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Wednesday, October 01, 2014

Babbitt (1922) by Sinclair Lewis

Nobel Prize winning American author Sinclair Lewis: Fun at parties?

Book Review
Babbitt (1922)
by Sinclair Lewis

  American author Sinclair Lewis placed two books onto the 1001 Books list, Babbitt and Main Street.  Main Street, published in 1920, was a collosal hit, as was Main Street, and both works figured prominently in the decision to give him the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1930.  Both books are satires of contemporary American life, with Main Street targeting the rural/small town environment and Babbitt focusing on the mid sized American city- think Cincinnati, Cleveland, St. Louis.   Babbitt is the last name of the main character, George F. Babbitt, a real estate broker in the mid sized Midwestern city of Zenith.  He is married, and has two college aged children, one boy and one girl. He is, by design, a most average fellow, who at the outset of the novel is concerned with little besides his next deal and his next meeting at the local civic club.

  Aside from satirizing contemporary American mores, the plot of Babbitt deals with a very small scale rebellion of Babbitt against his circumstances: He goes on a vacation with a male buddy of his in the woods of Maine and leaves his wife behind (for the first week of a three week vacation, she joins him for the second two weeks.)  Later, he has a brief extra marital affair and has some "wild times" with a group of non-respectable people called "the bunch."  He refuses to join a proto-anti-communist civic league, and speaks up in the defense of strikers and a local leftist politician.

  Nearly a hundred years later, the satire of small city America is intimately familiar to anyone who has ever seen an episode of the Simpsons, watched any number of films from the past fifty years or knows anything about the intellectual history of the United States in the 20th century.  Back in the 1920s, Lewis was one of a few writers working this territory, and the only novelist.

  Whether Lewis truly hates his subject is left open to question by an upbeat ending that restores Babbitt to the good graces of his civic booster club.   Any reader interested in the culture of American in the 1920s would be well advised to read Babbitt for his depiction of "Middle brow" America.

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