Thursday, September 15, 2022

Celebrate Babbitt’s 100th by reading ‘It Can’t Happen Here’

Sinclair Lewis in a Chicago hotel room in 1922.

     In professional journalism, the story you set out to tell sometimes is not the story you end up writing. You pull a thread thinking it will take you here, and it ends there instead.
     For instance. Thursday is the 100th anniversary of the publication of “Babbitt,’ by Sinclair Lewis, and, in that direct, plodding, linear way of mine, I thought that called for a column about the 1922 novel.
     My education being as flawed as the next guy’s, I had never read “Babbitt” or anything else written by Lewis, my sole interaction with the first American winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature being a lifelong struggle not to confuse him with Upton Sinclair, author of “The Jungle,” which I did read. (Mnemonic device: Up is how you want to throw after reading about Chicago meatpacking in “The Jungle.”)
     I did know that “babbitt,” lowercase b, has entered the language describing, as Webster’s puts it, “a business or professional man who conforms unthinkingly to prevailing middle-class standards.” Which was criticism in 1922 but a century later, with society fracturing and half the individuals pursuing some insane conspiracy theory or cracked cult, now seems like a Lost Eden. At least Babbitt cared what others thought.
     The novel isn’t bad. George Babbitt is an unscrupulous real estate agent with overwhelming yearnings for social approval. We meet his dull wife, restless daughters and mechanically-inclined son. I would recommend it wholeheartedly but, alas, jumped the gun and finished it months ago. Giving me time to proceed to “Main Street,” Lewis’ 1920 best-seller, a superior book, given the strength of its main character, Carol Kennicott, married to a doctor in small town Gopher Prairie, which she becomes increasingly desperate to escape. Kennicott is to Babbitt as a CGI dinosaur is to a wooden marionette.

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  1. Having being forced to read Lewis's godawful boring as hell mess "Arrowsmith" in high school, nothing could get me to read anything by Lewis ever again!
    One of the most over rated authors of all time!
    If I'm going to have anything to do with a fantasy president, it's going to be "Gabriel Over The White House", one of the most bizarrely fascinating movies of the Great Depression!
    Although runners up in that category would be Michael Douglas in "An American President" & Kevin Kline in "Dave".

    1. Let's summarize what you seem to be saying, Clark Street. You read one of his novels, what, 50, 60 years ago, in high school. Didn't like it, and now dismiss everything else he ever wrote, sight unseen. Have I got that correct? And then use this rather alarming example of solipsism to recommend a few movies. Or do I mistate the case?

  2. For anyone interested in Sinclair Lewis, I would recommend "Kingsblood Royal," a novel about the travails of a successful white middle class man who discovers he has a Black ancestor, the revealing of which dramatically alters his life.


  3. I read ICHH as a teenager and didn't like it -- thought it was wildly farfetched. Boy, was I wrong.

  4. BTW, I've read all the novels that Neil names, but IMHO Lewis's best work was "Elmer Gantry."

  5. "Given a second chance, he won’t make that mistake again." Chilling.

    I realized that I've not read any Sinclair, including Jungle, which I thought I'd read since it was on our shelves throughout my life.

    Also, thanks for leading me to look up the meaning of the name of a great band, The Minutemen:,figures%20like%20Angela%20Davis%20through

  6. I read and enjoyed quite a few of his novels, especially the ones mentioned here. But I found it interesting that Lewis despised his hometown and when he died his ashes were spread, where else, but Main Street in his hometown.

  7. You weren't the only one who kept confusing Sinclair Lewis with Upton Sinclair. A tattered copy of Upton Sinclair's "The Jungle" was on our shelves for years--and one snowy afternoon I took it down, figuring I finally ought to read it...mainly because it' was about my hometown's sordid history.

    Reading Sinclair's book was not only was like time-traveling back to 1904 Chicago. Once I began the trip, I couldn't put it down....and yes, after learning more than I ever wanted to know about Chicago meatpacking industry, and what went into the foodstuffs (the rats and the rat turds and the floor sweepings, and much, much worse), I did feel more than a little nauseous. Especially around sausages.

    I didn't re-read "The Jungle" for another quarter-century (same battered copy). This time around, I was far more interested in...and fascinated by...the ultimate fate of the main character--poverty. horrible jobs, union activity, blacklisting, alcoholism, prison, migrant labor, becoming a criminal, involvement in corrupt "Machine" politics, and finally...passionately dedicating his life to the cause of socialism.

    Sinclair himself was active in Socialist Party politics for more than three decades. He twice ran unsuccessfully in California on the Socialist Party ticket: in 1920 for the House of Representatives and in 1922 for the Senate. He was the party candidate for governor of California in 1926 and in 1930. He ran for a third time, as a Democrat, in 1934...but he lost, 56% to 44%.

    On the other hoof, I've never read anything by Sinclair Lewis. But if the fascists in "It Can't Happen Here" make Philip Roth’s disturbing “The Plot Against America” (with its Midwestern pogroms that result in scores of Jewish deaths) feel like a touchy-feely children's book, they must be as scary as hell. I read Roth's book during the George Floyd riots, and my response to the book (and to network newscasts) was mostly "shit's getting real." I became angry and anxious. But I think maybe I'll read "ICHH" anyway.

    And now Herr Twitler is threatening that even an indictment will unleash "civil unrest like America has never seen before" Seriously? He's not even waiting for the second act to play Mafia Don. Sounds a lot like: "Hey, nice country you've got here, would be a damn shame if anything happened to it." Forget you, Donnie...that Al Capone wannabe act ain't exactly throwing this Chicago boy into too many tizzies...


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