Sinclair Lewis, 1922
Before I continued in my presidential series, I wanted to have a look at Babbitt, which has been widely acclaimed as the definitive satire of Warren Harding's America — or, rather, of the America that would actually elect Warren Harding to lead it. What kind of people would vote for Harding? What sort of logic would motivate such a choice? Lewis imagines a slew of conversations like the following:
"Say, old man, what do you
think about the Republican candidate? Who'll they nominate for president?
Don't you think it's about time we had a real business administration?"
"In my opinion, what the country needs, first and foremost, is a good, sound, business-like conduct of its affairs. What we need is — a business administration!"
"I'm glad to hear you say that! I certainly am glad to hear you say that! I didn't know how you'd feel about it, with all your associations with colleges and so on, and I'm glad you feel that way. What the country needs — just at this present juncture — is neither a college president nor a lot of monkeying with foreign affairs, but a good – sound – economical – business – administration."
The speaker in the first and last paragraphs is title character George Babbitt, the archetypal Harding voter, who later offers up the most scathing condemnation of academia he can think of: "Fellow like myself, a State U. graduate, it's only decent and patriotic for him to blow his horn and boost the Alma Mater — but smatter of fact, there's a whole lot of valuable time lost even at the U., studying poetry and French and subjects that never brought in anybody a cent." It is an article of faith in Babbitt's world that the purpose of life is to make as much money as possible — quite literally an article of faith, as Babbitt attends a church whose pastor delivers disquisitions on topics such as "The Dollars and Sense Value of Christianity" — and to use that money to buy stuff. The novel begins with Babbitt waking up to the sound of his alarm clock: "It was the best of nationally advertised and quantitatively produced alarm-clocks, with all modern attachments, including cathedral chime, intermittent alarm, and a phosphorescent dial. Babbitt was proud of being awakened by such a rich device. Socially it was almost as creditable as buying expensive cord tires." Later he's mentally totaling up his income and family expenses, and deals with his anxiety in exactly the way a good consumer is supposed to: "he felt at once triumphantly wealthy and perilously poor, and in the midst of these dissertations he stopped his car, rushed into a small news-and-miscellany shop, and bought the electric cigar-lighter which he had coveted for a week." The capper is that this comes a matter of minutes after he's decided to give up smoking.
The inconsistency that marks Babbitt regarding his smoking becomes outright hypocrisy in other areas. To Lewis, one of the defining traits of the Republican Party is that "do as I say, not as I do" is its motto; virtue consists of taking the proper public stances regardless of one's personal behavior. "Babbitt was virtuous," Lewis explains, because "he praised, though he did not obey, the laws against motor-speeding", and "he advocated, though he did not practise, the prohibition of alcohol". There is a lot of discussion of Prohibition in Babbitt's circle, usually after they've all had a few cocktails; Lewis is not a subtle satirist, and introduces one such conversation like so: "The men leaned back on their heels, put their hands in their trouser-pockets, and proclaimed their views with the booming profundity of a prosperous male repeating a thoroughly hackneyed statement about a matter of which he knows nothing whatever." A sampling of those views:
"That's it — no
one got a right to invade personal liberty."
"Just the same, you don't want to forget prohibition is a mighty good thing for the working-classes. Keeps 'em from wasting their money and lowering their productiveness."
"Yes, that's so. But the trouble is the manner of enforcement. Congress didn't understand the right system. Now, if I'd been running the thing, I'd have arranged it so that the drinker himself was licensed, and then we could have taken care of the shiftless workman — kept him from drinking — and yet not've interfered with the rights — with the personal liberty — of fellows like ourselves."
The tour de force of this sort of thinking comes not on the subject of Prohibition, though, but rather when Babbitt takes on that of organized labor: "A good labor union is of value because it keeps out radical unions, which would destroy property. No one ought to be forced to belong to a union, however. All labor agitators who try to force men to join a union should be hanged. In fact, just between ourselves, there oughtn't to be any unions allowed at all; and as it's the best way of fighting the unions, every business man ought to belong to an employers'-association and to the Chamber of Commerce. In union there is strength. So any selfish hog who doesn't join the Chamber of Commerce ought to be forced to." But the hypocrisy actually goes deeper. Babbitt's associates talk a lot about "the delights of morality", and toward the end of the book form an organization called the Good Citizens' League; Lewis notes Babbitt's reflex to condemn the lack of decency found among members of demographics other than his own, be it the working class or, in this case (an argument with his wife), teenage girls:
"It certainly makes me
tired, after going into a pink-tea joint like Vecchia's and having to
stand around looking at a lot of half-naked young girls, all rouged up
like they were sixty and eating a lot of stuff that simply ruins their
"Oh, it's too bad about you! I've noticed how you hate to look at pretty girls!"
