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Sinclair Lewis



Babbitt opens with a view of Zenith, the imaginary midwestern city that is the novel's setting. It's a sweeping, panoramic view- if this were a movie you could imagine the camera gliding from Zenith's business district to its suburbs, moving along the highways and railroad tracks, then zooming in on specific locales: a speeding limousine, an immense new factory.

This opening scene tells you much about what Lewis hopes to do in his novel, and about the way he hopes to do it. Babbitt isn't just a portrait of a single man, but of an entire community. You can get a clue to the way Lewis wants you to understand that community by studying his opening paragraphs. The name of the city itself, Zenith, is significant. Zenith means the highest point, the greatest achievement- surely a proud name for a city to have. And Zenith is proud. It isn't like older cities whose buildings are citadels devoted to war or cathedrals devoted to religion. Zenith's shining towers are devoted to business, devoted to the new.

This new city has art, represented by the limousine full of Little Theater actors speeding home from a rehearsal. But the fact that their rehearsal was a drunken one makes you wonder how seriously this city takes art. (The sorry state of art and literature in Zenith will be a theme repeated throughout Babbitt.)

Zenith also has economic power. Its telegraph wires connect it to Peking and Paris; the goods it manufactures are sold in the Middle East and in Africa. Modern, successful Zenith seems a city fit for giants, Lewis says. We'll soon see if those giants really exist.

In his first success, Main Street, published two years before Babbitt, Lewis satirized life in the typical American small town. Now, in the opening paragraphs of Babbitt he announces he's going to deal with the post- World War I America that has replaced the small town. This typical new America is urban, industrial, and prosperous. It's the America, indeed, that many of us still live in today- a fact you should keep in mind as you read the book.

Lewis takes you inside one Zenith residence, the home of realtor George F. Babbitt. Babbitt is above all a comic, satirical work, and as Lewis begins to describe his main character, his satire grows sharp. Zenith from a distance may look like a city made for giants, but Babbitt is anything but a giant. He's pink, plump-faced, well-off- not because he's creative but because he knows how to sell houses to people for more than they can pay.

But Babbitt himself isn't entirely comfortable with his life. He dreams of a fairy girl who'll see him not as a middle-aged realtor but as a heroic youth.

Grumpily Babbitt gets out of bed. He's suffering from a hangover, but he's also suffering from a deeper discontent. That discontent will become the major theme of the novel. Babbitt looks out at his yard, then goes into his bathroom and shaves. These actions are simple, everyday ones, but through them we see one of Lewis's main criticisms of Babbitt's life. It's a life that puts enormous importance on things. Babbitt's alarm clock represents all that is modern, advertised, and expensive. His yard is the neat yard of every successful Zenith businessman. His bathroom is glittering. In all these careful descriptions, Lewis is making fun of America's passion for material objects. It's a passion that certainly continues today. If Babbitt were set in our time, George Babbitt would probably be the proud owner of a video cassette recorder and a home computer.

If Babbitt is an unlikely hero, the dull and matronly Myra Babbitt is just as unlikely a heroine. Still, you may find it hard not to feel a little sympathy for her this morning. Not only must she apologize to Babbitt for his headache, but she must pretend to listen to his discussion of suits that- it's clear- has been repeated every morning for the last twenty years.

Mrs. Babbitt goes down to breakfast and Babbitt lingers upstairs, gazing out at downtown Zenith. His irritation disappears as he sees the city skyline. The tall buildings represent the business prosperity that is his religion, and he hums an inane song- "Oh by gee, by gosh, by jingo"- as if it were a hymn.

The first chapter of Lewis's novel gives you a good look at George F. Babbitt and introduces themes you'll see repeated later on. One of the things Lewis wants you to do is laugh at this real estate salesman's irritable boneheaded ignorance. Babbitt knows little about art and literature. (That's shown when he calls William Shakespeare by the name James J.) He and his wife both seem mainly concerned with material possessions and with what other people think of the Babbitts.

Yet there's another side to Babbitt, too, and Lewis wants us to sympathize with this side, at least a little. Babbitt's dream of the fairy child may seem ridiculously sentimental, but it shows that he hopes for a world better than the one he lives in. His plaid blanket reminds him of a camping trip, planned but never made, that represents a chance for freedom. These are the signs that Babbitt may have some rebellious feelings growing within him. We'll see those feelings grow stronger as the book progresses.


Mrs. Babbitt has been married too long to feel any real sympathy for her husband's complaints, Lewis says, but long enough to know she must fake such sympathy. And like the Babbitts' marriage, the Babbitts' house is more fake than genuine, designed more to impress than to be lived in. The rooms are acceptably modern, but nothing in them is quite real- the furniture is "very much like mahogany," and Mrs. Babbitt's toilet articles are "almost solid silver." But the Babbitt house, the narrator comments, is not a home.

The restlessness that Babbitt felt upon awakening stays with him at breakfast. He grows annoyed with his daughter, Verona, just graduated from Bryn Mawr and very sure of her intellectual abilities. Verona wants to do charity work, which to Babbitt is almost socialism- a forbidden belief. Meanwhile, Ted Babbitt is fighting with his sister for use of the car. Their squabble is an exaggerated version of arguments every family has but it makes you wonder if the younger Babbitts are any more intelligent than their parents.

Babbitt now turns his attention to the morning newspaper.

One of the most important themes in Babbitt is the way American society, though supposedly free and democratic, tells its citizens what they should think. It's able to do that, in large part, because citizens like Babbitt are too lazy to think for themselves. Just as Babbitt's furniture is little different from his neighbors', his ideas too are echoes of the accepted norm.

