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Babbitt Lets Loose

Here's an early passage from Sinclair Lewis' Babbitt, which I have just begun to re-read, after a lapse of twenty years. George Babbitt has just sat down to the breakfast table with his rather irritating family, and after hearing his daughter Verona suggest that she might forsake her degree from a pricey private college in favor of social work, he can hold back no longer and finally lets loose with a priceless rant.

"Now, you look here! The first thing you got to understand is that all this uplift and flipflop and settlement-work and recreation is nothing in God's world but the entering wedge for socialism. The sooner a man learns he isn't going to be coddled, and he needn't expect a lot of free grub and, uh, all these free classes and flipflop and doodads for his kids unless he earns 'em, why, the sooner he'll get on the job and produce--produce--produce! That's what the country needs, and not all this fancy stuff that just enfeebles the will-power of the working man and gives his kids a lot of notions above their class. And you--if you'd tend to business instead of fooling and fussing--All the time! When I was a young man I made up my mind what I wanted to do, and stuck to it through thick and thin, and that's why I'm where I am to-day, and--Myra! What do you let the girl chop the toast up into these dinky little chunks for? Can't get your fist onto 'em. Half cold, anyway!"

There are just so many nice touches here, to wit: 1) that incomparable American vernacular; 2) the none-too-subtle look at Babbitt's less than enlightened views on politics and class mobility; 3) his hypocrisy over insisting that the working class should produce produce produce while he, as a real estate broker, is not exactly a productive member of society himself; and 4) the youthful decisiveness and ongoing diligence which he displayed (and espouses for his aimless daughter as well) indeed got him "where I am today" - in a lifeless marriage, in an unfulfilling career, without a single true friend and forever obsessed with such petty trifles as how his morning toast is prepared.

That paragraph encapsulates quite neatly what George Babbitt, and the archetype his character has come to represent, is all about. (The only thing it's missing is the back-slapping, mindless jocularity of Babbitt's social club.) I'm enjoying the book immensely, and can't believe I've ignored it for so many years.

July 31, 2007 in Books | Permalink