American Lit unseen practice: Babbitt (1922)

My Upper VIth boys wrote an unseen on this passage earlier in the week as part of their A Level Mini Assessments. I wrote this after the event to aid my marking of their papers. The passage is found after the unseen model.

Sinclair Lewis’ Babbitt, an eponymous novel built around a ‘Booster’ – George Babbitt (or ‘Uncle George’ as he refers to himself in a smug self-satisfied manner), is set in the town of Zenith, clearly representing the summit of achievement by its name. In the early 1920s various contextual markers collide – the Lost Generation of the end of the First World War, the emergence of the materialistic and wealth driven Jazz Age and the rise of the ‘Booster’ – a worker whose task was to raise the profile of any town or business with the intention of driving inward investment by fair means of foul. Babbitt, who seems unable to manage his budgeting, as we see in paragraph 4 with its sequence of half-formed mathematical deliberations in a long stream of consciousness sentence, has a high impression of his abilities and his importance – a booster who is himself boosted in the new America of the 1920s.

[ As an aside, Boosters are gloriously lampooned in PG Wodehouse’s My Man Jeeves’. ]

We find him in the city, yet the narrator (3rd person omniscient) begins this passage refering to a putative ‘stranger’ who would be discombobulated by the appearance of Zenith. Lewis uses a sequence of paired states to accentuate both the sheer size of the USA and also the degree to which the whole country had become assimilated into a single form as business and wealth predominated at this time. The inclusion of ‘Manitoba’ in Canada is presumably a humourous ‘dig’ at the manner in which the whole world was changing or at the voracious drive of America to settle and colonise. The ‘stranger’ may reflect one of Hemmingway’s ‘Lost Generation’ who has been left behind by the country he fought for and which has moved into the future, leaving him washed up far behind.

As he is conrtrasted with Babbitt, we read of the city itself – Babbitt is thrilled by the sheer size (and inherent masculinity) of the phallic towers which dominate the skyline – they are ‘stirring’ – suggesting excitement and anticipation. Indeed, so powerful are they that Babbitt notes that the California Building is ‘three stories lower, therefore three stories less beautiful’ than ‘his’ building. At once the trope of greed and materialism is clear – size means beauty and size is decided by wealth. In othe buildings, the metaphor is continued. The ‘Parthenon Shoe Shine Parlour’ -a lovely comedic juxtaposition of one of the architectural wonders of the ancient world is reduced to sheltering a shoe shine parlour – at the lower end of the service industry and noted by Babbitt as being only a ‘one-story hut’ beside, but under, the ‘granite and red brick’ California Building -the materials not only suggesting a red/black ugliness but also picking up the idea that the buidling, hewn from rock, is somehow replacing the natural splendour of the of the cliffs to which it is likened. There are echoes of Gatsby here in the little house rented by Carroaway which has been supplanted and is towered over by the nouveau riche Hotel de Ville copy of the Gatsby mansion, built originally on the proceeds of industry.

Other shops are named and spark thoughts in Babbitt’s head as he passes them – the Nobby Men’s Wear shop is a humerous name recalling the idea of rich men as ‘nobs’ in popular speech; the ‘Miners’ and Drovers’ Bank’ sounds like a solid old foundation, yet we recall the role of the miners, especially Gold miners, in the rape of nature which drove both the pursuit of wealth in the mId 19th Century and led to the destruction of the way of life of the Plains Indians in the latter half of the same century. We recall also that Dan Cody’s wealth came from precisely this origin. Echoing this violent destruction of an older way of life, the cars themselves line up ‘restless as cavalry’ suggesting a link, in Babbitt’s mind with the horse-soldiers seen as folk heroes by the American people and as murderers by many others. Their role in ‘pacifying’ opposition to the money making expansion Westwards has now been taken on by men like Babbitt.

Babbitt is a man who can ‘ignore’ the poverty around him in the same way that the wealth inhabitants of East and West Egg ignore the Valley of Ashes- the area is decayed and not yet reclaimed from the ‘grime’ of the earlier city. It is possible to suggest that this use of ‘yet’ suggests that there is a plan to reclaim the whole city -a reader today knows that the crash of 1929 would put a stop to all this acquisition of wealth.

Babbit is a product of the time – his obsession with wealth suggests that he was not always wealthy and his excitiment as he passes eahc store and craves material possessions as symbols of his wealth back this idea up. He craves ‘as a poet yearns for quartos or a physician for radium’ placing his passion on a level of the highest artistic vocartion or scientific discovery. The bathetic foci of his craving – a dictaphone or a typewriter which woud add or multiply (recognisable as a calculator) are symbols of business, but of office-bound business rather than any business linked to high intellectual endeavour. In paragraph 4 the reason for his wishing for a calculator become clear – he has no head for figures: something of anissue in this new age of wealth.