You'll want to compare Babbitt's world to yours. Do you think most middle-class Americans still tend to share the same political opinions- for example, on relations with the Soviet Union, on taxation, on minorities and women? Do the newspapers and magazines and television of today give you a truer picture of the world than the Zenith Advocate-Times gives Babbitt? Are Americans today better informed, or just as smugly ignorant?

In a gooey, overwritten society column (the first of many newspaper parodies in Babbitt), Babbitt reads about his wealthy college classmate, Charles McKelvey. Though he calls McKelvey a snob, it's clear that he and Mrs. Babbitt both want to be invited to a McKelvey party. We'll see that worries about social status are common in Zenith. Babbitt so sympathizes with his wife's social aspirations that he feels a moment of genuine sympathy. "You're a great old girl, Hon!" he says. But it's a brief moment, and Babbitt covers it up with more characteristic behavior: a complaint.

When Babbitt talks about having "a lot liver [livelier] times" than a bunch of "plutes" (short for plurocrats, or rich people), it's an example of one of Lewis's favorite literary techniques- that of imitating, and exaggerating for comic effect, the slang-filled speech of ordinary 1920s Americans. Some readers have felt that Lewis overdoes this kind of dialogue. But for other readers, Babbitt's dialogue is responsible for much of the book's vitality and humor.


Babbitt's motor car "was poetry and tragedy, love and heroism." Lewis's inflated language shows that Babbitt's life in fact lacks the poetry and heroism he thinks it possesses. But of course Babbitt isn't alone in idolizing his automobile- sixty years later, many Americans still feel the same way. Lewis wants us to see Babbitt for the shallow man he is, but he also wants us to remember that there may be more than a little Babbitt in each of us, too.

Babbitt has as neighbors the Sam Doppelbraus and the Howard Littlefields. Babbitt dislikes the Doppelbraus. They're Bohemian- a word that usually describes artists who disregard society's standards, but that Babbitt uses to criticize anyone who has fun in a way he doesn't approve of. (Later we'll see his attitude toward the Doppelbraus, and Bohemians, change.) Babbitt admires Littlefield, even though he is an intellectual, a member of a group Babbitt normally distrusts. But even with a Ph.D., Littlefield is as dull and conventional and devoted to business as Babbitt is- no wonder Babbitt likes him.

Like one of his favorite authors, Charles Dickens, Lewis often uses names that hint, sometimes broadly, at the nature of his characters. Because "doppel" in German means "double" and "brau" means "brew," Doppelbrau is a good name for a heavy drinker. Similarly, Howard Littlefield's last name reflects the fact that, for all his education, his field- his area of competence and interest- is small, petty, unimportant. Later we'll meet Vergil Gunch, whose unpleasant-sounding last name is a clue to his personality, and Seneca Doane, whose first name is intended to remind you of the noble Roman statesman. And "Babbitt" itself carries connotations of "rabbit" (timid, mindless), "baby," and "babble." What other names in this book do you find particularly interesting? Why?

Babbitt drives from Floral Heights toward downtown Zenith, stopping for gas and grandly telling the mechanic that what the country needs "first last and all the time is a good, sound, business administration." Howard Littlefield spoke the same words only minutes before- another reminder that Babbitt possesses few ideas that are his own.

Babbitt picks up a rider. Their conversation is strained: in fact, we'll see that many conversations in Babbitt are strained, because in Zenith only certain opinions are permissible. You can gripe mildly about the street car company, but to complain seriously is forbidden- that might be advocating socialism. The only really safe topic is the weather. What is Lewis really doing when he has Babbitt think to himself that his rider "has no originality, no wit"?

As Babbitt approaches downtown Zenith, he's cheered by the fine spring day and by the bustling city. But his upbeat feeling disappears by the time he enters the Babbitt-Thompson Realty Company, which he owns with his father-in-law, Henry P. Thompson. Not even the new "right-thinking" watercooler (Lewis's adjective again mocks the importance that material objects have in Babbitt's mind) can cheer him up.

Babbitt dictates a letter to his stenographer, Miss McGoun. Though, of course Babbitt doesn't admit his failings as a writer, any letter actually sent the way he dictated it would be thrown into the trash on arrival. It takes Miss McGoun to make Babbitt's prose intelligible. Next Babbitt turns his attention to a form letter that will be mimeographed by the thousands and sent to customers. Such letters and advertisements are vital to the world of Babbitt. They take the place of genuine literature, and when Babbitt is writing them he becomes in his own mind a Poet of Business.

Just as Lewis enjoys imitating his characters' speech, he takes pleasure in parodying their literary efforts- in exaggerating their faults for comic effect. We already saw one such parody in the society column Babbitt read in chapter 1; Babbitt's advertisements provide other hilarious examples of Lewis's skills as a parodist. Parody is a technique used today by humor magazines such as National Lampoon. You might ask yourself: are today's advertisements any better? How?

His dictation finished, Babbitt lets his mind wander to his pretty stenographer, thinking of her with "a longing indistinguishable from loneliness." The restlessness he feels is turning him toward thoughts of an affair- though it seems he still prefers his fairy child to the flesh-and-blood women around him.


"It was a morning of artistic creation." By now we know Lewis is being ironic- this morning's "masterpiece" is an advertisement for cemetery plots. Babbitt enjoys a similarly ironic moment of "heroism" when he discovers a new way of quitting smoking. As you'll see, Babbitt is always trying to quit smoking, without ever succeeding. In fact, this pattern of failed good intentions holds true in other ways as well.

