September 1997 | Volume 48, Issue 5
New York Knickerbockers
Several stories in September’s newspapers showed why the women of New York City were acquiring a reputation for feistiness. Under the headline TROUSERED WOMAN WALKS BROADWAY , a newspaper reported on September 28: “Broadway, birthplace of both the cigarette-smoking and accomplished cocktail-imbibing feminists, has added to its perils trousered women. Strolling near Forty-second Street today was a young woman attired in knickerbockers and a coat of mannish cut, done in robin’s egg blue, and she swung a bamboo cane. Knee length stockings, a masculine collar and a hat striped like an awning completed the outfit, while a defiant eye met the astonished gaze of passersby.” This fashion note was considered newsworthy enough to appear a continent away, in the San Francisco Chronicle .
Another custom had crumbled ten days earlier, when the august Waldorf-Astoria Hotel allowed Doris E. Fleischman, who was checking in with her new husband, Edward L. Bernays, to register under her maiden name. According to The New York Times , the hotel manager told clerks to let progressive-minded couples enter both names in the ledger, for instance as “John Jones and wife, Jane Smith.” Ms. Fleischman later persuaded the government to give her a passport as “Doris Fleischman, wife of Edward L. Bernays.” Over the next few years a number of other women, uniting under the banner of the Lucy Stone League (named for a nineteenth-century feminist who kept her maiden name), demanded similar treatment. In 1927 Anita Loos, in the sequel to her novel Gentlemen Prefer Blondes , satirized the practice by having her golddigger protagonist write: “… when the room clerck notes that a girl with a maiden name is in the same room with a gentleman, it starts quite a little explanation, and makes a girl feel quite promanent before everybody in the lobby.”
But not every woman in New York wanted to be unconventional. On September 20 the organizer of a women’s trade show revealed how members of her sex could succeed in business: Stick to your knitting. “You will notice,” said Mrs. Elisabeth Sears, president of the New York League of Business and Professional Women, “that many of the women’s exhibits are of enterprises which have been in ‘woman’s sphere,’ the domain of Venus, from time immemorial—cooking, dress, beauty culture, farm work, child health and nursing and home decoration. I think it is because business women have specialized in work of this sort, work in which they have an inherited, instinctive interest, that they are coming to be so extremely successful. When they stopped tearing around looking for new worlds to conquer and started to make good in their own fields, when they stopped fighting their jobs and started to make good with what opportunities they had, then they found happiness and success.” As a newspaper lyrically editorialized, “Woman, in her search for financial success, has come back to the home, even as Maeterlinck’s seekers for happiness found the bluebird singing by the kitchen hearth.”
As students returned to campus for the fall term, two universities tried novel methods to improve their football performance. At Rutgers, Coach Foster Sanford devised an unusual formation in response to revised rules for extra-point tries. In previous years, after a touchdown, the scoring team had attempted a place kick from the twenty-yard line. Opponents could try to block it from beneath the goal posts, which were even with the goal line. Under the new rules a scrimmage was held at the five-yard line (or “any greater distance,” if the scoring team so desired), and the point could be scored by place kick, drop kick, run, or pass.
To gain extra height, Sanford unveiled what he called the “multiple kick.” A newspaper described it thus: “The kick is executed with two backs lying prone about five yards back of the line and facing each other, and with one arm extended toward each other. A third back catches the snap from the center. While this third man holds the leather by one hand at the top of the ball, the other two keep it erect with two fingers of their outstretched hand for the kicker.” With Sanford’s innovation in place, Rutgers recorded a 5-4 record in 1922. For some reason the formation was not widely adopted elsewhere.
Meanwhile, Northwestern’s female students selflessly sacrificed their busy social calendars to the pursuit of gridiron glory. Helen Badenoch, president of the Women’s Self-Government Association, announced that Northwestern coeds had decided to “have no social engagements with university men Mondays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays during the coming year” in order to keep their ample charms from providing too much of a distraction for the boys in purple. “This pledge is taken,” Miss Badenoch explained, “because we girls believe that too many dates interfere with a college man’s athletics and the school will suffer if the athletes do not have the proper time for training.” In the end the football team did not do much scoring on the field either, as the Wildcats, well rested if perhaps a bit tense, struggled to a 3-3-1 record. There is no record of Northwestern’s reverse-Lysistrata policy spreading to other colleges.
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.