Saturday, 30 March 2013

Babbitt by Sinclair Lewis

I was wondering what could be the connection between Sinclair Lewis and Edith Wharton the dedicatee of Babbitt published 1922 and a little search brought out the genesis of this strange alliance. It came about because the Pulitzer Prize was awarded to her Age of Innocence through the intervention of the Columbia Uni. President and the advisory board striking down of the original choice Main Street made by the reading judges. To show that he had no hard feelings and to secure an ally and a potential booster he wrote to her asking if he could dedicate his next book Babbitt to her. She assented graciously:

When I discovered that I was being rewarded—by one of our leading Universities—for uplifting American morals, I confess I did despair. 
Subsequently, when I found the prize shd (sic) really have been yours, but was withdrawn because your book (I quote from memory) had “offended a number of prominent persons in the Middle West,” disgust was added to despair.

It seems that the President did not consider Lewis to have met the amended award criterion for the prize:
(Pulitzer had originally stipulated that the award be bestowed on the novel that best represented the “whole atmosphere of American life,” but Butler had changed the wording to “wholesome.”) 

When Babbitt was again judged by the readers as worthy of the prize only to be bumped by the President and his board in favour of Will Cather’s One of Ours one can imagine the chagrin. Finally he was awarded the prize for Arrowsmith and had the crowning triumph of refusing it. Read the whole saga at:

I also came across Gore Vidal’s review of a life of Lewis:

This is a languid goreing. I’m so bored. Still; press on is the mood.

He has this to say:
 In the Twenties, only Dreiser was plainly Lewis’s superior but Dreiser’s reputation was always in or under some shadow and even now his greatness is not properly grasped by the few who care about such things.

Considering that Dreiser wrote vilely and that everyone knows this, such a judgment bends the ironyometer needle.

But to get to Babbitt. I liked it. Not everybody got that it referenced the ‘whole’ rather than the ‘wholesome’ and may have taken it to be the story of the temptations of a good ole boy that strayed out of the paths of righteousness. For the broad mass of readership at the time the recognition of satiric intent might have required unhealthy levels of introversion. Being a 'Good Mixer’ requires elimination of the solitary musing that encourages such morbidity. Good Mixers recognise each other and immediately create a fellowship of molecular strength. There is a considerable overlap with Regular Guys, the sort you might vote for as a Republican which Babbitt is. One thinks of Dubya out on his ranch keeping down the briars, back slapping and towel snapping. I may be going out on a limb here because I have never been to America but it seems to me from the media that they are still about and come in two grades, short necked and long necked. To be perfectly honest this type is everywhere and Babbitt’s class-dinner has the ring of utter truth and the vision that overwhelms as you are emailed for the nth. time about such events. Hara-kiri with a rusty penknife seems more attractive, but then I’m a crank. To offset Georgie Babbitt, Lewis gives him a friend like that. On a train they fall into the company of Regular Guys:

The small room, with its walls of ocher-colored steel, was filled mostly with the sort of men he classified as the Best Fellows You'll Ever Meet—Real Good Mixers. There were four of them on the long seat; a fat man with a shrewd fat face, a knife-edged man in a green velour hat, a very young young man with an imitation amber cigarette-holder, and Babbitt. Facing them, on two movable leather chairs, were Paul and a lanky, old-fashioned man, very cunning, with wrinkles bracketing his mouth. They all read newspapers or trade journals, boot-and-shoe journals, crockery journals, and waited for the joys of conversation.

Paul the friend absorbed in his reading does not join in:
Only Paul, sitting by himself, reading at a serial story in a newspaper, failed to join them and all but Babbitt regarded him as a snob, an eccentric, a person of no spirit.

The writing is close, detail laden, of its time, but universal in the recounting of the ways of social coercion and conformity. Babbitt is a cheerful crook and when he goes a little of the rails and begins to question the animus against organised labour he comes to the attention of the Good Citizens League. Fighting the G.C.L. may ruin him but how it all works out in the end is credible and you will end up liking him. You should, he may have put you through College.

It’s a good novel, essential Americana in my view.

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