FROM THE STACKS NOVEMBER 5, 2013
It was not as a novel that Main Street was interesting, because a novel is a picture of life and of people, and life is a whole and people have three dimensions, plus an inscrutable core of individuality about which their recreator in fiction must not seem to have too complete a knowledge if he wishes them to appear real. Sinclair Lewis was almost always in visible and tyrannical possession of his characters' souls: they spoke, but how obviously at his prompting; they moved, but how plainly because he pulled the strings. Only occasionally—with Dr. Kennicott—did he achieve the difficult art of not seeming to be inside a character's head, of seeming to let him go his own way. Something mattered to him more than people: the trivial and repressive mind of a small town, the fungus of dullness, venom and misunderstanding which grows over ideals and aspirations and stifles them.
But Mr. Lewis did not give us a rounded picture of this, because he was more bent on destroying than describing. All through Main Street—the same is true of Babbitt—his dislike for his subject outstripped his interest in it, and gave the book its predominating flavor, which was acid.
Why then does Main Street remain a significant book, and one that Americans will probably remember for some time? Isn't it mostly because so many people bought it that we realized for the first time that as a nation we were beginning to become self-conscious? If Main Street lives, it will probably be not as a novel but as an incident in American life.
Main Street was a complaint. Babbitt is an indictment. The scene is shifted from a small town to a city. And in a city the dragon which rules over a small town vaguely, if really enough, becomes an army of dragons with a lot of heads, and the dragons all have names and live in identifiable caves, and Mr. Lewis explores these caves and calls the dragons by their real names. The Boosters' Club, the Rotary Club, the Y.M.C.A., the Church, the newspaper, the bank, the street railway, the Realtors' Association, these are the dragons who conspire to make and keep George F. Babbitt, an ordinary, decent-hearted, soft, average, mediocre American business man, a slave to their own vulgar, noisy, cheap, insincere, illiterate standards of life, by offering him their usual rewards of specious good-fellowship, an ugly but comfortable home, an automobile, and a perishable popularity.
While Mr. Lewis undoubtedly has an eye—and in several places a very warm heart—for Babbitt's emotional travails, his gnawing doubts, his booms of confidence, the shabby emotional back-alleys in which he seeks release from an intolerable struggle, Mr. Lewis's chief effort is going after the scalps of the dragons. This he achieves with enormous success. I don't believe anyone has his particular talent for describing the relentless gladhandedness of the lunchers at the Athletic Club of Zenith, nor the grotesque, silly emptiness and self-conceit of the Realtors’ delegations as they assemble at the railway station. Mr. Lewis does this sort of thing extraordinarily well, though one wonders why one so seldom laughs at these caricatures, until one notices that he himself is not so much laughing at these ridiculous people as trying with all his might to kick the life out of them. He enjoys mimicking them so hugely that he does it a great deal too much, and the people whose speech he mimics seem all to draw their talk from the same source. It is an inexhaustible source: page after page of the book is spread thick with the same composite of slang, repetition, triviality and crude generalization.
In Main Street there was the same font of slangy, trivial, repetitious speech used indiscriminately by most of the characters. In Babbitt a great deal more of the talk is about general ideas. The boosting business man’s ideas about labor, freedom, politics are in the lime-light, and Mr. Lewis is concerned in showing us over and over again how undigested, dogmatic but above all how illiberal they are. A defence of a liberal point of view by ridicule and savage attack on its opposite can almost be said to be the undercurrent of Babbitt. This shows us again how much more specific is Mr. Lewis's second tirade against our society.
The moral pointed out in Main Street was fairly vague: You cannot live in a small town and not be squashed. Babbitt's moral is more precise; Mr. Lewis has passed from emotional ground to somewhere nearer politics. If you are a business man in a large town you cannot try to be liberal and survive. Such and such dragons, who exist in actual life, will certainly step on you.
The dragons are the household gods of the big city, which is the home of people who have arrived. The ambition of the small town citizen is to leave its restraint. It is much easier to appeal to his dissatisfaction than it is to try to tell the large city's booster that his gods are devils, especially if you indict his gods as specifically as Mr. Lewis has done. Will the readers he is aiming at in Babbitt resent the attack more than the Main Streeters did? It will be interesting to see.
Babbitt is hideously true to the worst things in America. The fact that it is not the whole truth makes it not so much a novel as a terribly damaging attack on nearly all of our worst faults, and a brilliant piece of propaganda for some future America which will be rid of them. To destroy evil it isolates evil: that is not fiction. It is a contribution to the prevailing mood, among intellectuals. There's a lot more to America, even that part of her next door to the Boosters' Club, than the crude and frantic gospel of the Boosters. There's a rich, easy-going humor, a genuine if not always effective kindliness, intimately mixed with the Booster streak. Isn't Mr. Lewis, by contrast with a writer interested in giving us characters of such a genuine American admixture, mentally almost an exile from America?
Does he not reject us? Is he not unwilling to be as interested in us, all of us and every part of us, as if we were children from whom no moral responsibility for the state of the society they live in can be expected? I wonder if he would be interested in writing about a community whose members he felt to be irresponsible, though they were human beings none the less. I suspect that he is more interested in motives than in people. I feel, in both Main Street and Babbitt, that what most prevents his characters from becoming real is his ineradicable tendency to entertain moral judgments about them—though I usually agree with those moral judgments. The mood of a novelist, if not one of love alone, should at least be odi et amo. I feel that Mr. Lewis is saying odi nearly all the time.