Bumppo to Babbitt

A valiant, a just, and a wise warrior has gone on the path which will lead him to the blessed grounds of his people! …When the voice of the Wahcondah called him, he was ready to answer. Go, my children; remember the just chief of the palefaces, and clear your own tracks from briers!

—the Pawnee warrior Hard Heart, eulogizing Natty Bumppo (aka Deerslayer, Hawkeye, Pathfinder…) in The Prairie, last in James Fenimore Cooper’s series of Leatherstocking Tales; Cooper died on this day in 1851

Sinclair Lewis’s Babbitt was published on this day in 1922. Though still resident in Cooper’s frontier, Babbitt has devolved from a Pathfinder to a lip-serving, glad-handing, prairie realtor. Prototype for the “Tired Business Man,” he is “Our conqueror, dictator over our commerce, education, labor, art, politics, morals, and lack of conversation.” Lewis had a talent for mimicry, and he apparently liked to entertain his friends with Babbitt’s Chapter XIV speech about “Our Ideal Citizen”:


I picture him first and foremost as being busier than a bird-dog, not wasting a lot of good time in day-dreaming or going to sassiety teas or kicking about things that are none of his business, but putting the zip into some store or profession or art. At night he lights up a good cigar, and climbs into the little old ‘bus, and maybe cusses the carburetor, and shoots out home. He mows the lawn, or sneaks in some practice putting, and then he’s ready for dinner. After dinner he tells the kiddies a story, or takes the family to the movies, or plays a few fists of bridge, or reads the evening paper, and a chapter or two of some good lively Western novel if he has a taste for literature, and maybe the folks next-door drop in and they sit and visit about their friends and the topics of the day. Then he goes happily to bed, his conscience clear, having contributed his mite to the prosperity of the city and to his own bank-account.

Italics have been added to mark the passage which John Updike chose as epigram for Rabbit is Rich, third of his series. Rabbit Angstrom lives east of Babbit’s Zenith, and he is now past his prime; but the TBM, owner-manager of Springer Motors, is still a few mpg ahead of his competitors: “The fucking world is running out of gas. But they won’t catch him, not yet, because there isn’t a piece of junk on the road gets better mileage that his Toyotas, with lower service costs. Read Consumer Reports, April issue.”