Friday, May 15, 2009

40. Babbitt – Sinclair Lewis

History: This book was first published in 1922, a novel that satiricizes American materialism. Sinclair Lewis said, on accepting the Nobel Prize for literature, "in America most of us — not readers alone, but even writers — are still afraid of any literature which is not a glorification of everything American, a glorification of our faults as well as our virtues," and that America is "the most contradictory, the most depressing, the most stirring, of any land in the world today."
Plot: The book takes its name from the principal character, George F. Babbitt, a middle-aged partner, with his father-in-law, in a real-estate firm. When the story begins, in April 1920, Babbitt is 46 years old. He is married, has three children, and has a well-appointed house in the prosperous Floral Heights neighborhood of “Zenith," a fictitious city in the equally fictitious state of “Winnemac,”.
George Babbitt lives with only the vaguest awareness of the lives and deaths of his contemporaries. Much of his energy in the beginning is spent on climbing the social ladder through booster functions, real estate sales, and making well with various dignitaries. Lewis paints humorous scenes of Babbitt foolishly bartering for liquor (illegal at the time due to Prohibition), hosting dinner parties, and taking clients to view property. All of this is juxtaposed against backdrops both of of Babbitt's incessant materialism and his growing discontent.
Gradually, Babbitt realizes his dissatisfaction with "The American Dream" and attempts to quell these feelings by going camping with Paul Reisling in Maine. It has no great effect. After Paul shoots his abrasive, emasculating wife Zilla during an argument, Paul is sent to prison, and Babbitt is devastated by the loss of his best friend and by his contemplations on how equally suffocating and changeless their lives are. In time, he rebels against it all: he jumps into liberal politics with famous socialist litigator Seneca Doane; conducts an extramarital affair with client Tanis Judique; goes on various vacations; and cavorts around Zenith with Bohemians and flappers, friends of Tanis. But each effort ends up disillusioning him to the concept of rebellion, as when Babbitt vacations in Chicago and encounters Paul's alleged mistress. On his excursions with Tanis and "the bunch," he learns that even they have just as rigid standards for their subculture. And when Virgil Gunch and others discover Babbitt's activities concerning Seneca Doane and Tanis Judique, Virgil tries to convince Babbitt to return to conformity. Babbitt refuses. His former friends then ostracize him, forming the "Good Citizens' League," which boycotts Babbitt's real estate ventures and shuns him publicly from clubs around town.
Babbitt slowly becomes aware that his forays into nonconformity are not only futile but also destructive of the life and the friends he once loved. Yet he continues with them — that is, until Myra uncovers Babbitt's affair with Tanis, for which Babbitt then blames her. Overwhelmed, Myra falls dangerously ill. Babbitt, in a near-epiphany, rushes home and relinquishes all rebellion in order to care for the woman he has forgotten that he loves. In action, he almost completely reverts back into conformity by the end; however, Babbitt never quite loses hold of the sentimentality, empathy, and perspectives he has developed. Thus, in the final scene, after all has been righted and his life is back on track, he approves the hasty marriage of his son Ted to the young neighbor girl Eunice Littlefield.
Review: Mainly satirical, a look at a middle aged successful business man, who has all the comforts of life but is still unhappy. He is obsessed with himself, and the problems and traumas of others totally pass over him. He tries different things in an attempt to find happiness, but eventually settles back to the life he had prior to his mid life crisis. This has been compared to the Rabbit character in John Updike novels.
Opening Line: “The towers of Zenith aspired above the morning mist; austere towers of steel and cement and limestone, sturdy as cliffs and delicate as silver rods.”
Closing Line: “Arms about each other’s shoulders, the Babbitt men marched into the living-room and faced the swooping family.”
Quotes: "Being a man given to oratory and high principles, he enjoyed the sound of his own vocabulary and the warmth of his own virtue."
"She did her work with the thoroughness of mind which reveres details and never quite understands them."
Rating: Okay.

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