With a jar Babbitt realized that his wife was too busy to be impressed by that moral indignation with which males rule the world, and he went humbly upstairs to dress.
But for all his talk of morality, Babbitt is himself a criminal: he runs a real estate agency, and makes his living by using his connections in the community to learn where the paved roads are going to be extended, then passing that information along to rich investors. (One of these is described thusly: "He was a bold entrepreneur, and he desired nothing more than complete safety in his investments, freedom from attention to details, and the thirty or forty percent profit which, according to all authorities, a pioneer deserves for his risks and foresight.") The investors snap up the land that is due to be developed when the roads arrive, and make a fortune; for his part, Babbitt receives a commission that keeps him in the upper middle class. It would be ahistorical to claim that Lewis was attempting to show the corruption of the Harding administration reflected in the electorate that voted for him — Babbitt came out in 1922, and the scandals with which Harding is now associated didn't come to light until after Harding's death in 1923 — but it does seem safe to say that when those scandals did come to light, Lewis was probably not particularly surprised.
Above all else, though, what defines Harding's constituency, at least in this novel, is that it is made up of "God-fearing, hustling, successful, two-fisted Regular Guys", "Good Fellows" who belong to innumerable clubs and associations and fraternal orders, where they show their regard for one another "by the joviality of their insults":
"How's the old
"All right, I guess. How're you, you poor shrimp?"
"I'm first-rate, you second-hand hunk o' cheese."
Harding himself owed his political career to his reputation as a Regular Guy par excellence — a great fella to play poker with, if none too bright (and the "none too bright" part was actually a selling point to many after eight years with a professor in the White House). The problem with Regular Guy culture is that there is little more than misery to be found in what Lewis calls, in the key phrase of the novel, "a life of barren heartiness". What drives the actual plot of Babbitt is the title character's slow realization that his "mechanical friendships — back-slapping and jocular, never daring to essay the test of quietness" are unrewarding, and that his family life, business, religion, and recreation are equally mechanical and no more fulfilling. His one real friend, Paul, shocks him by revealing that he's not alone in having these sorts of thoughts: "Take all these fellows we know, the kind right here in the club now, that seem to be perfectly content with their home-life and their businesses," Paul says. "I bet if you could cut into their heads you'd find that one-third of 'em are sure-enough satisfied with their wives and kids and friends and their offices; and one-third feel kind of restless but won't admit it; and one-third are miserable and know it. They hate the whole peppy, boosting, go-ahead game". Babbitt confesses to Paul that "I've pretty much done all the things I ought to; supported my family, and got a good house and a six-cylinder car, and built up a nice little business, and I haven't any vices 'specially, except smoking — and I'm practically cutting that out, by the way. And I belong to the church, and play enough golf to keep in trim, and I only associate with good decent fellows. And yet, even so, I don't know that I'm entirely satisfied!" But Babbitt doesn't know how he might go about remedying his dissatisfaction. At first he thinks that maybe he's chafing at the trappings of respectable society, and what he'd prefer is a life in which he could "loaf all day" and "smoke and cuss and be natural". Later he thinks that what he really needs is to disconnect from civilization outright and become a woodsman, but when he gets to Maine and asks one of the taciturn woodsmen, "Joe, what would you do if you had a lot of money? Would you stick to guiding, or would you take a claim way back in the woods and be independent of people?", the woodsman replies, "I've often thought of that! If I had the money, I'd go down to Tinker's Falls and open a swell shoe store." Eventually Babbitt has an affair with a woman who is herself middle-aged but who hangs out with a younger, bohemian crowd — amusingly, the book describes them as a bunch of "Petes and Minnies and Gladyses", the way a 47-year-old today might feel out of place among a bunch of Jaydens and Avas and Madisons. Babbitt parties with them every night, in a sequence that reads like the middle chapters of one of those 19th-century novels about the perils of alcoholism. But that isn't what earns him the censure of his associates. Babbitt has a chance encounter with a former classmate who has become a left-wing politician — a perennial loser, this being the Harding era — and afterwards begins to mumble mild challenges to the orthodoxies of his usual crowd:
- On strikers: "Honest, they're not such bad people. Just
foolish. They don't understand the complications of merchandizing and
profit, the way we business men do, but sometimes I think they're about
like the rest of us, and no more hogs for wages than we are for profits."