Babbitt telephones his best friend, Paul Riesling. (Throughout the novel you'll see that this friendship is one of the truly fulfilling relationships Babbitt has.) Paul Riesling manufactures roofing, but Babbitt still thinks of him as the promising violinist and poet he was in college, and treats him as a younger brother.

Babbitt spends the rest of the morning working, as Lewis shows us in great detail his moral and intellectual limitations. A real estate salesman might be expected to understand something about architecture, landscape gardening, and economics. Babbitt understands nothing about these subjects. He knows little about Zenith except its real estate prices. The political opinions he reflects on now are as unthinking and inconsistent as those he spouted while reading the morning newspaper: no one should be forced to join a labor union, but everyone should be forced to join the Chamber of Commerce. He supports Prohibition but likes a drink. He preaches ethics but isn't sure what they really are, and he's not so ethical he won't do business with an out-and-out crook, Jake Offutt.

These "ethics" are at work in Babbitt's dealings with the speculator Conrad Lyte. (In a wonderful bit of description, we see that Babbitt isn't the only one in Zenith greedy for material success. Below Lyte's eyes are hollows, "as though silver dollars had been pressed against them and left an imprint"- a superb image of the way Lyte's eyes and mind are focused on money.) Lyte has followed Babbitt's advice to quietly buy land a butcher needs to expand his shop. When the butcher comes to Babbitt and Lyte, they demand for the property twice the going price- and get it. Lewis doesn't want us to feel sorry for the butcher, who will make up his loss by overcharging his customers. He does want us to understand that this is the way "honest" businessmen in Zenith work.


When Babbitt leaves his office, we get a close-up view of the downtown Zenith we saw earlier at a distance. The city represents Lewis's view of the new, modern, industrial America. Everything is standardized, bigness is more important than beauty, and a person's worth comes from the material objects he possesses- in Babbitt's case, expensive ties and an electric cigar lighter (for the cigars he has given up smoking).

Babbitt enters the Zenith Athletic Club, which like so many things in Zenith is an example of false advertising: "It isn't exactly athletic, and it isn't exactly a club." It's a gathering place for businessmen like Babbitt who are prosperous but not members of the city's true elite. That elite belongs to the more exclusive Union Club.

Lewis's discussion of the Athletic and Union Clubs picks up a theme that we encountered earlier in Babbitt and that we'll encounter again. Zenith (and by extension, all of America, as Lewis views it) calls itself a democratic and egalitarian society, where everyone from washerwoman to bank president is equal. But in fact the divisions between classes are almost impossible to cross, and Babbitt and his family and friends are always conscious of their social status, always anxious to improve it.

Babbitt greets his friends, Vergil Gunch, Sidney Finkelstein, and Professor Joseph K. Pumphrey (whose position as instructor of Business English tells us what kind of education is valued in Zenith). Babbitt talks with special enthusiasm to Gunch, for the loud, jolly coal dealer represents everything that Babbitt himself wants to be. As we might expect, Babbitt's conversation with this important man is no more interesting or original than are most conversations in Zenith.

Paul Riesling enters the club, and Babbitt breaks away from Gunch and Finkelstein (who with Babbitt and others form The Roughnecks, a club within the Athletic Club) to share a table with his friend. Such privacy is considered suspicious by the other club members, but as soon as Babbitt and Paul start to talk, it's clear why they value it. Paul is the only man to whom Babbitt can confess his discontent. All his life, Babbitt says, he's done the things society told him to do- supported a family, bought a nice house. Yet he isn't satisfied. We see now that Babbitt can be a more sensitive man than he usually appears.

Paul understands. He had wanted to be a violinist and now he's manufacturing roofing and is married to a wife, Zilla, he'd like to divorce. He's sick of cutthroat, competitive Zenith.

Now Riesling has gone too far. To criticize business practices is to talk like a socialist- and Babbitt won't stand for that even from his best friend. Riesling backs down, but still he says that of all the citizens in Zenith, only one-third are truly satisfied with their lives. Another third are restless but unwilling to admit it. A final third are, like Riesling himself, openly miserable.

Riesling's description of Zenith may seem at first an overly bleak one. But you might consider how you'd describe life in your town or city. How many people where you live would you describe as happy? Restless? Openly miserable? Who, or what, is to blame for their unhappiness?

Lewis uses Paul Riesling to voice many of his own thoughts about Zenith (and its actual counterparts). Like Lewis, Paul sees Zenith's shallowness and hypocrisy and itches to rebel against them. Lewis rebelled, of course, by writing this novel. We'll see later what form Riesling's rebellion takes. As for Babbitt, if Riesling obviously belongs to the third, miserable category of the Zenith population, Babbitt belongs to the second- restless, but as yet unwilling to admit it.

Riesling comes up with a plan for escape. The two men will go camping in Maine without their wives. The trip will surprise their conventional friends- for in Zenith respectable businessmen can't even change hobbies without causing talk- but that's part of its appeal.

Babbitt is a loosely structured novel, and Lewis often pays more attention to examining- and getting us to laugh at- the various parts of Babbitt's world than he does to moving a plot forward. Still, one technique he does use to tie his story together is foreshadowing, the use of small events to hint at more important events that will occur later. Paul is angry with his life in Zenith and with his wife, Zilla. Babbitt in turn vows that if Paul ever needs him, he'll chuck his other friendships to come to Paul's aid. Can you predict now what might come of these hints and promises?


Babbitt is deeply proud of being modern. As he leads a client through a run-down tenement, he discourses on the wonders of modern technology. But his impressive-sounding talk is just talk- Babbitt has no real understanding of the machines he worships. In his confident ignorance, Babbitt may seem like people you know. How many times have you heard people brag about their stereos or automobiles without having the slightest real knowledge of the engineering behind such products?

