A Sinclair Lewis sampler: Babbitt, Main Street, It Can’t Happen Here

“I tell you, my friends, the trouble with this whole country is that so many are selfish! Here’s a hundred and twenty million people, with 95 per cent of ‘em only thinking of self, instead of turning to and helping the responsible business men to bring back prosperity! All these corrupt and self-seeking labor unions! Money grubbers! Thinking only of how much wages they can extort out of their unfortunate employer, with all the responsibilities he has to bear!
“What this country needs is Discipline! Peace is a great dream, but maybe sometimes it’s only a pipe dream! I’m not so sure—now this will shock you, but I want you to listen to one woman who will tell you the unadulterated hard truth instead of a lot of sentimental taffy, and I’m not sure but that we need to be in a real war again, in order to learn Discipline! We don’t want all this highbrow intellectuality, all this book-learning. That’s good enough in its way, but isn’t it, after all, just a nice toy for grownups? No, what we all of us must have, if this great land is going to go on maintaining its high position among the Congress of Nations, is Discipline—Will Power—Character!”

It Can’t Happen Here

A couple of years ago, It Can’t Happen Here was the hottest book in America. Written in 1935, it painted a satirical picture of the US to succumbing to the same fascism that was overtaking Europe. Hence its recent popularity.

I wanted to read it, but I also wanted to read some other Lewis works (and I’ll admit, I hoped this might help with my persistent tendency to confuse Upton Sinclair and Sinclair Lewis, as a minor side bonus). Because I’m fond of medical stuff, I initially thought of Arrowsmith, but from the description it seemed like medicine was a side detail, so I ruled that out. I decided against Elmer Gantry as being too familiar from more modern situations.

Babbitt was often cited as the book that earned Lewis the Nobel Prize, so that was high on my list. Main Street was one of the few books with a female protagonist, and has also been frequently mentioned in recent years, so that was a definite possibility. That gave me with three possibilities. I couldn’t decide on just one, so I checked all three out of the library.

I didn’t finish any of them. Hey, sometimes that’s how it goes.

It Can’t Happen Here had me pissed off by page 6 (thanks to passages like the one quoted above), and I realized I did not want to read an overtly political novel right now. I particularly didn’t want to read one that could have been taken from Twitter (I’ve muted nearly all the news-and-opinion people, and increased the art, humor, literature, and medicine, but it’s still like running a gauntlet some days). And I don’t need any convincing that of course it can happen here, particularly since it is happening here right now.

Babbitt went better, for a while.

But Babbitt was virtuous. He advocated, though he did not practise, the prohibition of alcohol; he praised, though he did not obey, the laws against motor-speeding; he paid his debts; he contributed to the church, the Red Cross, and the Y. M. C. A.; he followed the custom of his clan and cheated only as it was sanctified by precedent; and he never descended to trickery—though, as he explained to Paul Riesling:
“Course I don’t mean to say that every ad I write is literally true or that I always believe everything I say when I give some buyer a good strong selling-spiel….”

After 200 pages, ok, ok, I get it, they’re all hypocrites, decrying labor unions for forcing membership while insisting every business owner must be a Booster. They’re shallow, letting the Church and the Republican Party and whatever advertisement looks prettiest in the magazine determine what they believe, think, and buy. They measure the perfection of life by the possession of a sun-porch. And then there’s the racism, displayed when the porter on a train doesn’t know the exact time:

“They’re getting so they don’t have a single bit of respect for you. The old-fashioned coon was a fine old cuss—he knew his place—but these young dinges don’t want to be porters or cotton-pickers. Oh, no! They got to be lawyers and professors and Lord knows what all! I tell you, it’s becoming a pretty serious problem. We ought to get together and show the black man, yes, and the yellow man, his place. Now, I haven’t got one particle of race-prejudice. I’m the first to be glad when a nigger succeeds—so long as he stays where he belongs and doesn’t try to usurp the rightful authority and business ability of the white man.”

But my main problem was one of boredom. I knew there would be a turning point, but I didn’t want to read another 150 pages to get there. So I stopped reading and found a quick-and-dirty summary that told me how Babbitt would fall out with the Right People and come to some kind of minor revelation about what freedom is and isn’t, culminating in the final page, a page that is almost worth reading the 400 pages before it, when his 18-year-old son, who Babbitt wants to be a lawyer, shows up married and skips college to work in mechanics. It’s a lovely scene, Babbitt’s “new voice, booming, authoritative, dominated the room.” I’m not typically in favor of a man telling his wife to shut the hell up, but in this case, it feels earned. “Babbitt crossed the floor slowly, ponderously, seeming a little old” to reach his son, and after a few faint protests, the changing of the guard is finally accomplished on several levels:

I’ve never done a single thing I’ve wanted to in my whole life! I don’t know ‘s I’ve accomplished anything except just get along. I figure out I’ve made about a quarter of an inch out of a possible hundred rods. Well, maybe you’ll carry things on further. I don’t know. But I do get a kind of sneaking pleasure out of the fact that you knew what you wanted to do and did it. Well, those folks in there will try to bully you, and tame you down. Tell ’em to go to the devil! I’ll back you. Take your factory job, if you want to. Don’t be scared of the family. No, nor all of Zenith. Nor of yourself, the way I’ve been. Go ahead, old man! The world is yours!”
Arms about each other’s shoulders, the Babbitt men marched into the living-room and faced the swooping family.

