America Incarnate

Babbitt

By Sinclair Lewis

Lewis is one of those writers you can reread again and again and never tire of, and always find something new and true in his words. And Babbitt especially is one of his creations impossible to grow weary of or forget.

Why? Because in one novel about a typical American middle-class businessman at the apex of his career, in middle age, and wrestling with a full-blown case of mid-life crisis, Lewis captures the tenor of America, its dreams and delusions, its demand for conformity and xenophobia not just regarding immigrants but other Americans up and down the class chain, and, perhaps above all, its worship at the altar of perpetual progress and expansion, and the true god bowed down to by all: Money.

In short, as H.L. Mencken wrote about Mr. George F. Babbitt, real estate and community flogger at 46: “He is America incarnate, exuberant and exquisite. Study him well and you will know better what is the matter with the land we live in …” (from The Smart Set magazine, October 1922). Mencken’s comment still rings true today.

In Babbitt, you will find encapsulated, amid George’s dissatisfaction with his own life and the conformity he feels forced upon him (a conformity he rabidly opposes and happily embraces and staunchly pushes upon others, for at his heart, as probably at the heart of most Americans with a thought in their heads, he is a mass of contradictions that are often ludicrous and hilarious), America after the Great War (a generally pointless adventure in mass murder that left the world in utter trauma and with a sense of nihilism, and laid the foundation for today’s Middle East butchery) and entering the madly swirling tunnel of social and economic excess, the Roaring Twenties, when, as President Calvin Coolidge, a few years after publication, said ” … the chief business of the American people is business.” George beat the president to it.

Babbitt is big and bold and, above all, loud: absolutely, ear-splitting, nerve-racking loud, a novel at the level of a shout. Be sure to drink plenty of water, for your throat with grow dry and hoarse as you read along. And please don’t feel offended if you recognize bits and pieces of yourself. After all, Lewis wrote lacerating satire that can hurt yet today since, as you will observe, nothing much has changed with us inside, where it counts. Why be offended anyway? It’s who we are, America filled with Americans who can be, let’s be honest, quite looney at times.

In 1922, Sinclair Lewis wrote a book for the times. When he did, he also wrote for pretty much all modern American times, including our own. Which is a good reason to pick up a copy: to get to know ourselves a little better. c/w

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