‘Babbitt’, Sinclair Lewis’s satirical portrait of 1920’s America, was written only three years into the prohibition era, and published three years before that other, very different portrait of the USA of the time, ‘The Great Gatsby’. babbittThe term ‘babbitt’ was used in the US for some time (I am not sure if it is still current) to signify a person, especially a business or professional man, who “conforms unthinkingly to prevailing middle-class standards and norms”. The name itself is a cleverly constructed combination of ‘babble’, the meaningless babyish talk that Babbitt typically uses when in discussion with his friends, and ‘rabbit’, a small and vulnerable creature, the opposite of the alpha-male that he believes himself to be.

‘Babbitt’ tells the story of two years in the life of estate agent George Babbitt. The novel opens in 1920 when George is 46. He is an unthinking lower middle class businessman, married with three children, staunchly conservative in his views, and profoundly hypocritical in his behaviour. In conventional terms not much happens – he has doubts about some of his convictions, as his children grow up and begin to drift away from him, but after a brief flirtation with a more decadent and liberal group of friends he rapidly scuttles back to his safety zone, unharmed and none the wiser. His story is told by a third person narrator who largely reflects Babbitt’s thoughts and feelings, although the narrative voice occasionally steps apart from Babbitt to give the reader an alternative perspective. This different point of view is usually not really needed, because the narrator does such a good job of pointing out the contradictions inherent in Babbitt’s prejudices.

“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.”

Hypocrites they may be, but some of Babbitt’s associates realise and accept that their respectable façade is dishonest. Early in the novel Jake Offutt, a politician and Henry T. Thompson, Babbitt’s father-in-law confer:

“Wonder how long we can keep it up, Hank? We’re safe as long as the good little boys like George Babbitt and all the nice respectable labor-leaders think you and me are rugged patriots. There’s swell pickings for an honest politician here Hank: a whole city working to provide cigars and fried chicken and dry martinis for us, and rallying to our banner with indignation, oh, fierce indignation, whenever some squealer like this fellow Seneca Doane comes along. Honest, Hank, a smart codger like me ought to be ashamed of himself if he didn’t milk cattle like them, when they come around mooing for it!”

As a satire on American post-war life, its small-mindedness and emptiness, its lack of genuine spirituality, its hypocrisy and prejudice, ‘Babbitt’ is effective, but perhaps a little heavy-handed. With some important exceptions, the principal characters of the novel, Babbitt’s friends and business acquaintances, are all varying reflections of Babbitt himself –stupid and prejudiced, despite considering themselves cultured and modern: There is a deeply unpleasant and sinister tone to some of their comments, such as this discussion in chapter 10:

“We ought to get together and show the black man, yes, and the yellow man, his place. Now I haven’t got one particle of race prejudice, I’m the first to be glad when a n***** succeeds, so long as he stays where he belongs and doesn’t try to usurp the rightful authority of the white man….And another thing we got to do is keep these damn foreigners out of the country. These Dagoes and Hunkies have got to learn that this is a white man’s country”

So perhaps some things haven’t changed that much?

Personally, while I enjoyed the mild sarcasm that Lewis deploys, I found the portrait of a classic mid-life crisis more interesting. When his friend Paul Riesling shoots his wife, this precipitates a moment where Babbitt comes to question the value and purpose of his life. He is unable to pinpoint the source of his dissatisfaction. There is a suggestion in the novel that Babbitt’s dissatisfaction with life derives from his unrecognised doubts about his sexuality. The first hints of this come when he is thinking about the film stars he has seen in his teenage daughter’s magazines, describing them as

blankly beautiful, suspiciously beautiful young men”.

We are told that he married without being in love with his wife, and that his sex life is very limited:

“She made him what is known as a Good Wife. She was loyal, industrious, and at rare times merry. She passed from a feeble disgust at their closer relations into what promised to be ardent affection, but it drooped into a bored routine.” (Chapter 6)

(By closer relations I don’t think Lewis means aunts and uncles). ‘Feeble disgust’ is a sad comment on their marital sex-life, and the choice of the verb “drooped” can’t be an accident! Later in their marriage, after his wife returns from an extended break with her sister out of State, Babbitt shrinks from the prospect of having reunion sex. Lewis coyly puts it thus:

“All the while he was dreading the moment when he would be alone with his wife, and she would patiently expect him to be ardent”. (Chapter 25)

Lack of interest in sex with his wife might be a symptom of Babbitt’s developing mid life crisis, but equally Lewis hints at a more specific cause:

“What did he want? Wealth? Social position? Travel? Servants? Yes, but only incidentally…But he did know that he wanted the presence of Paul Riesling, and from that he stumbled into the admission that he wanted the fairy girl in the flesh. If there had been a woman whom he loved he would have fled to her.” (Chapter 23)

In the US at this time the term fairy was used to describe a gay man. [1] Is this Babbitt’s unconscious speaking to him through his dreams, telling him to pursue his true nature? There is another hint of this in his earliest description of the fairy girl “She was so slim, so white, so eager! She cried that he was gay and valiant”. Indeed.

Wondering with this was a genuinely original insight, or whether this was a conventional modern reading of the novel, I asked Google. There is a paper from Richard Schwartz of the Department of English, Florida International University here which argues persuasively that ‘Babbitt’ is a portrait of latent homosexuality. I am not going to repeat the comprehensive arguments and evidence that Schwartz has put together, but if you are reluctant to click through to his paper consider these points that he has assembled:

“Babbitt “was an older brother to Paul Riesling, swift to defend him, admiring him with a proud and credulous love passing the love of women.” In Paul’s presence Babbitt “was awkward, he desired to be quiet and firm and deft.” At their club they eat apart from his regular group of dining companions, even though “At the Zenith Athletic Club, privacy was very bad form. But he wanted Paul to himself.” ”

There’s lots more. Incidentally, the phrase ‘love passing the love of women’ echoes that emphatic Victoria phrase, the “love that dare not speak its name” and is a quote from 2 Samuel 1.26 David’s Song for Saul and Jonathan in the New American Standard Bible.

When you read the novel from this perspective, Babbitt’s behaviour and his unresolved agonies about his life begin to make a lot more sense.

Sinclair Lewis was awarded the Nobel prize for literature in 1930, and ‘Babbitt’ was cited by the committee as being one of his main achievements. Time hasn’t been kind to this novel – there are better, funnier portraits of the period and type.

[1] <1895 “the peculiar society of inverts. Coffee-clatches, where the members dress themselves with aprons etc., and knit, gossip and crotchet; balls, where men adopt the ladies’ evening dress, are well known in Europe. ‘The Fairies’ of New York are said to be a similar secret organization. The avocation which inverts follow are frequently feminine in their nature. They are fond of the actor’s life, and particularly that of the comedian requiring the dressing in female attire, and the singing in imitation of a female voice, in which they often excel.”—‘American Journal of Psychology,’ VII. page 216