Summary and Analysis
Babbitt, like all his business colleagues, is a member of the State Association of Real Estate Boards. The annual convention of this organization is to be held in the city of Monarch this year, and Babbitt is selected to be one of Zenith's delegates. While meeting with Cecil Rountree, the delegation chairman, Babbitt repeats his favorite ideas about real estate's being a profession with the same dignity as medicine or law. Rountree is impressed and invites Babbitt to read a paper on the subject at the convention.
For the next few days, Babbitt spends all his spare time working on his speech, making his family miserable with his intense concentration. He makes no progress at all until one night when he decides to ignore what little he knows about style, form, order, and other rhetorical rules. He writes down what he feels — just as it occurs to him — and in a short time, the speech is complete.
The Zenith delegation leaves for the convention with all the noise and fanfare that is typical of such affairs. On the train and later at the meeting itself, there is a wide variety of horseplay — with costumes, placards, and much friendly rivalry between representatives of different cities. Babbitt delivers a stirring speech on the nobility and responsibility of the realtor's profession, and he suddenly finds that he has become one of the most popular and well-known figures at the convention. Everyone seeks his acquaintance, and he is appointed to an important committee. The next day, the convention ends and most of the delegates go home.
Babbitt and several friends decide to stay in Monarch for an additional night of fun and good fellowship. They spend a few hours playing cards and drinking heavily; then after a good dinner, they attend a burlesque theater and a night club. By this time, most of the men have little self-control or discretion left and are eager to cut loose in a way they cannot do at home. The tipsy group decides to visit a red-light district. Babbitt is terrified by the idea and tries to escape from the taxi, but he realizes that he actually wants to go to a whorehouse. He joins the other men, loudly proclaiming that Zenith has "got more houses and hootch-parlors . . . than any burg in the state."
The next morning Babbitt, like the others, has a terrible hangover; he returns to Zenith and tells no one of his late-night escapade. Before long, Babbitt has almost forgotten the night of debauchery.
In the autumn, election time comes around. Seneca Doane, the radical attorney, is a candidate for mayor, running on a pro-labor platform. The Democrats and Republicans join forces to support Lucas Prout, a wealthy and respectable manufacturer. Prout is also supported by the banks, the newspapers, the Chamber of Commerce, and all the reputable businessmen in the city.
Babbitt is the precinct leader in Floral Heights, but there is no contest in this solid district, and he desires a more challenging assignment. He volunteers his services as an orator for the Prout campaign. Before long, he is one of Prout's most active supporters, making speeches and conducting meetings every night in Zenith's working-class neighborhoods. Babbitt's name appears in the newspapers several times during the campaign, and he begins to develop an impressive reputation. He enjoys his new role immensely.
When Prout is elected, Babbitt is one of nineteen speakers at the victory banquet. He is rewarded for his campaign work by being given secret advance information about the extension of paved highways in the city. This will be of great value to him in the real-estate business.
Later that year, Babbitt delivers the key address at the annual dinner of the Zenith Real Estate Board. In his speech, he praises Zenith as a jewel among American cities, and he extols at great length the standardized, middle-class American way of life. In addition, he attacks socialism, "long-haired" liberalism and intellectualism, and all the college professors and writers who have the audacity to question the long-held beliefs of people like himself and his audience.
The speech is reprinted in the Advocate-Times and is well received. Babbitt continues to make additional orations on a number of subjects, in and around Zenith. He is frequently mentioned in the newspapers. Even Vergil Gunch, an already well-known local speaker, compliments Babbitt on his speechmaking abilities.
For a long time, Babbitt has lived quietly and securely on Zenith's upper-middle-class plateau. Now, however, he is about to lose his anonymous solid citizen image; he is about to become a name and a face in the Zenith newspapers. Ironically, this sudden local fame does not come from Babbitt's usually shrewd business acumen; instead, it comes by chance and with Cecil Rountree's help. Heretofore, Babbitt has never valued Rountree's snobbish ways, but Babbitt's attitude changes after he is offered the chance to speak to the State Association of Real Estate Boards — and Babbitt's destiny changes.
Accepting the offer to give a speech is easy enough, but writing the speech is another matter for Babbitt. Lewis calls Babbitt's writing of the speech an "event," and he characterizes Babbitt as a comic, dictatorial bully preparing for the creative act of writing. A special notebook is bought and the family is cowed to silence while Babbitt, looking important, tries in vain to compose a fitting oration. Finally, he simply writes down his own ideas, and the speech is finished.
After Lewis shows us Babbitt the creative thinker, he shows us Babbitt the super patriot. Babbitt is loud and ridiculous, and his apparent love for his country and for Zenith proves only one thing: Babbitt is vulgar about his patriotism. He rumbles, swells, gloats, and is lordly and distasteful.
However, Babbitt is not unique; at the convention we see that Babbittism abounds. Suddenly we are in a sea of Babbitts, men who exhort brotherly love, but not at the cost of their fierce hometown partisanship. The cities of Monarch, Sparta, Zenith, and others are deadly competitive. The real-estate convention is really a collection of jealous city organizations, using the convention as an excuse to show off to one another and as an excuse for a day or two of middling debauchery. There is an atmosphere of carnival and the spirit of Babbitt is its king.
After Babbitt's speech, he becomes "Brother Babbitt," and "George" to people he doesn't even know. From solid citizen, Babbitt becomes important citizen; he is playfully frisky with Mrs. Sassburger, swigs bootleg whiskey surreptitiously from a coffee cup, then goes to a burlesque show. Babbitt is gorging himself on the first taste of celebrity status.
Clearly, Lewis is now chronicling the adventures of George F. Babbitt, public speaker. Speaking in behalf of the bankers and the Zenith Chamber of Commerce, Babbitt convinces many crowds of workmen that Seneca Doane's sympathies are not with labor, as claimed, and that the real hero of the working man is Lucas Prout. Babbitt has a knack for being likable, and he capitalizes on it. He believes that he is doing what is best for Zenith because, according to Lewis, he "almost" likes the common worker and therefore speaks to him in "all candor, honesty, and sincerity."
Actually, all three qualities are similar — but Babbitt, when he parades them as evidence of his goodwill, makes himself appear three times as generous to his audience. He poses before them as a man blessed with poverty, a man who is condemned because of innate brilliance to be steward to America's financial complexities.
Note here that Babbitt's patriotic platitudes are full of hate — hate that is born from the fear of anything foreign, anything different. Babbitt's friends oppose the workingman; Zenith opposes its neighboring towns; Babbitt's America opposes other nations. Yet they all call for — they pray and plead for — brotherhood, love, and solidarity. In other words, if anyone would criticize America he would be, to Babbitt, suspect and a traitor by definition. Babbitt is not preaching compassion for either America or for other men; he is wooing fear and hatred.