Babbitt By Sinclair Lewis Chapters 19-20

"Well, Stan, looks like we were coming down to cases. That deal — There was nothing crooked about it. The only way you can get progress is for the broad-gauged men to get things done; and they got to be rewarded — "

"Oh, for Pete's sake, don't get virtuous on me! As I gather it, I'm fired. All right. It's a good thing for me. And if I catch you knocking me to any other firm, I'll squeal all I know about you and Henry T. and the dirty little lickspittle deals that you corporals of industry pull off for the bigger and brainier crooks, and you'll get chased out of town. And me — you're right, Babbitt, I've been going crooked, but now I'm going straight, and the first step will be to get a job in some office where the boss doesn't talk about Ideals. Bad luck, old dear, and you can stick your job up the sewer!"

Babbitt sat for a long time, alternately raging, "I'll have him arrested," and yearning "I wonder — No, I've never done anything that wasn't necessary to keep the Wheels of Progress moving."

Next day he hired in Graff's place Fritz Weilinger, the salesman of his most injurious rival, the East Side Homes and Development Company, and thus at once annoyed his competitor and acquired an excellent man. Young Fritz was a curly-headed, merry, tennis-playing youngster. He made customers welcome to the office. Babbitt thought of him as a son, and in him had much comfort.


An abandoned race-track on the outskirts of Chicago, a plot excellent for factory sites, was to be sold, and Jake Offut asked Babbitt to bid on it for him. The strain of the Street Traction deal and his disappointment in Stanley Graff had so shaken Babbitt that he found it hard to sit at his desk and concentrate. He proposed to his family, "Look here, folks! Do you know who's going to trot up to Chicago for a couple of days — just week-end; won't lose but one day of school — know who's going with that celebrated business-ambassador, George F. Babbitt? Why, Mr. Theodore Roosevelt Babbitt!"

"Hurray!" Ted shouted, and "Oh, maybe the Babbitt men won't paint that lil ole town red!"

And, once away from the familiar implications of home, they were two men together. Ted was young only in his assumption of oldness, and the only realms, apparently, in which Babbitt had a larger and more grown-up knowledge than Ted's were the details of real estate and the phrases of politics. When the other sages of the Pullman smoking-compartment had left them to themselves, Babbitt's voice did not drop into the playful and otherwise offensive tone in which one addresses children but continued its overwhelming and monotonous rumble, and Ted tried to imitate it in his strident tenor:

"Gee, dad, you certainly did show up that poor boot when he got flip about the League of Nations!"

"Well, the trouble with a lot of these fellows is, they simply don't know what they're talking about. They don't get down to facts.... What do you think of Ken Escott?"

"I'll tell you, dad: it strikes me Ken is a nice lad; no special faults except he smokes too much; but slow, Lord! Why, if we don't give him a shove the poor dumb-bell never will propose! And Rone just as bad. Slow."

"Yes, I guess you're right. They're slow. They haven't either one of 'em got our pep."

"That's right. They're slow. I swear, dad, I don't know how Rone got into our family! I'll bet, if the truth were known, you were a bad old egg when you were a kid!"

"Well, I wasn't so slow!"

"I'll bet you weren't! I'll bet you didn't miss many tricks!"

"Well, when I was out with the girls I didn't spend all the time telling 'em about the strike in the knitting industry!"

They roared together, and together lighted cigars.

"What are we going to do with 'em?" Babbitt consulted.

"Gosh, I don't know. I swear, sometimes I feel like taking Ken aside and putting him over the jumps and saying to him, 'Young fella me lad, are you going to marry young Rone, or are you going to talk her to death? Here you are getting on toward thirty, and you're only making twenty or twenty-five a week. When you going to develop a sense of responsibility and get a raise? If there's anything that George F. or I can do to help you, call on us, but show a little speed, anyway!'"

"Well, at that, it might not be so bad if you or I talked to him, except he might not understand. He's one of these high brows. He can't come down to cases and lay his cards on the table and talk straight out from the shoulder, like you or I can."

"That's right, he's like all these highbrows."

"That's so, like all of 'em."

"That's a fact."

They sighed, and were silent and thoughtful and happy.

The conductor came in. He had once called at Babbitt's office, to ask about houses. "H' are you, Mr. Babbitt! We going to have you with us to Chicago? This your boy?"

"Yes, this is my son Ted."

"Well now, what do you know about that! Here I been thinking you were a youngster yourself, not a day over forty, hardly, and you with this great big fellow!"

