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Sinclair Lewis


If you go to any large dictionary and open it to the "B" section, you'll find two definitions that didn't exist before 1922: Babbitt- an uncultured, conformist businessman; Babbittry- smugness, conventionality, and a desire for material success. These words have become part of our vocabulary, thanks to Sinclair Lewis. Few authors in American literature have done what Lewis did in his novel about a middle- aged realtor: in George F. Babbitt he gave the world a character so vivid and indestructible that the name has come to stand not just for a single fictional character but for many American businessmen of that era as well. In some ways Sinclair Lewis was himself much like Babbitt- midwestern, ambitious, occasionally loud, sometimes obnoxious, and insecure.

Harry Sinclair Lewis was born on February 7, 1885, in the small town of Sauk Centre, Minnesota. His father was a physician, devoted but rather harsh to his son. In later years, Lewis would describe his childhood in the prairie town as a happy series of Tom Sawyer adventures, but others remembered his life there differently. He was a homely boy, too skinny, with bright red hair and bad skin. He was no good at sports. Worse, he lived in the shadow of an athletic older brother who could do all the things Harry couldn't. Perhaps it was the insecurity Lewis felt that made him begin to write not the fiction that would one day bring him fame, but verse modeled after the works of the British poet Tennyson, full of the romance and adventure Lewis could not find in Sauk Centre.

Anxious to escape, at seventeen he convinced his father to send him to Yale, rather than to the nearby University of Minnesota. He found, though, that he didn't fit in any better there than he did in Sauk Centre. His talent as a writer earned him a place as editor of the college literary magazine, but he had few friends. His classmates, by and large, were Eastern aristocrats who had little to say to a small-town doctor's son. By his junior year, Lewis was fed up enough to quit school and join a socialist commune being formed by writer Upton Sinclair. But his interest in socialism was at best lukewarm (though you can clearly see a lingering distrust of business and an admiration for labor unions in Babbitt). After six months he left to board a ship for Panama, where he hoped to find work building the canal. No jobs were to be had, and he returned to Yale, graduating a year late. Now came nearly a decade of dead-end jobs and constant traveling. Lewis knew he wanted to be a writer. But what would he write and how would he earn a living while writing it? He tried journalism in Iowa, in New York, in California. While in California he sold ideas for adventure stories to an already established young author named Jack London. He returned to New York and worked for various publishing companies. He married. Wherever he was, whatever job he held, he was writing- first, short stories that he began to sell to magazines, and next, in 1912, a boy's adventure book called Hike and the Aeroplane. Then came novels: Our Mr. Wrenn (1914), The Trail of the Hawk (1915), The Innocents and The Job (both 1917), and Free Air (1919). None of these attracted much attention at the time, nor are they read much today. But they were preparation for the books that would make Lewis world famous.

The first of these was published in 1920. Main Street told the story of Carol Kennicott, a doctor's wife in Gopher Prairie, Minnesota, who longed for the culture and sophistication she thought existed in the glittering cities of the East. Gopher Prairie bore a strong resemblance to Sauk Centre, and- as Lewis himself later admitted- except for her sex, Carol Kennicott bore a strong resemblance to the young Sinclair Lewis. Both felt trapped among people who cared little for music or art or literature- or for anything except gossip and money.

Main Street created a sensation. Traditionally, Americans liked to believe their small towns were the centers of national virtue. But here was a book saying that small-town folk were mostly ignorant bigots, the small town itself a trap few could escape. All across the country, people asked themselves, Are we really this bad? Main Street was praised and attacked- and was purchased by the tens of thousands. Lewis became America's best-known author.

The stage was set for Lewis's second triumph. He wrote his publisher that his next novel would be "the story of the Tired Businessman, the man in the Pullman smoker, of our American ruler, of the man playing golf at the country club, in Minneapolis, Omaha, Atlanta, Rochester." His main character would be "all of us Americans at 46, prosperous but worried, wanting- passionately- to seize something more than motor cars and a house before it's too late."

To write the story of this businessman, Lewis went to Cincinnati, which became the model for the medium-sized American city that is Babbitt's setting. He worked much as a sociologist or reporter might work, traveling, interviewing, filling notebooks with his observations. He visited athletic clubs, attended lodge meetings, went to church services, all to become familiar with the life that a George F. Babbitt might lead. Before Lewis had begun to write a word of his story, he had already created complete biographies of his fictional characters and drawn maps of his imaginary city of Zenith. This thoroughness insured that his book would become a portrait not just of one man but of an entire society in that era.

