Monday, March 2, 2009

Babbitt. Sinclair Lewis.

New York: A Signet Classic. The New American Library. 1922. 1961.

Why read it? Novel. Satire of middle class life in America. In many ways, Babbitt is just like you and me --well, me, anyhow. He blames his wife for everything, including his hangovers. He is an avowed conservative. His possessions make him think he is perfectly happy. He thinks everything should be run like a business. He takes pride in being able to parallel park. He is always hustling. And he always wanted to escape the routine of his life to go live in Maine.

As Mark Shorer says in his Afterword, "Babbitt's tragedy is that he cannot escape being Babbitt. He sees his survival in his conformity to everyone else. Occasionally, when his friend is arrested for murder and when he has a fling, he senses that there is a different existence out there. But he must return to being Babbitt. It's all he knows how to do. In the end, he tells his son who has eloped not to be as he has been, but to live his own life."

Some Sample quotes:

“He who had been a boy very credulous of life was no longer greatly interested in the possible and improbable adventure of each new day.” p. 7. ………. “Epochal as starting the car was the drama of parking it before he entered the office; with front wheels nicking the wrought-steel bumper of the car in front, he stopped, feverishly cramped his steering wheel, slid back into the vacant space and, with eighteen inches of room, maneuvered to bring the car level with the curb…a virile adventure masterfully executed.” p. 29. ………. “The sooner a man learns he isn’t going to be coddled, and he needn’t expect a lot of free grub…the sooner he’ll get on the job and produce—produce—produce!" p. 17.

“Now, these strikers: Honest, they’re not such bad people; just foolish; they don’t understand the complications of merchandising and profit, the way we businessmen do, but sometimes I think they’re about like the rest of us, and no more hogs for wages than we are for profits.” p. 258. ………. “…I don’t propose to be bullied and rushed into joining anything, and it isn’t a question of whether it’s a good league or a bad league or what the hell kind of a league it is; it’s just a question of my refusing to be told I got to--….” p. 298. ………. “I always say—and believe me, I base it on a pretty fairly extensive mercantile experience—the best is the cheapest in the long run.” p. 48.

“…but I do think that girls who pretend they’re bad by the way they dress really never go any farther.” p. 259. ………. “They fell joyfully into shop-talk, the purest and most rapturous form of conversation.” p. 135. ………. “She was a crusader and, like every crusader, she exulted in the opportunity to be vicious in the name of virtue.” p. 112. ………. College reunion. “The men whom they could not recall they addressed, ‘Well, well, great to see you again, old man; what are you—still doing the same thing?’ ” p. 157.

Babbitt to his son Ted who has just eloped with Eunice Littlefield: “…I’ve never done a single thing I’ve wanted to in my whole life…don’t know’s I’ve accomplished anything except just get along…figure out I’ve made about a quarter of an inch out of a possible hundred rods…maybe you’ll carry things on further…don’t know…do get a kind of sneaking pleasure out of the fact that you knew what you wanted to do and did it…. 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…. Don’t be scared of the family…nor all of Zenith, nor of yourself, the way I’ve been; go ahead, old man…. The world is yours!”

Babbitt is a classic portrait of suburban middle-class America. I recognize much of Babbitt in myself. The big difference is that I never wanted anything more than suburban middle-class America. Babbitt did. But when I have done what was important to me, when I have told society to go to hell, I have discovered that non-conformity put me into isolation. And I was uncomfortable. RayS.

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