Monday, April 9, 2007

17 down, 33 to go


by Sinclair Lewis

I read Babbitt in about 24 hours. You mind as well know that about it. However, it's a great book, worthy of a long read

George F. Babbitt, of the fictional city of Zenith, is a real-estate agent in the 1920's, and a blandly weird character. He tends to put obvious contradictions in his speech, like this comment he makes on the news:

"And we got no business interfering with the Irish or with any other foreign government. Keep our hands strictly off. And there's another well-authenticated rumor from Russia that Lenin is dead. That's fine. It's beyond me why we don't just step in there and kick those Bolshevik cusses out.*"

By the third time Babbitt contradicts himself, it's not so much funny as annoying.

Rather worse is his morality. "He serenely believed that the one purpose of the real-estate business was to make money for George F. Babbitt," and as a result overprices his lots. He views any form of charity work as an opening-wedge for Socialism (which he fears more than Satan, God, or death). He views religion as a business designed to train business men who won't cheat, and brings to his city a preacher who saves souls at ten dollars apiece. He wastes most of his money on luxuries, is obsessed with his car, and tends to neglect his wife Myra and children Verona, Ted, and Tinka. And he never thinks about any issue: he picks up whatever position his social set has, whether on free verse, immigration, or adultery.

Not surprisingly, he is dissatisfied with his life.

But, of course, he doesn't touch his moral life. He never asks himself, "Why am I here?" He never says a word on the purpose of life. Instead, he tries everything but self-examination. He gets into politics (where he does well), society (where he does less well), and wandering off into the wilderness (where he does lousy). He then loses control of himself when his best friend Paul Riesing (also dissatisfied with his life) gets jailed for shooting his wife.

Babbitt committs adultery and lives a double life for a while. He tries, but fails, to become a political radical. Ultimately, he gives it all up - nothing he found is worth the bother of getting it, and besides, he likes being a shallow little...Babbitt.

Babbitt is interesting because Babbitt is extremely familiar. He is the incarnation of the Flesh (as in 'the world, the flesh, the devil). He shows all the vices - greed, hypocrisy, laziness, lukewarmness - that people normally suffer when left to their own lights. And he fails to get rid of them, because even when he appears to sacrifice popularity to make a principled stand, he really is just trying to please himself. But by his continual selfishness, he is doomed to doing nothing he wants to do (as he tells his son Ted at the end of the book).

And all I have left to say is: Five stars.

*As a matter of fact, "interventionists" from many countries, including the USA, tried to prevent the Red Army from gaining control of Russia in 1918-20. They had little effect. But we did try!