Sinclair Lewis was the first US writer to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. Known for his insightful and critical depictions of American society, one of Lewis’ most famous works was Babbitt. Amusing and tragic by turn, this classic novel is a biting satire of middle-American values whose title has entered the language as a byword for smug complacency, conformity, and materialism, and whose suburban targets are still much in evidence. In honor of the anniversary of Lewis’ birth (7 February 1885), we’ve crept into the archives and dug up some pages from Babbitt for you to enjoy.
His name was George F. Babbitt. He was forty-six years old now, in April, 1920, and he made nothing in particular, neither butter nor shoes nor poetry, but he was nimble in the calling of selling houses for more than people could afford to pay.
His large head was pink, his brown hair thin and dry. His face was babyish in slumber, despite his wrinkles and the red spectacle-dents on the slopes of his nose. He was not fat but he was exceedingly well fed; his cheeks were pads, and the unroughened hand which lay helpless upon the khaki-colored blanket was slightly puffy. He seemed prosperous, extremely married and unromantic; and altogether unromantic appeared this sleeping-porch, which looked on one sizable elm, two respectable grass-plots, a cement driveway, and a corrugated iron garage. Yet Babbitt was again dreaming of the fairy child, a dream more romantic than scarlet pagodas by a silver sea. For years the fairy child had come to him. Where others saw but Georgie Babbitt, she discerned gallant youth. She waited for him, in the darkness beyond mysterious groves. When at last he could slip away from the crowded house he darted to her. His wife, his clamoring friends, sought to follow, but he escaped, the girl fleet beside him, and they crouched together on a shadowy hillside. She was so slim, so white, so eager! She cried that he was gay and valiant, that she would wait for him, that they would sail —Rumble and bang of the milk-truck.
Babbitt moaned, turned over, struggled back toward his dream. He could see only her face now, beyond misty waters. The furnaceman slammed the basement door. A dog barked in the next yard.
As Babbitt sank blissfully into a dim warm tide, the paper-carrier went by whistling, and the rolled-up Advocate thumped the front door. Babbitt roused, his stomach constricted with alarm. As he relaxed, he was pierced by the familiar and irritating rattle of someone cranking a Ford: snap-ah-ah, snap-ah-ah, snap-ah-ah. Himself a pious motorist, Babbitt cranked with the unseen driver, with him waited through taut hours for the roar of the starting engine, with him agonized as the roar ceased and again began the infernal patient snap-ah-ah — a round, flat sound, a shivering cold-morning sound, a sound infuriating and inescapable. Not till the rising voice of the motor told him that the Ford was moving was he released from the panting tension. He glanced once at his favorite tree, elm twigs against the gold patina of sky, and fumbled for sleep as for a drug. He who had been a boy very credulous of life was no longer greatly interested in the possible and improbable adventures of each new day. He escaped from reality till the alarm-clock rang, at seven-twenty.
It was the best of nationally advertised and quantitatively produced alarm-clocks, with all modern attachments, including cathedral chime, intermittent alarm, and a phosphorescent dial. Babbitt was proud of being awakened by such a rich device. Socially it was almost as creditable as buying expensive cord tires. He sulkily admitted now that there was no more escape, but he lay and detested the grind of the real-estate business, and disliked his family, and disliked himself for disliking them. The evening before, he had played poker at Vergil Gunch’s till midnight, and after such holidays he was irritable before breakfast. It may have been the tremendous home-brewed beer of the prohibition-era and the cigars to which that beer enticed him; it may have been resentment of return from this fi ne, bold man-world to a restricted region of wives and stenographers, and of suggestions not to smoke so much.
From the bedroom beside the sleeping-porch, his wife’s detestably cheerful “Time to get up, Georgie boy,” and the itchy sound, the brisk and scratchy sound, of combing hairs out of a stiff brush.
He grunted; he dragged his thick legs, in faded baby-blue pajamas, from under the khaki blanket; he sat on the edge of the cot, running his fingers through his wild hair, while his plump feet mechanically felt for his slippers. He looked regretfully at the blanket—forever a suggestion to him of freedom and heroism. He had bought it for a camping trip which had never come off. It symbolized gorgeous loafing, gorgeous cursing, virile flannel shirts. He creaked to his feet, groaning at the waves of pain which passed behind his eyeballs. Though he waited for their scorching recurrence, he looked blurrily out at the yard. It delighted him, as always; it was the neat yard of a successful business man of Zenith, that is, it was perfection, and made him also perfect. He regarded the corrugated iron garage. For the three-hundred-and-sixty-fifth time in a year he reflected, “No class to that tin shack. Have to build me a frame garage. But by golly it’s the only thing on the place that isn’t up-to-date!” While he stared he thought of a community garage for his acreage development, Glen Oriole. He stopped puffing and jiggling.
