A hundred years ago – OK, 89, I rounded it off, so sue me – Sinclair Lewis wrote a novel called Babbitt, the first ever about what our wanna-be-aristocrat upper middle class was really like. It was a hugely successful book, not least because it skewered a smug, self-satisfied, arrogant section of our society that even in 1922 was hated and feared by normal folk for its corruption and thievery. And rightfully so, since these bozos were mainly the ones who created the financial mess that would eventually melt down and give us the Great Depression.
It was a book I was supposed to read in high school and didn’t, not that I was avoiding it, I just never got around to it what with all the Superman comics and Kierkegaard essays and all that were piled up around me demanding attention. Besides, how could a book with a famously dull hero be anything but, well, dull? OK OK. I was young.
In fact Babbitt – the book that convinced the Nobel Committee to make Lewis the first American author to win the Nobel Prize for Literature – is anything but dull. It is wry and funny and, more than anything else, prescient. As early as the 20’s before they even got Roaring, Lewis saw quite clearly what we were doing to ourselves and where it would ultimately and inevitably lead. His eye was merciless, and to read him now, a hundred years later and in a time when all he predicted has come so horribly true, is to feel a profound dislocation, for though the speech and appearance of his characters are radically different from today’s comparable players, nothing much else has changed. Their attitudes, beliefs and demands remain now what they were then.
Mostly. There are a few minor if significant differences. For instance, it was considered “moral” in Lewis’ day for employers to hate their employees “for their own good”, pretending that low pay, dangerous working conditions, and zero benefits were simply ways of making sure the employees were self-reliant and humble so they’d get to heaven faster. Nowadays employers often say the same sorts of things but rarely bother with the “moral” pretense. They save that for making sure the healthcare they offer employees ( assuming they do) doesn’t include birth control or abortion coverage. Now they simply insist that low-pay, low safety, and zero respect are what GOD ordained for the lowly worker, and they’re just going along with it because GOD told them to. Babbitt and his confreres were, in 1920, congratulating themselves for havingn passed beyond that ancient, 19th century sort of voodoo to a more “modern” and “moral” realization. In that sense at least it would seem the early 20 century was somewhat advanced over the early – and regressive – 21st.
The novel first made the country aware of its own passion for conformity and corruption as well as spectacularly illuminating the price we would have to pay for that passion. Since then conformity has been a bugaboo and now even rigidly conformist ideologues like Sarah Palin and Charles Krauthammer have to pretend that they are daring and original “maverick” thinkers who are not NOT NOT NOT “following the crowd”, nosiree, even though they never but never say anything that hasn’t been said by every conservative since Lincoln’s assassination. Yet even this is foreseen by Lewis. In fact the book’s structure is built around it.
Babbitt has been heavily criticized for being nearly plotless, and even Mark Schorer, Lewis’ biographer, accuses Lewis’ structure of being “slack” and goes on to identify 3 subsidiary plots while entirely missing the main one. Schorer calls the novel “a highly conscious, indeed systematic, series of set pieces” and then breaks them down for you – Religion, Recreation, Social Stratifications, Family Relations, etc – claiming that “[t]he ordering of these pieces is almost…aimless” and that “[t]hey could be ordered in almost any other arrangement…because there is no real plot”.
While it’s true enough that Lewis has managed the already admirable feat of capturing an entire world on paper, whole and complete, the idea that he didn’t bother with an plot is false, and if you miss it you’ve missed the whole point of the book. (Which apparently a lot of folks did, which may be why Lewis’ projections didn’t have the effect of halting our forward march over the cliffs of dollar worship. Hard to believe we would have continued down that ruinous path if we had clearly understood where it was leading.) I think perhaps Schorer and others missed it because they were looking for something that isn’t there – the kind of plot where one event leads to other events in a recognizable and connected sequence.
But that isn’t what Lewis wrote. Babbitt‘s plot is based on a much older model, the model of a spiritual rather than physical journey, say, Pilgrim’s Progress. As he encounters each section of his society, his life, Babbitt grows more uneasy. The vague emptiness which is a small, still voice early on becomes increasingly louder as the book advances: our encounter with Domestic Matters leads to an examination of Marriage which leads to Relaxation as a way of dealing with the disappointment and emptiness of a “convenient” relationship entered into because it was “the thing to do”, and the failure of leisure to fill the gap leads to Babbitt trying to bury himself in work and chasing success. That doesn’t work either, of course, and we follow George as he slowly begins spinning out of control, searching desperately for something to hang onto: Prohibition hooch, fast times, a girlfriend who “understands” him, a “rebellion” where he half-heartedly defends the rights of workers to a decent wage or at least to not be reviled and suffers the agony of being ostracized by his old friends and neighbors for his “liberal attitude”.
None of this helps because he’s feeling a real disconnection between his life and his soul, a disconnection he has only the faintest of ideas how to correct, and he’s getting no help at all from the people around him, each of whom is floating in the same emptiness and denying it strenuously. In fact, it is the kind of disconnection we more modern moderns would equate with teenage angst, the typical disconnect of youth, and at the same time of middle age. “Mid-life crisis” we might call it today, but on Babbitt Lewis allows it to look as childish and churlish as it actually is.
To read Babbitt now is to be made aware of just how immature and childish the chase after wealth is. And our latter-day Babbitts are shown to be little more than overgrown, spoiled brats demanding their own way because they lack the resources to be flexible and the will to be generous.