“Babbitt” by Sinclair Lewis, Occupy Zenith

“Babbitt” by Sinclair Lewis   (1922)  –   391 pages

The cocktail filled him with a whirling exhilaration behind which he was aware of devastating desires—to rush places in fast motors, to kiss girls, to sing, to be witty. He perceived that he had gifts of profligacy which had been neglected.”

 During this ‘too close to Christmas’ lull in fiction publishing, I decided to re-read the old Sinclair Lewis classic “Babbitt”.  “Babbitt” is frequently called a satire on the emptiness of middle-class United States life and its pressure toward conformity, but the story is so realistic in its details that sometimes it seems deadly serious.

“Babbitt” tells the story of about a year in the life of George Babbitt who is a successful realtor and a strong booster of his home city, the fictitious Zenith.  The time is the 1920s when the slogan was “the business of America is business”.  George is a member of several civic organizations and is well-respected as long as his every thought conforms closely to those of all the other business leaders of the city.  He has the typical middle-class family, a wife and three kids.  George is a really good public speaker and is ready to assume a greater leadership role.

Then a violent event occurs which changes everything for George.  His close friend and old college roommate Paul Reisling murders his argumentative wife by shooting her during an argument.  George questions his current life and goes bohemian, partying with flappers, taking up with an artistic mistress, and becoming a  socialist.  Of course he is ostracized and shunned by all his old business leader friends.

I suppose since the changes to George are quite broad and occur so rapidly, the novel could qualify as satire.  However having worked for an insurance company, a retail company, and several other private companies, I can testify to the absolute compliance to conformity of ideas required to be successful in the United States business world even today.   I remember my first job after college working for a private auto insurance company sitting at the break table when I was called a Communist ‘pinko’ by a couple of the other insurance underwriters.  I, being young at the time, probably did spur that reaction on purpose.


Which brings us to the Occupy movement.  Only time will tell if the young people of today and others of the Occupy movement will have any success against the Robber Barons of the 21st century, the Kochs, the Murdochs, etc. Or as the Occupy movement itself would say, “Can the ninety-nine percent of the people reclaim their share from the one percent who own and control everything?”

Sinclair Lewis knew the crushing conformity of the business world through and through, and he had considered Socialism while young.  Is there any fiction writer today who is as familiar with the current business world as Lewis?

“In other countries, art and literature are left to a lot of shabby bums living in attics and feeding on booze and spaghetti, but in America the successful writer or picture-painter is indistinguishable from any other decent      business man.”

                                      Sinclair Lewis

7 responses to this post.

  1. I’ve lived in Zenith City many, many times. When I reread Babbitt a few years ago, I was surprised to find him. a somewhat sympathetic character: he yearns for something he can’t quite reach. These midwestern cities certainly kill souls. But of course it’s also true of the north, east, & west…

    Poor Babbitt! He knows there’s something better out htere.


  2. Hi Frisbee,
    I liked Babbitt better this time than I did rhe first time I read it. I still question how much is satire and how much is realism. I probably still prefer Main Street, but Babbitt has moved up in my estimation. I don’t think Lewis exagerated too much how one-dimensional the business world of the 1920s was then and continues to be.
    For me, I graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison which was a hotbed of radical politics at that time. I wasn’t very much a radical, but then I went right to work for this ultra-conservative insurance company the next Monday and was appalled.


  3. This is on my TBR so I’m deliberately not reading your review until after I’ve read the book and written my own review, but I’ll certainly be reading it when I’m done!


  4. Hi Lisa,
    Good plan. Sometimes I don’t even read novel forewords because occasionally they will spoil the story, sometimes inadvertently, sometimes not.
    I kind of liked that ‘retro’ Babbitt cover, and the only one of that cover on the Internet was torn so I used that one.


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  6. The second cover you show, the black-and-white portrait, makes me think of Lewis’s description of Lee Sarason, the dissipated political hatchet man from “It Can’t Happen Here.” My favorite “Babbitt” cover illustration, one which shows the false-hearty, terrified insincerity of the man, is here — https://www.flickr.com/photos/clampants/301230264


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