Sinclair Lewis's Babbitt was an immense success at the time of its publication. Lewis made a hero out of Babbitt, by drawing a portrait of a middle-aged real estate broker and identifying him as a representation
of an average American man. In response, the Americans laughed, cried, and raged over Babbitt. According to the Greensboro Daily News, Lewis attacked "shams and hypocrisies and poltrooneries and dishonesties that pretty nearly every reader, if he is ho
nest with himself, will realize that he has engaged in, directly, or indirectly at one time or another " (Book Review Digest 318). Upon its publication, the Dictionary of Literary Biography asserts that "babbitt" was added to the American vocabulary li
st, which refers to a person who conforms to the prevailing social and moral standards. On the other hand, the critics praised Babbitt for its representation of America, its universality, its depiction of struggle between self and the world, its portrayal
of mundane routines of life, and the hope that it offers at the end. Burton Rascoe of New York Tribune called it, "a successful, amusing, ironic, human document in our social history" (Book Review Digest 318). Furthermore, Babbitt was not only applaude
d by the critics, but also by fellow authors of his time. H.G. Wells said, "I wish I could've written Babbitt" (NY Times 18), Hugh Walpole commented, "it is fine tone, complete, and understanding" (NY Times 18), and William Allen White remarked, "Sincl
air Lewis is one of the major prophets of our time" (NY Times 18).
Lewis's Babbitt is often compared to its predecessor, Main Street. In Main Street, Lewis focuses on a small town, Gopher Prairie, where he shatters the stereotypes of farmers living peacefully in a hick town. Instead, he depicts a small town of 1920's
, where "it has the same standardized products but with a less variety, the same social and political orthodoxies, but with less dissent"(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism 343). In this, Lewis turns Gopher Prairie into "a single expression of mechanic
al and fatuous dullness" (TCLC 343). The critics often compare Gopher Prairie to Babbitt, as cultural critiques and sociological ideal types. However, the critics praise Babbitt with much more enthusiasm, for it focuses on one character, Babbitt, and
offers a complete and honest portrayal of a man. The New York Times says, "in Babbitt, Mr. Sinclair Lewis triumphs precisely where in Main Street he failed. By fixing attention firmly on one superb central figure he has achieved an admirable effect of
unity and concentration" (Book Review Digest 318). The Nations magazine asked a rhetorical question as to whether Babbitt is as good as the Main Street; it answers, "there needs to be no hesitation in answering; it is better" ( Book Review Digest 318).
On the other hand, Lewis's Babbitt is also compared to business novels and their authors; Henry James, William Dean Howells, Charles and Frank Norris, Jack London, David Graham Phippils, Robert Herrick, Upton Sinclair, Edith Wharton, Ernest Poole, and Bo
oth Tarkington . These writers have been interested in the business world and they primarily depicted ethical corruption, driven by power, money, and social prestige. However, whereas the other novels are generally "solemn or grandly melodramatic denunc
iations of monstrous figures if aggressive evil" (TCLC 342), "Babbitt was raucously satirical of a crowd of ninnies and buffoons, who, if they were vindictive and petty, were also absurd. Yet, along with all that, Babbitt himself was pathetic"(TCLC 342).
In this way, the readers were more sympathetic to Babbitt, because Babbitt was a man of a small business, dealing with everyday problems, and not a tycoon with plans to overthrow the government like the other business novels.
