Babbitt, by Sinclair Lewis

Babbitt

Soon after this novel was published, “Babbitt” became an eponym meaning a mindless conformist, especially a conservative Middle American businessman sort of mindless conformist. I actually think that fits the book but not the character, which I’ll explain.

Certainly Babbitt is a satirical skewering of certain forms of conformity of its era (the 1920s). It’s set in the fictional town of Zenith, which is probably modeled after Cincinnati. In a sense it doesn’t matter if it’s a version of Cincinnati or some other city, because one of Lewis’s contentions is that medium-to-large Midwestern cities have a cookie cutter sameness to them anyway.

Paradoxically but not surprisingly, the very fact that all these cities are roughly the same makes their supporters praise them more for their uniqueness and superiority, much like the typical supermodel is probably a lot less likely than the typical mortal woman to adopt some positive thinking habit of telling herself over and over and over again that she’s beautiful.

George Babbitt is one of the leading such boosters of Zenith. He is a realtor, firmly ensconced in the middle class, married to a housewife, with two kids. He is “well-liked” in the way that Willy Loman never achieved, with an extroverted, positive style, and so thoroughly mainstream in his lifestyle and opinions to be a threat to no one, least of all the established power structure.

The book has been criticized for having no plot, which isn’t really fair. It’s true that a good portion of the book, especially the first half or so, is devoted to painting a more or less static picture of this character and his milieu, but it’s not as if there’s no action at all. And as that action picked up, so did my interest in the book and in Babbitt.

If this were really a book about a typical conformist, I think it would have a very different feeling. I’ve been repulsed by conformity my whole life, whereas I found Babbitt to be a quite sympathetic character, one who fails to manifest a lot of the worst elements of conformity. Babbitt is closer to a victim of conformity than a perpetrator of it.

I think one of the ugliest things about conformity is how internalized it is for most people. They’re not denying something essential in themselves, not consciously anyway. They’re not resentful about the pressure to conform. Most people, especially the most conformist people, are being genuine in living the way they do. They make whatever choices enable them to fit in with the norm in their society, and thereby to achieve whatever ends they happen to have (which are also mostly conformist ends as far as that goes). They don’t feel they’re compromising in living that way, because to compromise implies that there’s something non-conformist about them that they’re choosing to suppress in exchange for certain benefits. They really are the way they purport to be, because they can’t imagine any alternative. That’s what makes it so insidious.

Someone who sees the folly, the injustice, the inhumanity, whatever, of a lot of the mainstream institutions, systems, and lifestyles, and yet chooses out of self-interest to mostly conform to them isn’t the most typical conformist to me and probably isn’t the most harmful. The typical conformist doesn’t see those things at all, and he finds any suggestion of them immediately threatening, which leads to hatred and violence.

Babbitt early in the book is sort of like that, but only in a superficial way with seemingly little emotional commitment. His conformity is quite perfunctory. When he’s confronted with non-conformity he treats it almost more like a breach of etiquette than some sort of existential threat to the only right and proper way of life. Indeed he even flatters himself that he’s something of a non-conformist himself and is naturally predisposed to sympathize with non-conformists, but has learned that for appearance’s sake you shouldn’t take it too far.

But he doesn’t have the emotional commitment to the status quo that even an Archie Bunker does. None of his behavior is analogous to the visceral hatred and rage generated in Nixon’s “silent majority” or the present day Tea Party toward anyone who doesn’t embrace allegedly free market capitalism, mainstream Christianity, heterosexuality, and the like.

Then as the novel progresses, Babbitt becomes even less conformist. Ultimately the tragedy of Babbitt is that the world won’t let him have the non-conformist life he eventually sees would be a happier and more fulfilling one for him. In the end he decides to succumb to that—because he sees no alternative—and to make the most of it by appreciating what limited but still significant freedom and joy it affords him, such as a loving connection with his family, especially his wife (who, by the way, is way more of a conformist than he is, having never even questioned that she could seek happiness other than through the role of the meek and dutiful housewife). But he never embraces conformity, never sees it as anything better than a necessary evil in his circumstances.

Indeed, in a key passage in the book he urges his son to avoid the trap he has fallen into.

Far from being a mindless conformist himself, Babbitt is granted enlightenment by the author, and comes to understand the sadness of his plight in a world of mindless conformists. They’re the ones who are truly Babbitts, in the sense the word has come to have.

Until the action picked up and Babbitt started tentatively exploring if it were still possible for him to be a non-conformist and what kind of life he might have if it were, the book only held my interest to a limited degree. It was somewhat interesting as an exploration of all Lewis finds appalling about Middle America, but at times it felt like there was more than enough detail to paint the picture without piling on more.

As Babbitt progressed, though, I grew more sympathetic toward Babbitt and more interested in following what happened to him. I was attached enough to him by the end to feel considerable sadness for him.

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