21 August 2007

Sinclair Lewis - Babbitt

I was recommended this a little while ago, and tracked it down secondhand. I'm very glad I did, it's remarkably good, and much funnier than I expected.

It's a satire of American urban life, written in 1922, and feels in many ways very contemporary. George Babbitt is a real estate salesman in a fictional town in middle America in 1920. He's averagely prosperous, has a wife and 3 kids, and a car, and is involved in the community. Everything's going quite nicely for him, and he doesn't question it.

But then Babbitt starts to feel that maybe his life isn't so satisfying, and maybe he's lacking something. As he considers what he might be lacking, he breaks with his routine, and resists the conforming pressures of his social group. He even starts to sympathise with socialist agitators, to the horror of his colleagues at the club. When he refuses to join a nationalistic society made up of businessmen of the town, he finds his career threatened.

Lewis's satire is very adept, drawing with wit a man of limited scope but enough depth to be sympathetic. The ending is surprising, and a little pessimistic - the conclusion is that the forces of conformity will always win, and that conservatism is the prevailing force in the US.

The influence of Lewis is plain. As an early satire on suburban life, it prefigures Updike (was Rabbit deliberately echoing Babbitt?), and the focus on the ordinary man anticipates Arthur Miller. But the value remains not just in his relevance, but in the quality of the writing and the humour.


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