Book Review: Babbitt by Sinclair Lewis

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Sinclair Lewis. Image courtesy of the Encyclopaedia Brittanica.

I was motivated to read “Babbitt” because the author lived in my hometown in the 1940s for a time. I periodically drive by the house Sinclair Lewis used to own and it made me curious to read his works.

Also, my mother had a brush with Lewis. As a home economics major at the University of Minnesota, to gain experience she worked as a cook for a professor who had Lewis over for dinner one night. As I recall, my mother was not impressed with the author, saying that his face was pock-marked, he seemed unhappy, and was inordinately self-absorbed.

Although the book and its slang are dated, I found the tale eerily relevant, given the current political climate. It’s not so much a story as it is an extended character study of George Babbitt, a real estate broker in the mythical town of Zenith (which is patterned after Sauk Centre, MN). And if you ever wondered how white male privilege came about, this story reads like a propaganda packet for it and it will enlighten you.

During Babbitt’s time, cigar lighters in cars were a big deal. Ads were written in flowery language with fountain pens, and protracted descriptions of electrical outlet covers could make their way into novels. “Boosterism” was big. Prominent community members were expected to extol the virtues of their small towns far and wide to encourage business and prosperity.

Babbitt is a 48-year-old economic booster who faces a mid-life crisis – kind of like if Donald Trump ever got a conscience or sought spiritual enlightenment. The story follows him from his rise to the ultimate booster, to his decline after his friend is jailed for a shooting. Babbitt begins to question the social culture of his town and he rebels to the point of drinking heavily, having an affair, and consorting with **gasp** liberals and men deemed as socialists.

Babbitt is brought back to the fold of social respectability after his wife contracts appendicitis and the community rallies around his family. However, after his wife’s recovery, the old rebellion starts in on him again. He feels powerless to act on it because he’s finally back in the good graces of the town’s powerful men.

It is at this time [spoiler alert!] when his son elopes with the neighbor girl. After they come back home and announce their news, the shocked families start expressing their disapproval, except for Babbitt, who takes his son aside into another room. Babbitt praises him for having the guts to buck society and do the things that Babbitt was never strong enough to do. Thus, he passes the torch of social rebellion onto his son to carry.

My favorite scene in the book involves the subtle satirical humor at a dinner party where all the men complain about small town hicks who repeat the same things over and over again during their dinner parties because they are so uncultured. Each big city cultured Zenith man at the table expresses this same complaint, just in different words.

Although Lewis is an astute observer of human nature and his story is meant to be a cutting social commentary, the language makes it rather quaint today. It’s full of words like “zip” and “pep,” and such shocking swear words as “golly,” and “rats.”

But I liked the story. I gave it three out of five stars on Goodreads. I feel I’ve done my duty in reading a local author. Next time I drive by his former house, I’ll utter a couple of “gollies” in his honor.