Friday, August 19, 2016


Published at the beginning of the Roaring Twenties, this book sheds light on why so many of the Lost Generation fled America -- it was to get away from people like George Babbitt.

He's a shallow, ignorant, self-important and "conventionally honest" realtor, a direct descendent of the characters who peddled a slice of swampland to Martin Chuzzlewit and called it Eden.

The storyline takes a wandering path through Babbitt's life, acquainting us with his foibles and deceptions. But underneath his smugness there is a feeling of dissatisfaction which finally bursts burst forth when his best friend goes to jail for a violent crime. Babbitt rebels by becoming liberal in his views and libertine in his private life -- but only temporarily.

Despite his faults he is not inherently evil and has a few redeeming qualities, which allow Sinclair Lewis to bring the novel to an adroit ending. Like Homer Simpson, Babbitt is an American Everyman misled by the American Dream.


Babbitt lives in a town famous for its condensed milk and pasteboard cartons, for its "bathrooms, vacuum cleaners, and all the other signs of civilization." It's a swell place to live if you have lots of zip and pep, but no time for unions, immigrants, and fine arts.

Yet for all their boosting and boasting, Babbitt and his pals often sound like bumpkins, addressing each other as: old hoss, old socks, old rooster, old lemon pie-face.

At times their folksy conversation is semi-literate: yump, pee-rading, pleasmeech, but zize saying, boyses and girlses, speaknubout prices, snoway talkcher father, whadde do?

Alone, the names of various characters seem innocuous, but when considered together they drip with derision -- Opal Mudge, Carrie Nork, Chum Frink, Vergil Gunch, Otis Deeble, Albert Boos.


"Folks are so darn crooked that they expect a fellow to do a little lying."

"In other countries, art and literature are left to a lot of shabby bums living in attics and feeding on booze and spaghetti, but in America the successful writer or picture painter is indistinguishable from any other decent business man." 

"I think this baby's a bum, yes, sir, I think this little baby's a bum, he's a bum, yes, sir, he's a bum, that's what he is, he's a bum, this baby's a bum, he's nothing but an old bum, that's what he is – a bum!"

Sinclair Lewis

He was the first American to win the Nobel Prize for Lit, and Babbitt is, I think, his most famous novel. I'm not sure if he's read much any more, but if so that's a pity because Babbitt is very modern, especially since boosterism is still with us in form of modern advertising.

The novel's impact was such that the word "babbitt" has entered the lexicon as "a narrow-minded, self-satisfied person with an unthinking attachment to middle-class values and materialism."

Other works of interest that Sinclair Lewis wrote: Main Street, Arrowsmith, Elmer Gantry, Dodsworth, It Can't Happen Here.