The theme in books by Sinclair Lewis1 relates to the time in which they were written. In both Babbit (1922) and Main Street (1920) Lewis shows us the American culture of the 1920’s. He writes about the growing cities, the small towns, the common American man, the strong American need to conform, cultural integration, morals (or lack of in some cases), and he touches upon the women lib movement. All of these and more successfully describe the 1920’s.
“The parties were bigger… the pace was faster, the shows were bigger, the buildings were higher, the morals were looser…”2
– F. Scott Fitzgerald
Lewis attacks the American middle class business man in Babbit. As Sheldon Grebstein once put it:
“They ( Lewis’s characters ) become puppets rather than performers.” ( S. Lewis, Amer. Author Series 68 )
He uses the ideas and attitudes already in existence and gives them a plot. He uses sarcasm to show the readers the error of their ways and then makes the main character suffer some how to show the consequences of being the way George F. Babbit is.
Americans felt a need to rise in social status in the 1920’s. Things like art and religion did not even make it in the maybe pile. Money and social acceptance was number one in every household.
“His ( Americans ) only way to assume protective coloration, to loose himself in the crowd, and then to be approved by one of its members.” ( S. Lewis, Amer. Author Series 78 )
George F. Babbit. A forty-six, middle class, overweight, suburban real estate dealer. To add to the mix he is a father
and a husband. Babbit is Lewis’s picture of the middle class businessman. H.L. Menekan states:
” The fellow simply drips with human juices… Every American city swarms with his brothers” ( 20th Cent. Views 20-21 )
Babbit , along with several others of his social status, belong to a club entitled the Athletes Club in which they prominently display their uniform narrow minded views with meaningless chatter. Like his business associates and colleagues, he values painstaking work in an effort to succeed.
“The thing which sets off the American from all other men and gives a peculiar colour not only to the pattern oh his daily life but also to the play of his inner ideas, is what, for want of a more exact term, maybe called social aspiration. That is to say, his dominant passion is apart- a passion to improve his position, to break down some shady barrier of caste, to achieve the countenance of what, for all his talk of equality, he recognizes and accepts as his betters.” ( The American Credo 59 )3
Babbit’s hometown of Zenith provides an example of the ideal 1920’s community. The very first paragraph in the book states:
“The towers of Zenith aspired above and cement and limestone, sturdy as cliffs and delicate as silver rods. They were neither citadels nor churches but frankly and beautifully office buildings.” (Babbit )
Lewis describes these towers in the first sentence by appearance and then uses sarcasm to cut into his dissatisfaction that these buildings are used for business rather than gathering people to
prayer. This clearly shows the transition of priorities from church to work.
During this time thing for the middle class to do was to take the grand tour of Europe. Also World War I was over and the boys just came back from Europe where they were for over a year. With the combination of these two, America was seeing a lot of European culture be incorporation into their own. When describing the Athletes Club he used the following:
“The entrance lobby was Gothic, the washroom Roman Imperial, the lounge Spanish Mission, and the reading room in Chinese Chippendale, but the gem of the club was the dinning-room, the masterpiece of Ferdinand Reitman, Zenith’s busiest architect. It was lofty and half-timbered, with Tudor leaded casements, an oriole, a somewhat musician less musician’s- gallery, and tapestries believed to illustrate the granting of the Magna Charta…”( Babbit 59)4
This section shows all the different cultures under one roof.
Babbit’s goals are dominated by hopes of fortune and luxury and he will do what ever is deemed necessary to be successful. Babbit’s job as a Realtor enables him to profit from selling cheaply made houses at an inflated price. He repeatedly bribes inspectors he sells. Babbit even offers farmer Mr. Prudy a price for his land with the knowledge that the beloved property is worth several times the businessman’s offer. Conscience plays no role in the mind of the white collar businessman.
