The Sinclair Lewis novel Babbit, like his other works, is one of those that should be re-written and updated every generation or so. The book’s main theme holds up, especially in today’s climate, but the cultural background has changed in a way that makes it easy to dismiss as an anachronism.
Lewis was from just up the road in Sauk Centre, MN. I’ve always thought his themes were vindicated by the way the locals are said to have treated him after his books became popular. Since the fictional town of Gopher Prairie was a thinly veiled stand-in for Sauk Centre, Lewis’ themes of small-town small mindedness didn’t sit well with the local gentry. He was considered persona non grata by some of the townspeople he had grown up with.
When he won the Nobel Prize for Literature – the first American to do so – suddenly there was a change of heart. Now he was the local boy made good! Success covers a multitude of sins, I guess.
George Babbitt and his foibles still echo in our society, right down to his work in real estate “a brisk selling of badly built houses”. His other work, Elmer Gantry , has certainly seen a parallel in many a TV evangelist. Americans are still a society of “go getters” and “boosters” who are eager for something to believe in that will make them thinner, richer, and more socially prominent. Life’s more profound questions? Well, they don’t matter so much.
The scarier part of Lewis’ vision is in It Can’t Happen Here. Talk about a story “ripped from the headlines”! Even though those headlines took place 70 years after the book!
I find it interesting that the theme of It Can’t Happen Here has continued on in plays and various adaptations, but is only widely palatable to us when the villains are re-cast as flesh-eating aliens from space in the science fiction drama V.
Sometimes the truth is too close to us to see.