Babbitt

Overview

"In this sardonic portrait of the up-and-coming middle class during the prosperous 1920s, Sinclair Lewis 1883-1951 perfectly captures the sound, the feel, and the attitudes of the generation that created the cult of consumerism. With a sharp eye for detail and keen powers of observation, Lewis tracks successful realtor George Babbitt's daily struggles to rise to the top of his profession while maintaining his reputation as an upstanding family man." On the surface, Babbitt appears to be the quintessential middle-class embodiment of conservative
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Babbitt

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Overview

"In this sardonic portrait of the up-and-coming middle class during the prosperous 1920s, Sinclair Lewis 1883-1951 perfectly captures the sound, the feel, and the attitudes of the generation that created the cult of consumerism. With a sharp eye for detail and keen powers of observation, Lewis tracks successful realtor George Babbitt's daily struggles to rise to the top of his profession while maintaining his reputation as an upstanding family man." On the surface, Babbitt appears to be the quintessential middle-class embodiment of conservative values and enthusiasm for the well-to-do lifestyle for the small entrepreneur. But beneath the complacent facade, he also experiences a rising, nameless discontent. These feelings eventually lead Babbitt into risky escapades that threaten his family and his standing in the community.
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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

Lewis's tale of middle-class frustration, stress and success in the 1920s is brought to life by the L.A. Theatre Works' 1987 full cast production featuring more than 30 actors, including Ed Asner (as Babbitt), Judge Reinhold, Ted Danson, Richard Dreyfuss, Helen Hunt and John Lithgow. With a deep and raspy voice and with great projection, Asner delivers a believable and amusing performance that securely anchors the entire production. Whether bullying his family or spouting politics with his friends at the club, Asner keeps the consistency of the self-aggrandizing character solid throughout. Jazz music segues well between scenes, though without any additional production sound beyond voices, it can at times feel out of place. While the full cast proves enjoyable in their individual parts, many take turns narrating the exposition throughout the production. At times, this is executed well, but sometimes it feels as if the director is just trying to give everyone more voice time. (Sept.)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Library Journal
First published in 1922, Babbitt is an authentic modern American classic, a biting satire of middle-American values that retains much of its poignancy today. George F. Babbitt, Lewis's outwardly successful but inwardly unhappy real estate salesman, still seems real. His story makes engrossing reading and is ideal for audio listening. With Babbitt himself at the center of every scene, it is impossible for listeners plagued by frequent interruptions to lose track of the story line. Narrator Wolfram Kandinsky has a voice that many listeners may find grating; however, his reading here conveys an appropriate ironic tone that is especially apt when he reads Babbitt's own lines. Recommended for general fiction collections. Kent Rasmussen, Thousand Oaks, CA Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
From the Publisher
"[It is] by its hardness, its efficiency, its compactness that Mr. Lewis's work excels." —-Virginia Woolf
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780451530615
  • Publisher: Signet Classics
  • Publication date: 8/7/2007
  • Series: Signet Classics Series
  • Format: Mass Market Paperback
  • Edition description: Reissue
  • Pages: 416
  • Sales rank: 829,665
  • Product dimensions: 4.30 (w) x 7.00 (h) x 1.15 (d)

Meet the Author

Sinclair Lewis was born in 1885 in Sauk Centre, Minnesota, and graduated from Yale University in 1908. His college career was interrupted by various part-time occupations, including a period working at the Helicon Home Colony, Upton Sinclair’s socialist experiment in New Jersey. He worked for some years as a free lance editor and journalist, during which time he published several minor novels. But with the publication of Main Street (1920), which sold half a million copies, he achieved wide recognition. This was followed by the two novels considered by many to be his finest, Babbitt (1922) and Arrowsmith (1925), which was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1926, but declined by Lewis. In 1930, following Elmer Gantry (1927) and Dodsworth (1929), Sinclair Lewis became the first American author to be awarded the Nobel Prize for distinction in world literature. This was the apogee of his literary career, and in the period from Ann Vickers (1933) to the posthumously published World So Wide (1951) Lewis wrote ten novels that reveal the progressive decline of his creative powers. From Main Street to Stockholm, a collection of his letters, was published in 1952, and The Man from Main Street, a collection of essays, in 1953. During his last years Sinclair Lewis wandered extensively in Europe, and after his death in Rome in 1951 his ashes were returned to his birthplace.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter I