His arms were akimbo. His petulant, sleep-swollen face was set in harder lines. He suddenly seemed capable, an official, a man to contrive, to direct, to get things done. On the vigor of his idea he was carried down the hard, clean, unused-looking hall into the bathroom. Though the house was not large it had, like all houses on Floral Heights, an altogether royal bathroom of porcelain and glazed tile and metal sleek as silver. The towel-rack was a rod of clear glass set in nickel. The tub was long enough for a Prussian Guard, and above the set bowl was a sensational exhibit of tooth-brush holder, shaving-brush holder, soap-dish, sponge-dish, and medicine-cabinet, so glittering and so ingenious that they resembled an electrical instrument-board. But the Babbitt whose god was Modern Appliances was not pleased. The air of the bathroom was thick with the smell of a heathen toothpaste. “Verona been at it again! ’Stead of sticking to Lilidol, like I’ve re-peat-ed-ly asked her, she’s gone and gotten some confounded stinkum stuff that makes you sick!” The bath-mat was wrinkled and the floor was wet. (His daughter Verona eccentrically took baths in the morning, now and then.) He slipped on the mat, and slid against the tub. He said “Damn!” Furiously he snatched up his tube of shaving-cream, furiously he lathered, with a belligerent slapping of the unctuous brush, furiously he raked his plump cheeks with a safety-razor. It pulled. The blade was dull. He said, “Damn — oh — oh — damn it!” He hunted through the medicine-cabinet for a packet of new razor-blades (reflecting, as invariably, “Be cheaper to buy one of these dinguses and strop your own blades,”) and when he discovered the packet, behind the round box of bicarbonate of soda, he thought ill of his wife for putting it there and very well of himself for not saying
“Damn.” But he did say it, immediately afterward, when with wet and soap-slippery fingers he tried to remove the horrible little envelope and crisp clinging oiled paper from the new blade. Then there was the problem, oft-pondered, never solved, of what to do with the old blade, which might imperil the fingers of his young. As usual, he tossed it on top of the medicine-cabinet, with a mental note that some day he must remove the fifty or sixty other blades that were also temporarily, piled up there. He finished his shaving in a growing testiness increased by his spinning headache and by the emptiness in his stomach. When he was done, his round face smooth and streamy and his eyes stinging from soapy water, he reached for a towel. The family towels were wet, wet and clammy and vile, all of them wet, he found, as he blindly snatched them — his own facetowel, his wife’s, Verona’s, Ted’s, Tinka’s, and the lone bath-towel with the huge welt of initial. Then George F. Babbitt did a dismaying thing. He wiped his face on the guest-towel! It was a pansyembroidered trifle which always hung there to indicate that the Babbitts were in the best Floral Heights society. No one had ever used it. No guest had ever dared to. Guests secretively took a corner of the nearest regular towel.
He was raging, “By golly, here they go and use up all the towels, every doggone one of ’em, and they use ’em and get ’em all wet and sopping, and never put out a dry one for me —of course, I’m the goat! — and then I want one and — I’m the only person in the doggone house that’s got the slightest doggone bit of consideration for other people and thoughtfulness and consider there may be others that may want to use the doggone bathroom after me and consider — ” He was pitching the chill abominations into the bath-tub, pleased by the vindictiveness of that desolate flapping sound; and in the midst his wife serenely trotted in, observed serenely, “Why Georgie dear, what are you doing? Are you going to wash out the towels? Why, you needn’t wash out the towels. Oh, Georgie, you didn’t go and use the guest-towel, did you?” It is not recorded that he was able to answer. For the first time in weeks he was sufficiently roused by his wife to look at her.
A successful real estate agent, George F. Babbitt is a member of all the right clubs, and unquestioningly shares the same aspirations and ideas as his friends and fellow Boosters. Yet even Babbitt dreams of romance and escape, and when his best friend does something to throw his world upside down, he rebels, and tries to find fulfillment in romantic adventures and liberal thinking. Hilarious and poignant, Babbitt turns the spotlight on middle America and strips bare the hypocrisy of business practice, social mores, politics, and religious institutions. In his introduction and notes, Gordon Hutner explores the novel’s historical and literary contexts, and highlights its rich cultural and social references. The Oxford World’s Classics edition also features an up-to-date bibliography and explanatory notes that document and gloss the rich social history of the period. Sinclair Lewis was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Arrowsmith in 1926 but refused it, claiming there were worthier contenders than himself, a self-deprecating disclaimer he repeated in his speech accepting the Nobel Prize in Stockholm in 1930.
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