Babbitt By Sinclair Lewis Chapters 27-28

CHAPTER XXVII

I

THE strike which turned Zenith into two belligerent camps; white and red, began late in September with a walk-out of telephone girls and linemen, in protest against a reduction of wages. The newly formed union of dairy-products workers went out, partly in sympathy and partly in demand for a forty-four hour week. They were followed by the truck-drivers' union. Industry was tied up, and the whole city was nervous with talk of a trolley strike, a printers' strike, a general strike. Furious citizens, trying to get telephone calls through strike-breaking girls, danced helplessly. Every truck that made its way from the factories to the freight-stations was guarded by a policeman, trying to look stoical beside the scab driver. A line of fifty trucks from the Zenith Steel and Machinery Company was attacked by strikers-rushing out from the sidewalk, pulling drivers from the seats, smashing carburetors and commutators, while telephone girls cheered from the walk, and small boys heaved bricks.


The National Guard was ordered out. Colonel Nixon, who in private life was Mr. Caleb Nixon, secretary of the Pullmore Tractor Company, put on a long khaki coat and stalked through crowds, a .44 automatic in hand. Even Babbitt's friend, Clarence Drum the shoe merchant — a round and merry man who told stories at the Athletic Club, and who strangely resembled a Victorian pug-dog — was to be seen as a waddling but ferocious captain, with his belt tight about his comfortable little belly, and his round little mouth petulant as he piped to chattering groups on corners. "Move on there now! I can't have any of this loitering!"

Every newspaper in the city, save one, was against the strikers. When mobs raided the news-stands, at each was stationed a militiaman, a young, embarrassed citizen-soldier with eye-glasses, bookkeeper or grocery-clerk in private life, trying to look dangerous while small boys yelped, "Get onto de tin soldier!" and striking truck-drivers inquired tenderly, "Say, Joe, when I was fighting in France, was you in camp in the States or was you doing Swede exercises in the Y. M. C. A.? Be careful of that bayonet, now, or you'll cut yourself!"

There was no one in Zenith who talked of anything but the strike, and no one who did not take sides. You were either a courageous friend of Labor, or you were a fearless supporter of the Rights of Property; and in either case you were belligerent, and ready to disown any friend who did not hate the enemy.

A condensed-milk plant was set afire — each side charged it to the other — and the city was hysterical.

And Babbitt chose this time to be publicly liberal.

He belonged to the sound, sane, right-thinking wing, and at first he agreed that the Crooked Agitators ought to be shot. He was sorry when his friend, Seneca Doane, defended arrested strikers, and he thought of going to Doane and explaining about these agitators, but when he read a broadside alleging that even on their former wages the telephone girls had been hungry, he was troubled. "All lies and fake figures," he said, but in a doubtful croak.

For the Sunday after, the Chatham Road Presbyterian Church announced a sermon by Dr. John Jennison Drew on "How the Saviour Would End Strikes." Babbitt had been negligent about church-going lately, but he went to the service, hopeful that Dr. Drew really did have the information as to what the divine powers thought about strikes. Beside Babbitt in the large, curving, glossy, velvet-upholstered pew was Chum Frink.

Frink whispered, "Hope the doc gives the strikers hell! Ordinarily, I don't believe in a preacher butting into political matters — let him stick to straight religion and save souls, and not stir up a lot of discussion — but at a time like this, I do think he ought to stand right up and bawl out those plug-uglies to a fare-you-well!"

"Yes — well — " said Babbitt.

The Rev. Dr. Drew, his rustic bang flopping with the intensity of his poetic and sociologic ardor, trumpeted:

"During the untoward series of industrial dislocations which have — let us be courageous and admit it boldly — throttled the business life of our fair city these past days, there has been a great deal of loose talk about scientific prevention of scientific — SCIENTIFIC! Now, let me tell you that the most unscientific thing in the world is science! Take the attacks on the established fundamentals of the Christian creed which were so popular with the 'scientists' a generation ago. Oh, yes, they were mighty fellows, and great poo-bahs of criticism! They were going to destroy the church; they were going to prove the world was created and has been brought to its extraordinary level of morality and civilization by blind chance. Yet the church stands just as firmly to-day as ever, and the only answer a Christian pastor needs make to the long-haired opponents of his simple faith is just a pitying smile!

"And now these same 'scientists' want to replace the natural condition of free competition by crazy systems which, no matter by what high-sounding names they are called, are nothing but a despotic paternalism. Naturally, I'm not criticizing labor courts, injunctions against men proven to be striking unjustly, or those excellent unions in which the men and the boss get together. But I certainly am criticizing the systems in which the free and fluid motivation of independent labor is to be replaced by cooked-up wage-scales and minimum salaries and government commissions and labor federations and all that poppycock.

"What is not generally understood is that this whole industrial matter isn't a question of economics. It's essentially and only a matter of Love, and of the practical application of the Christian religion! Imagine a factory — instead of committees of workmen alienating the boss, the boss goes among them smiling, and they smile back, the elder brother and the younger. Brothers, that's what they must be, loving brothers, and then strikes would be as inconceivable as hatred in the home!"

It was at this point that Babbitt muttered, "Oh, rot!"

"Huh?" said Chum Frink.

"He doesn't know what he's talking about. It's just as clear as mud. It doesn't mean a darn thing."

"Maybe, but — "

Frink looked at him doubtfully, through all the service kept glancing at him doubtfully, till Babbitt was nervous.

II

The strikers had announced a parade for Tuesday morning, but Colonel Nixon had forbidden it, the newspapers said. When Babbitt drove west from his office at ten that morning he saw a drove of shabby men heading toward the tangled, dirty district beyond Court House Square. He hated them, because they were poor, because they made him feel insecure "Damn loafers! Wouldn't be common workmen if they had any pep," he complained. He wondered if there was going to be a riot. He drove toward the starting-point of the parade, a triangle of limp and faded grass known as Moore Street Park, and halted his car.

The park and streets were buzzing with strikers, young men in blue denim shirts, old men with caps. Through them, keeping them stirred like a boiling pot, moved the militiamen. Babbitt could hear the soldiers' monotonous orders: "Keep moving — move on, 'bo — keep your feet warm!" Babbitt admired their stolid good temper. The crowd shouted, "Tin soldiers," and "Dirty dogs — servants of the capitalists!" but the militiamen grinned and answered only, "Sure, that's right. Keep moving, Billy!"

Babbitt thrilled over the citizen-soldiers, hated the scoundrels who were obstructing the pleasant ways of prosperity, admired Colonel Nixon's striding contempt for the crowd; and as Captain Clarence Drum, that rather puffing shoe-dealer, came raging by, Babbitt respectfully clamored, "Great work, Captain! Don't let 'em march!" He watched the strikers filing from the park. Many of them bore posters with "They can't stop our peacefully walking." The militiamen tore away the posters, but the strikers fell in behind their leaders and straggled off, a thin unimpressive trickle between steel-glinting lines of soldiers. Babbitt saw with disappointment that there wasn't going to be any violence, nothing interesting at all. Then he gasped.

Among the marchers, beside a bulky young workman, was Seneca Doane, smiling, content. In front of him was Professor Brockbank, head of the history department in the State University, an old man and white-bearded, known to come from a distinguished Massachusetts family.

"Why, gosh," Babbitt marveled, "a swell like him in with the strikers? And good ole Senny Doane! They're fools to get mixed up with this bunch. They're parlor socialists! But they have got nerve. And nothing in it for them, not a cent! And — I don't know 's ALL the strikers look like such tough nuts. Look just about like anybody else to me!"

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