Author: Sinclair LewisBabbit by Sinclair Lewis
Publisher: Panther Books (1974)
[First published 1922 by Jonathan Cape Ltd.]
Number of Pages: 315
How long it took me to read: Roughly 3 weeks
How it was given to me: A friend bought it at a second-hand shop, but didn’t have time to read it. The book then got passed on to me, in case it was my ‘kind of thing’.
ISBN: 586-03818-3

Like a Moth to a Flame

A disclaimer: I rarely buy new books – I like them second-hand and smelly.  In my room, the books are the moths, flitting from shelf to shelf until they reach, after much persistence, the distinguished pile on my bedside table. Having patiently climbed to the top of this mound, they eventually spread their pungent wings to be read by the glow of a single candle flame.

Babbitt had a plain aesthetic dotted with promising accolades.  The cover confidently pronounced it to be Lewis’ ‘greatest work’, while the back promised the story of a conventional life ‘heading for a big change’, topped by the admission of H. G. Wells that it was ‘one of the greatest novels’ he’d ever read.

I have to admit, I’d never even heard of Sinclair Lewis.  This, to many, may equate to a literary offense, but in my defense, I’m English, not American, and his name was never once mentioned throughout my education. Interestingly, Hugh Walpole’s introduction to the book suggests that the English of 1922 were not ‘interested in the Art of other countries’.  Nowadays, you’d think this would be easier to contest, but his words inspire me to rise to the challenge and give this little-known Nobel Prize-winning author the chance to win me over.

Favorite Five

My favorite 5 quotes from this book are:

5. “For the first time in weeks he was sufficiently roused by his wife to look at her.” (p.11)

4. “…the soft grunts with which his wife expressed the sympathy she was too experienced to feel and much too experienced not to show…” (p.17)

3. “ ‘You,’ said Dr. Norton, ‘are a middle-road liberal, and you haven’t the slightest idea what you want.  I, being a revolutionist, know exactly what I want – and what I want now is a drink.’ ” (p.84)

2. “More than mountains or the shore-devouring sea, a city retains its character, imperturbable, cynical, holding behind apparent changes its essential purpose.” (p.243)

…and my pick for the No.1 quote is…

1. “For many minutes, for many hours, for a bleak eternity, he lay awake, shivering, reduced to primitive terror, comprehending that he had won freedom, and wondering what he could do with anything so unknown and so embarrassing as freedom.” (p.108)

New Words

Words are wondrous creatures. Put them together and they paint a picture. Rearrange them and the scene changes. But to be able to see what they are saying, we must first know what they mean.

New Word: frowsty (adjective)

Definition (Source: musty; ill-smelling
Synonyms: as above
Origins: 1860-65; British informal; variation of ‘frowzy’
As in: “…nothing but Americans and frowsty English baronesses.” (p.81)

Conversation with the Reader

While I read, I write, and as I write, I read. Here’s some of what I wrote while I read this book:

“Everything I know about 1920′s America (and that’s not much), I’ve learned through gangster films and one read-through of The Great Gatsby when I was 16, so this setting immediately catapults me into an alien landscape.  Yet, what surprised me about Babbitt is its familiarity in the portrayal of Capitalist society and the vacuous demands made on its contributors.  We find Babbitt ignoring the prods and prompts of his subconscious desires in order to close another dubious real estate deal or snatch that next gadget to ingratiate himself with his peers in the Old Boys’ Network, just for another moment of uncomfortable satisfaction.  He’s immediately reminiscent of more contemporary anti-materialist icons, such as the narrator in Fight Club or even Reginald Perrin.  Life in the western world hasn’t changed that much in the last 100 years – there’s just far more of it nowadays with which to get distracted.”

“As a reader both familiar with and sympathetic towards Lewis’ sentiments, my first question to him is – did you really have to be quite so unsubtle in leading the reader?  I don’t need to be told that the Babbitt house is ‘not a home’ or that his ‘god was Modern Appliances’.  While books that validate my own values can, naturally, be very cathartic, those that come on too strong risk invoking my contrariness.  I’m not convinced it’s in a writer’s interest to pass judgment on the world he is creating.  It can only alienate those people with whom you most need to engage.  A powerful book provokes its readers to reach the intended verdict on their own.

“But I’m not an historian.  I don’t know what was going on in the American public consciousness at the time Lewis was writing, though I imagine arguments against Capitalism weren’t as manifest as they are today.  Did he feel he had to lead his audience because his ideas were so radical he feared they might be misunderstood?  I can’t answer this without more research but, as someone attempting to write a similarly anti-populist novel, my reaction raises an important question: how do you balance the tone of your fiction so it not only awakens the minds of those whose lifestyles you are questioning, but also avoids patronizing, antagonizing, or even boring those who already agree with you?  It’s a difficult balance to strike, and even harder when, like Lewis, you attempt to strike it from a distance of nearly 100 years and 4000 miles away.

“However, he does build a convincing, and at times humorous, world – so convincing that his judgments are unnecessary (perhaps that’s why they seem so intrusive…?).  I decide to smile at this occasionally over-zealous dedication to his own ideals and press on.”

“A writer with enough skill and acute observation can write about absolutely nothing and make it interesting, but our modern culture batters us with a deluge of drama.  When nothing happens for long periods of time, even a superbly written nothing, our attention can easily drift. Mine held firm for the first 82 pages of Babbitt, which describe no more than a single day in his imitation life, from waking to bedtime. Then, for the next four pages, everything happened – but not to Babbitt.  I’d been expectantly awaiting signs of that ‘big change’, but this string of dramatic vignettes from the lives of other Zenith townsfolk was nothing more than a genius deception, a smokescreen – before the narrative slipped quietly back into the muted, mundane confusion of the title character.  At this point, I’m tempted to give in to my need for Major Happenings, but the blurb’s promise of ‘a big change’, which I find myself checking again to make sure I didn’t misread, convinces me to continue.”

“I honestly don’t know if a book like this would get published in today’s world – particularly not in the UK, where style is master of all and meaning continually forced to bow down before it.  I’m not implying that Babbitt has no style – rather that it is utterly dependent on the notion of drudgery.  It drives home the monotony of consumer-led society with precise attentiveness, but it remains monotonous. When the ‘big change’ arrives, it is just as frustrated and uncommitted as the rest of Babbitt’s life and, while the ending attempts optimism, there is no sense that this optimism is justified.  I would love to say that Babbitt is a book everyone should read but, as always, those who need its message are the most likely to avoid it.  However, if the period setting, the anti-capitalist sentiment, or the poignantly observed psychology of an unremarkable man appeal to you, you may well come to treasure it – or simply respect it, as I have.”

Gareth Long

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