Tuesday, May 10, 2011

955. Babbitt by Sinclair Lewis

Genre: Satire
Rating: 5. Top 10 contender
Read before: New read
Written: 1900s
Edition: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc. 1950

George Babbitt is a typical middle-class businessman. He’s successful, he has a nice wife, three healthy children, a good job, a nice home in a good neighbourhood, a large circle of friends … but he’ not happy. He doesn’t love his wife, his home life isn’t all he wants, and his job bores him; in short his life is dull and uninteresting with the only spark of comfort and hope lying in his friendship with Paul. Can Babbitt resolve the emptiness of his life or will he be like everybody else, forced to maintain the treadmill while knowing ultimately that it’s pointless?

First chapter
I wasn’t overawed by Chapter 1 but a rereading of it shows there are hints at what’s to come:
• Zenith is materially prosperous and busy
• George Babbitt is a successful middle-aged businessman
• Babbitt lives with a family he dislikes and does a job he detests; he longs to escape, and he takes out his inability to escape on his family.

My first reactions to this novel were boredom and frustration, not only because the story doesn’t seem to go anywhere but because the main character Babbitt is so pompous and banal. This is just a taste of what he’s like: "Being a man given to oratory and high principles, he enjoyed the sound of his own vocabulary and the warmth of his own virtue." (p72) Ugh!

But I persevered and it was worth it until I had to write this review. It can take me anywhere up to a week to think my way through what a novel means to me, and after a few days all I’d got was the town of Zenith (def: highest point, the culmination or peak) as a metaphor for every solid middle class town in middle America, ably summed up in Babbitt as: "Zenith the Zip City—Zeal, Zest and Zowie—1,000,000 in 1935." (p133). The book could easily be retitled Zenith.

But I couldn’t get past Babbitt. He flits between things in search of a cure for the emptiness he feels but he never grows as a person or fills that hole in his life, and by the end of the novel he returns to the life he led at the beginning of the story. So what was the point of the 400 pages of struggle in between? But then it struck me; Babbitt isn’t a character but a metaphor for materially successful middle-class businessmen in middle America, and the novel is a series of vignettes addressing the incompatibility of various values and situations with capitalism. It's nice to have that Eureka moment.

Babbitt as a metaphor for the successful middle-class businessman works well. From the outside he has it all: a successful job in real estate, the respect of his friends and business associates, a faithful supportive wife, three lovely children, and a nice home in a good neighbourhood. But while his life has the outward trappings of conventional success, it hides the sterility and lack of fulfilment of his life: “The Babbitts' house was five years old. It was all as competent and glossy as this bedroom. It had the best of taste, the best of inexpensive rugs, a simple and laudable architecture, and the latest conveniences. Throughout, electricity took the place of candles and slatternly hearth-fires. Along the bedroom baseboard were three plugs for electric lamps, concealed by little brass doors. In the halls were plugs for the vacuum cleaner, and in the living-room plugs for the piano lamp, for the electric fan. The TRIM dining-room (with its admirable oak buffet, its leaded-glass cupboard, its creamy plaster walls, its modest scene of a salmon expiring upon a pile of oysters) had plugs which supplied the electric percolator and the electric toaster. In fact there was but one thing wrong with the Babbitt house: It was not a home.” (p16)

And it couldn't be a home because the people within it don't connect: Babbitt co-exists with a wife he has never loved and who frustrates and bores him, he doesn’t like his children who view him as the means to obtain possessions and status. Moreover, Babbitt’s friends are uninteresting and dull, his friend’s marriages are either conventional (like his) or angry, and his interactions with them fall within a specific and pointless pattern. Babbitt’s only emotional release is with one close friend, Paul Riesling, and their relationship will come under increasing strain as the book evolves.

All this is at the local level, if you like, and Babbitt works equally well at the larger level (ie. considering capitalism as a system) and Lewis makes a number of important points which apply to the “greed is good” motif of the 1980s, the dot.com boom of the 1990s and today. In essence, capitalism exists only to make money, and everything else is irrelevant; the system doesn’t care if its inmates are moral or happy or satisfied as long as they’re making money.

So what elements of capitalism are dissected in Babbitt?

That capitalism requires stability to exist. In essence, the entire story is a race towards this. People must have the right ideas, the right friends and belong to the right clubs. The system needs law and order, and reliable family men focussed on making money. But there's no room for an emotional connection. Babbitt knows he cannot get this from his family, and he tries a number of ways to find it: religion, chasing after women. The only person he a good relationship with is his friend Paul and he supports him no matter what, but I think he also wants more ... a satisfying relationship with a woman. But he finds all women are more or less the same, no matter whether they’re decent or not ... an interesting concept.

