Technique and Content in Babbitt
From a strictly technical point of view, Sinclair Lewis is deficient as a writer in a number of ways. During his lifetime, many critics particularly those who were unable to endorse his vision of America attacked him for his lack of artistry. Others, more sympathetic to Lewis' message, took the opposing position and refused to acknowledge any flaws in his technique. Needless to say, both groups of critics were wrong, although some of their specific evaluations were indeed correct. Now the furor surrounding Lewis is long gone, and it is possible to look at his writing technique and the content of his novels with more objectivity.
Most of Sinclair Lewis' faults as a writer are the result of a tendency toward immoderation and overstatement. Lewis is frequently carried away by his enthusiasm for his subject or for rhetorical devices, and he often forgets to restrain himself artistically. As a result, the same characteristics of his style may be praised or blamed, depending on the degree to which they are present in the examples selected for study.
For instance, Lewis often uses irony effectively and skillfully to emphasize his meaning and to help delineate character, as in the line, "Babbitt loved his mother, and sometimes he rather liked her. . ." On other occasions, however, as in the mechanical juxtapositioning of the dinner for the McKelveys with the dinner given by the Overbrooks, the comparison of events is significant, but the irony is oversimplified and artificial. Likewise, Lewis' pleasure with rhetoric now and then escapes the bounds of objectivity, and he ends up sounding like a neighborhood gossip. Lewis' descriptions are always humorous if one enjoys sarcasm.
For example, Lewis writes, "His shoes were black-laced boots, good boots, honest boots, standard boots, extraordinarily uninteresting boots." Lewis, of course, isn't really interested in the boots; he's characterizing Babbitt as good, honest, straight-laced, and "extraordinarily uninteresting." In contrast to this gossipy, sarcastic tone, Lewis can also swing to an opposite stylistic extreme — that of the syrupy, over-sentimental writer. For example, he describes Babbitt's adolescent-like dreams of the fairy girl as being "more romantic than scarlet pagodas by a silver sea."
Clearly, Lewis has a brilliant ear for the spoken language of the 1920s and a great talent for mimicry. Some of his vocal reproductions and exaggerations of colloquial speech patterns are among the novel's most memorable and amusing passages. Through his aping of native speech patterns, Lewis demonstrates the empty and unimaginative quality of middle-class American thought and, at the same time, he teases us with rich humor. The dullness and vapidity of the way that the characters in Babbitt communicate and express themselves emphasizes all of Lewis' intense feelings about their beliefs, backgrounds, and lack of sophistication.
It has been charged, and with some truth, that Lewis sometimes overused slang and was too extravagant in the length and volume of his imitations, and that as a result, the language of his characters sometimes seems stilted and unreal. That is a danger faced by every novelist who depends on colloquial language to give "life" and "local color" to his novel.
An additional factor in an evaluation of Babbitt is a consideration of the novel's unusual structure. Instead of being a traditional novel in which the adventures and personal evolution of an individual are shown in detail and traced over a period of time, Babbitt is a collection of nearly 30 separate episodes. Each of these vignettes deals with a different aspect of life in the early Prohibition era, and they are given a unity only by the constant presence of George F. Babbitt. All of these short pieces have their own structural integrity, but they are arranged in a haphazard fashion. Their order could be changed, and their number could be added to or subtracted from without affecting the development of the novel or changing its ultimate outcome.
Taken together, these vignettes give us a thorough picture of middle-class American life and culture in the period Lewis was writing about. The use of these topical pieces radically loosens the framework of the novel and weakens it as a balanced artistic construction. On the other hand, all of these episodes have a strong documentary flavor; each of them accurately depicts a particular segment of American life. The use of this device strengthens the impression that Babbitt is a truthful and dependable report on American mores and thus heightens its value as a social document.
It should also be mentioned that while many of the characters in Babbitt are caricatures and representative types, they are drawn in such a realistic and skillful manner that the reader rarely notices this flaw. Fortunately, a few characters in the novel, such as Paul Riesling, are sufficiently full-blooded to arouse real sympathy and interest.
Babbitt, the protagonist, sometimes seems slightly unreal, for he is such a stereotype and personification of the clichéd middle-class, Midwestern, polyester businessman. Babbitt is limited in the options open to him at any point since he usually acts as a representative of a certain class of man. At the same time, his loneliness and yearnings, as well as his vague sense of unhappy aimlessness are typical of modern man's dilemma; thus, many people can readily identify with Babbitt. As a result, despite his many personal defects and partly because of his stereotyped image, Babbitt has become in many ways an archetypal figure in the modern American mythos. Because Babbitt symbolizes the fear and pain of the individual made captive by a huge, commercial and industrial mass society, he has achieved a niche in our country's imagination and consciousness. Babbitt is the quintessential middle-class mediocre man; we see him trying to break the seams of mediocrity's straitjacket — and failing. Some people, of course, endorse mediocrity. Nebraska's former senator Roman Hruskra said that he supported a particular nominee to the Supreme Court because the mediocre people of this nation need a representative on the Supreme Court bench.
Clearly, Babbitt was written before the Vietnam War. It was written during an era when the United States had suddenly discovered that it was a major world political power and that its industrial, financial, and military might were unsurpassed. Following World War I, a wave of prosperity and self-confidence swept the nation. The vast majority of American people developed an egotistical belief in the superiority of themselves and their institutions. In the 1920s, America was chauvinistic, smug, intolerant, reactionary, and materialistic. It had contempt for anything foreign and, in its search for conformity, it distrusted and opposed anything unfamiliar or new. The strongest citadel of these narrow-minded beliefs was the Midwest, where Lewis grew up.
Lewis was a sensitive and perceptive observer of his fellow countrymen and their way of life. He proudly recognized his nation's legitimately great achievements, and he sensed the country's potential for even further greatness. However, he was also aware of America's rich democratic and spiritual heritage; he understood the value of respect and consideration for other peoples and other ways of life.
Throughout all his novels, Lewis attempts to expose the worst defects of America in the hope that he can warn his countrymen while there is still time. His satire is often brutal and bitter, and he made many enemies and offended people. He is sometimes guilty of injustice, exaggeration, disrespect, and lack of gratitude, but, nonetheless, for the first time, an American author tried to show his countrymen what they were really like under the surface of their lives. Through Lewis' efforts, and those writers and thinkers who were influenced by him, some of this country's worst failings were eventually rectified. While reading his novels, one notes that some of his criticisms are still relevant. This reaction is proof of how accurate and on-target Lewis' observations were.
Sinclair Lewis was one of the most profound and astute students of America in the twentieth century. He created an image of our national civilization to which Americans will always be obligated to compare themselves. He communicated his message with clarity, precision, and accuracy, and in a form that attracted a wide and varied audience. Few satirists have ever been able to do better.