Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Sinclair Lewis' "Main Street + Babbitt": Book Review

Relevance: a word often associated nowadays with a writer whom many (Mark Schorer's 1961 biography seems to blame) regarded as "the worst {American?} ever to win a Nobel." When some of us wonder if the political and cultural divisions that persist and morph in our nation have deeper roots than the newest pundit on Comedy Central or the newscast on Fox News, the radio left or right of the dial, here's one novelist who was reflecting on the American divide between heartland and coast, city and farm, hamlet and suburb, nearly a hundred years ago.

His two most famous novels, back-to-back bestsellers early in the 1920s, here are joined in a typically handy and handsome edition from the Library of America. Like many in this series, there's few notes. John Hersey finds a few arcane references we need to know, and there's a timeline of Lewis's life and a brief note on him, but the editorial policy appears to let the reader confront the text as much as possible. Neither of these two novels gained perhaps the long-standing media recognition of "Elmer Gantry" (Burt Lancaster's appeal may be credited!), but they provided us with "Babbitt" as a byword for small-city conformity, and "Main Street" as shorthand for small-town stultification. (Preacher "Elmer" along with "Dodsworth" the physician and "Arrowsmith" the auto manufacturer appear in a second LoA volume.)

Lewis's liberalism never's disguised, and part of the awkward tone if well-intended, bluntly persuasive charm of what are clearly propagandist pieces as well as entertainment. As a promoter of values I suspect are close to her creator, Carol Kennicott's decision to settle down in Gopher Prairie to try to inspire its stolid natives takes a long time to elaborate its ramifications for her and her neighbors. Clearly, Lewis looks at the town based on his own Sauk Centre as a template upon which to sketch his grievances with the heartland, but you also sense compassion and sensitivity as he listens to Carol and watches her confront the forces that keep pressing her down to do as the local folks do.

With George F. Babbitt, you get two years of his boosterism and boorish encounters in Zenith, a larger Midwestern burg. Here, Lewis plays off of his foil as the lead. Babbitt may not be as much a would-be rebel, but as with Carol, he chafes in his own way against the bit, even if he must (as many of us) resign himself to be part of the herd. Lewis gives us a recognizable caricature, then tries to make someone we can understand.

I liked both novels with their respectively calm and frenetic ability to convey what people nearly a century ago read, ate, debated, and dabbled in. Lewis paints his targets and splatters them relentlessly, but underneath I sense also a desire to comprehend how so many millions invent or indulge in the opinions they do, and how they act. I confess the sociological style of his novels (as with John Dos Passos' "Manhattan Transfer" and the "USA trilogy") may not wear as well for today's readers. However, I enjoy the brisk, peppy immersion into slang, diction, and ideas that swirled around those caught up in the Twenties, full of wealth and ambition for some, that remind me of more recent boom times--and busts.

By the way, speaking of busts, I recommend a deft audiobook rendering by Christopher Hurt of Sinclair Lewis' last true success, "It Can't Happen Here" (1935) and that prediction of an alternate history. It's strange as it happens almost as it's published, more or less. A 1936 FDR's re-election gets shunted aside for a corn-pone fascist recalling that played by Andy Griffith years later in the film "A Face in the Crowd." Berzilius "Buzz" Windrip takes over as president, with a clever calculation of xenophobic rhetoric and progressive bluster that appears buffoonish, until he solidifies power with the 50 million during the Depression desperate enough for "hope and change"--out of a nimble combination of populism, prejudice, and pandering. Windrip matches the Hitlers and the Mussolinis, in Lewis' dire (melo?-)drama. (8-5-12 to Amazon US)

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