Sinclair Lewis Got It Exactly Right

Babbitt’s last, famous spiel contains all the real sorrow and heartbreak of being a Zenith businessman in 1920.

Of course such names were attached not to “great” characters, not even to memorable social caricatures, like so many characters in Dickens with farcical names, but to functionaries in American life. The business of these people, indeed of their whole lives, was to do stunts of a peculiarly verbal kind. They were American salesmen who had continually to make a pitch, to appeal to an audience, to take over by presenting a line of talk that revealed to the inarticulate and provincial audience what their values really were. Sinclair Lewis’s understanding of the great American spiel—founded, I discovered at that party almost half a century ago, on uncanny and bizarre powers—was a central feature of his social wisdom, which otherwise was not particularly extensive. In Chapter 14 of Babbitt, published in 1922 and dealing with American life in the microcosm of “Zenith,” Babbitt becomes a favorite of his fellow “realtors” by addressing them in the following wise: “Yes, sir, these other burgs are our true partners in the great game of vital living. But let’s not have any mistake about this. I claim that Zenith is the best partner and the fastest-growing partner of the whole caboodle. I trust I may be pardoned if I give a few statistics to back up my claims. If they are old stuff to any of you, yet the tidings of prosperity, like the good news of the Bible, never become tedious to the ears of a real hustler, no matter how oft the sweet story is told! Every intelligent person knows that Zenith manufactures more condensed milk and evaporated cream, more paper boxes, and more lighting-fixtures, than any other city in the United States, if not in the world. But it is not so universally known that we also stand second in the manufacture of package-butter, sixth in the giant realm of motors and automobiles, and somewhere about third in cheese, leather findings, tar roofing, breakfast food, and overalls!”

The entertainment value that made faintly poignant even characters like Babbitt, imprisoned by his ever-ready patter (by patter Babbitt sold real estate, soothed the wife who bored him and the querulous brats always demanding the car), at the same time made them endearing. Lewis was far from being a radical in any political or cultural sense; but he was a doctor’s son with a great reverence for professionalism, what he called “the capable,” the one class not drowned in moneymaking. (Part of his personal tragedy was that his doctor father disapproved of him. “Harry,” he used to lament, “why can’t you do like any other boy ought to do!”)

Babbitt secretly feels he is a failure because he went into the real estate business instead of law school. His son Ted, Theodore Roosevelt Babbitt, is continually pushed toward a professional career but in the end is forgiven by his father when he marries Eunice Littlefield next door and plans to go into a factory. The famous last spiel of Babbitt contains all the real sorrow and heartbreak of being a Zenith businessman in 1920: “‘Well—’ Babbitt crossed the floor slowly, ponderously, seeming a little old. I've always wanted you to have a college degree.’ He meditatively stamped across the floor again. ‘But I’ve never—Now, for heaven’s sake, don’t repeat this to your mother, or she’d remove what little hair I’ve got left, but practically, I’ve never done a single thing I’ve wanted to in my whole life! I don’t know’s I’ve accomplished anything except just get along… I’ll back you. Take your factory job, if you want to. Don’t be scared of the family. No, nor all of Zenith. Nor of yourself, the way I’ve been.’”

To his publisher, Alfred Harcourt, Lewis termed Babbitt “our American ruler.” Babbitt at the end is too modest: salesmanship like his was endemic to America. “The chief business of the American people,” said Calvin Coolidge, “is business.” Lewis’s meat was the many people who learned to sell themselves along with their product. He was hardly shocked by this, not even very contemptuous. His greatest sympathy was for women with nothing to do, women driven into themselves by the talkiness men learn on the job. Compare Mr. and Mrs. Babbitt: George F. Babbitt “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.” Myra Babbitt “was definitely mature. She had creases from the corners of her mouth to the bottom of her chin, and her plump neck bagged. But the thing that marked her as having passed the line was that she no longer had reticences before her husband, and no longer worried about not having reticences. … She was a good woman, a kind woman, a diligent woman, but no one, save perhaps Tinka her ten-year old, was at all interested in her or entirely aware that she was alive.”