'Babbitt' at Fifty-The Truth Still Hurts

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Editor: Paula Kepos
Date: 1991
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Critical essay; Excerpt
Length: 1,972 words

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[In the following excerpt, Douglas argues that the artistic significance of Babbitt hinges on Lewis's vivid rendering of the struggle between freedom and social convention in the protagonist.]

Some will say that Babbitt is the kind of novel that would no longer be widely read if it were not a historical monument, part of the American pageant. Indeed it is widely held today that Sinclair Lewis himself is not a writer of very considerable importance. Mark Schorer concluded his massive biography of Lewis by remarking that “he was one of the worst writers in modern American literature.” But in spite of this sort of judgment there is something of compelling interest about Lewis and his work—indeed, if this were not so, it would be hard to imagine why Schorer would devote 800 pages to him. There is something about Lewis that we can't quite purge from our national psyche, something we can't easily put aside. But what is it?

It's not a matter of art—at least in one very important meaning of that word. If there is a single thing that all the critics agree upon today, it is that Lewis was a poor master of the art of the novel—his plots were foolish and unbelievable, his characters wooden and superficial (anything resembling character development was unknown to Lewis), his human understanding and tragic insight feeble and undisciplined.

In the early years Lewis was much praised by the critics because he had a well-tuned ear and an uncanny ability to record the speech of his fellow countrymen, because he seemed to have absorbed every idiosyncrasy of the national species and was possessed of a certain malicious genius that enabled him to transfer it all to paper. He was our great national photographer, said E. M. Forster—“neither a poet or preacher, but a fellow with a camera a few yards away.” When he chose to snap the lens, he came away with an exact likeness of his subject.

Of course we know that even this is not precisely true. And Babbitt is a good case in point. Reading the novel today, one thing is clear. The realistic details—the photographs if you like—are usually of poor quality. The details of Lewis' portraits are almost always askew, and the things he was supposed to be able to do best, like render the atmosphere of a local Rotary luncheon or a salesman's inane conversation, always seem off the mark. Zenith, Ohio, the setting of Babbitt, never comes into focus as a real American city—sometimes its description suggests a city of 25,000 people, sometimes a city of 250,000. One gets the feeling that Lewis didn't really know what kind of city he was writing about, and what's more didn't really care. (Theodore Dreiser, in Jennie Gerhardt, did a better job of realistically capturing the flavor of Columbus, Ohio, a city he had never seen, than Lewis did with any of his oft-visited representative American towns.)

Most of Lewis'...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1420004980