- On "bomb-throwing socialists": "They look just about like you
and me, and I certainly didn't notice any bombs. Strikes me it's bad
policy to talk about clubbing 'em."
- On immigrants: "Gosh, they aren't all ignorant, and I got a hunch we're all descended from immigrants ourselves."
When Babbitt had told Paul about his dissatisfaction with the kind of life he was leading, Paul had replied, "Good Lord, George, you don't suppose it's any novelty to me to find that we hustlers, that think we're so all-fired successful, aren't getting much out of it? You look as if you expected me to report you as seditious!" But Babbitt had good reason to look that way: in his circle, questioning what Harding called "normalcy" was sedition. Paul's tolerance is the aberration. It's also a hint that he's even closer to his breaking point than Babbitt is, and Paul is out of the picture by the time Babbitt starts his crazy talk about the virtues of being "broad-minded" and "liberal". Soon Babbitt finds himself ostracized. His onetime friends no longer invite him to play poker. The Chamber of Commerce no longer asks him to give speeches. Most frighteningly, his business dries up and his employees even jump ship to rival companies. Before long, Babbitt has abandoned his flirtation with broad-mindedness, leaving the rebellion to the next generation and recommitting himself to conservatism.
A fundamental credo of conservatism since time immemorial has been that success is a product not of pre-existing advantages, nor of unscrupulous behavior, nor of luck of the draw, but purely of the superior merit of the successful person. Different people in different eras have held differing views on what constitutes superior merit: some credit good decision-making, others competitiveness, still others personal asceticism. In Babbitt, success is universally ascribed to the optimistic energy which, as we've seen, is often referred to as "hustle", occasionally as "zip and bang", but most commonly as "pep". When Babbitt drives past a throng of blue-collar workers out on strike, Lewis writes, "He hated them, because they were poor, because they made him feel insecure. 'Damn loafers! Wouldn't be common workmen if they had any pep,' he complained." But this is actually an expression of anxiety, as deep down Babbitt knows this isn't actually true. He knows that he owes his own success to shady dealings. He also knows that the truly rich people he meets — the foreign lords, the bank presidents who inherited their vast wealth — quite clearly owe their success to accidents of birth. Babbitt has occasion to be invited to the Eathorne Mansion to meet with William Washington Eathorne, scion of one of the families that have "created a somber oligarchy by gaining control of banks, mills, land, railroads, mines" — families for whom people like Babbitt "unwittingly labor and insignificantly die". "That little fuzzy-face there, why, he could make me or break me!" Babbitt nervously muses to himself. "If he told my banker to call my loans—! Gosh! That quarter-sized squirt! And looking like he hadn't got a single bit of hustle to him!" But when Babbitt wonders to himself whether that means his crowd "throws too many fits about pep", he "shudders away" from the thought — as he has been trained to do. To those who benefit from the status quo, it is vital to keep those who don't from expressing or even recognizing their dissatisfaction with their lives, lest they try to make changes that would come at the expense of the powerful. But there's no need for heavy-handed censorship when you can get people to police their own thoughts by spreading the ideology that if you're dissatisfied with your life, it means that there's something wrong with you: that you're greedy, or stupid, or weak. The beautiful thing about valorizing "pep", from this perspective, is that it saves a step. If your level of cheerful drive is what determines your worth as a human being, then expressing dissatisfaction with your life is no longer merely indicative of some fatal character flaw — it is the character flaw. And thus do the Babbitts of the world commit themselves to self-defeating optimism.
The stigma against expressing dissatisfaction with your life is something I've talked about before in different contexts. Once was during the Occupy movement, which struck me as interesting insofar as it was to a great extent an exercise in people discovering that they weren't alone in their economic struggles — that those struggles were not a sign of personal failure, but evidence that the system is rigged for the benefit of a handful of plutocrats and that the invisible hand of the market gives everyone else the finger. I've also mentioned the way social media encourages people to present the world with a highlight reel of their lives, full of lucrative new jobs, trips to exotic locales, and outings with happy kiddies, but not much in the way of problems or anxieties. This may apply more to 45-year-olds on Facebook than to 15-year-olds on Tumblr, but I've heard even young people talk about the pressure to always seem to be doing awesome. There are a number of reasons that I've tried to be candid in these articles about the fact that for the past three years my life has been decidedly Not Awesome; one is just that it's hard to write about how the stuff I've been reading and watching dovetails with my life without mentioning the downturn, but another has been my sense that the social pressure to hide unhappiness has problematic underpinnings. And the underpinnings of this stigma are what Babbitt is about.