Made me feel bad that I skipped 200 pages. But not bad enough to go back and read them.

I had much the same experience with Main Street. After enjoying the first 100 pages or so, I felt jerked around by the midpoint of the book. Carol feels defeated in her quest to liberalize Gopher Prairie; she feels content by some aspect of her life; oops, no, she’s down again; and no, here she is up. I had much the same back-and-forth with myself: as much as I appreciate her zeal for creativity and thought, I was annoyed by her Great White Savior attitude. I sympathized with it as well. I’ve never been able to find a group where I felt comfortable to be who I am; I’ve always struggled to fit in as what the group wanted me to be. Which is why I avoid groups. And even on the internet, I’m mostly alone, save for a few intersections. But that’s my comfort zone; I don’t have to change who I am, and neither does anyone else. And of course, I’m a lot older than Carol, so our approaches would naturally differ.

I see the same sort of irony as in the other books. Take for example, the scene where she’s trying to convey her frustration with small-town life to her husband:

This is an independent town, not like these Eastern holes where you have to watch your step all the time, and live up to fool demands and social customs, and a lot of old tabbies always busy criticizing. Everybody’s free here to do what he wants to.” He said it with a flourish, and Carol perceived that he believed it. She turned her breath of fury into a yawn.
“By the way, Carrie, while we’re talking of this: Of course I like to keep independent, and I don’t believe in this business of binding yourself to trade with the man that trades with you unless you really want to, but same time: I’d be just as glad if you dealt with Jenson or Ludelmeyer as much as you ran, instead of Howland & Gould, who go to Dr. Gould every last time, and the whole tribe of ’em the same way…”

But I still want to ask Carol, hey, you’re the one who married him, how could you not know this would be your life? That, when you tell him you want to “do something with life”, would reply, “What’s better than making a comfy home and bringing up some cute kids and knowing nice only people?“

There’s a nicely done scene that shows, without telling, the exact relationship between husband and wife. When Carol comes home debating herself about whether she’s happily married or not, and does her best to convince herself she is, she finds her husband reading a magazine:

She dropped into his lap and (after he had jerked back his head to save his eye glasses, and removed the glasses, and settled her in a position less cramping to his legs, and casually cleared his throat ) he kissed her amiably ….

She starts up a kind of pre-affair relationship with Guy Pollock, a quiet man she sees as sympathetic. But then she realizes, “he had never been anything but a frame on which she had hung shining garments.” Everyone we meet is a frame on which we hang garments, some shining, some stained. And again I want to tell her, hey, you did the same thing with your husband, and now you’re disappointed, how could you not have known. And then I remember my own marriage. I didn’t know anything. So maybe I should give Carol a break.

I found some perverse enjoyment in the conflict between Carol and the townspeople. When Carol, having worked in the Minneapolis library herself, proposes to the Gopher Prairie librarian that the job of a librarian is to increase reading, Miss Villets disagrees: “The first duty of the conscientious librarian is to preserve the books.” Carol likes that shopkeepers pay attention to her preferences, “even if they weren’t worth fulfilling.”

One thing that struck me while reading this was Carol’s tendency to think, I must go on, I will go on, lending a slight Beckettsian flavor to the novel. Beckett was decades later, of course, but it’s an interesting link. Yet I got bored about halfway through. That’s my pattern for all three books: I feel like, about halfway through, I’m done, it’s time to skip to the end. In Carol’s case, that’s less the minor revelation of George Babbitt, and more the sense of “resistance is futile” as she resigns herself to Gopher Prairie. I think it’d be interesting to see her twenty years hence, as another young, eager-to-reform ingenue moves into town.

I think one reason I had so much trouble with these books is what I call the “Pope and Shakespeare problem”. A wag in a former English class joked, “Alexander Pope has to stop writing in clichés”, the joke being they weren’t clichés when he wrote the them. It’s nearly impossible to read the Hamlet speech, or portions of Romeo and Juliet, or entire Shakespearean sonnets, and really hear the words; the impressions of repetitions over the years make the words a kind of trigger for recollection, rather than an aesthetic encounter. Lewis is credited with writing about small towns, about conservatism, in a less idealistic way (to say the least); since his heyday, so many others have covered this field (especially in the 50s), it’s hard to read him as original. It’s like taking a kid to see the first Star Wars, Episode IV: they don’t understand what a big deal it was – the light sabers, the saloon scene, The Force – back in 1977.

It’s one thing to know a Babbitt is a “a materialistic, complacent, and conformist businessman”; it’s another to have experienced just how hypocritical and boring he is, and to have witnessed the potential for change. This reading was a necessary and positive experience, even if I didn’t finish any of the books. It accomplished what I’d intended: to see more of what is the American canon, to better understand when these works serve as reference points for other works.

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