Monday, August 19, 2013

Babbitt by Sinclair Lewis

2013 Reread #7
There are so many reasons why I had to make this book a reread for the year and they all have to do with the tone of the story. This book is funny. Not in-your-face funny or sarcastic, but subtly and intelligently. I love the humor Lewis uses to delve into the life of every-man, George Babbitt.
George is a conformist. He believes what the "good" men of the community believe. He belongs to all the right clubs, holds the right kind of dinner parties, has the correct hobbies, and well, essentially doesn't think for himself at all. His place in society is what's important so he owns the right things and behaves the right way to stay included. Yet, he's constantly contradicting himself between what he thinks and how he acts. It's almost like he's blind to how unoriginal he really is. So, we send a lot of time with George in the early part of the book, watching him do what he should to build his popularity within the outstanding sect of society. It doesn't mean he's a good person, he has just sided with the "right." It's comical how completely Babbitt can rationalize his choices and his behavior to keep him both "right" and good. For example, this book takes place during Prohibition, but it's okay for Babbitt to drink since that law should really only be in place for the poor who can't control themselves, or it's okay to make shady real estate sales because he's being supported by officials in local government who would never to do anything that was truly illegal. Scenarios like that pop up frequently at first.
So, poor George simply looks like another lemming until one day the switch flips and he suddenly things for himself. Of course this then leads to liberal ideals, having an affair, drinking too much, and hanging out with the "wrong" crowd. He loses his friends and begins to get bullied to come back over to the proper side. All for having an opinion and daring to live outside the straight and narrow of the elitist. Babbitt's new-found independence doesn't actually cause any major uproar in real terms. He still works and keeps his family roughly together even while cheating on his wife, but the fact that his choices become his own totally ostracizes him from all the daily activities he's used to doing. The whole concept of, "if you're not with us, you're against us," is a huge theme in this book. All it takes is one slip from where the ruling societal group thinks you belong and that's it.
Babbitt eventually gets his mid-life crisis out of his system and goes back to his old ways which he now fully believes in because he has chosen the lifestyle this time around rather than just gone with the flow. It doesn't change the fact that he ends the book where he began, unable to think for himself, giving in to the bullies.
The observations throughout this story are what appeal to the essayist I am at heart. There's so much to think about. Is Lewis saying conservatism is right because it's safe and is what everyone else (who has the power) agrees with? Is he saying that original thought, acting outside the lines of propriety as set by these big bullies will get you nowhere fast? We hardly ever get a liberal perspective in the story. Most of those characters drink and smoke too much, gossip too heavily, and party all the time while all the business owners and success stories in the community are conservatives. It's so tough to tell because of the element of humor. Babbitt is a funny guy regardless of which side he's on. Most of the characters have funny-sounding names so it's hard to take either side very seriously. The way everyone acts is just a little on the silly side as well. It's almost as if Lewis is poking fun at society as a whole, showing off how both sides are a little ridiculous, that extreme thought is a little silly no matter what direction it's heading. This vagueness of message in the commentary is another very appealing aspect of this book for me. I feel like it's a serious testament to society wrapped in a light blanket of ridiculous.
I'm glad I reread this book and that it had the same effect on me this time around as it initially did. I love books that feel timeless even though they cover a very specific time period. And while the outrage of seeing a woman's shoulders in the story really doesn't play today, the idea of extreme thought getting you into trouble does as does the idea of free-thought. This book doesn't feel like classic literature so even if you shy away from the old stuff, this one shouldn't be crossed off your list just yet.