"Forty? Why, brother, I'll never see forty-five again!"

"Is that a fact! Wouldn't hardly 'a' thought it!"

"Yes, sir, it's a bad give-away for the old man when he has to travel with a young whale like Ted here!"

"You're right, it is." To Ted: "I suppose you're in college now?"

Proudly, "No, not till next fall. I'm just kind of giving the diff'rent colleges the once-over now."

As the conductor went on his affable way, huge watch-chain jingling against his blue chest, Babbitt and Ted gravely considered colleges. They arrived at Chicago late at night; they lay abed in the morning, rejoicing, "Pretty nice not to have to get up and get down to breakfast, heh?" They were staying at the modest Eden Hotel, because Zenith business men always stayed at the Eden, but they had dinner in the brocade and crystal Versailles Room of the Regency Hotel. Babbitt ordered Blue Point oysters with cocktail sauce, a tremendous steak with a tremendous platter of French fried potatoes, two pots of coffee, apple pie with ice cream for both of them and, for Ted, an extra piece of mince pie.

"Hot stuff! Some feed, young fella!" Ted admired.

"Huh! You stick around with me, old man, and I'll show you a good time!"

They went to a musical comedy and nudged each other at the matrimonial jokes and the prohibition jokes; they paraded the lobby, arm in arm, between acts, and in the glee of his first release from the shame which dissevers fathers and sons Ted chuckled, "Dad, did you ever hear the one about the three milliners and the judge?"

When Ted had returned to Zenith, Babbitt was lonely. As he was trying to make alliance between Offutt and certain Milwaukee interests which wanted the race-track plot, most of his time was taken up in waiting for telephone calls.... Sitting on the edge of his bed, holding the portable telephone, asking wearily, "Mr. Sagen not in yet? Didn' he leave any message for me? All right, I'll hold the wire." Staring at a stain on the wall, reflecting that it resembled a shoe, and being bored by this twentieth discovery that it resembled a shoe. Lighting a cigarette; then, bound to the telephone with no ashtray in reach, wondering what to do with this burning menace and anxiously trying to toss it into the tiled bathroom. At last, on the telephone, "No message, eh? All right, I'll call up again."

One afternoon he wandered through snow-rutted streets of which he had never heard, streets of small tenements and two-family houses and marooned cottages. It came to him that he had nothing to do, that there was nothing he wanted to do. He was bleakly lonely in the evening, when he dined by himself at the Regency Hotel. He sat in the lobby afterward, in a plush chair bedecked with the Saxe-Coburg arms, lighting a cigar and looking for some one who would come and play with him and save him from thinking. In the chair next to him (showing the arms of Lithuania) was a half-familiar man, a large red-faced man with pop eyes and a deficient yellow mustache. He seemed kind and insignificant, and as lonely as Babbitt himself. He wore a tweed suit and a reluctant orange tie.

It came to Babbitt with a pyrotechnic crash. The melancholy stranger was Sir Gerald Doak.

Instinctively Babbitt rose, bumbling, "How 're you, Sir Gerald? 'Member we met in Zenith, at Charley McKelvey's? Babbitt's my name — real estate."

"Oh! How d' you do." Sir Gerald shook hands flabbily.

Embarrassed, standing, wondering how he could retreat, Babbitt maundered, "Well, I suppose you been having a great trip since we saw you in Zenith."

"Quite. British Columbia and California and all over the place," he said doubtfully, looking at Babbitt lifelessly.

"How did you find business conditions in British Columbia? Or I suppose maybe you didn't look into 'em. Scenery and sport and so on?"

"Scenery? Oh, capital. But business conditions — You know, Mr. Babbitt, they're having almost as much unemployment as we are." Sir Gerald was speaking warmly now.

"So? Business conditions not so doggone good, eh?"

"No, business conditions weren't at all what I'd hoped to find them."

"Not good, eh?"

"No, not — not really good."

"That's a darn shame. Well — I suppose you're waiting for somebody to take you out to some big shindig, Sir Gerald."

"Shindig? Oh. Shindig. No, to tell you the truth, I was wondering what the deuce I could do this evening. Don't know a soul in Tchicahgo. I wonder if you happen to know whether there's a good theater in this city?"

"Good? Why say, they're running grand opera right now! I guess maybe you'd like that."

Back to Top

Take the Quiz

At the end of the novel, Babbitt rotely endorses the notion that America's world-famous equality