Monday, September 28, 2009

Babbittry Explored

Sinclair Lewis, Babbitt (1922)

I have the feeling Sinclair Lewis and Upton Sinclair have the Schubert/Schumann problem: similar names, similar job, similar times. Knowing what little I do about Upton Sinclair, I’d say he’s the Schumann because what I’ve heard about him makes him sound like a bit more of a heavy hitter (Schumann couldn’t orchestrate lightly if they held a blunderbuss to his frontal lobe) than the bantamweight Sinclair Lewis.

Lewis darts and flies around and delivers deft stings with his adjectives and adverbs. Hardly ever have I seen them so smartly chosen.

Babbitt “made nothing in particular, neither butter nor shoes nor poetry, but he was nimble in the calling of selling houses for more than people could afford to pay.”

That “nimble” is great, especially because Babbitt “was not fat but he was exceedingly well fed; his cheeks were pads, and the unroughened hand which lay helpless on the khaki-colored blanket was slightly puffy. He seemed prosperous, extremely married and unromantic;…”

I LOVE that he is “extremely married.” And the little bit of story that finally emerges centers on this married-ness.

It takes a while for the story to emerge since the novel is largely a portrait of this upper-middle-class Republican in an industrial several-hundred-thousand inhabitant city named Zenith.

The benefit is that you could excerpt any chapter of the novel and read it as a vignette and you’d be just fine. The downside is that, once you set down the book mid-read, you don’t always have a great incentive to pick it up again. Especially since one of the points is that this kind of character isn’t really likeable.

Still, you get highly enjoyable chapters of (the chapter titles are mine): Babbitt at the Office; Babbitt and his Car; Babbitt at the Club; Babbitt Holds a Dinner Party; Babbitt Gets Away for an Extended Vacation; Babbitt on the Train; etc. And the chapters are all fun in their own way.

Let’s see if I can’t find some more fun adjectives. Ah:

Fricasseed chicken, discouraged celery, and cornstarch ice cream

Signed it, in his correct flowing business-college hand,

Vaguely frightened

Notorious freelance preacher

All of them volubly knew, or indignantly desired to know,

Mrs. McKelvey was red-haired, creamy, discontented, exquisite, rude, and honest.

There. I’m done.


hifidel said...

I finished Babbitt a year or two ago (before the 100 Books challenge started), and had a lot of the same reactions that you've described here. I enjoyed it, though did not always have the incentive to pick it up once I'd put it down. But it's kind of stuck with me since I read it, and I find myself recalling clever lines, and even some pointed observations that didn't really strike me as much at the time of reading.

I enjoyed reading your responses to the book, as it kind of brought back the thoughts and feelings I had at the time of reading.