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The Romance of Sinclair Lewis

The elephants turn out to be the Bureau of War Risk Insurance, where she does clerical work, and in mythical, magical Washington “she felt that she was no longer one-half of a marriage but the whole of a human being.” She moves among army, navy, minor officialdom. She revels in “the elm valley of Massachusetts Avenue…the marble houses on New Hampshire Avenue…” and the splendors of the restaurant on the roof of the Powhatan Hotel.

Will pays her a call; she is now a whole woman and so able to return to Gopher Prairie; she is, somehow, mysteriously, at peace with its boredom and mean-spiritedness. But she will not be coopted; she will not be a booster. She has another child. She sees Erik again—at the movies, up there on the silver screen; he had found his way to Hollywood. “I may not have fought the good fight,” Carol says at the end to Will, “but I have kept the faith.” On those words of William Jennings Bryan, the book ends.

3.

Babbitt was intended to be the account of a single day in the life of the eponymous protagonist, a realtor in the great city of Zenith, an extension and enlargement of Gopher Prairie, with elements of sultry Duluth where the Lewises had lived for a season and were—what else?—the cynosure of all eyes. The day that Lewis had picked was one in April 1920, and we follow George F. Babbitt from the moment that he awakens with, significantly, a hangover to the end of the day, but by that time Lewis had decided that one day wasn’t going to be enough for him to do his stunts in, so the story continues another year or two, and a Mid-western Bloom was not to be.

Lewis’s eye for detail is, as always, precise. We get an inventory of bathroom and house and sleeping porch, a fad of the day that I have just recalled with the sense of having slipped several notches back in time. There is a long-suffering wife, a son, two daughters—one at Bryn Mawr. Babbitt is forty-six years old. Prohibition has been in place for a year, so everyone drinks too much. There is talk of the coming election, and the great shadow of Warren Gamaliel Harding is already darkening the land and his famous injunction, “Don’t knock, boost,” is on every Zenith businessman’s lip. Babbitt himself is vaguely unhappy; “the Babbitt house,” apparently, “was not a home.” But all the latest gadgets are on display. There is chintz, but no heart. The real estate business is booming.

Even so, he dreams of “a fairy child,” a recurring dream that somehow underscores Lewis’s uneasiness with sex, mature or otherwise. Babbitt has been true to his wife, Myra, since he married her, something that is hard for us plague-ridden fin-de-siècle types to fathom. As a result, he lusts for other women in his heart and, sooner or later, lust must be served. This gives the story what small impetus it has: How—and for whom—will he fall, and what kind of mess will he make?

As in Main Street there is no plot, only set scenes. Lewis notes the class divisions. There is the class above Babbitt that belongs to the Union Club as best emblemized by Charles McKelvey; then there is the Athletic Club where Babbitt and his fellow boosters hang out and denounce socialism and labor unions and anarchists. Meanwhile, at the wheel of his new car, a “perilous excursion,” Babbitt daydreams enroute to his office, the “pirate ship.” He has had his first conversation of the day with a neighbor, and they have talked of the weather in great detail and though their exchange should be as tedious as the real thing, Lewis is a master of those grace notes of boring speech that put one in mind of Bach. “There was still snow at Tiflis, Montana, yesterday,” said the neighboring Bore; then goes for a crescendo: “Two years ago we had a snow-squall right here in Zenith on the twenty-fifth of April.”

Next, a loving description of Zenith—skyscrapers now—and old houses, movie billboards, drugstores, factory suburbs, a proper city where once the Chippewas roamed. At the office there is a young partner, a secretary—Babbitt’s father-in-law is senior partner, and seldom seen. Babbitt is having what now would be called a midlife crisis of a sexual nature: “In twenty-three years of married life he had peered uneasily at every graceful ankle, every soft shoulder; in thought he had treasured them; but not once had he hazarded respectability by adventuring.” Plainly, Lewis is not drawing on autobiography. Although he preferred drink to sex, he had, at least once, in Italy, cheated on Grace, and one does not suppose him to have been pure premarriage. What is interesting about Lewis’s description of Babbitt’s sex life is whether he is distorting it deliberately to give American readers, a high-toned, censorious, prudish lot, a picture of an average American businessman, true as steel to the little lady, or whether he has some arcane knowledge of how Zenith males denied themselves. It is hard to know what to think. Even in the Gopher Prairie of Springfield, Illinois, in the 1840s there were girls to be rented by young lawyers like A. Lincoln and J. Speed. Yet in 1920 Babbitt has only masturbatory images, and the recurring mawkish dream of the “fairy girl.”

Babbitt has only one actual friend, even though he himself is a prototypical gregarious regular fellow and very well liked. But he had been at a school with Paul Riesling, who had wanted to be a musician; instead Paul married a virago (whom he will later shoot but not, alas, kill—he does serve time). Paul and Babbitt revert to adolescence when together. They romanticize their common past. Babbitt was to have been a powerful tribune of the common man and Paul a world-class violinist. But since neither is articulate, when they are together they can only tell jokes, as they try, rather wistfully, to go back in time to where they had been, if nothing else, real. They dream now of going off together on a hunting trip.