He is also curiously uncertain of himself – ‘keeps forgetting’ to shine his shoes and trying to give up smoking whilst craving the alluring comfort of the ‘crimson and gold’ luxury of the cigar store. So powerful is the pull of this store tha ta tthe end of the passage he will buy an electric cigsar lighter and provide false logic that it will ‘pay for itself in matches’ – it might, but a man who is giving up smoking does not need either, and so the trope of unnecessary accululation of goods is reinforced. He is self-satsifed in that he ‘thought well of himself’ and he is awar eof the need ot look good – his touching of his ‘scarf’ as he drives jauntily along with one hand on the wheel suggests vanity and also possibly that his wealth is something which is new to him – he does not take it for granted. Indeed he resents the amount of his money spent by or on his family. Money ‘wasted’ on petrol or sent to ‘Mother’ – capitalised to present that figure as a dominating character in his life. He is both smug – he ‘boasts’ to jhimslef of his wealth and uncertain. Indeed after failing to quantify his wealth he is left feeling oxymorinically ‘triumphantly wealthy and ‘perilously poor’. By the time Fitxgerald wrote Gatsby in 1924, this concern about the instability of the wealth being created had begun to fall away in the oursuit of wealth and Hedonism of the ‘Jazz Age’. Whilst Babbitt’s concerns might temper his actions later in the novel, Lewis is suggesting at a truth he might have feared but could not have known – th ehwole fabric of USA wealth and busines was built on very shaky foundations. Those foundations might support a ‘sun-plated skeleton’ of a might skyscraper – the adjectives suggesting a radiant beauty and glorious future, but time would show that they failed many a human being, often reduced to skeletons in the failed farm lands of the Mid-West.

Babbitt seems to sum up ‘modern America’ at the time. He is still homely in his address – ‘oh rats’, ‘gee now’, by golly’ as expressions of frustration and joy suggest an immature adult, much like his native country – so young yet so advanced in wealth and technology. His imprtunate greed may well be the end of his fortune as time passes. History shows that America was only a few years away from disaster at the time of writing -a disaster projected here in the contradictions of the character of Babbitt, and explored more fully in the writers of the post-crash era such as Steinbeck.

THE PASSAGE: From Babbitt, By Sinclair Lewis

A stranger suddenly dropped into the business-center of Zenith could not have told whether he was in a city of Oregon or Georgia, Ohio or Maine, Oklahoma or Manitoba. But to Babbitt every inch was individual and stirring. As always he noted that the California Building across the way was three stories lower, therefore three stories less beautiful, than his own Reeves Building. As always when he passed the Parthenon Shoe Shine Parlor, a one-story hut which beside the granite and red-brick ponderousness of the old California Building resembled a bath-house under a cliff, he commented, “Gosh, ought to get my shoes shined this afternoon. Keep forgetting it.” At the Simplex Office Furniture Shop, the National Cash Register Agency, he yearned for a dictaphone, for a typewriter which would add and multiply, as a poet yearns for quartos or a physician for radium.

At the Nobby Men’s Wear Shop he took his left hand off the steering-wheel to touch his scarf, and thought well of himself as one who bought expensive ties “and could pay cash for ’em, too, by golly;” and at the United Cigar Store, with its crimson and gold alertness, he reflected, “Wonder if I need some cigars—idiot—plumb forgot—going t’ cut down my fool smoking.” He looked at his bank, the Miners’ and Drovers’ National, and considered how clever and solid he was to bank with so marbled an establishment. His high moment came in the clash of traffic when he was halted at the corner beneath the lofty Second National Tower. His car was banked with four others in a line of steel restless as cavalry, while the cross town traffic, limousines and enormous moving-vans and insistent motor-cycles, poured by; on the farther corner, pneumatic riveters rang on the sun-plated skeleton of a new building; and out of this tornado flashed the inspiration of a familiar face, and a fellow Booster shouted, “H’ are you, George!” Babbitt waved in neighborly affection, and slid on with the traffic as the policeman lifted his hand. He noted how quickly his car picked up. He felt superior and powerful, like a shuttle of polished steel darting in a vast machine.

As always he ignored the next two blocks, decayed blocks not yet reclaimed from the grime and shabbiness of the Zenith of 1885. While he was passing the five-and-ten-cent store, the Dakota Lodging House, Concordia Hall with its lodge-rooms and the offices of fortune-tellers and chiropractors, he thought of how much money he made, and he boasted a little and worried a little and did old familiar sums:

“Four hundred fifty plunks this morning from the Lyte deal. But taxes due. Let’s see: I ought to pull out eight thousand net this year, and save fifteen hundred of that—no, not if I put up garage and—Let’s see: six hundred and forty clear last month, and twelve times six-forty makes—makes—let see: six times twelve is seventy-two hundred and—Oh rats, anyway, I’ll make eight thousand—gee now, that’s not so bad; mighty few fellows pulling down eight thousand dollars a year—eight thousand good hard iron dollars—bet there isn’t more than five per cent. of the people in the whole United States that make more than Uncle George does, by golly! Right up at the top of the heap! But—Way expenses are—Family wasting gasoline, and always dressed like millionaires, and sending that eighty a month to Mother—And all these stenographers and salesmen gouging me for every cent they can get—”

The effect of his scientific budget-planning was that he felt at once triumphantly wealthy and perilously poor, and in the midst of these dissertations he stopped his car, rushed into a small news-and-miscellany shop, and bought the electric cigar-lighter which he had coveted for a week. He dodged his conscience by being jerky and noisy, and by shouting at the clerk, “Guess this will prett’ near pay for itself in matches, eh?”