Born in Minessotta in 1885, Sinclair Lewis was the first North American writer to be awarded with the Nobel Prize in Literature, in 1930. His works are X-ray pictures of the American Dream and its ruthless capitalism between the wars. His views can turn out to be extremely modern, as he depicts working women to perfection, in portraits full of respect and dignity, disregarding social class. After graduation in Yale, he had several different jobs and wrote in all kind of styles, from pulp novels to stories for magazines. He even sold plots to Jack London, such as The Assassination Bureau, Ltd., London´s unfinished novel. He was an alcoholic and was interned in Austen Riggs Center in 1937. He died in 1951 from advanced alcoholism. I have always wondered how could he become an alcoholic during the Prohibition!
His first great success was Babbitt, written in 1922. Set in a fictional town, Zenith, where George Babbitt – a villager by birth and a foster son of Zenith – wishes to embody the exemplary successful Zenith man, with not an inch of Catawba – his village- in him. Babbitt is proud of himself and what he has achieved in life, by walking upon the well-trodden path. His life, given his materialistic spirit, is described in terms of what he possesses: a nice car where he can even fit a modern lighter, a house worthy of a decorations and interiors magazine – which does not feel like home, though -, his suits… Babbitt is the embodiment of capitalism itself in his daily life: he speculates with properties for a value exponentialy greater than their real one. He doesn´t care for community values, even though he pretends he is a moral man, as his speculative deeds have a negative impact in his beloved community.
Whenever Babitt has to express a personal opinion about any topic, he needs first to research the approved and official sources: the Advocate Times, the Evening Standard and the Chamber’s newsletter as well as learning about the decisions taken by the Republican senators in Washington. They guide his thoughts and opinions and he finds it difficult to have an opinion about something which hasn´t yet elicited an article on one of these sources. As soon as he reads the opinions included in the aforementioned papers, he finds himself able to express his individuality – his favourite page in those papers is the Mutt&Jeff cartoons, though – . His beliefs and his morals are equally dictated by the Presbyterian Church.
-Mutt & Jeff-
Sanctimounious Babbitt is relieved that prostitution, speakeasies and other illegal activities are restricted to certain ghettos in town, so that “decent families”can feel safe. But there is a high degree of hypocrisy in this statement, provided that, when he organises a party with his friends, he goes to one of this ghettos and buys alcohol for the occasion.He and his friends talk about the Prohibition Act, implying that it is justified, so that those consumers who can’t really afford it do not get tempted, but they feel that it thwarts their freedom as middle-class citizens who can pay for beverages and lead exemplary and productive lives.
Babbitt’s closest friend, Paul, breaks the former’s peace of mind -only interrupted by a recurrent dream – with his questioning the kind of life they both lead. Paul talks about the lack of a sense of purpose in life, about boredom and frustration in married life, which makes him feel trapped and disappointed after living by the rules as a good boy all his life. Babbitt does not love his wife, either. He never really did, although he is sometimes able to feel tenderness towards her. When they first met, Myra was a “nice” girl who didn’t allow him to kiss her and the first time he did, she assumed that they were engaged. He wasn’t able to say no. Married life was comfortable for him, though. Thus, as a self-righteous person, he reacts in a somewhat paternalistic manner to that, only to start questioning his own life afterwards:“Whatever the misery, he could not regain contentment with a world which, once doubted, became absurd.”
-“Flapper” B/W photograph by J. Baldwin. Oil painting copy by Gisela P.-
As a result of this, he tastes what he had previouly preached against, and becomes an adept at breaking the rules by partying, drinking alcohol and trying to have affairs with women with not much success. However, he does not go so far as to burn the bridges towards respectability. As he gets more and more involved with liberal practise, he starts showing public signs of sympathy towards liberal theorists as well, being ostracised as a consequence. When he is on the brink of tilting the scale wholly to the liberal side, coming to terms with the fact of risking his job and marriage, both of which are at stake at this point, his wife illness brings him back to the path of virtue; he embodies the parable of the prodigal son. His experience is not futile and empty, though, as it turns him into a more tolerant citizen and enables him to come to terms with the following generation.