Places: Babbitt

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1922

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Social satire

Time of work: 1920’s

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places DiscussedZenith

Zenith. BabbittMidwestern city that Lewis made a principal setting in this novel, as well as in Elmer Gantry (1927) and Dodsworth (1929). The opening sentences of Babbitt celebrate the material majesty of the twentieth century city: “The towers of Zenith aspired above the morning mist; austere towers of steel and cement and limestone, sturdy as cliffs and delicate as silver rods. They were neither citadels nor churches, but frankly and beautifully office-buildings.” The physical beauty of “a city built–it seemed–for giants” dwarfs Zenith’s inhabitants and the institutions they build–their homes, offices, clubs, and churches.

While preparing to write his novel, Lewis visited cities in Ohio, Illinois, Wisconsin, and Michigan absorbing the sights and sounds of midwestern American urban life. He filled a large loose-leaf notebook with observations on the language of middle-class businessmen, on how they lived, and on what their working lives were like, and constructed detailed “biographies” for even minor characters. Above all, he compiled elaborate maps of downtown Zenith and its suburbs, and even drew floor plans of Babbitt’s house and office, indicating doors, stairways, and furniture. He plotted the location of the city’s stores, factories, and hotels, and also specified the businesses that occupied the ground floor of each office building.

The novel effectively contrasts the majestic view of the city Babbitt sees as he awakens, with the bickering of his family over breakfast and the corrupt deals of his business day. Babbitt is proud of Zenith and admires the houses and stores he passes on his way to his office. He has a precise knowledge of urban real estate prices, but little understanding of how his city really works–how the police, the fire department, and the schools are organized and managed.

Lavish descriptions of buildings provide effective backgrounds for devastating portraits of Babbitt and his friends at work and play. The Zenith Athletic Club–the largest social club in the city–occupies an impressive nine-story building with a vaulted lobby resembling a cathedral crypt. Despite the club’s name, its activities are not particularly athletic, although the club sponsors youth teams, and a few members use the gymnasium when they try to reduce their weight. The major function of the building is to provide a lunch-time meeting place for businessmen who cannot qualify for the snobbish Union Club. In their own territory, Babbitt and his buddies joke ponderously with each other, entertain out-of-town visitors, and remain alert for profitable business opportunities.

The city’s churches glorify the values of their parishioners. Babbitt’s own Presbyterian church meets in a magnificent Gothic-style brick building, housing a large auditorium with indirect lighting from ornate electric globes. Its minister, famous for publishing an article on “The Dollars and Sense Value of Christianity,” boasts that he has made the church a true community center with its nursery, gymnasium, and library–Lewis interjects that “it contained everything but a bar.” The great cultural triumph of Babbitt’s life is his reorganization of the church’s Sunday school on businesslike lines, complete with a marketing program that greatly increases attendance. His church efforts lead to useful business opportunities. Zenith’s unchurched citizens are offered the tent revival services of evangelist Mike Monday, celebrated as the world’s greatest salesman of salvation, who has converted over two hundred thousand souls at an average cost of less than ten dollars a head.

*New York City

*New York City. During a short layover in the great American metropolis, while Babbitt takes a vacation trip to Maine, the sight that most impresses Babbitt is the newly opened Pennsylvania Hotel. He marvels at this architectural wonder of twenty-two hundred rooms, each with its own bath, and he is awed when he estimates the hotel’s gross receipts as between eight and fifteen thousand dollars a day.

Lake Sunasquam

Lake Sunasquam. Babbitt goes to a Maine vacation resort, seeking a restful escape from the hectic pace of city life. However, his shiny new khaki clothing appears out of place against the worn flannel shirts of the natives. Babbitt finds it romantic hiking through the woods to a fishing place, overruling his guide’s preference for motorboat travel, and is surprised to discover that his guide’s life ambition is to open a shoe store in the nearby town. Lewis uses the bucolic rural setting to intensify his satiric portrait of the American businessman.

Suggested ReadingsBucco, Martin, ed. Critical Essays on Sinclair Lewis. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1986. A collection of criticism on Sinclair Lewis. Begins with early interviews and goes on to contemporary critics. Many articles include discussion of Babbitt; one article addresses the book exclusively.Dooley, D. J. The Art of Sinclair Lewis. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1967. Discusses Babbitt as the first novel to represent what would become Lewis’ characteristic method–the intensive study of a subject. Discusses the novel’s strengths and weaknesses, and explores the significance of Babbitt in American life.Grebstein, Sheldon Norman. Sinclair Lewis. Boston: Twayne, 1962. Makes a useful distinction between Lewis’ novels, including Babbitt, which were written in the 1920’s, and the rest of his work. Argues that Babbitt created an image of America that continues to be influential.Love, Glen A. Babbitt: An American Life. Boston: Twayne, 1993. The only book-length study of Babbitt. Puts Babbitt into its historical and literary context. Chronology, critical analysis, bibliography.O’Connor, Richard. Sinclair Lewis. New York, McGraw-Hill, 1971.Schorer, Mark. Sinclair Lewis: An American Life. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1961. Indispensable. Discusses Babbitt from its inception to its reviews, and includes an analysis of the novel, concluding that Babbitt was published with timing perfectly suited to match the national mood.
Categories: Places