I've been reading Sinclair Lewis' book Babbitt--which two generations ago was a frequently used noun to describe a person obsessed with consumption and consumerism---with a corresponding deficiency in taste, decency, and culture. These days Babbitt reads like a prescient declaration of the future way of things. In the days before banal television programming, a glut of soft news, and widespread anti-intellectualism disguised as low culture, Lewis' George H. Babbitt is the original master of dilettantism and Philistinism. The barker of platitudes and trivialities presented as folk wisdom, Babbitt is meant to satirize the mind of the typical businessman.
A personal reflection, if I may. Large sections of the book makes me uncomfortable on all kinds of levels because, as I've stated directly and indirectly on this blog, I was raped by a man when I was a child. The fallout from that event in my young life is quite pronounced. As a rule, I keep scant male company and there's a reason why most of my friends are female. Lewis' jocular portrayal of back-slapping good old boys and their laddish behavior I find decidedly creepy. Combine a natural aversion to men with a history of never feeling comfortable with so-called normal masculine behavior and one might be able to understand how difficult it is for me to read page after page of vapidity masquerading as male bonding. Even depictions of male bonding make me uncomfortable, since I have a tendency due to the abuse to associate platonic affection between men with latent undertones of overt sexual exploitation.
My own issues aside, the author's point, of course, is to make the conduct of these small-town businessmen with inflated egos and nagging wives seems as patently offensive as possible. We're not to like them---we're to deplore everything for which they stand. These days they'd cheerfully vote Republican whenever possible and cheerfully spout racial epithets on their way to the polls. My hope is that very soon this book won't seem as true to life---though I know the best satire never completely dates.
Sunday, December 28, 2008
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written to reflect reality in order to change it but not really changing it. that's the problem...
I haven't read that book yet but I think I'll put it on my list. Last year I read Lewis' "Mainstreet" about a small town just north of Minneapolis. The book is set around the time of WWI. What I found interesting about the book was the blatant bigotry of the small town business people for the Scandinavian farmers. You could set that book in modern times and substitute 'Mexican' for every Scandinavian reference and it would be exactly the same. It reminds us that we can go forward but sometimes we haven't gotten quite as far as we think.
I read Babbitt back in the last century, and I appreciate seeing the book again through your eyes. I was young enough, when I read it, that the "laddish" behavior struck me mainly as both exotic and pathetic. But you're right, there is something menacing about it that Lewis perhaps only hints at. After all, this is the hyper-modern culture that also revived the Ku Klux Klan. (There's a good account of the Babbitt phase of the KKK, ca. 1920s-1940s, in "The Party of Fear" by David H. Bennett: http://books.google.com/books?id=mH_zVWsUzlUC )
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