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0163 | Babbitt – Sinclair Lewis

Context: Listened to this courtesy of librivox.org while walking to and from work through the bluebells in Dell’s Wood.

Long ago, when my mother-in-law and her sister asked me what I wanted for Christmas, I said any non-fiction Pulitzer prize winning books. They mistook non-fiction for fiction and I ended up with, amongst others, two books from the Rabbit series by John Updike. While I admire Updike for his amazingly captivating writing, the guy has a disturbing penchant for sex which would have Freud salivating. Not my thing. But my accidental and brief foray into the world of Rabbit gave me enough background to know that when I got into Babbitt, Updike had ripped it off entirely.

Okay, okay all you Updike fans can take it easy. I know the guy was a genius and won Pulitzers all over the place. But Lewis won the Nobel Prize right… the Nobel!

There are just too many coincidences between the books for Updike not to have borrowed heavily from the themes Lewis raises. Babbitt is about your average, aging, mid-West USAnian guy. A businessman, a family man, a nowhere man. He’s got it all and he’s got absolutely nothing. He is on top of the world and then in crisis. He’s yearning for change and hoping that nothing changes. He’s everyman.

And through all these very human themes, Lewis is absolutely scathing about mid-war US culture. He just can’t satirise it enough. I loved it. He was ahead of his time. He really was. Just as well really. If he’d tried all that about twenty years later, during the era of the Red Terror, he’d have been locked up.

So, for those of you who’ve read some of the Rabbit series but never heard of Sinclair Lewis, you have some self-education to undergo. Go out and get yourselves a copy of this and read about where it all started.

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.

Arms about each other’s shoulders, the Babbitt men marched into the living-room and faced the swooping family.

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Find out more about Sinclair Lewis.

4 comments… add one
  • Eddie 2 May, 2009, 12:01 am

    I read ‘Rabbit, Run’ and ‘Rabbit Redux’ recently, and actually picked up Run because I couldn’t find a copy of ‘Babbit’, and I wanted to read a suburban story (I’ve been liking these in general). Yea, I agree, Updike’s descriptions of sex and sexuality are almost all a big downer, and take up way too much space I think (got Much crazier in Redux)– there is so much good stuff though….it’s too bad, but it’s his story write I guess. I might still read the rest– I like the familiar characters.

    The parts of Run with Rev. Eccles are some of my favorite writing.

    I will have to be sure to read ‘Babbit’ soon. Right now I’m reading something called ‘White Noise’, and it’s good.

  • cipriano 14 May, 2009, 4:24 am

    What an excellent review. I always take your ratings seriously, and I know a “7” is significant.
    I’ve been wondering what to take with me on my holidays, coming up soon, and I like to travel light… as in without heavy big books.
    I have had a small [ancient] paperback of Babbitt on my shelf for about 50 years now… perhaps this should be my holiday read!

    • Arukiyomi 14 May, 2009, 8:05 am

      thanks so much Cip. Wow… next time I rate a book, my fingers will tremble knowing how seriously you might be taking them 😉 Guess you won’t be breaking open a copy of Little Women anytime soon then!

      Historically, I thought this book was a very significant one for US literature. Aside from that, I found the protagonist like a collected edition of those of Bellow and Updike: at once intense and yet always somehow laughably so.

  • Cliff 6 January, 2013, 10:27 pm

    It’s very nice to see ‘Babbitt’ reviewed on here. I have yet to meet anyone else that has read it: a great shame, as it remains one of the great commentaries on american values. Along with ‘Main Street’ and ‘USA’, it’s one of my very favourite reads from that era.

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