George F. Babbitt is an exhausting character—exhausting because he’s so familiar. The title character of Sinclair Lewis’s 1922 novel is a perfectly respectable man who loves his family and his city and is proud of his accomplishments. He’s done everything right, joined the right clubs, held the right opinions, and steered clear of anything that carried even the faintest whiff of socialism. He’s a solid, middle-class citizen. And he’s dreadful.
Babbitt may be a “good” man, but his goodness is selective:
But Babbitt was virtuous. He advocated, though he did not practice, the prohibition of alcohol; he praised, though he did not obey, the laws against motor-speeding; he contributed to the church, the Red Cross, and the YMCA; he followed the custom of his clan and cheated only as it was sanctified by precedent; and he never descended to trickery.
When Babbitt’s son Ted starts to mull over the idea of finding work that helps other, perhaps in a settlement house, he puts it to a quick stop:
“Now you look here! The first thing you got to understand is that all this uplift and flipflop and settlement-work and recreation is nothing in God’s world but the entering wedge for socialism. The sooner a man learns he isn’t gong to be coddled, and he needn’t expect a lot of free grub and, uh, all these free classes and flipflop and doodads for his kids unless he earns ‘em, why, the sooner he’ll get on the job and produce—produce—produce! That’s what the country needs, and not all this fancy stuff that just enfeebles the will-power of the working man and gives his kids a lot of notions above their class.
Sigh. Too familiar.
But we’re not meant to take Babbitt’s views seriously, except as a demonstration of what (or how) not to think. Lewis makes a point of showing us how he contradicts himself or how his views defy logic. One minute he’s declaring that we have no business interfering with foreign governments, and in the very next sentence he’s expounding that we need to kick “those Bolshevik cusses out” of Russia. He can’t even recall from one minute to the next that he’s quit smoking!
Babbittism is no coherent model for political thought. Babbitt’s beliefs mostly seem to be those that will further his pursuit of financial success. Holding popular beliefs make him a credit to the community, thus a more successful real estate agent. A strong commitment to ethics, combined with flexibility in applying those ethics, allows him to make more money than truly honest dealings would. He does what’s expected and rationalizes his decisions in whatever way he can.
It was weirdly reassuring to find such a familiar political type in Babbitt. The ideas slung around by today’s politicians are not new, and the U.S. hasn’t yet gone to rack and ruin. We survived the Babbitts past; we can survive the Babbitts present and future.
The book follows the life of George Babbitt over a couple of years. Over the course of the novel, Babbitt comes to recognize how empty his life is. He’s surrounded himself with the right people and the right possessions, but … but … something isn’t right. He tries to make a change—go on vacation, get religion, even flirt tentatively with Socialism. But nothing seems to stick. The passion fades, or the social costs are too steep. This, too, has a ring of familiarity, but a more unsettling one than the familiarity that allows me to point fingers at poor unenlightened Babbitt.
By the end of the novel, Babbitt has made a choice. He knows who he is and who he is going to be. He’s figured out his place, and he will live in it. But is it the right choice? Will this choice stick any more than the others? Will he truly be happy, or is he deceiving himself because he needs to believe in his own happiness? Is there a way to get out from under society’s expectations without raining disaster down upon yourself? At the end of the novel, we’re left with a sliver of hope, but 90 years after this novel was published, the world still seems full of Babbitts. Individuals may have found a way out, but the problem of Babbittism remains.