I
The towers of Zenith aspired above the morning mist; austere towers of steel and cement and limestone, sturdy as cliffs and delicate as silver rods. They were neither citadels nor churches, but frankly and beautifully office-buildings.

The mist took pity on the fretted structures of earlier generations: the Post Office with its shingle-tortured mansard, the red brick minarets of hulking old houses, factories with stingy and sooted windows, wooden tenements colored like mud. The city was full of such grotesqueries, but the clean towers were thrusting them from the business center, and on the farther hills were shining new houses, homes—they seemed—for laughter and tranquillity.

Over a concrete bridge fled a limousine of long sleek hood and noiseless engine. These people in evening clothes were returning from an all-night rehearsal of a Little Theater play, an artistic adventure considerably illuminated by champagne. Below the bridge curved a railroad, a maze of green and crimson lights. The New York Flyer boomed past, and twenty lines of polished steel leaped into the glare.

In one of the skyscrapers the wires of the Associated Press were closing down. The telegraph operators wearily raised their celluloid eye-shades after a night of talking with Paris and Peking. Through the building crawled the scrubwomen, yawning, their old shoes slapping. The dawn mist spun away. Cues of men with lunch-boxes clumped toward the immensity of new factories, sheets of glass and hollow tile, glittering shops where five thousand men worked beneath one roof, pouring out the honest wares that would be sold up the Euphrates and across theveldt. The whistles rolled out in greeting a chorus cheerful as the April dawn; the song of labor in a city built—it seemed—for giants.

II

There was nothing of the giant in the aspect of the man who was beginning to awaken on the sleeping-porch of a Dutch Colonial house in that residential district of Zenith known as Floral Heights.

His name was George F. Babbitt. He was forty-six years old now, in April, 1920, and he made nothing in particular, neither butter nor shoes nor poetry, but he was nimble in the calling of selling houses for more than people could afford to pay.

His large head was pink, his brown hair thin and dry. His face was babyish in slumber, despite his wrinkles and the red spectacle-dents on the slopes of his nose. He was not fat but he was exceedingly well fed; his cheeks were pads, and the unroughened hand which lay helpless upon the khaki-colored blanket was slightly puffy. He seemed prosperous, extremely married and unromantic; and altogether unromantic appeared this sleeping-porch, which looked on one sizable elm, two respectable grass-plots, a cement driveway, and a corrugated iron garage. Yet Babbitt was again dreaming of the fairy child, a dream more romantic than scarlet pagodas by a silver sea.

For years the fairy child had come to him. Where others saw but Georgie Babbitt, she discerned gallant youth. She waited for him, in the darkness beyond mysterious groves. When at last he could slip away from the crowded house he darted to her. His wife, his clamoring friends, sought to follow, but he escaped, the girl fleet beside him, and they crouched together on a shadowy hillside. She was so slim, so white, so eager! She cried that he was gay and valiant, that she would wait for him, that they would sail—

Rumble and bang of the milk-truck.

Babbitt moaned, turned over, struggled back toward his dream. He could see only her face now, beyond misty waters. The furnace-man slammed the basement door. A dog barked in the next yard. As Babbitt sank blissfully into a dim warm tide, the paper-carrier went by whistling, and the rolled-up Advocate thumped the front door. Babbitt roused, his stomach constricted with alarm. As he relaxed, he was pierced by the familiar and irritating rattle of some one cranking a Ford: snap-ah-ah, snap-ah-ah, snap-ah-ah. Himself a pious motorist, Babbitt cranked with the unseen driver, with him waited through taut hours for the roar of the starting engine, with him agonized as the roar ceased and again began the infernal patient snap-ah-ah—a round, flat sound, a shivering cold-morning sound, a sound infuriating and inescapable. Not till the rising voice of the motor told him that the Ford was moving was he released from the panting tension. He glanced once at his favorite tree, elm twigs against the gold patina of sky, and fumbled for sleep as for a drug. He who had been a boy very credulous of life was no longer greatly interested in the possible and improbable adventures of each new day.

