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Babbitt, first published in 1922, is largely a satire about "typical" American culture, society, and behavior, its main theme focuses on the power of conformity and the vacuity of middle-class American life.
Lewis, the son of a doctor, was born in the small Minnesota town he later reinvented in his novel MAIN STREET. He tried to enlist in the Spanish-American War when he was 13, but was brought back home by his distraught parents. He attended the local public schools, after which he went to Yale, where he never really felt accepted. He left in 1906 without a degree to work at Helicon Hall, Upton Sinclair's Utopian community, followed by an impulsive interlude when he traveled to Panama hoping (in vain) to help build the canal. He returned to Yale, however, and finally graduated in 1908. He then spent several years working at odd jobs and writing for newspapers as he traveled the U.S. He also began to write fiction, most of it negligible. In the 1920s he began to produce the handful of novels that would ensure his place in literary history, beginning with MAIN STREET (1920), which was enormously successful, selling hundreds of thousands of copies; it was followed by BABBITT (1922), ARROWSMITH (1925), ELMER GANTRY (1927), and DODSWORTH (1929), most of them satirical critiques of American middle-class complacency. All these novels were popular best-sellers, and contributed to America's postwar de-sentimentalized view of itself. After he became a literary lion, Lewis taught at Midwestern universities. He was married and divorced twice; his second wife was the well-known newspaperwoman Dorothy Thompson. When he became ill, in his mid-60s, he moved to Italy, where he died at 65 of heart disease. Lewis was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature in 1930 "for his vigorous and graphic art of description and his ability to create, with wit and humour, new types of characters." Lewis famously described himself as "a dull fellow whose virtue--if there is any--is to be found in his books."
"It has that something extra, over and above, which makes the work of art, and it is signed in every line with the unique personality of the writer. It is saturated with American's vitality which makes one obey the rhythms of its dance music. And combined with this, Mr. Lewis has an individual gift of humour, a curiously sage devotion to craftsmanship, and a poetic passion for his own, new country."
From the Publisher
Sinclair Lewis's seventh novel, the first written after the breakout success of MAIN STREET, is a scathing satirical critique of capitalism, conformity, and "boosterism" in the fictional Midwestern city of Zenith. The novel's protagonist, George F. Babbitt, is a middle-aged boss at a real estate agency who excels at selling overpriced houses of poor quality. Obsessed with status, and seeking to rise in the city's tight-knit class system, Babbitt desperately strives to join the right groups, express the best opinions, and know the finest people--but he hopelessly bungles his attempt to climb the social ladder. Suffering an emotional crisis, he briefly rebels and embraces more liberal viewpoints, but the social structure quickly reins him in, forcing Babbitt to realign himself once again with the cultural mainstream. Babbitt is pathetic, pompous, and frequently detestable, but in his earnest, awkward struggles, Lewis sympathetically portrays the tragedy of an individual squashed by the strictures of a banal society.