everything, chamber-of-commerce boosterism has become the new state religion (and the Elks and Kiwanis the new churches), and even the slightest hint of labor reform is treated as a city-destroying godless communist threat that must be extinguished at all cost.
Ah, but in the second half, we watch as a series of events call into question for Babbitt the infallibility of these former bedrocks in his life, including his best friend having a mental breakdown and shooting his wife, as well as an affair Babbitt himself embarks upon with a left-leaning bohemian; so when Babbitt starts appearing in public with these menaces to society, needless to say that his fellow community leaders don't react well at all, essentially forming a McCarthyesque morals organization for the sole purpose of bullying Babbitt back into the fold, or else face a near-total boycott of the properties he's currently trying to sell. His spirit broken, the dimwitted Babbitt is indeed brought back to the status quo by the end of the book, convincing himself that his former excursions into the wild side of life were foolish and that he had given them up voluntarily; but at least the novel ends on a hopeful note, as Babbitt ends up sticking up for his son's right to lodge petty protests against various details of his upcoming wedding, showing a spark of rebellion still buried deep in our genial antihero, leading us to only guess at how this might have manifested itself in him as the good times of the '20s gave way to the horrors of the '30s and '40s.
The argument for it being a classic:
Well, for starters, Lewis was one of the first Americans to ever receive the Nobel Prize in Literature, mostly for a string of unprecedented successes he had all through the 1920s, a whole series of bitter screeds about middle-class Protestant conformity that were (to the shock of everyone) eagerly eaten up in the millions by the very self-hating middle-class Midwesterners he was trashing, a whole string of bestsellers that each had a more contentious relationship with academes and especially the Pulitzer committee than it might seem at first. (Main Street actually won the award the year it came out, but then was revoked at the last second by conservative judges on a technicality and given to Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence instead; so when Lewis' next novel after this one, Arrowsmith, actually did win the Pulitzer for real, in a self-righteous huff he turned it down.) And indeed, as we approach the hundredth anniversary of his most well-known novels, it's becoming clear that Lewis drew the virtual blueprint for so much of the 20th-century literature that came after him, with a strong argument to be made that neither Tom Perrotta nor Jonathan Franzen would've even had careers if not for books like this one paving the way. An astute and slyly funny look at the psychologically corrosive nature of the safe and bland, and of just how much violence must be used to actually maintain this bland safety (a theme Lewis would ratchet up even more in such later novels as Elmer Gantry and It Can't Happen Here), fans argue that it's time we stand up and finally acknowledge just what an impact on the 20th-century arts Lewis had, a tremendously influential writer in his day who fell into obscurity during the Postmodernist era, but who deserves now to be acknowledged for the way he so deftly predicted how the rest of the "American Century" would proceed after his own time.
The argument against:
Critics of Babbitt -- and there's a lot of them -- would snort derisively after reading the above paragraph, and ask if they had actually read the same book that its fans had; because as far as they're concerned, the novel is nothing more than a tawdry bit of badly dated pop-culture, nearly impossible to even read just 89 years later because of the ridiculous amount of period slang used in its dialogue. (And indeed, it was this slang that made Lewis such a huge hit in Europe, where his books actually came with glossaries in the back.) And besides, they ask, should we really be honoring Lewis in the first place for inventing the now overused genre known as the Big Bad Suburbs? Hasn't this in fact turned into one of the most tired, hackneyed cliches in all of modern literature, and shouldn't we actually be cursing both Lewis and the snotty academes of Early Modernism (the first generation of academes to even acknowledge novels as actual art forms) for legitimizing something in the "serious" arts that should've never been legitimized in the first place? A sneakily commercial writer who was merely spoon-feeding the light punishment that a spoiled, corrupt, overly rich American middle-class wanted to foist on itself in the 1920s, in order to make itself feel better for being so spoiled and corrupt in the first place, critics claim that there's a very good reason Lewis' career collapsed and never recovered after the onset of the Great Depression, which is that his early hits were merely what people at that exact moment in history wanted to hear, not great works of literature unto themselves, making the idea of Babbitt being a timeless classic laughable at best.
Of the many surprises I've learned about literary history since starting this essay series, definitely one of them is just how far back the tradition goes of angry artists denouncing the sleepy, conforming nature of middle-class societies living on the edges of large urban centers, which if this were the Bible you could express along the lines of, "And thus did Gustave Flaubert begat Thomas Hardy, and thus did Hardy begat Sherwood Anderson, and thus did Anderson begat Lewis, and thus did Lewis begat John Cheever, and thus did Cheever begat American Beauty;" and that just unto itself makes Lewis fascinating and worth paying attention to, precisely because this was so thoroughly forgotten about him during the countercultural upheavals of the 1960s, '70s and '80s, when his scathing critiques disguised as white-guy rah-rahs fell out of favor with an artistic community seeking something radically different. But that said, what critics posit about Lewis' actual writing style is definitely true as well, and I confess that I found it a chore to even make it through Babbitt, despite being amazed at how relevant the storyline itself is to the exact times we're currently living in.
So how exactly does one judge all this in the end? Certainly Lewis is an author just on the cusp of a big new historical reassessment and appreciation, as the slow increase of mentions of him you see these days in artistic circles attest; but certainly you should take the books themselves with a grain of salt, and understand that they were so fawned over at the time by academes and Europeans simply for the newness of the language he deployed, a running theme of Early American Modernism whether it's William Faulkner, Henry Miller or Ernest Hemingway you're talking about. And that's why today I am declaring Babbitt with a bit of hesitancy to indeed be a classic, at least for now, although caution readers that some of you might dislike this book rather intensely, yet another truism regarding so much of the work from this experimental period of arts history. All of these Jazz Age novels of Lewis' are worth visiting if you never have before (and especially Gantry, which virtually defined the tropes of every televangelist parody that's ever been written since), but don't complain to me if you get tripped up in his endless "23-skidoo" dialogue.
Is it a classic? Just barely
The next four books scheduled to be read:
Midnight's Children, by Salman Rushdie
Le Morte d'Arthur, by Sir Thomas Malory
The Brothers Karamazov, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Stranger in a Strange Land, by Robert Heinlein
(And don't forget that the first 33 essays in this series are now available in book form!)
*And in fact, it's the invention of the fictional Midwestern state Winnemac that might very well turn out to be Lewis' most lasting legacy, his brilliant solution for getting to trash the Midwest without any actual Midwesterners becoming offended; the setting for all his novels following Babbitt as well, it's located in a space that in real life comprises upper Indiana/Ohio and lower Michigan, with its largest city "Zenith" being a stand-in for any number of large Midwestern industrial centers around it, from Detroit to Cincinnati to Milwaukee to St. Louis. Ironically, despite how terribly he portrayed the citizens of Zenith, Midwestern cities in the 1920s used to have actual bragging contests over which of them was its real-life inspiration.