“Babbit’s business ethics are elastic. They can be stretched to condone bribery, lying, bullying, and conspiracy…” ( S. Lewis Amer. Author Series 79 )
In the 1920’s women’s liberation movements stepped up a notch. Women were working, smoking, drinking, and speaking
freely about any subject they choose including sex. Their dress hem lines rose from the ankles to the knees, these dresses were incredibly skimpy and so were the bathing suits. They wore unheard of amounts of makeup, all of these were only found in house of prostitution. One of these women was Babbit’s oldest child, Verona. The younger generation also had different ideas of work. Their ethics and priorities were not the same as in Babbits generation. Verona seeks a worthwhile experience as well as a job and her father looks no further than the zeros on his paycheck. Verona cares very little about how well she’s paid or how the public perceives her.
Babbit’s strong appreciation for work becomes more and more evident in the arguments with his son, Ted, involving his future. These conflicts feature Ted’s hunt for a quick path to success and his opposition to Babbit’s deep respect for arduous but steady way to reach the peak of success. Babbit disapproves of Ted lack of education and laziness.
Main Street, another novel written by Sinclair Lewis, is also responsible for a similar pattern of 1920’s culture. It’s set just before the opening of the 1920’s where conservative minds flourished and individuality was openly discouraged.
“The town is, in our tale, called Golfer Prairie, Minnesota. But its Main Street is the continuation of Main Streets everywhere. The story would be the same in Ohio or Montana, in Kansas or Kentucky or Illinois, and not very different would the story be told Up New York State or in the California Hills.” ( Every Week, VI 9-10 )5
Carol Kennitcott, the main character, is a rare independent thinker in the 1920’s. She was greatly interested in culture, particularly sociology. Her attendance at a college in Chicago prompted this fascination as well as introduced her to such liberties as feminism, syndicalism, and Chinese lyrics. After
Carol got married, she moved to Golpher Prairie, Her new husbands small town.
Upon their arrival, Carol took a thirty-two minute walk that struck new determination to change her surroundings for the better. She was startled at the sight of dilapidated buildings, lack of architectural planning and a common disconcern that was shared by the townspeople. Her disappointment inspired the start of what would be several attempts at reformation.
The first of those trials was an unusual party hosted by Carol. She manages to impress her guests with an old fashioned square dance and a game involving wolves and shepherds with the guests’ shoes being sheep. The highlight of the evening was the costumes worn during the Chinese concert. Unfortunately, at Chet Dashaway’s party a week later, the same groups of people resumed their old dull antics and pointless prattle. This situation foreshadows the outcome of other attempts made by Carol in that none of her ideas are successful.
Another of Carols experiments is done after she joined the Thanatopsis Club, a women’s literary organization. She tried to
expand the collection of books by adding texts that were previously banned solely because of the authors controversial
lives. Inevitably, her open minded ideas are not shared by the naive town librarian.
Carol was not ready to give up yet. Various miscellaneous endeavors were made and were turned down by the townspeople. Such efforts were the modernizing of farmers’ wives rest rooms, a new city hall, plans for a farm bureau, lecture halls, and domestic science demonstrations. She also offered an idea to rebuild the town using the millions donated by Mr. Dawson but was, yet again, overruled. Her suggestion of helping the poor without merely donating funding was considered far too impractical and unrealistic. People were stubborn and thus held back by a need to conform.
Evidence of the results of the nonconformist society is revealed when a schoolteacher is involved in a controversial situation. When Mrs. Fern Mullins allows her pupil Cy Bogart to escort her to a dance, accusations run wild about Cy’s intoxication as discovered by his mother that night. The irate townspeople lead to a forced teacher’s resignation and eventually to Fern’s departure. Later Fern writes to Carol and informs her of even Ferns’ own families’ shame upon her and also of the refusal of another job by other teaching agencies.
At last, Carol became utterly discouraged with her dozens of failed endeavors and left town. Even the most ambitious and educated are helpless in a town where tradition reigns over common sense.
Through out the story of Carol Kennicott and her painstaking efforts, Main Street demonstrates conformity in small towns as well as the significance of conformity historically. It didn’t matter wheather or not the people liked her ideas or if they were good for the comunity, her plans to change Golpher Prarie were denined and she was shunned for even thinking them. Change was not welcome in a small town.
In Babbit and Main Street Sinclair Lewis repeataly shows his reactions to the new feeling of the 1920’s. These times fueled him into writing his two most well known books in which he shows his fustration of selfish, Capitalistic, mid-western America.