As one reads Babbitt, one is continually aware of Sinclair Lewis' fierce anger with America's mediocrity, a mediocrity usually expressed by a multitude of clichés. Lewis thinks that too many Americans often say the things that they are expected to say, that they act exactly as they are expected to act, and that they are extremely conventional as far as individuality and originality are concerned. It is as though the Americans whom he describes were living in a very expensive, pleasantly colored, cookie cutter-type, clichéd 1920s Dark Age.
Ironically, the facts of Lewis' early life are also clichéd; they follow a trite pattern, one that Lewis himself would probably have agreed is seemingly almost required for a creative talent.
Born in the small, provincial town of Sauk Centre, Minnesota, in 1855, Harry Sinclair Lewis grew up in a sternly disciplined home. A strong sense of responsibility and seriousness were early instilled by Lewis' doctor-father. When Lewis' two older brothers grew up, they followed their father's choice of profession and became respectable doctors. But Lewis did not fit this pattern; instead, Lewis followed another pattern. From the first, he was a precocious child, a creative child. He was an unhandsome youngster — red-headed, unathletic, shy, and self-conscious; he was lonely and spent much of his time reading. When he was about 11, however, he began writing and never stopped.
During the summers of his last years of high school, Lewis worked alternately on two newspapers and began to publish poetry. At Yale, Lewis continued to write, but other than some of the English faculty who encouraged him in his literary pursuits, he had few friends. After his freshman year, Lewis temporarily abandoned his studies and went to England on a cattle boat. It was an unhappy experience, but on his return to Yale, Lewis again buried himself in writing and produced a substantial number of essays, poems, and short stories. Then there followed another trip to Europe, a stay at Upton Sinclair's socialistic community in New Jersey, a try at supporting himself as a freelance writer, and a trip to Panama. Finally returning to Yale in June 1908, he finished two semesters' work in a little over one semester and received his degree.
Once again Lewis attempted to support himself by writing and, this time, he was able to do so, but his career as a recognized writer still seemed no closer. Lewis published an adventure novel for boys, Hike and the Aeroplane; his short stories fared well; and, in 1914, Our Mr. Wrenn appeared. It was a mildly satiric novel about "the little man" in America, the man who battles his anonymity and triumphs.
After Our Mr. Wrenn, Lewis published four more novels, all investigating Lewis' concept of what it means to be "American." In these early books, Lewis wondered aloud about the fate of the American spirit that pioneered and built a nation but now had no more frontiers to conquer. Lewis underlined the question by experimenting with such techniques as exaggeration, broad understatement, and irony. Still, however, in spite of his investigation of America, Lewis seemed to remain largely unknown.
In 1920, Lewis was no longer unknown. When Main Street was published, the press and the public were loud in both praising and damning Lewis and his novel. Overnight, Lewis became a controversial figure throughout America. Before Main Street, no American novel had attacked the much-romanticized myth of the small town. Lewis, however, was reared in a small town and felt strongly about the fraud of a small town's hominess and honesty. He meant his novel to dissect the narrow mediocrity of small town frauds — and he succeeded.
Two years later, in Babbitt, Lewis again staggered America — this time, with his portrait of the bourgeois businessman who achieved success and money and rewarded himself and his family with the most modern, material things his nation offered, but remained dissatisfied and confused.
Today, of course, Babbitt is an American classic, and the word "Babbitt" is a part of the American vocabulary; the word carries the unsavory connotation of someone who conforms rigidly to the standards of one's social peers, someone who is respectably middle class and has little social conscience and even less imagination.
After satirically depicting a typical small town and a typical suburban businessman, Lewis next turned his attention to medicine in Arrowsmith (1925); to religious quackery in Elmer Gantry (1927); and to Americanism vs. Europeanism in Dodsworth (1929). In 1930, Lewis was rewarded for his exhaustive study of America by being awarded a literary prize never before given to an American: the Nobel Prize for Literature for the entirety of his work. Ironically, the prize came at the peak of Lewis' career; from 1930 on, Lewis never again wrote a novel that had the impact of his early masterpieces. Ann Vickers (1933), Cass Timberlane (1945), and Kingsblood Royal (1947) were financially successful and were all adapted for either the stage or the movies, but critics found the novels inferior to the masterful quintet of novels produced before Lewis was awarded the Nobel Prize.
Lewis also sensed that his writing no longer had the strength that he tried for. His subjects continued to be controversial, but his professional stature was waning. He was beginning to be obscured by other American talents — Thomas Wolfe, Thornton Wilder, Faulkner, and Hemingway. Lewis began drinking heavily, and after being unsuccessful in his marriages, he died alone in Rome in 1951. His last novel, World So Wide, was published posthumously later that year.