Babbitt has lunch at the Athletic Club. Lewis delights in reproducing the banalities of the Joshers, Good Fellows, Regular Guys. Kidding, chaffing, “stunts”—all these pass for communication and the fact that Lewis could reproduce this sort of conversational filler delighted those who went in for it, which was most Americans, while British book reviewers acknowledged that Lewis’s Joshers confirmed their worst fears about the collective cretinism of the separated cousinage. I cannot think how the French took Lewis’s dialogue in translation. Bouvard and Pécuchet are like figures from Racine when compared with the Boosters of the Athletic Club. In any case, Lewis had somehow struck a universal class nerve and, for a time, everyone was delighted by his hyper-realism. Even so, Edith Wharton struck a warning note. She was, she wrote, duly grateful for the dedication to herself of Babbitt but she saw fit to make one suggestion: “In your next book, you should use slang in dialogue more sparingly. I believe the real art in this respect is to use just enough to colour your dialogue, not so much that in a few years it will be almost incomprehensible.” She admired his “irony,” wondering how much of it Americans got.

I suspect they got none; the book was taken as just like life and Lewis was hardly more critical of Americans and their values than his readers were. They, too, hankered after fairy girls in dreamland as well as magic casements elsewhere, preferably in Europe, through which they might, like Alice, step into Wonderland. The secret of Lewis and his public was that he was as one with them. Grace thought that the crown of ironist he had been mistakenly awarded by those who read Main Street obliged him to go for the real diadem in Babbitt. But I think he just kept on recording.

The story proceeds with random events. Babbitt becomes an orator for the realtors; he takes part in the election of a Republican mayor; tries to move up socially and fails; he drinks more and more, the most vivid description in the book is the way booze was sold clandestinely at an ex-saloon, a sordid place, “giving that impression of forming a large crowd which two men always give in a saloon.”

Lewis makes an odd obeisance to Howells, whom he will dismiss, so foolishly, at the Nobel Prize ceremony of 1930. Lewis calls the state capital Galop de Vache, in memoriam of the hometown of the journalist-hero of that Florentine tale Indian Summer, who hailed from Des Vaches, Indiana.

Babbitt is essentially a roman fleuve despite its snappy scenes and bright “stunts.” In due course, the river deposits Babbitt on the not-so-wild shore of love. He meets a demimondaine lady of a certain age, Mrs. Tanis Judique. She is arty; she has a salon of marginal types. Tactfully, Myra Babbitt has retreated, temporarily, to her family and so Babbitt is able to conduct his love affair in relative peace while drinking more and more in the company of the feckless young. Business is affected: deals are lost. He falls in with the town radical, Seneca Doan, another variation on the original Dorion, with a bit of Upton Sinclair thrown in. Doan has been defeated for mayor. He now supports a local strike. Babbitt falls under his spell for a time (they had known each other in college). Then the town turns on Babbitt. Adultery does not disturb the boosters so much as Babbitt’s timid support of the strikers. In a series of confrontations almost as terrible as the one at the end of The Age of Innocence Zenith threatens to destroy him; and Babbitt caves in. He has not fought the good fight, and he has not kept much of any faith to anything but, at the end, he will “‘start something’: he vowed, and he tried to make it valiant.” Meanwhile, happy ending. Tanis and Seneca slink away; wife comes home. Valiant.

March 26, 1925, Lewis wrote his publisher, “Any thoughts on pulling wires for [Arrowsmith] for Nobel Prize?” There were such thoughts, there were such wires. By 1930 the Swedes were at last ready to pick an American. Earlier, Henry James had been airily dismissed in favor of Maurice Maeterlinck, the Belgian bee-master. The choice was now between Dreiser and Lewis and, as these things are ordered in the land of the great white night, Lewis was inevitably chosen. Mark Schorer writes of all this with distinct sadness. Even the President of the United States, a New England wit called Calvin Coolidge, broke his usual silence—he was a school of Buster Keaton comic—to declare, “No necessity exists for becoming excited.”

Lewis lived for twenty-one more years. He produced a great amount of work. He turned to the theater; even acted on stage. He married the splendid journalist Dorothy Thompson, who never stopped talking either. They opposed America’s entry onto World War Two, a war in which his son Wells was killed. It is painful to read of Lewis’s last days as recorded by Schorer. Drink had estranged him from most people; and so he was obliged to hire young secretaries to play chess with him and keep him company; among those paid companions were the writers-to-be Barnaby Conrad and John Hersey, who has prepared the exemplary Library of America Sinclair Lewis.

Mr. Schorer, enraged to the end, notes, finally, “He was one of the worst writers in modern American literature, but without his writing one cannot imagine modern American literature. That is because, without his writing, we can hardly imagine ourselves.” This is not a left-handed compliment so much as a rabbit-punch. Whatever Lewis’s faults as a writer he never knowingly wrote a bad book or, indeed, one on any subject that he could not at least identify with in imagination. Curiously enough, his ex-wife, Grace Hegger, is more generous (and writes rather better prose) than the biographer:

Even though Lewis’s first successful novels can be recognized as written by him, it is significant that he created no school of writing as have Hemingway and Faulkner, Henry James and Flaubert. He influenced public thinking rather than public writing.

Surely, that is something. As for the man, after his ashes were returned to Sauk Centre, she writes, “Dear, dear Minnesota Tumbleweed, driven by the winds of your own blowing, rootless to the day when your ashes were returned to the soil which had never received your living roots, I offer you these memories. With love from Gracie.”

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