Babbitt picks up his father-in-law and partner, Henry T. Thompson, and drives with him to see Noel Ryland of Zeeco Motors. Babbitt thinks of Thompson as a human antique, lacking Babbitt's education and refinement. But Babbitt also looks down on Ryland, who possesses more education, more refinement. Why do you think that is? Is insecurity the cause of Babbitt's- and Zenith's- demand for conformity?

Back at the office, Stan Graff, one of Babbitt's salesmen, asks for an increase in his commissions, which Babbitt refuses. Afterwards, Babbitt can hear Graff grumbling to the other employees, and grows disturbed. This is another sign of his essential insecurity: more than anything else, he wants everyone to like him.

At dinner he talks about buying a new automobile, giving rise to a family argument over what he should buy. In Zenith, Lewis says, cars are the chief way you can tell a person's rank in society. (Do you think that's still true?) When Babbitt, irritated by the discussion, says he won't be buying any car until next year, the conversation falls apart.

After dinner, Mrs. Babbitt settles down to darning socks, Babbitt to reading the newspaper comics, and Ted to doing his homework- geometry, the Latin poet Cicero, and the poem Comus by the great seventeenth- century English poet John Milton. Ted's homework gives Lewis a chance to satirize education in Zenith, and much of his satire still hits home today. The Babbitts have little use for real education. Cicero, Shakespeare, and Milton are among the greatest poets the world has produced, but to Ted they're dead and irrelevant because they won't make money for him. The genteel Mrs. Babbitt dislikes Shakespeare (whom she hasn't read) because she's heard he isn't nice. As for Babbitt, though he defends Shakespeare, he doesn't value literature any more than his wife or son do; it's just a necessary requirement to enter college.

Ted sees a shortcut to success through correspondence schools, and Lewis displays his gift for hilarious parody as Ted brings out the school advertisements he's collected. In one, the traditional symbols of learning- the lamp, the torch, Minerva (the Greek goddess of wisdom)- have been replaced by the symbol worshipped by Zenith- the dollar sign.

Babbitt doesn't know what to say at first, because no one has told him what to think about correspondence courses. They've apparently become a big business, and big business always impresses Babbitt. Still, because a degree from a regular college is necessary for business success, Ted must go to a regular college. Ted finally agrees.

As Ted and Babbitt wrangle over the value of correspondence schools, we see Lewis satirizing American attitudes about education that still exist today. Ted wants school to teach him immediately practical skills. Babbitt wants his son to take more traditional liberal arts courses- not because he thinks education has any real value in itself, but because it's a status symbol necessary to business success in Zenith. Lewis finds both attitudes narrow-minded, materialistic. You may want to ask yourself: How much have things changed? Do most students today see education as a road to wisdom or to wealth? What are your goals? How will education help you achieve them?

When Ted abandons his homework to go out driving, Mrs. Babbitt tells her husband it's time he instruct Ted about sex. Babbitt agrees to explain the importance of leading a "strongly moral life." (You'll see later just how moral Babbitt's life is.) Then Babbitt walks out on the porch and broods. Despite his son, his family, his good day at the office, he feels restless. He remembers when he dreamed of being a lawyer, and his friend Paul dreamed of being a violinist. The dreams don't last: Paul loses his when he marries Zilla Coolbeck, and Babbitt gives up his when he marries Myra Thompson. Most people in Zenith would call the Babbitts' marriage a good one, but as Lewis describes it, we see it lacks any passion. Yet in his depression Babbitt feels a rare moment of sympathy for his wife. "Poor kid, she hasn't had much better time than I have," he thinks. On returning to the living room he smoothes her hair, making her happy and rather surprised, giving us a reminder that he isn't an entirely insensitive man.


Babbitt's living room is decorated to be like every other living room in Floral Heights, and Babbitt's conversation with his wife is no more original or inspiring than the room in which it's held. Suddenly, though, he does something unexpected: he announces that he'd like to make a long motor trip. But he hasn't worked up the courage to confess he'd like to make the trip without his wife. His rebellion is still a private one.

Lewis takes as much time to show Babbitt going to sleep as he did to show Babbitt awakening. Babbitt in the bathtub is a sympathetic figure, plump, pink, content, childlike. But once he steps from the tub you're reminded of the limitations of this man and of his comfortable life. He's a pawn of larger organizations. The Elks, the Boosters, the Chamber of Commerce tell him what to think about his city. The Presbyterian Church tells him what to worship. The Republican party tells him whom to vote for, and advertisers tell him what to buy. Lewis is showing you two sides of Babbitt- the naive, goodhearted man and the unthinking conformist. Which part of his personality do you think will triumph by the book's end?

Lewis's chronicle of Babbitt's day began with a panoramic view of Zenith. Now you get another panoramic view as the narrative moves from Babbitt's home to other parts of the city. You see the rich: the smoothly elegant Horace Updike unsuccessfully trying to seduce Lucile McKelvey. You see the criminal: a cocaine runner murdering a prostitute in Healey Hanson's saloon. (You'll see that saloon in more detail later.) In a laboratory, two scientists investigate synthetic rubber. In another part of the city, union leaders discuss a strike. A dying Civil War veteran (a member of the G.A.R., the Grand Army of the Republic) reminds us of the backwoods-type town Zenith used to be; the humming, prisonlike Pullmore Tractor Factory shows the modern industrial center Zenith is today. Lewis gives us our first portrait of religion in Zenith, as the famous boxer-turned-evangelist Mike Monday (a thinly disguised version of Billy Sunday, an ex-baseball player who became a well-known evangelist in the 1920s) finishes a prayer meeting. The portrait isn't a very flattering one. Mike Monday is valued mainly as a way of averting labor unrest, and his sermon- another example of Lewis's gift of parody- is nothing but loud blather.