He escaped from reality till the alarm-clock rang, at seven-twenty.

III

It was the best of nationally advertised and quantitatively produced alarm-clocks, with all modern attachments, including cathedral chime, intermittent alarm, and a phosphorescent dial. Babbitt was proud of being awakened by such a rich device. Socially it was almost as creditable as buying expensive cord tires.

He sulkily admitted now that there was no more escape, but he lay and detested the grind of the real-estate business, and disliked his family, and disliked himself for disliking them. The evening before, he had played poker at Vergil Gunch’s till midnight, and after such holidays he was irritable before breakfast. It may have been the tremendous home-brewed beer of the prohibition era and the cigars to which that beer enticed him; it may have been resentment of return from this fine, bold man-world to a restricted region of wives and stenographers, and of suggestions not to smoke so much.

From the bedroom beside the sleeping-porch, his wife’s detestably cheerful “Time to get up, Georgie boy,” and the itchy sound, the brisk and scratchy sound, of combing hairs out of a stiff brush.

He grunted; he dragged his thick legs, in faded baby-blue pajamas, from under the khaki blanket; he sat on the edge of the cot, running his fingers through his wild hair, while his plump feet mechanically felt for his slippers. He looked regretfully at the blanket—forever a suggestion to him of freedom and heroism. He had bought it for a camping trip which had never come off. It symbolized gorgeous loafing, gorgeous cursing, virile flannel shirts.

He creaked to his feet, groaning at the waves of pain which passed behind his eyeballs. Though he waited for their scorching recurrence, he looked blurrily out at the yard. It delighted him, as always; it was the neat yard of a successful business man of Zenith, that is, it was perfection, and made him also perfect. He regarded the corrugated iron garage. For the three-hundred-and-sixty-fifth time in a year he reflected, “No class to that tin shack. Have to build me a frame garage. But by golly it’s the only thing on the place that isn’t up-to-date!” While he stared he thought of a community garage for his acreage development, Glen Oriole. He stopped puffing and jiggling. His arms were akimbo. His petulant, sleep-swollen face was set in harder lines. He suddenly seemed capable, an official, a man to contrive, to direct, to get things done.

On the vigor of his idea he was carried down the hard, clean, unused-looking hall into the bathroom.

Though the house was not large it had, like all houses on Floral Heights, an altogether royal bathroom of porcelain and glazed tile and metal sleek as silver. The towel-rack was a rod of clear glass set in nickel. The tub was long enough for a Prussian Guard, and above the set bowl was a sensational exhibit of tooth-brush holder, shaving-brush holder, soap-dish, sponge-dish, and medicine-cabinet, so glittering and so ingenious that they resembled an electrical instrument-board. But the Babbitt whose god was Modern Appliances was not pleased. The air of the bathroom was thick with the smell of a heathen toothpaste. “Verona been at it again! ’Stead of sticking to Lilidol, like I’ve re-peat-ed-ly asked her, she’s gone and gotten some confounded stinkum stuff that makes you sick!”

The bath-mat was wrinkled and the floor was wet. (His daughter Verona eccentrically took baths in the morning, now and then.) He slipped on the mat, and slid against the tub. He said “Damn!” Furiously he snatched up his tube of shaving-cream, furiously he lathered, with a belligerent slapping of the unctuous brush, furiously he raked his plump cheeks with a safety-razor. It pulled. The blade was dull. He said, “Damn—oh—oh—damn it!”