But it’s interesting that, despite the need for order and stability, that immorality and unethical behaviour is allowed as long as it’s not obvious. And boy is this explored in Babbitt. He discovers that a grocer is interested in opening a butcher’s shop next to his existing shop. The first thing Babbitt does is to bully a real-estate speculator into buying the $9,000 property for $11,000 and raising the rent on the property, and when the grocer was ready to buy Babbitt arranges for the speculator to gouge the grocery by selling him the property for $21,000! Babbitt as the metaphor for capitalism makes the greatest amount of money possible, and is disappointed only because his work has meant someone else made so much money: “It had been a manly battle, but after it Babbitt drooped. This was the only really amusing contest he had been planning. There was nothing ahead save details of leases, appraisals, mortgages. He muttered, "Makes me sick to think of Lyte carrying off most of the profit when I did all the work, the old skinflint! And--What else have I got to do to-day?” (p49)

That organisations set up to maintain stability can also be used to promote capitalism. These organisations gave people the opportunity to mix and promote their business. Some organisations were exclusive and people who wanted to improve their chances vied to get in because once in your name and business would be primary in the mind of your fellow members: "One of the merits of the Boosters' Club was that only two persons from each department of business were permitted to join, so that you at once encountered the Ideals of other occupations, and realized the metaphysical oneness of all occupations--plumbing and portait-painting, medicine and the manufacture of chewing-gum." (p257). And what I found most interesting of all was the anonymity, and I'm not sure why this is: "As each of the four hundred Boosters entered he took from a wall-board a huge celluloid button announcing his name, his nick name, and his business. There was a fine of ten cents for calling a Fellow Booster by anything but his nickname at a lunch." (p257) And people didn't just join just one club, of course, as joining more than one provided additional opportunities to learn of business opportunities and make contacts: “Of a decent man in Zenith it was required that he should belong to one, preferably two or three, of the innumerous "lodges" and prosperity-boosting lunch-clubs." (p203)

A further insidious organisation Babbitt joins at the end of the book is the newly created Good Citizens’ League: "To the League belonged most of the prosperous citizens of Zenith. They were not all of the kind who called themselves "Regular Guys." Besides these hearty fellows, these salesmen of prosperity, there were the aristocrats, that is, the men who were richer or had been rich for more generations: the presidents of banks and of factories, the land-owners, the corporation lawyers, the fashionable doctors, and the few young-old men who worked not at all but, reluctantly remaining in Zenith, collected luster-ware and first editions as though they were back in Paris. All of them agreed that the working-classes must be kept in their place; and all of them perceived that American Democracy did not imply any equality of wealth, but did demand a wholesome sameness of thought, dress, painting, morals, and vocabulary." (p391) Put like this the power of the clubs to maintain stability and ensure business grows is terrifying as its primary aim is to suppress the working classes. Lewis also satirises unions allowing them for bosses (ie. all the clubs they joins) but anarchists and communists (who are really ordinary human beings who want to be crushed by the system) are to be crushed. "A good labour union is of value because it keeps out radical unions, which would destroy property. No one ought to be forced to belong to a union, however. All labour agitators who try to force men to join a union should be hanged. In fact, just between ourselves, there oughtn't to be any unions allowed at all; and as it's the best way of fighting the unions, every business man ought to belong to an employers' association and to the Chamber of Commerce. In union there is strength. So any selfish hog who doesn't join the Chamber of Commerce ought to be forced to." (p39)

I think the support for the system provided by the church is the most "shocking" part of Babbitt as Lewis suggests that not only are the churches run as a business but they are part of the money making elite. Babbitt references the low cost of converting "... over two hundred thousand lost and priceless souls at an average cost of less than ten dollars a head" (p98) and methods to increase Sunday School participation which consisted of developing a pseudo military organisation that smacked more of recruiting future salesman for the machine than souls for Jesus. (p214) And the antipathy towards the working class, who the church held as a captive audience because if they wanted to get into Heaven they'd be less likely to rebel against what was preached : “He was eloquent, efficient, and versatile. He presided at meetings for the denunciation of unions or the elevation of domestic service, and confided to the audiences that as a poor boy he had carried newspapers. For the Saturday edition of the Evening Advocate he wrote editorials on "The Manly Man's Religion" and "The Dollars and Sense Value of Christianity," which were printed in bold type surrounded by a wiggly border. He often said that he was "proud to be known as primarily a business man" and that he certainly was not going to "permit the old Satan to monopolize all the pep and punch." (p204)

