Sunday, June 11, 2006

Babbitt by Sinclair Lewis

 (Book Review)
It’s an unusual combination for a book to be laugh out loud funny, and yet very depressing at the same time, but “Babbitt” manages to achieve this. Easily one of the funniest books I’ve read in a long time, and yet I also felt sad reading it.

The book revolves around the adventures of George F. Babbitt who is a successful businessman, striving socialite, respected community member, family man, conservative political orator, active church member, and absolute idiot.

In a lot of ways Babbitt reminds me of Homer Simpson. He’s not quite as stupid as Homer, there are limits to the analogy, but the same essential characteristics are present in both. Both characters have a strong self-righteous streak, both characters no nothing about anything, and yet truly believe themselves to be experts about everything, and both characters experiment with different life philosophies as if putting on different hats, only to end back at the same starting point at the end of each episode. And both characters are comically hypocritical without realizing it. Frequently Babbitt will be expounding on some principal, only to contradict it in the next chapter, or sometimes even the next paragraph. Not very subtle, but it can be pretty funny.

Also a number of the escapades in “Babbitt” struck me as straight out of “The Simpsons”, such as Babbitt’s scheme to increase membership in Sunday school by introducing a system of army style ranks and privileges for the children based on how many friends they convert. It could easily have been one of Homer’s ideas.
Or the part when a famous Duke from England is in town, and Babbitt feels snubbed by not being invited to any of the parties, only to later meet the Duke in Chicago, and discover the Duke is just a regular guy who hates fancy parties and becomes best friends with Babbitt. Very Simpson-esque I thought.

The main theme of the novel is about the emptiness of suburban middle-class life. Babbitt tries various ways of escaping this emptiness, and goes through several phases throughout the course of the book, trying out politics, religion, libertinism, and even near the end a conversion to liberalism. At the end of which he almost always ends up back where he started, even more frustrated with life. The book ends on a slightly redemptive note, but all in all it can be a pretty depressing read in between the laughs.

Of course Sinclair Lewis is hardly the only author to write about the emptiness of modern life. Perhaps this theme wasn’t quite so worn out in the 1920s as it is now, I’m not sure. Many of his main points may have a feel of “been there, done that,” to the modern reader. But then again, in the words of Solomon there is never anything new under the sun. Great literature doesn’t introduce new themes, it handles well known themes with new brilliance. And in that regard, I think “Babbitt” is one of the best books of its genre.

Useless Wikipedia Fact
The Toledo War (1835-1836; also known as the Ohio-Michigan War) was the largely bloodless outcome of a boundary dispute between the U.S. state of Ohio and adjoining territory of Michigan.

Link of the Day
I thought this was kind of interesting. A history professor blogs about a Freshman student who is angry that the class spends so much time on the Civil Rights movement and concludes by saying, " I'm not a Democrat! I don't think I should have to listen to this stuff!" Is that where we're at as a society?


lucretius said...

Are you going to be around next week Swaggers? Do you want to come to the beach? Call me. I sent you my number.

guamo said...

Can you translate your new title so I can make a link to it? Or tell me how to write Japanese on my link?