Next appear two men who share some of Lewis's cynicism toward Zenith: Seneca Doane, the radical lawyer, and Kurt Yavitch, a histologist whose study of cells has made Zenith a world-famous scientific center. "I hate your city," Yavitch tells Doane; he hates it for its standardization. Although, as a radical, Doane might be expected to agree, he doesn't. Zenith is no more standardized than are the cities of England or France, Doane argues, and industrial standardization provides better goods for less money. What Doane condemns is Zenith's standardization of thought, the cutthroat competition, the business trickery of the so- called good family men who lead the city.

In the next scene, two of those devious men, politician Jake Offutt and Henry T. Thompson, Babbitt's father-in-law, plot a shady business deal in which Babbitt will play a key role. Offutt and Thompson make us understand that although Lewis is attacking- often fiercely- the modern Zenith, he doesn't want us to be nostalgic about the past. Babbitt's generation may regard Thompson as a symbol of old-fashioned integrity, but he's more crooked than they are.

Offutt and Thompson are worried about Seneca Doane. He alone seems to understand what they're up to and is willing to fight them. The rest of the city can't share Doane's outrage. It's asleep. And Babbitt, too, is asleep, ready to begin his blissful dream of the fairy child.

As he did in the first chapter, Lewis gives us a panoramic view of Zenith with all its strengths and weaknesses. On the one hand, it's modern and economically vital; it's helping pull America into the prosperous twentieth century. On the other hand, it has deep class divisions; the gap between the wealthy Lucile McKelvey and the out-of-work man who kills himself is enormous. Zenith has religion, but it's the loud, empty religion of Mike Monday. It has democracy, but it's a democracy manipulated by Jake Offutt. It is, as Seneca Doane says, a place of cutthroat competition and standardization of thought. In short, it's fascinating, powerful, and deeply flawed.


The first seven chapters of Babbitt described a single day in George F. Babbitt's life. (In fact, Lewis's original plan was to center the entire novel around a single day, but he changed his mind.) Now the pace accelerates. It's sometime later the same spring. The Babbitts are planning a dinner party in celebration of a business deal that we know is slightly crooked. Dinner parties are important status symbols in Zenith, and Babbitt wants this one to demonstrate how far he's risen. He plans to invite his most "highbrow" friends.

Despite his anticipation, the morning of the party is a tense one for Babbitt. Nagged by his wife, he ventures a sacrilegious thought: he wonders if "Floral Heights dinners were worth the hideous toil involved." Lewis, of course, wants you to see that the answer is no. The dinners are like so many other events in Zenith, empty rituals that blind people to the real joys of life. Babbitt ignores this truth in the excitement of buying liquor for his party.

"Now this was the manner of obtaining alcohol under the reign of righteousness and prohibition." This reign of Prohibition, implemented by the Eighteenth Amendment, was one of the hallmarks of the 1920s, and to Lewis it represented all that was narrow-minded, stupidly puritanical, and hypocritical about America. As Babbitt enters Healey Hanson's saloon (where we earlier saw a murder), Lewis's point is clear: Babbitt calls himself honest and law-abiding, but he'll do business with criminals if he has to. Lewis's ironic description underlines the hypocrisy: Hanson becomes "an honest merchant" who speaks "virtuously," and Babbitt feels "honored by contact with greatness." This is the sorry state of honor and greatness in Zenith.

The fussy femininity of the Maison Vecchia caterer's shop spoils Babbitt's sense of triumph, and his good mood isn't restored until he's back home mixing a drink.

The guests arrive, and Lewis's introductions of them make this collection of "highbrows" sound very unimpressive indeed. There's dull, trivial Howard Littlefield, loud Vergil Gunch, car salesman Eddie Swanson, and Orville Jones who has tried to make his laundry business sound impressive by calling it "a cleanerie shoppe." Most important of all, there's T. Cholmondeley Frink, author of "Poemulations" and "Ads that Add."

With these men are their wives. Lewis analyzes the roles of the sexes in an interesting way. At first, he says, Zenith women all seem to be alike- chirping housewives. Yet as you get to know them you see that they're very different from one another. And though initially the men's variety of occupations makes their personalities seem equally varied, the business world of Zenith demands such conformity that there's really little difference between a "poet" like Chum Frink and a car salesman like Eddie Swanson.

The big moment has arrived: it's time for Babbitt to bring out his illicit liquor. Lewis mockingly compares the procedure to a "canonical rite"- a religious ceremony. Babbitt and his guests behave like teenagers sneaking their first beers. Especially enthusiastic is Chum Frink, who only hours before penned a poem (a horrible poem, of course) attacking liquor. Frink isn't alone in his hypocrisy: the whole group agrees that the lower classes can't be trusted with alcohol, but that good businessmen like themselves should be allowed to drink whenever they want. Once they've finished with this "required topic," the talk turns to smirking jokes about sex and about the superiority of Zenith over any small town.

