Middle class hero

1 10 2016

Babbitt by Sinclair Lewis

 

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The word “Babbitt” entered the English language as a “person and especially a business or professional man who conforms unthinkingly to prevailing middle-class standards”. If Lewis’s first widely acclaimed novel, Main Street, sought to shatter early-20th-century romanticizations of small-town America, his next work, Babbitt, turned a critical eye towards the celebrated midsize industrial city, home to the enterprising American businessman. After the social instability and sharp economic depression that emerged in the wake of World War I, many Americans in the 1920s saw business and city growth as foundations for stability. The civic boosters and self-made men of the middle-class represented particularly American depictions of success, at a time when the promotion of the American identity was crucial in the face of rising fears of communism. At the same time, growing Midwestern cities, usually associated with mass production and the emergence of a consumer society, were also celebrated emblems of American progress. George F. Babbitt, the novel’s main character, is described by the 1930 Nobel Prize committee as “the ideal of an American popular hero of the middle-class. The relativity of business morals as well as private rules of conduct is for him an accepted article of faith, and without hesitation he considers it God’s purpose that man should work, increase his income, and enjoy modern improvements.”

A striking satire of American culture, society, and behaviour in the 1920s it comprehensively chronicles the vacuity of middle-class American life and the pressure to conform. At some length, it has to be said. Published in 1922 and a bestseller at the time it apparently contributed significantly to the decision to award Lewis the Nobel Prize for literature in 1930.

 

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