But Babbitt is most well known for its accurate representation of American culture. R.M. Gay of Atlantic's Bookshelf says, "to follow Babbitt for one day is to get a hideously true view of the worst in American ways and thought and speech at this par
ticular moment of history, to feel its vulgarity and noise and glare, its aimless rush, its motor and movie madness, its spiritual emptiness" (Book Review Digest 318). This American-ness is epitomized in the main character Babbitt, who is a middle class
middle- aged man, living in a suburban area, who possesses a membership to the Zenith Athletic Club, where he socializes and chats about nothing particularly important, goes to church occasionally on Sundays and claims himself to be a Presbyterian, a sel
f-professed Republican, and starts the day with a breakfast with his loving and gentle wife and three kids. Furthermore, Lewis's attempt to give an accurate representation of America, is attested in Babbitt's language and dialogues. He uses phrases l
ike "by golly", "good lord", "say, uh", and "ah-huh" and makes small and meaningless chats with his neighbors and friends. For example, in his conversation with his neighbor, Dr. Howard Littlefield, Babbitt talks about early arrival of spring and discu
sses a bit of politics, like his thoughts about a Republican candidate. Their dialogue generates a feeling of familiarity, a type of dialogue that you can hear, when walking past lunch tables in a restaurant. In addition, Lewis's description of Zenith
characterizes a typical mid-sized city of America. For there were "austere towers of steel and cement and limestone" (Lewis 1), as well as "the red brick minarets of hulking old houses, factories with sting and sooted windows"(Lewis 1), people dressed up
in evening clothes returning from a play, as well as scrubwomen crawling through the building with weary shoulders and feet. The Twentieth Century Literary Criticism reports that Lewis studied and "worked up" the world of real state brokers to give an
accurate account of the kind of life that they lead.
However, despite its overwhelmingly American nature, Babbitt is also applauded for its universality. The Times [London] Literary Supplementary notes, "the story, though intensely American in its setting and the language in which it is told, is a drama of
something universal" (Book Review Digest 319). Some of universal aspects found in Babbitt are hypocrisy, fear, spiritual emptiness, conformity, vanity, and materialism. Perhaps one aspect that encompasses all other aspects, is fear. At the end of th
e novel, Babbitt says to Ted, his son, and "practically I've never done a single thing I've wanted to in my whole life!" (Lewis 401). According to Ludwig Lewisohn in the Nation, Babbitt is a creature of fear living in a mechanical society where disse
nters are threatened with exile and hunger and conformity is highly encouraged. Consequently, Babbitt lives with a fundamental fear. He fears all those who are close to him; his business partners, his friends, his own family, and his social acquaintance
Furthermore, "he fears for his business which gives him prosperity without wealth, for his home that gives him order without comfort, for domestic affections that keep out forlornness but do not warm his soul" (TCLC 203). Moreover, his friend, Paul Riesl
ing, who bravely proceeds with his desires, ends up being alienated from the society. Consequently, the readers empathize with Babbitt and understand him, when Babbitt joins the Good Citizens League, an organization dedicated to fight socialism and liber
alism, but hiding behind a façade of expressing civic concerns like park or city planning. This was significant because he initially denounces the organization, but eventually succumbs to social and peer pressure. In this, the readers empathizes with B
abbitt and are consoled, because they are not the only ones who are defeated by fear and they are not alone in feeling discontent. Though unhappily, the readers are able to live vicariously through Babbitt.
In addition, the critics also praise Babbitt for its depiction of struggle between the self and the world. Caren Town of West Virginia University asserts that Babbitt's friend, Paul, represents all "self"; he is willing to destroy anything that gets in
the way of his desires (TCLC 257), whereas Babbitt's wife, Mara, represents all "world"; she is incapable of existing without the other characters. In the novel, Paul becomes increasingly discontent with his wife, who nags and complains all the time.
Gradually, he falls in love with another woman who offers understanding and rest. Eventually, overcome with hatred towards his wife, Paul shoots his wife, and ends up in prison. Likewise, Babbitt is also discontent with his wife. Though she is an exce
llent housewife and a mother, she does not understand his desires and passions, and is "as sexless as a anemic nun"(Lewis 7). Consequently, Babbitt falls in love with another woman, Tanis Judique, who is unconventional and passionate. Then he ventures i
nto a life of a "self", leading a bohemian life of drinking and dancing. But ultimately, he cannot let go of the "world" like Paul did; his security as a respectable citizen and the comfort zone that his family offers matter more to him than freedom from
conventions. Thus when the town starts gossiping about his relationship with Tanis and when his friend Vergil Gunch confronts him about his behaviors, "fear sat beside him, and he told himself that to-night he would not go to Tanis's flat; and he did no
t go?till late" (Lewis 348). Eventually, he leaves Tanis and returns to his conventional life style. This struggle probably appealed to the readers, because Babbitt, despite his ultimate defeat, attempted to follow his desires and to escape from conform
ity. The readers probably affirmed his courage for his endeavor.