This dinner table conversation contrasts the city world of Babbitt to the small-town world Lewis satirized in his first popular novel, Main Street. In Main Street, Lewis called the midwestern small town confining and dull. Babbitt and his dinner guests would certainly agree. But when we hear that Prohibition is a "required topic," and when we hear Vergil Gunch and Eddie Swanson and Howard Littlefield parrot the same beliefs in almost exactly the same words, we may doubt that Zenith is really any more sophisticated or cultured. That's Lewis's point. When Vergil Gunch enthusiastically says that every small town wants to be just like Zenith, Lewis intends us to realize that such a fate is far from being happy or noble.

Now Chum Frink flatters his fellow guests by sharing one of his literary dilemmas. He's tried his best to write an ad campaign for Zeeco Motors, he complains, but he hasn't been able to dream up anything as brilliant as the advertisements another writer created for Prince Albert tobacco.

With his pretentious name and his terrible writings, T. Cholmondeley Frink represents the sad state of the arts in Zenith, where ad campaigns are discussed as if they were great literature, while genuine literature goes ignored. (Later we'll see that Frink himself is well aware of his failure.)

As effective as Lewis's satire of Frink and Zenith is here, you should remember that he isn't ridiculing just one man or one city but a sizable segment of America in the twenties. Do you think he'd be justified in making the same kind of attack today? How many of your friends, parents, or teachers are more familiar with last night's advertisement for hamburgers or shampoo than they are with Shakespeare or Milton? What do you read more of- the great literature of the past, or popular novels of the present? How important do you think it is to appreciate classic works of art, literature, and music?


Babbitt's restlessness resurfaces as the dinner drags on. It's another sign of his growing discontent that- apparently for the first time- he admits to himself that these so-called friends bore him. He longs to escape to Maine.

Spiritualism was a popular fad in the 1920s, and Babbitt and his guests indulge in it with a seance, trying to summon the spirits of the dead. Mrs. Jones wants to talk with Dante, the fourteenth-century Italian poet whose Divine Comedy is widely considered to be one of the greatest works of world literature. Zenith, of course, knows and cares almost nothing about Dante. Orville Jones calls him "the wop," and Vergil Gunch says that while he hasn't read Dante (you may have noticed that in Zenith people are very fond of criticizing writers they've never read), he knows that Dante can't be as skilled a poet as the ones (like Chum Frink) whose works fill the pages of American newspapers.

To help summon the spirit of Dante, Vergil Gunch invents the dead poet's eternal address: "1658 Brimstone Avenue, Fiery Heights, Hell." The name Fiery Heights is a play on the name of the Zenith neighborhood- Floral Heights- where Gunch and Babbitt and everyone else at the table live. And some critics have noted that in many ways Zenith- dull, competitive, and dishonest- resembles a twentieth-century, all-American Hell.

Dante speaks. It's a fraud, of course, but Babbitt distrusts poets so much that he fears one like Chum Frink might actually be able to communicate with the dead- a talent almost as dangerous as being a socialist. Yet even now, when he's being his most narrow-minded, Babbitt reveals some sensitivity. As he listens to Vergil Gunch's jokes, Babbitt wishes he had actually read Dante. He feels a sudden contempt for the people he calls his friends, and must ignore his feelings by jokingly asking Dante to read a poem.

At long last the guests leave. Babbitt's had a terrible evening, and though he's kind enough to lie to his wife that the party was wonderful, he isn't a good enough liar to convince her. He complains that he's tired, and admits that he Wants to go to Maine a week early, without Mrs. Babbitt.

His wife is hurt that he wants to do something without her. Finally he breaks down. "But can't you see that I'm shot to pieces?" Seeing her husband's true weariness, Mrs. Babbitt agrees to let him go.


The Babbitts visit Paul Riesling and his wife, Zilla. The Rieslings live in an "excessively modern" apartment house, and Zilla Riesling, too, is more "modern" than Babbitt and his wife are. Zilla is a witty woman who sees Zenith for the dull place it is and isn't afraid to say so. Her wit can turn to bitterness easily, though, when she feels she's been ignored by her husband. That's what happens now. The Babbitts try to convince Zilla that Paul is tired and deserves an early vacation in Maine. Paul isn't tired, Zilla objects: he's crazy and cowardly.

After this shrill outburst the evening goes from bad to worse. Zilla accuses her husband of having girlfriends, and Paul admits that she's right. Zilla's stupidity, he says, has driven him to other women. Then Babbitt attacks Zilla, his harsh words bringing her to tears. Sobbing, she agrees to let Paul leave for Maine a week early.

On the way home Babbitt feels triumphant, but Mrs. Babbitt sees that her husband has been a bully and that Zilla is herself a victim, a woman losing her youth and beauty and trapped with an unloving husband. Briefly, Babbitt is forced to admit that his wife is right. But like so many other moments of truth in Babbitt, this one is brushed aside. "I don't care," Babbitt tells himself. "I've pulled it off."

On the New York express train Babbitt rejoices at his and Paul's escape. Yet in some ways he hasn't really left Zenith. The conversation among the traveling salesmen in the Pullman smoking compartment sounds like one that could be heard back at the Athletic Club; consequently, it's no surprise that, when Paul Riesling makes the mistake of speaking not about money but about beauty, the other men can't understand him.

A black porter enters the car. He doesn't seem respectful enough to the salesmen: they call him offensive names and warn that blacks must stay in their "place," all the time loudly claiming they aren't prejudiced. Their hypocrisy is spelled out even more clearly when one of them says America needs "to keep those damn foreigners out of the country." The man speaking is named Koplinsky- a "foreign," Eastern European surname. If his wish for immigration controls had been granted a generation earlier, his family probably would not have been allowed into the country.

Paul, fed up, leaves. But Babbitt remains, comfortable with such familiar conversation.