He hunted through the medicine-cabinet for a packet of new razor-blades (reflecting, as invariably, “Be cheaper to buy one of these dinguses and strop your own blades,”) and when he discovered the packet, behind the round box of bicarbonate of soda, he thought ill of his wife for putting it there and very well of himself for not saying “Damn.” But he did say it, immediately afterward, when with wet and soap-slippery fingers he tried to remove the horrible little envelope and crisp clinging oiled paper from the new blade.

Then there was the problem, oft-pondered, never solved, of what to do with the old blade, which might imperil the fingers of his young. As usual, he tossed it on top of the medicine-cabinet, with a mental note that some day he must remove the fifty or sixty other blades that were also temporarily piled up there. He finished his shaving in a growing testiness increased by his spinning head- ache and by the emptiness in his stomach. When he was done, his round face smooth and streamy and his eyes stinging from soapy water, he reached for a towel. The family towels were wet, wet and clammy and vile, all of them wet, he found, as he blindly snatched them—his own face-towel, his wife’s, Verona’s, Ted’s, Tinka’s, and the lone bath-towel with the huge welt of initial. Then George F. Babbitt did a dismaying thing. He wiped his face on the guest-towel! It was a pansy-embroidered trifle which always hung there to indicate that the Babbitts were in the best Floral Heights society. No one had ever dared to. No guest had ever dared to. Guests secretively took a corner of the nearest regular towel.

He was raging, “By golly, here they go and use up all the towels, every doggone one of ’em, and they use ’em and get ’em all wet and sopping, and never put out a dry one for me—of course, I’m the goat!—and then I want one and— I’m the only person in the doggone house that’s got the slightest doggone bit of consideration for other people and thoughtfulness and consider there may be others that may want to use the doggone bathroom after me and consider—”

He was pitching the chill abominations into the bath-tub, pleased by the vindictiveness of that desolate flapping sound; and in the midst his wife serenely trotted in, observed serenely, “Why Georgie dear, what are you doing? Are you going to wash out the towels? Why, you needn’t wash out the towels. Oh, Georgie, you didn’t go and use the guest-towel, did you?”

It is not recorded that he was able to answer.

For the first time in weeks he was sufficiently roused by his wife to look at her.

Copyright 2002 by Sinclair Lewis
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Reading Group Guide

1. Some critics of Babbitt felt Babbitt was a type, not a fully presented character, and accused Lewis of being too negative to offer any redemption for his hero. Do you agree?

2. Do you think this is a straight satire of American life, or was Lewis striving for something more? If Lewis was attempting something larger, did he succeed?

3. Note Babbitt’s many gadgets. What does he think they say about him? How do his peers view these gadgets and, by extension, Babbitt himself?

4. Note the instances of music, poetry, and art throughout the novel. How does Lewis introduce these instances? What characters truly appreciate the arts, if any? Does Babbitt understand the arts? If not, do you feel he is on his way to appreciating these things?

5. Some critics compare Babbitt to T. S. Eliot’s epic poem The Waste Land. Can you find any comparable themes or passages within Babbitt? If so, why do you think Lewis did this?

6. At the end of the novel, do you think Babbitt will truly change his views and habits or creep back into his old routine? If he doesn’t change, what do you think stopped him?

7. Consider Zenith’s sources of morality and “model” behavior; Dr. Drew’s church, the Booster’s Club, and the Republican Party. What is Lewis saying about these three entities? Is their dynamic different from say “the Bunch” Babbitt finds himself in later in the novel? In what ways are they similar or different?

8. Study the women in the novel, namely Myra, Zilla, Tanis, and Verona. In what ways do they interact and serve Babbitt throughout the novel? What qualities do theyhave that Babbitt does not?

9. Consider the time period Babbitt takes place in; Post WWI, Jazz Age, Prohibition. In what ways does these events/themes shape the book? How do they shape Babbitt’s world? Do they hinder Babbitt and his attempts to change or help him?

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