Babbitt was published in September of 1922, and it became the most talked-about book of the year. Once again, Lewis had struck a sensitive nerve.

Lewis saw that America was changing in the 1920s. It was, in fact, well on its way to becoming the urban, industrial nation it is today. The small towns he had written about in Main Street were dying. Americans were moving to the cities, working in offices rather than on farms, driving automobiles, going to the movies. They were proud of being modern. But to Lewis the new America was even more of a nightmare than the old one had been. Zenith, "the zip city," is full of pep but empty of intelligence. Instead of art, it has advertising. Instead of religion, it has boosterism- loud, mindless self-promotion. Worst of all, as Babbitt to his sorrow learns, in Zenith everyone must conform. Not only do its residents buy the same davenports (sofas) and automobiles, but they think the same thoughts. They're terrified of radicals, foreigners, different ideas in general.

Lewis wasn't the only literary figure of the 1920s critical of American life. Writers like Sherwood Anderson, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway were making some of the same attacks, and many readers believe they made them with more skill and intelligence. But no other writer seemed to know the American business world and American middle-class life as intimately as Lewis knew it. This knowledge was one of the main reasons for Babbitt's success. As many readers have noted, Babbitt is not at its heart a realistic novel. Lewis frequently selects his evidence to make Babbitt and Zenith appear as bad as possible. Because he portrayed the surfaces of middle-class American life so accurately, however, he convinces us that his exaggerated satiric attack on that life is accurate. If some of Lewis's readers protested that Babbitt's world was too horrible to be true, far more feared that Lewis's portrait was too correct in all its details not to be true.

Another reason for Babbitt's success is its humor. Despite the seriousness of its subject matter, Babbitt is a very funny book. Lewis was a satirist- he wanted us to laugh as he went on the warpath. Like one of his favorite writers, Dickens, he created characters that were often humorous caricatures, and like Mark Twain he depended on exaggerated everyday speech to make those caricatures live. (In fact, Lewis was so good at imitating Babbitt and so fond of performing his imitations that one friend complained that being with him was like being with a tape recorder you couldn't turn off.) Of course, Lewis could have written a bitter and humorless attack on Babbitt and all he stood for. But he didn't want to do that, because, as he later admitted, he liked Babbitt- at least in part. He was fully aware of Babbitt's absurdity but he couldn't bring himself to be utterly harsh with him. After all, Babbitt represents not just one man but much of what Lewis felt was middle- class America; and Lewis was too much the child of that America to be able to condemn Babbitt completely.

The 1920s saw Lewis at the pinnacle of his career. He followed Babbitt with Arrowsmith (1925), Elmer Gantry (1927), and Dodsworth (1929), all widely praised best-sellers. In 1926 he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Arrowsmith, but he refused it, possibly out of annoyance that he hadn't received it earlier for Main Street or Babbitt. In 1930 he won and accepted the Nobel Prize in Literature, becoming the first American ever to receive the honor.

But the years following the Nobel Prize were not happy ones. He had divorced his first wife and married the well-known journalist Dorothy Thompson; he would divorce her as well. He began to drink heavily. His reputation as a writer declined as critics began to favor younger authors like Ernest Hemingway, and as Lewis published a string of novels inferior to his earlier works. His last years were filled with hectic traveling. He was in Rome, Italy, when he died on January 10, 1951.

Sinclair Lewis's greatest creation, however, has lived on. Today's Babbitt might be selling computers rather than houses, and no doubt the automobile he now worships is sleeker than the 1920 model. But he still worries about keeping up with the neighbors, and he gets much of what he thinks from advertisements and newspaper headlines. (Today he can also watch television.) He remains a symbol of all that is stupid, ridiculous, and funny- and, occasionally, sad and noble- about many of us in America.


ECC [Babbitt Contents] []
© Copyright 1985 by Barron's Educational Series, Inc.
Electronically Enhanced Text © Copyright 1993, World Library, Inc.
Further distribution without the written consent of, Inc. is prohibited.

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