Babbitt, who loves anything large and new, is anxious to see the large, new Pennsylvania Hotel when he and Paul arrive in New York. Paul wants to see an ocean liner. You'll remember that it was Paul's youthful ambition to go to Europe and study the violin. Now as Babbitt and he make their way to the docks, he insists he will cross the Atlantic some day. (Babbitt would like to go, too. But while Paul thinks of Europe as a place of culture, Babbitt thinks of it as a place where he can easily get a drink.) When they reach the docks, Paul becomes upset. It's as if the ocean liners are reminders that his youthful dreams of musical success are now forever out of his reach.

At last, Maine. The pine woods, the clear lake- symbols of a masculine, wilderness world completely unlike Zenith- bring Babbitt peace. After a week at camp, both he and Paul have changed from the boisterous but unhappy men they are in Zenith into the naive, enthusiastic boys they were in college. Their families' arrival briefly dampens these good feelings but doesn't destroy them.

The next year will be different, Babbitt promises himself as he returns to Zenith. Perhaps it will be. But you might notice that the only thing he hopes for is that the Real Estate Board will elect him president. That's a sign that he still thinks of his life in terms of business success, and that his values may not have changed as much over the last few weeks as he thinks they have.

What do you think it would take to shake up Babbitt and make him undergo a genuine change of heart? Would anything be sufficient? Or is he inevitably doomed to conformism, mingled with an occasional tremor of restlessness?


Lewis immediately throws cold water on any hope that Babbitt has permanently changed for the better. Babbitt vows again to quit smoking, and again is unable to quit. He takes up a new hobby, going to baseball games, but after one week abandons it. It's back to business as usual- meaning, in Zenith, hustling, looking busy even when you're not.

Lewis the sociologist now presents some of the recreations popular among the American middleclass in the 1920s. Babbitt belongs to the Outing Golf and Country Club, which he praises even though it lacks the status of the Tonawanda Country Club (just as Babbitt's Athletic Club lacks the status of the Union Club). He goes to the movies, his taste in pictures being what we probably expected: simple and unsophisticated.


Babbitt enjoys a moment of glory. He is asked to address S.A.R.E.B., the State Association of Real Estate Boards. The theme of Babbitt's talk: real estate men are as worthy of respect as are doctors and professors.

Babbitt's speech will be only ten minutes long, but he goes through agony writing it. If you've ever delayed starting an assignment for school, you'll probably appreciate Babbitt's meaningless outlines, his doodles, his wasted time. The S.A.R.E.B. meeting is to be held in the city of Monach, Zenith's chief rival in the state. Babbitt and the other delegates gather at Union Station, wearing buttons that proclaim, "We Boost For Zenith," singing the Chum Frink anthem, "Good Old Zenith," and following Babbitt in cheers. Meanwhile other Zenith residents look on silently- "Italian women with shawls, old weary men with broken shoes, roving road-wise boys in suits which had been flashy when they were new but which were faded now and wrinkled." These people are reminders that Zenith possesses citizens who can't share in the realtor's idiotic optimism, people who have problems that Babbitt and his friends will never understand.

Just as Zenith contains people too poor to belong to Babbitt's world, it contains people too rich to want to belong to it: when Babbitt spies the wealthy Lucile McKelvey in her compartment, he's overcome by a feeling of insignificance that he tries to conquer by lording it over delegates from towns smaller than Zenith.

The S.A.R.E.B. meeting is an incredible, hilarious combination of boredom and stupidity. Lewis has fun with the speeches, the slogans, even the names of the cities- Galop de Vache, for example, is pidgin French for "cow gallop." Babbitt's own speech is hailed as "a sensation," but by now you may suspect that description merely reflects the low standards of Babbitt's world.

At the convention's final session, cities noisily vie to be next year's convention site. To advertise Zenith, the delegates parade on stage costumed as cowpunchers, bareback riders, Japanese jugglers. At the end of the parade marches Babbitt, dressed as a clown and beating a big bass drum. The restless, sensitive Babbitt we've occasionally seen before is taking back seat to the booster.

After all the hoopla, the following year's convention is awarded to the city of Sparta because it promised to spend the most money to entertain the delegates. Says one realtor, "Money talks." it does talk, very loudly indeed, in Babbitt.

Instead of going straight home to Zenith, Babbitt lingers for a drink in a fellow delegate's hotel room. In between their drinking and laughter, Lewis reminds us again that this is a world of failed dreams. Just as Babbitt wanted to be a lawyer and Paul Riesling a violinist, a young delegate from Sparta sadly remembers how he wanted to be a chemist but became a kitchenware salesman instead.

The group goes to dinner, then staggers to a burlesque show and then on to a speakeasy (where liquor can be bought). The night has been long and Babbitt is tired. He feels "nothing but a hot raw desire for more brutal amusement"- and doesn't object to the suggestion that they visit a brothel.

Notice the way Lewis mocks Babbitt's boosterism here. All through the book Babbitt has been boasting about clean, proper, prosperous Zenith. Now he continues to boast, but instead of praising industries or libraries or anything Zenith might legitimately be proud of, he boasts about Zenith's large number of bars and brothels.

This chapter shows the humor and enthusiasm of Babbitt's world, but it also shows that world's meanness and hypocrisy. The real estate men are in many ways laughable. But they're also pathetic, haunted by failed dreams. They can be cruel. And they're hypocritical: they enjoy by night the things they disapprove of by day. Babbitt has spent an evening he will never admit to.


