1922 Seventy-five Years Ago

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On September 14 Sinclair Lewis’s Babbitt arrived in America’s bookstores amid great anticipation. His previous novel, Main Street (1920), had created a national sensation with its indictment of stagnant small-town life, and many people wondered whether he could pull it off again. Some in the literary world feared, and others hoped, that Lewis had shot his bolt with the dumpon-your-hometown novel that can be found inside every writer.

Both books were set in Lewis’s native Midwest, and both decried the region’s stultifying uniformity of thought and opinion. No surprise, then, that almost every reviewer felt compelled to compare the two. “Immeasurably superior to Main Street ” said the New York Tribune . “A bigger and better book than Main Street ” said The New York Times . “Is Babbitt as good as Main Street ?’ There need be no hesitation in answering, ‘It is better,’” said The Nation . “At every point a better novel than Main Street ” said The Bookman . “Even better than Main Street ” said the columnist Franklin P. Adams. “At least twice as good a novel as Main Street ” said Lewis’s fellow professional cynic H. L. Mencken.

The novel’s main character is George F. Babbitt, a prosperous, stodgy real estate agent ( realtor , he insists) in the fictitious medium-size city of Zenith. By itself the plot is unremarkable: A middle-aged blowhard undergoes what today would be called a midlife crisis, then reverts to being a middle-aged blowhard. The reason for all the fuss was Lewis’s scathing portrayal of Babbitt’s empty life and vapid pursuits. With sledgehammer irony and perfect-pitch reproduction of boosterish speech and thought, Lewis neatly dissected the Philistine materialism of America’s Harding-era business culture. So accurate was his rendering that newspapers in Cincinnati, Duluth, Kansas City, Milwaukee, and Minneapolis all claimed that Zenith had been modeled on their city. ( Main Street ’s Gopher Prairie, universal though it was, had obviously been patterned after Lewis’s hometown, Sauk Centre, Minnesota.)

Babbitt sold well, but not as well as its predecessor, critics’ assessments notwithstanding. This may be because while every literate American had read Main Street , or talked as if he or she had, only those who had liked it went on to buy Babbitt . As the twenties roared on, Lewis gave the Lewis treatment to America’s doctors ( Arrowsmith , 1925) and preachers ( Elmer Gantry , 1927) before rounding out the decade with his last good novel, Dodsworth (1929), which chronicled the breakup of a marriage and contrasted American and European social attitudes.

When the stock market crashed later that year, so did Lewis’s career. Except for It Can’t Happen Here (1935), a lurid fantasy of fascist takeover in America, none of his later novels are remembered today. Lewis was never much for plot or characterization; he made his living as a novelist with mimicry, sarcasm, and caricature. His appeal required an audience prosperous enough to be a target for mockery and secure enough to take it. When the Depression hit, Lewis’s brand of satire somehow wasn’t funny anymore.