But perhaps, except for all that money and power, it isn't that easy to be a boss. Once you arrived at the top you had to work hard to stay there: "... men who had made five thousand, year before last, and ten thousand last year, were urging on nerve-yelping bodies and parched brains so that they might make twenty thousand this year ..." (p155) And while you're working so hard others are trying to take your place. One person trying is Stanley Graff, a salesman for Babbitt. Graff was doing all her could to earn more so he could get married, and later support a wife, and when he asks for an increase in commission, Babbitt wants to keep as much as he can for himself and tells Graff that he's "... against bonuses, as a matter of principle" because it would be unfair giving it to Graff and not to the others (and he couldn't be unfair), and besides there are "a slew of bright youn fellows that would be glad to step in and enjoy your opportunities ..." (p71) But Graff needs the money and he resorts to unethical methods. When Babbitt discovers this he’s outraged (which is a cheek considering Babbitt's methods) but the system demands that its participants appear honest. Graff is fired and he gives Babbitt a decent telling off before he leaves: "Oh, for Pete's sake, don't get virtuous on me! As I gather it, I'm fired. All right. It's a good thing for me. And if I catch you knocking me to any other firm, I'll squeal all I know about you and Henry T. and the dirty little lickspittle deals that you corporals of industry pull off for the bigger and brainier crooks, and you'll get chased out of town. And me--you're right, Babbitt, I've been going crooked, but now I'm going straight, and the first step will be to get a job in some office where the boss doesn't talk about Ideals. Bad luck, old dear, and you can stick your job up the sewer!" (p239) A nice summation.

As if corruption and unethical behaviour aren’t enough, the system isn’t interested in intellectual growth, culture or even beauty, except where it contributes to the making of money. The people making money didn’t need to be intelligent or well read to make money, and to be too intelligent was to set yourself apart. This was clear on the train as Babbitt and Paul made their way to Maine. The fellows were talking shop, rubbish generally, until Paul: “… committed an offense against the holy law of the Clan of Good Fellows. He became highbrow” when he though it was “… lovely the way the light pulls that picturesque yard, all littered with junk, right out of the darkness …" (p143)

But whilst being cultured individually was frowned on it was important that a city be considered cultured in order to compete and Lewis explored this through Zenith's interest in getting an orchestra. People weren’t interested in the orchestra; Chum Frink promoting the orchestra doesn't "... care a rap for all this long-haired music". (p260) The interest is in what the orchestra would do for the town; it would send the right message to others about what sort of town Zenith was and that it was as good as any other town: “Culture has become as necessary an adornment and advertisement for a city to-day as pavements or bank-clearances. It's Culture, in theaters and art-galleries and so on, that brings thousands of visitors to New York every year and, to be frank, for all our splendid attainments we haven't yet got the Culture of a New York or Chicago or Boston--or at least we don't get the credit for it. The thing to do then, as a live bunch of go-getters, is to CAPITALIZE CULTURE; to go right out and grab it.” (p261) The reference to “live bunch of go-getters" is as good as it gets; the go-getters are out getting money and if they can grab culture and get others to visit or move to the town so they can attain more money … then so much the better.

What’s at the core of America isn’t particularly uplifting according to Babbitt. But there’s also a warning in Babbitt that we should all listen to, and it comes when Babbitt tells his son (on the last page) that he should follow his dreams (and he does this after pushing him to go to college, if only for the kudos it bestows): "Well--" Babbitt crossed the floor, slowly, ponderously, seeming a little old. "I've always wanted you to have a college degree." He meditatively stamped across the floor again. "But I've never--Now, for heaven's sake, don't repeat this to your mother, or she'd remove what little hair I've got left, but practically, I've never done a single thing I've wanted to in my whole life! I don't know's I've accomplished anything except just get along. I figure out I've made about a quarter of an inch out of a possible hundred rods. Well, maybe you'll carry things on further. I don't know. But I do get a kind of sneaking pleasure out of the fact that you knew what you wanted to do and did it. Well, those folks in there will try to bully you, and tame you down. Tell 'em to go to the devil! I'll back you. Take your factory job, if you want to. Don't be scared of the family. No, nor all of Zenith. Nor of yourself, the way I've been. Go ahead, old man! The world is yours!" (p401)

How are you living your life?

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