Now Lewis presents to us Zenith politics, which are a miniature version of that era's national politics. Nationally, Warren Harding is running for (and will win) the U.S. presidency. Today, Harding is widely considered one of the weakest presidents ever to have held office- an opinion Lewis shared at the time. Yet, for much of his presidency, the handsome Harding was very popular. If the entire country can be so easily fooled, will Zenith be any wiser? Not according to Lewis.

Zenith's choice for mayor is between Seneca Doane, the "radical" we've seen earlier, and Lucas Prout, a conservative mattress-maker. Babbitt naturally supports Prout, and thanks to his new reputation as a public speaker is invited to deliver political addresses for him. (The nature of Babbitt's success is revealed in Lewis's ironic comment: "He acquired lasting fame for weeks.") Babbitt's speeches are as long- winded, foolish, and illogical as you'd expect, and Lewis takes pleasure in reporting them at some length.

Prout defeats Doane, and Babbitt is rewarded for his campaign work with "advance information about the extension of paved highways." We'll see later that Babbitt will use this illegally obtained information to make shady business deals.

Babbitt's speech-making now wins him an even greater honor: he's invited to give the annual address to the Zenith Real Estate Board.

Babbitt's speech to the real estate board is considered by many critics to be one of the high points of Babbitt, for it gives Lewis a chance to show off fully his powers of parody. But other critics have said that it demonstrates one of Lewis's chief literary faults- that here and elsewhere in the book Lewis depends too much on his powers of imitation and parody and lets Babbitt drone on too long. As you read, try to pretend you're in the audience listening, and decide which view you take.

Babbitt begins his speech with an unfunny joke, then lists the ways in which Zenith is the best city in the United States. It's best, he claims, because it contains the highest proportion of Ideal Citizens, ambitious men full of Zip and Bang. These citizens are producing "a new kind of civilization" in which everything- stores, offices, streets, hotels, and newspapers- will be just as they are in Zenith.

As Babbitt quotes a verse by his friend Chum Frink, Lewis has a chance to parody another kind of bad writing, the dreadful poetry that passes for good literature in Zenith. Frink's message is the same as Babbitt's. Wherever you go in America, you'll meet the same kind of people: standardized American citizens, Nice Guys.

And what about those people who aren't standardized? To Babbitt, they're menaces. People who call themselves "liberal" and "radical" and "nonpartisan" are threats. Journalists and professors who criticize business should be stopped.

Babbitt's speech shows him at his very worst- loud, smug, intolerant. He brags about schools but knows only ventilation systems, not teaching; he brags about art museums but knows only their buildings, not the art they contain. His idea of a park is a driveway "adorned with grass, shrubs and statuary."

More important, Babbitt's speech will remind you of comments made earlier by Seneca Doane. Doane criticized Zenith for the pressures it puts on its citizens to conform. Babbitt applauds those pressures. He wants everyone to be an Ideal Citizen. Those people who aren't- foreigners, liberals, professors- are threats.

This, Lewis reminds us, is the most dangerous aspect of Zenith (and American) life. Standardization of hotels is one thing; standardization of thought is much worse. Babbitt and his friends claim to be loyal Americans, but they oppose a basic ideal of American democracy- tolerance for beliefs that differ from your own.

Lewis wants you to laugh at Babbitt's long-winded speech but he also wants you to see it as an example of what is wrong with Zenith and the segment of America Zenith represents. Do you think he is being fair in his portrait of Zenith's narrow mindedness or is he exaggerating to make his point? Do you think that the middle- class business people of today are more tolerant than Babbitt and his friends or have they simply learned to camouflage their intolerance better?


After his success as a speaker, Babbitt had hoped to be invited to join the Union and the Tonawanda country clubs, but no invitations arrived. Now he pins his hopes for social advancement on his upcoming college reunion.

The reunion is held at the Union Club, which for all its snob appeal is housed in an old and ugly building. Anxious to engage in some social climbing, Babbitt drags along his friend Paul Riesling, as he moves through the crowd toward Charles McKelvey.

McKelvey is what Babbitt dreams of being: rich, powerful, and intimidating, even if not overly honest. Part of a rising American aristocracy, he's able to hobnob with the wealthy of Europe, men like Sir Gerald Doak, the British iron millionaire.

Babbitt is flattered when McKelvey compliments his speeches, and during dinner he makes his move: he invites McKelvey and his wife for an evening at the Babbitt house. But only when Babbitt hints that he possesses inside information about real estate does McKelvey accept. This is the way business and "friendship" operate in Zenith.

Plans for the important dinner are made. Mrs. Babbitt invites only her most proper friends, and she forces Babbitt into a suit. Yet despite the preparations, the dinner is a disaster. No one has anything to say to anyone else, and the McKelveys invent an excuse to leave early. That night Babbitt hears his wife weeping at their social failure- a failure that is confirmed when they aren't invited to any of the McKelveys' parties for Sir Gerald Doak.

The Babbitts, though, are no less snobbish than the McKelveys, as we see when they attend a dinner party given by Ed Overbrook- an unsuccessful college classmate who admires Babbitt as fervently as Babbitt admires Charles McKelvey. The second dinner exactly parallels the first. (Some critics have called the parallel too neat, an instance where Lewis makes his satire too obvious and heavy-handed.) The Overbrooks seem as shabby and dull to the Babbitts as the Babbitts seemed to the McKelveys, and this evening is also a social disaster.

These two failed dinner parties are reminders that Zenith is hypocritical in calling itself a democracy, where money and class don't matter. How much do they matter in America today?

THE STORY, continued


ECC [Babbitt Contents] []

© Copyright 1985 by Barron's Educational Series, Inc.
Electronically Enhanced Text © Copyright 1993, World Library, Inc.
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