Mainstreet (published 1920) (finished reading 10/28/2016)
Babbitt (published 1922) (finished reading 4/30/2016)
by Sinclair Lewis (1885-1951)
Babbitt was the first Sinclair Lewis book I read, being drawn to it to learn directly about the character that led to the term “Babbitt” becoming part of the English language. Oxford English Dictionary 3rd edition: Babbittry is “behaviour and attitudes characteristic of or associated with the character George F. Babbitt; esp. materialistic complacency and unthinking conformity.” Meriman-Webster: Babbitt is “a person and especially a business or professional man who conforms unthinkingly to prevailing middle-class standards.” I am glad I went to the “source”—Lewis’s book– to directly understand Georg e Babbitt and the meaning of this expression.
Many reviewers speak to the nearly complete lack of plot it this book and in his earlier Main Street. Lewis spends many chapters describing George Babbitt’s daily routine, residence, family, and his interactions with business associates. Lewis enjoys painting his character, George Babbitt, and his surroundings– physical, social, and professional. After a detailed description of his five year old Floral Heights house which possessed “laudable architecture and the latest conveniences” Lewis add this lament: “in fact there was but one thing wrong with the Babbitt house: It was not a home.” But eventually George Babbitt does engage in a story—he goes through a painful mid-life crisis during which he turns away from social norms and expectations, has an affair with a beautiful client, attends parties with her and her non-business and non-professional friends, “the Bunch”, and even wonders if Seneca Doane, a candidate for mayor of Zenith on “an alarming labor ticket” has some useful things to say. He nearly earns complete scorn and disowner ship from his colleagues and isn’t initially invited to join the new Good Citizen’s Club. Eventually he returns to and is accepted back into the fold and he is mainly happy to have returned to popularity and security. However, at the end of the book he has interesting words for his son who is more interested in mechanics and inventing than business and earning a college degree.
Having been well engaged by Babbitt and interested in reading more of Sinclair Lewis, I turned to his previous novel, Mainstreet.
Mainstreet is also said to have minimal plot but my view is slightly different. The story covers the main character’s evolution from early girlhood through about ten years of marriage. Lewis’s style is to focus in a detailed way on particular instances and string these together to progress the story.
Mainstreet centers on Carol Miliford who we meet as a young college senior, orphaned in early adolescence, to whom we are introduced as “a girl on the hilltop; credulous, plastic, young; drinking the air as she longed to drink life. The eternal aching comedy of expectant youth”. While attending Blogett College, a small religious college on the edge of Minneapolis, she considers a number of occupations (teacher, law, nursing, motion picture writer, marrying an unidentified hero), turns down a marriage proposal from a school mate who sees her as a great lawyer’s wife, and finally decides to attend professional library school in Chicago. She spends a year or so as a librarian in St Paul where she is disappointed by the patron’s less than lofty interests. She meets Dr Will Kennicott at a dinner party given by friends of Carol’s older sister. He is a doctor in a small town (Gopher Prairie) in the Minnesota plains, is about 12 years Carol’s senior, and is besotted with Carol. Kennicott paints an appealing picture of Gopher Prairie and suggests that the town would welcome her assistance in improving it. She is eventually convinced and marries him without ever actually visiting Gopher Prairie until after their honeymoon trip.
Once arrived, she is appalled at the state of the town—tidy but extremely dull– and is convinced she’s made a mistake. She steels herself to enjoying becoming a homemaker in her own home and sets off to improving the town. Of course the town is not so interested in her assessments and plans and she suffers a number of blows. She should find comradery with Vida Sherwin, an unmarried but well educated school teacher, and does to some extent, but Vida understands the pace at which things can happen in Gopher Prairie and is willing to press her plans for a new school at the rate the town will tolerate. Even Kennicott moves from his courtship declaration of “Come on! We ready for you to boss us!” to his statement the day after arriving in Gopher Prairie “Scared? I don’t expect you to think Gopher Prairie is a paradise, after St Paul. I don’t expect you to be crazy about it, at first. But you’ll come to like it so much—life’s so free here and the best people on earth” Fortunately he is quite tolerant of his wife’s pursuit of intellectual stimulation and interest in improving the town, and the town is willing to have her fit in to the various social circles, but she finds them generally unsatisfactory and boring. Carol befriends the town handyman, Miles Bjornstam, “The Red Swede”. He is content to be totally unobligated to anyone and anything and freely speaks his mind. Miles marries Carol’s maid, Bea, who was as new to being a maid as Carol was having a house and a maid. They became friends while Bea was in her employ and Carol remains friends with Miles and Bea after their marriage. Carol becomes friends with Erik Volborg, a Swedish farm boy who is working for the local tailor. He is desperate to become educated and pursue a career in fashion design and seeks her mentorship. There are some town tongues that cluck about their interactions. Carol is tempted to pursue an affair with Volborg, but stops after Kennicutt picks them up in his car while they are taking a walk one evening.
The story fast forwards a few years after Carol bears a son and becomes enamored with him, although she was not interested in hearing that this would be true from the various town women. She sets up a room of her own in the extra bedroom of their house. She eventually can no longer bear what she feels as oppressive but dull town life and takes a leave from the town in Washington, DC where she takes a job and lives with some other women working in Washington, DC during the war. She and Kennicott correspond and he visits her after a separation of over a year. Carol eventually decides to return to Gopher Prairie and Kennicott welcomes her back as does the rest of the town. She retains a spark to improve the town and declares things will change eventually and her new daughter will see a very different world from the one in which they live.
Unlike Babbitt, Carol does not revel in being part of a great community. However, like Babbitt, at the end of the story both Carol and Babbitt return to their initial relationship with their community—want to be change agent and booster.
I initially engaged with both of these books via audiobook editions. For Babbitt, this was very helpful as the narrator delivered the slang of the 1920’s that Lewis documents in this book to a greater extent than in Main Street. Lewis’s view of his characters—-the Mainstreet of Gopher Praire and the city of Zenith—can be missed if only listening, however. Lewis’ use of capitalization (“a thousand Sam Clarks and a few Widow Bogarts were to be identified in the Sunday motor procession…”) so visual reading to at least supplement audiobook reading is useful.
Both Mainstreet and Babbitt gained best-seller status when they were released. Mainstreet sold 180,000 copies within six and more that 2 million copies within a few years. Babbitt also found wide commercial success. I find this quite interesting since Sinclair’s writing is quite biting and his disdain for the Mainstreet of Gopher Prairie/all small towns and for George Babbitt and “booterism” in small cities is quite clear. This tone was likely instrumental in Columbia University’s decision to overturn the judges’ recommendation to award Mainstreet the 1921 Pultizer Prize for The Novel which they did again regarding Babbitt in 1923. The timing of their publication—when serials in magazines and novels were primary forms of entertainment (in addition to “stunts” performed at parties) is likely a driver for the commercial success of these novels. I’m not sure these books would have achieve this same level of success today but I am glad they were published and became “must reads” for me as they give a view of life of that time, certainly through a particular lens.