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Babbitt
Sinclair Lewis


REFERENCE

THE CRITICS

THE BABBITT TYPE

Let me confess at once that this story has given me vast delight. I know the Babbitt type, I believe, as well as most; for twenty years I have devoted myself to the exploration of its peculiarities. Lewis depicts it with complete and absolute fidelity. There is irony in the picture; irony that is unflagging and unfailing, but nowhere is there any important departure from the essential truth. Babbitt has a great clownishness in him, but he never becomes a mere clown.... Every American city swarms with his brothers. They run things in the Republic, East, West, North, South.... They are the Leading Citizens, the speakers at banquets, the profiteers, the corruptors of politics, the supporters of evangelical Christianity, the peers of the realm. Babbitt is their archetype. He is no worse than most, and no better; he is the average American of the ruling minority in this hundred and forty-sixth year of the Republic. He is America incarnate, exuberant and exquisite. Study him well and you will know better what is the matter with the land we live in...

H. L. Mencken, "Portrait of an American Citizen," 1922; reprinted in Mark Schorer, Sinclair Lewis: A Collection of Critical Essays, 1962

THE IMPORTANCE OF POSSESSIONS IN BABBITT

...material possessions are the symbol of power to Babbitt.... These possessions mark the difference between a real-estate salesman and a realtor- between the Athletic Club and the Union Club- between the state university and the eastern colleges- between Babbitt's less successful friends, the Overbrooks, whom he snubs, and the socially prominent McKelveys, who snub him. For the sake of these possessions Babbitt sacrifices both his physical vigor ("Ought to take more exercise; keep in shape...") and his peace of mind ("Like to go off some place and be able to hear myself think..."). In the course of acquiring possessions he is forced to alienate himself from the human beings who work with him. And, having acquired them, he is forced to mold his own personality into the pattern of the social institutions which dispense or safeguard these possessions.

Maxwell Geismer, "On Babbitt," 1947; reprinted in Martin Light, The Merrill Studies in Babbitt, 1971

ON BABBITT

...Lewis's conclusions about Babbitt's future are not entirely negative. He shares with Lewis's other heroes a yearning for self-realization and fulfillment. If it is too late for him to find fulfillment, at least he may achieve realization. This realization, once established, will never again allow Babbitt contentment or peace of mind, will never again permit him to warm himself against the bodies of the herd, but it is worth more than any of these. Babbitt is not of heroic dimensions- nor could he ever be so ion the conditions of his world; but he is an adult or promises to become one at the novel's end. He walks out to face the world and live in it, although it is no longer Eden.

-Sheldon Norman Grebstein, Sinclair Lewis, 1962

LEWIS'S GIFT FOR MIMICRY

[Lewis] performed a function that has nearly gone out of American fiction, and American fiction is thinner for the loss. Many American novelists today tell us about our subjective lives, and on that subject Sinclair Lewis could hardly speak at all. Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Faulkner- they all had some sense of the tragic nature of human experience that was denied to Lewis. Lyric joy, sensuous ecstasy- to these, too, he was apparently a stranger. But he had a stridently comic gift of mimicry that many a more polished American writer does not have at all. And a vision of a hot and dusty hell: the American hinterland. He gave Americans their first shuddering glimpses into a frightening reality of which until he wrote they were unaware and of which he himself may also have been unaware.... [He] could document for an enormous audience the character of a people and a class, and, without repudiating either, criticize and laugh uproariously at both. In any strict literary sense, he was not a great writer, but without his writing one cannot imagine modern American literature. No more, without his writing, could Americans today imagine themselves. His epitaph should be: He did us good.

Mark Schorer, Sinclair Lewis, 1963

THE WORLD OF BABBITT

...Since Lewis's folk are not alive in senses, mind, or spirit, they could scarcely be expected to have a social life. They carry on, of course, a group existence, for solitude is terrifying to them. Yet when they have gathered together, they have nothing to say to one another.... Their sociability is ghastly as any lifeless imitation of a living thing must be ghastly. It is a dance of galvanized dead. Lewis's world is a social desert, and for the best of reasons, that it is a human desert. It is a social void because each of its members is personally a human emptiness.

T. K. Whipple, "Sinclair Lewis," 1927; reprinted in Schorer, 1963

LEWIS'S USE OF SATIRE

In the first flush of his triumph in the twenties, when Lewis did seem to be the bad boy breaking out of school, the iconoclast who was Mencken's companion in breaking all the traditional American commandments, it was easy enough to enjoy his satiric bitterness and regard him as a purely irreverent figure. But today, when his characters have entered so completely into the national life and his iconoclasm has become so tedious and safe, it is impossible to look back at Lewis himself without seeing how much native fellowship he brought into the novel and how deeply he has always depended on the common life he satirized...

For what is it about Lewis that strikes one today but how deeply he has always enjoyed people in America? What is it but the proud gusto and pleasure behind his caricatures that have always made them so funny- and so comfortable? Only a novelist fundamentally uncritical of American life could have brought so much zest to its mechanics; only a novelist anxious not to surmount the visible scene, but to give it back brilliantly, could have presented so vivid an image of what Americans are or believe themselves to be.

