Textual Detritus – Babbitt
October 26, 2009
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Textual Detritus is a running series of notes focused on my reading list for exams related to my PhD studies. These are not reviews so I will refrain from explaining plot lines. These posts also contain any number of spoilers for the books in question though I’ll try to keep them hidden behind a cut. Simply, the idea here is to get some of my immediate thoughts down in a coherent manner for later use or discussion. As such, I make no claim about the level of thought, coherence, or grammar to any of these posts.
Babbitt by Sinclair Lewis, is quite simply a book that goes on too long. The premise is intriguing. An upper middle class man who aspires to greatness without really knowing that he aspires to anything at all finds himself in a hopeless funk. He’s married to a woman he doesn’t necessarily love. He cares for his children in the abstract. He does his job well, but he has no true skill with it as a real estate agent who knows everything about property but nothing about the city he’s selling it in. Babbitt tries, desperately and at times nearly heartbreakingly to break out of the life that has him trapped doing what he’s expected rather than what he wants.
Lewis makes it painfully clear that part of Babbitt’s problem is that he cannot think for himself. He finds his opinions grafted onto him by those around him. Whatever is necessary to fit in for a given moment become his thoughts. Lewis’s style in this regard is a little over the top. We hear Babbitt talking to himself and justifying his every move, yet he manages to provide interiority without actually getting into Babbitt. The fact is that Babbitt tends to be so transparent in his actions, that is transparent to the reader, that we get a clear understanding of what he’s going through even if Babbitt has no idea himself. Lewis’s heavy-handed style also pervades the rest of the novel in detrimental ways. The most egregious example is Babbitt’s snub by McKelvey and his subsequent snubbing of the Overbrooks. In short, we get it. Babbitt is a product of the class system that gave him birth.
What is most redeeming about Babbitt are his attempts to go his own way. His foray into liberalism for a time is heartening if nothing else than because he attempts to stand against the opinions surrounding him for a moment. He does not change, however, since he’s merely channeling Seneca Doane’s point of view at least as so far as Babbitt can understand it. Nevertheless, the episode provides a clear portrayal of the fanaticism that the party line is capable. Babbitt falls under its sway in the end, but this “tragedy” reinforces the reader’s distaste for it. Babbbitt is a failure. We know it. In fact, we could use about half as many pages to know it. Still, as Babbitt steps in for his renegade son and declares that he will stand with and for the renegade in his premature marriage we find ourselves cheering for him once again. The tone of the novel’s end suggests that he’ll stand firm this time. After witnessing his folly and falls though it’s difficult to say that Babbitt will come to fulfill his own opportunities thanks to the system that he is a willing cog in. Babbitt’s son has the chance and the will to break out. The real promise of the end of the novel is that Babbitt actually understands his position in a society that crushes almost all individuality and empathy under the dominating party line.
[Edit – Corrected to get Lewis’s name right. I’m embarrassed to have flipped his first and last name. This is what I get for reading Sinclair Lewis and Upton Sinclair at the same time though.]