Wednesday, 8 June 2011

BABBITT by Sinclair Lewis

His name was George F. Babbitt. He was forty-six years old now, in April 1920, and he made nothing in particular, neither butter nor shoes nor poetry, but he was nimble in the calling of selling houses for more than people could afford to pay.
This is how Sinclair Lewis describes our central character, Babbitt, who, when the book opens, believes he is happy. He does what everyone else does, thinks what everyone else thinks, and is dedicated to material wealth and the myth of the white picket fence.
When he laid out the Glen Oriole acreage development, when he ironed woodland and dipping meadow into a glenless, orioleless, sunburnt flat prickly with small boards displaying the names of imaginary streets, he righteously put in a complete sewage system.
His best friend from university, Paul Riesling is deeply unhappy, and when they go on holiday together to Maine, Babbitt begins to question his life. Says Paul:
But I do know that about ten times as many people find their lives dull, as ever admit it; and I do believe that if we busted out and admitted it sometimes, instead of being nice and patient and loyal for sixty years, and then nice and patient and dead for the rest of eternity, why, maybe, possibly, we might make life more fun
Paul eventually shoots and wounds his wife, and this affront to accepted behaviour jerks Babbitt out of his stupor. He attempts to make some resistance to the norms of his world, and finds himself slowly excluded from that world. He is immediately unhappy. His wife develops acute appendicitus, and in sympathy his bourgeois circle opens a little to let him back in. He leaps back into their waiting arms, glad his revolution is over.

I love this:
Though he saw them twice daily, though he knew and amply discussed every detail of their expenditures, yet for weeks together Babbitt was no more conscious of his children than of the buttons on his coat-sleeves
There is some redemption in the end, through these very children, because the book ends with Babbitt supporting his son against all their family in choosing to get married young, and become a mechanic, rather follow the traditional route of university and a showy wife.

It's now a commonplace that the accouterments of late capitalism – cars, shops, housing developments – cannot make you happy. What is interesting about this book, written as it is at the very birth of this kind of capitalism, is to see the very birth of this critique – when the idea that money will not make you happy was still new, and unusual. He writes about it terribly seriously, and it's very sweet, rather like having a child show you how to ride a bike.


  1. I also find it very interesting to see where ideas that are not commonplace first appeared. That alone makes me want to read this!

  2. It is a very nicely written book. He also apparently wrote one called MAIN STREET, which is where that expression, 'main street,'as a byword for an ordinary term, used a lot in America, apparently comes from . . .