by Sinclair Lewis. New York: Harcourt Brace & Co. l2mo. vi + 401 pp. $2.00.
IN Babbitt Mr. Lewis portrays, without too much satirical exaggeration, the ‘standardized American,’ who, he intimates, is as much a national product as the Ford car. This man can best be described in the ‘American language’ of the novel as a Good Fellow, a booster, a joiner, a business-builder, full of push, punch, and pep. His special marks are an abject conformity to the code of Good Fellows and an equally abject suspicion of everything ‘high-brow.’ He is, in short, not only a ‘bromide’ but a bromide who has never grown up. His kind has always existed, but never perhaps in the history of the world until to-day has it shown sufficient youthful clannishness to form a mutual admiration society. In the middle of the novel, Babbitt, in a speech before the Zenith Real Estate Board, sketches the ‘ Real He-man, the fellow with Zip and Bang, a Godfearing, hustling, successful, two-fisted Regular Guy, who belongs to some church with pep and piety in it, and to the Boosters or the Rotarians or the Kiwanis ... or any one of a score of organizations of good, jolly, kidding, laughing, sweating, upstanding, lend-a-handing Royal Good Fellows.’ ‘That’s the type of fellow,’he proclaims in one of his climaxes, ‘that’s ruling America to-day!'
What Mr. Lewis has tried to do is obvious enough, and there can hardly be two opinions on whether he has done it. He certainly has, and with great cleverness and considerable humor. Whether he might have done it in a better way opens critical questions too complex to touch on here. His book constantly gives the impression of having been compiled, rather than created, by a brilliant reporter who has pursued his quarry all over its native heath and has taken voluminous notes on the species and its habitat. Never was English worse manhandled than in the language in which he records his findings — except every day, every hour, by some ten million American Good Fellows in club smoking-rooms, smoking-cars, offices, streets, and houses all over the land. The realistic method by which the negligible doings of Babbitt and his friends are presented is already familiar to the reader of Main Street. For example, the first hundred pages are devoted to a single day in Babbitt’s life, and that a day in which the most exciting incidents are a real-estate deal and a luncheon at a club. We discover thus early, however, that the hero is experiencing vaguely an inner revolt against being an unquestioning conformer, and suspect that the novel is to deal with his struggle between his desire to be a perfect booster and his dream of finding a wild freedom somewhere, somehow.
If the author’s creed includes the tenet that the first step in a sinner’s redemption is for him to see himself as he is, we may suppose that he hopes that Babbitt will do the Babbitts some good. He has, however, been mercifully careful to withhold comment and moral application. Babbitt is given for our contemplation — very weak, very human, stupid, blatant, vulgar, and yet not a little lovable, and more than once disturbingly like ourselves. One suspects that, for a little time, his name will be as familiar as that of the Potter family was a year or two ago.
R. M. GAY.