Alfred Kazin, On Native Grounds, 1942

LEWIS'S WRITING STYLE

One is led to conclude that the nervous energy that is so much a part of Lewis's style, tends to wear readers and critics down.... There is no point in explaining away this characteristic of the Lewis novel other than to state simply that Lewis is no writer to read in large doses: he is too singular, too angry, too irritating in both style and statement. This, of course, is a major source of his power, a way he still makes the presence of his abrasive personality felt.

Jane Lundquist, Sinclair Lewis, 1973

Lewis's flaws of style and some of his puerile notions will remain a problem for every reader. But perhaps one way to approach his novels is this: He was a great talker. He began as an admirer of a bad "literary" language, but he learned the uses of common speech. He employed the comic potential of the vernacular to expose the boosters and hypocrites he saw in American life.... He was a demon of anger toward waste and cruelty. Yet he was sympathetic and could give in to a whimsical imagination, which sought solace in places governed by a romanticized chivalric code. He began his career as a journalist and publicist, and perhaps always thought in terms of giant typography, headlines, billboards. There is amplitude in his best books, and if he is read for size- for his large quixotic vision- then his faults, in his best books at least, accordingly diminish.

Martin Light, The Quixotic Vision of Sinclair Lewis, 1975

[Babbitt Contents]


ADVISORY BOARD

We wish to thank the following educators who helped us focus our Book Notes series to meet student needs and critiqued our manuscripts to provide quality materials.

Sandra Dunn, English Teacher
Hempstead High School, Hempstead, New York

Lawrence J. Epstein, Associate Professor of English
Suffolk County Community College, Selden, New York

Leonard Gardner, Lecturer, English Department
State University of New York at Stony Brook

Beverly A. Haley, Member, Advisory Committee
National Council of Teachers of English Student Guide Series
Fort Morgan, Colorado

Elaine C. Johnson, English Teacher
Tamalpais Union High School District
Mill Valley, California

Marvin J. LaHood, Professor of English
State University of New York College at Buffalo

Robert Lecker, Associate Professor of English
McGill University, Montreal, Quebec, Canada

David E. Manly, Professor of Educational Studies
State University of New York College at Geneseo

Bruce Miller, Associate Professor of Education
State University of New York at Buffalo

Frank O'Hare, Professor of English and Director of Writing
Ohio State University, Columbus, Ohio

Faith Z. Schullstrom, Member of Executive Committee
National Council of Teachers of English
Director of Curriculum and Instruction
Guilderland Central School District, New York

Mattie C. Williams, Director, Bureau of Language Arts
Chicago Public Schools, Chicago, Illinois

[Babbitt Contents]


BIBLIOGRAPHY

FURTHER READING
CRITICAL WORKS

Allen, Frederick Lewis. Only Yesterday: An Informal History of the 1920s. New York: Harper and Brothers. 1931. Though it mentions Babbitt only briefly, this is an informative and entertaining look at the decade that forms the novel's backdrop.

Grebstein, Sheldon Norman. Sinclair Lewis, New York: Twayne Publishers, 1962. Biography with criticism of Lewis's works.

Hilfer, Anthony C. The Revolt from the Village: 1915-1930. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1969, pp. 158-176.

Kazin, Alfred. On Native Grounds: An Interpretation of Modern American Prose Literature. New York: Reynal and Hitchcock, 1942, pp. 205-226. A lucid discussion of Lewis that places him in relation to other twentieth-century American writers.

Light, Martin. The Merrill Studies in Babbitt. Columbus, Ohio: Charles E. Merrill Publishing Co., 1971. Helpful collection of essays dating from the 1920s to 1970.

_____. The Quixotic Vision of Sinclair Lewis. W. Lafayette, Ind.: Purdue University Press, 1975.

Lundquist, James. Sinclair Lewis. New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1973. Critical analysis of Lewis's novels.

Schorer, Mark. Sinclair Lewis: An American Life. New York: McGraw Hill Book Co., 1961. A superbly written biography that is essential reading for anyone interested in Lewis.

_____. Sinclair Lewis: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1963. Essays dealing with Babbitt and Lewis's other novels.

AUTHOR'S OTHER WORKS

    Hike and the Aeroplane, 1912
    Our Mr. Wrenn, 1914
    The Trail of the Hawk, 1915
    The Innocents, 1917
    The Job, 1917
    Free Air, 1919
    Main Street, 1920
    Arrowsmith, 1925
    Mantrap, 1926
    Elmer Gantry, 1927
    The Man Who Knew Coolidge, 1928
    Dodsworth, 1929
    Ann Vickers, 1933
    Work of Art, 1934
    It Can't Happen Here, 1935
    Jayhawker, 1935
    Selected Short Stories of Sinclair Lewis, 1935
    The Prodigal Parents, 1938
    Bethel Merriday, 1940
    Gideon Planish, 1943
    Cass Timberlane, 1945
    Kingsblood Royal, 1947
    The Gold-Seeker, 1949
    World So Wide, 1951

A STEP BEYOND


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