Another aspect that attributes to Babbitt's success, is its description of mundane routines of life. R.D. Townsend of the Outlook remarks, "Babbitt's literary portrait is a piece of meticulous exactness"( Book Review Digest 319). For example, the fir
st chapter of the novel records Babbitt's morning ritual; "he grunted; he dragged his thick legs, in faded baby-blue pajamas, from under the khaki blanket; he sat on the edge of the cot, running his fingers through his wild hair, while his plump feet mec
hanically felt for his slippers" (Lewis 4). Furthermore, Lewis provides a detailed account of Babbitt's search for his razor blades, his crime of wiping his face on a guest towel, his spectacles, "huge, circular, frameless lenses of the very best glass
"(Lewis 8). Lewis carefully outlines such mundane details of life to project an authentic life of his characters. Accordingly, Lewis constantly mentions Babbitt's struggle with his smoking habits; locking up his cigar box in a file box and hiding the k
ey in a more difficult place, throwing out his cigar case out of the smoking compartment window, only to buy another one at the next stop, and temporarily forgetting that he made resolutions to quit smoking. But such inconsistencies make Babbitt all t
he more genuine and Lewis heightens his authenticity with minute details.
Lastly, Babbitt remains as a timeless classic for its hopeful tone. In the beginning of the novel, Babbitt is dreaming of a fairy child, " a dream more romantic than scarlet pagodas by a silver sea"(Lewis 2). In his dream, he is able to escape from the
crowded house, past his wife and his clamoring friends, to a secret rendezvous, where "she cried that he was gay and valiant" (Lewis 3). This dream offers him a flight from his conventional world and enkindles passion and vigor that are lacking in his li
fe. Additionally, the ending offers the ultimate hope for many readers. At the end, Babbitt's son, Ted, secretly marries his girlfriend, then introduces his new bride to the astounded and irate family, and announces his plans to leave the university in
order to get into mechanics. Though Babbitt expresses his concern about not finishing school, he says that he "gets a kind of sneaking pleasure out of the fact that [he] knew what [he] wanted to do and [he] did it" (Lewis 401). Furthermore, he tells T
not to be afraid of the people and the society and encourages him to pursue his desires and passion. He says, "Go ahead, old man! The world is yours!" (Lewis 401). The changes in the new generation of Babbitts offer a hope for America, as well as for it
s readers. The new generation of Babbitts is not afraid of unconventional life style and affirm individuality, authorizing departure from the norm. Thus Lewis is hopeful as he envisions a new America, even as he points to the hypocrisies and the defects
of the country.
According to the Hackett's 80 Years of Best Sellers, Babbitt made the best seller's list on the basis of over 50 years of cumulative sales. Furthermore, even after over 70 years of publication, Babbitt remains in prints and the steadfast sales records
testify to its timelessness. The Greensboro Daily News attests to its success, for it acclaims that, "it will hated, spat upon, possibly burned by the common hangman. But it will be read" (Book Review Digest, 318). But not only is it read, it is also
loved and treasured, and bears the name of the most honorable literary award, the Nobel Prize.
"Advertisement for Babbitt". New York Times 19 November 1922:18.
"Sinclair Lewis." National Cyclopedia of American Biography. Clifton, James T. White & Company.
Hackett, Alice Payne, & James Henry Burke, eds. 80 years of Best Sellers 1895-1975. New York: R.R.Bowker Company, 1977.
Knight, Marion, & Mertice M.James, eds. The Book Review Digest. New York: H.W. Wilson Company, 1923.
Lewis, Sinlair. Babbitt. New York: Harcourt,Brace, & World, Inc., 1950.
Martine, James,ed. Dictionary of Literary Review. Detroit: Gales Research Company, 1981.
Poupard, Dennis, and James E.Person Jr., eds. Twentieth Century Literary Criticism. Detroit, Gales Research Company, 1984.