The novel Babbitt was written by Sinclair Lewis in 1922. The book's main character is named George Babbitt, a real estate salesman. He lives in a city called Zenith. The character of Babbitt is a conformist, a traditionalist type who Lewis is satirizing in this novel. The events of the book chronicle the events of 1920-21 in Babbitt's life. He has a sudden change of mindset and stops conforming for a time. He supports labor unions, has an affair with a widow, and is ostracized by the community.
He eventually goes back to his old ways and is accepted once again, but encourages his son to break away. Lewis, as we know, hated small towns. I also suspect that the issues in Babbitt were a part of living in one. Sinclair Lewis used Babbitt to illustrate negative themes such as conformity. Conformity is a major issue in this novel. Babbitt is the ultimate conformist. He believes, as Coolidge said, that 'The business of America is business. ' Babbitt thinks that being successful in business is the greatest possible achievement for a man.
He belongs to the Elks Club, Booster Club, Republican Party, etc. , yet probably doesn't know why. He joined because he was expected to and everyone else did. George Babbitt is very concerned with his status in relation others. He very much wants to be well-regarded. Babbitt helps a local conservative in his bid for mayor, because he wishes to improve his social position and power. Babbitt buys all the latest home appliances and expensive technology to 'keep up' with his friends and neighbors. He wears his Booster Club button on his suit, and belongs to various social clubs.
Babbitt's hypocrisy was another theme covered in the novel. He advocates prohibition, but drinks privately. He contributes to the church, but has no faith. He believes in his own righteousness and is proud of his position in society, but cheats business clients and carouses. But Babbitt was virtuous. He advocated, though he did not practice, the prohibition of alcohol; he praised, though he did not obey, the laws against motor-speeding; he paid his debts; he contributed to the church, the Red Cross, and the Y. M. C. A. he followed the custom of his clan and cheated only as it was sanctified by precedent; and he never descended to trickery? though, as he explained to Paul Riesling: 'Course I don't mean to say that every ad I write is literally true or that I always believe everything I say when I give some buyer a good strong selling-spiel. You see? you see it's like this: In the first place, maybe the owner of the property exaggerated when he put it into my hands, and it certainly isn't my place to go proving my principal a liar! In the end, he only feels empty.
Babbitt changes and rebels against the society that he was a part of, but reverts back to his old self, having realized that the 'other side' doesn't have the answers either He can only hope that his son doesn't follow his father. In this novel, Lewis portrays religious leaders as corrupt. An evangelist called 'Mike Monday' (a parody of Billy Sunday, I'd guess), is employed to stop a union strike. Another church pastor is only out for profit and seems faithless. In the following passage from a Zenith newspaper, Lewis satirizes the church:
The Rev. Dr. John Jennison Drew, M. A. , pastor of the beautiful Chatham Road Presbyterian Church in lovely Floral Heights, is a wizard soul-winner. He holds the local record for conversions. During his shepherdhood an average of almost a hundred sin-weary persons per year have declared their resolve to lead a new life and have found a harbor of refuge and peace. Everything zips at the Chatham Road Church. The subsidiary organizations are keyed to the top-notch of efficiency. Dr. Drew is especially keen on ood congregational singing. Bright cheerful hymns are used at every meeting, and the special Sing Services attract lovers of music and professionals from all parts of the city. On the popular lecture platform as well as in the pulpit Dr. Drew is a renowned word-painter, and during the course of the year he receives literally scores of invitations to speak at varied locations both here and elsewhere. The pastor thanks Babbitt profusely for arranging the newspaper tribute. Business is portrayed in this novel as a corrupting force.
Everything in the city revolves around money, profits, and advantage. Clearly, Sinclair Lewis would be defined as a 'liberal' individual, and he used this novel to explore themes that were current at the time (and today). The 1920's were a time of great conflict between workers and management and labor had begun to decline after 1920. This issue is a recurrent one in the novel. Babbitt has achieved the 'American Dream'. He has everything he wanted, but still wants more and more and can't be satisfied.
Lewis is perhaps raising the question of whether this is the American Dream, or if millions of Americans have been misinformed and misguided. Sinclair Lewis targeted religious leaders due to the sudden popularity of fundamentalist preachers after World War I. Billy Sunday and Aimee Semple McPherson were hugely popular and certainly known by Lewis at the time of the novel's writing. To a modernist like Lewis, they were phonies. Faith-healing and a literal interpretation of the Bible wouldn't go over with even religious modernists.
Lewis likely saw these types of figures as hypocrites, because they preached a traditionalist lifestyle. While at the same time, religious leaders were often exposed as frauds and charlatans. Modernists like Lewis believed that fundamentalist traditionalists were slowing modernization and were largely just 'stupid people', to put it bluntly. Modernist thinkers felt that fundamentalists used religion to stop new ideas from being discussed, such as in the case of John Scopes.
I feel that Sinclair Lewis just wanted to continue to expose tradionalists as hypocrites and used Babbitt to do so very effectively and very comedically. Throughout Babbitt, Sinclair Lewis pokes fun and shows the absurdity of conformity, bowing to peer pressure, and greed. As a modernist, Sinclair Lewis chose the targets of his time: Fundamentalist Preachers and Businessmen, and proceeded to show the absurdities and sometime hypocrisy of both. His novel was effective in conveying its ideas, and concludes with hope for the future, in Ted Babbitt, who made his own decisions and didn't conform.