At 100, “Babbitt” Is Still Incisive

At 100, “Babbitt” Is Still Incisive

Here’s what you don’t remember about Babbitt: Sinclair Lewis almost likes the eponymous protagonist.

Actually, given the character’s conformist tendencies, maybe that should be no-tagonist. The 1922 novel finds George F. Babbitt surprised by a midlife crisis, one he refuses to acknowledge is actually happening. The twist is that while in popular culture such crises are typically portrayed as pathetic, with the victim making cringeworthy attempts to reclaim lost youth, Lewis portrays Babbitt as being on to something. Babbitt’s bored with his wife and his job, yes, but he’s also ready to reconsider the blinkered conservatism that he considers to be “manly” but that actually — Lewis makes this point very explicit — just makes him a pawn of his undistinguished Midwestern city’s moneyed elite.

What stuck in my mind, and may have stuck in yours, from literature class is Lewis’s disdain for the stupefying, conformist social tendencies of places like his own hometown of Sauk Centre, Minnesota: the little-disguised model for Main Street’s Gopher Prairie. Babbitt became the quintessential literary paradigm of the complacent middle-class American in the dawning age of consumerism, convinced that universal mediocrity is the sine qua non of social progress.

“I have tried to sketch the Real He-man, the fellow with Zip and Bang. And it’s because Zenith has so large a proportion of such men that it’s the most stable, the greatest of our cities. New York also has its thousands of Real Folks, but New York is cursed with unnumbered foreigners. So are Chicago and San Francisco,” says Babbitt in an address to the Zenith Real Estate Board. “It’s here in Zenith, the home for manly men and womanly women and bright kids, that you find the largest proportion of these Regular Guys, and that’s what sets it in a class by itself.”

Lewis was plainly an inspiration for his fellow Minnesotan Garrison Keillor, who took the former’s sympathetic qualities and foregrounded them, leaving the social critique largely implicit in his very gentle satire of “Lake Wobegon.” In his age and disgrace, Keillor has increasingly laid bare the bilious contempt that always bubbled below the surface of his warm and often genuinely touching monologues. Keillor’s version of Babbitt was “A Day in the Life of Clarence Bunsen,” a 1982 story about a Lake Wobegon car salesman who climbs a tree, reconnects with his childhood, and contemplates mortality.

Mortality is near to mind in an audio treatment of the novel from L.A. Theatre Works, despite the production’s lively-verging-on-raucous tenor. The company has reissued the recording in honor of the novel’s centennial, highlighting the “star-studded” cast. The list of studs reveals the production’s vintage: Bonnie Bedelia! Ed Begley Jr.! Ted Danson! Richard Dreyfuss! Harry Hamlin! Amy Irving! Stacy Keach! John Lithgow! Ally Sheedy! JoBeth Williams! Judge Reinhold! And, as Babbitt, the late Ed Asner.

That’s right, it was 1987 when the company finished an epic, yearlong effort to turn Lewis’s landmark into radio programming. The unabridged production comes in 29 segments, each of which are bookended by musical cues and cast information. It brings Zenith to life with over 90 characters, some better cast than others (Begley, pushing 40, as Babbitt’s teen son is a stretch) but all exploding from the speakers with that Zip and Bang that Babbitt so prized. While Asner’s grumpy-old-man mien is also a bit off, he brilliantly captures the character’s resolute irresolution: fumbling for words, even when he’s talking to himself.

A hundred years later, Lewis’s novel remains essential as a razor-sharp — and highly entertaining — critique of a social system built to buttress Babbitts. The book is a comedy, but it’s also a tragedy; while Babbitt lacks the imagination and resolve to forge his own path, Lewis paints a devastating portrait of a society that dangles rich rewards for conformity despite its ostensible celebration of individualism.

Ultimately, Babbitt is about the soullessness of global capitalism. One of the title character’s most prized friends is Sir Gerald Doak, a British iron baron who turns out to have acquired his title in the most time-honored fashion: he bought it.

Jay Gabler