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George Babbitt, C'est Moi

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I'm lagging behind in my book reviews. On my ongoing quest to read and hopefully understand the American novel of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, I'm running into authors that I need to circle around and pick up on the other side of my objective - USA by John Dos Passos. I'm finding authors that intrigue me and I want to read more, but if I dwell on them too much, I'll bog down and never get to USA. Sinclair Lewis is one of those authors.

I read Main Street and Babbitt. I enjoyed both, but Babbitt I found to be particularly disturbing because it seemed to a great extent biographical -- of me!! George Babbitt is in his late 40s, he has a wife who he doesn't particularly love, but is highly comfortable, he has a middle class life, he has a job that he's good at but not particularly satisfied with, and three children that he worries over. George is middle everything. He promises to change aspects of his life, but lacks the strength, for example stopping smoking. He has dozens of acquaintances and neighbors, but only one true friend.

You get the sense that George is in a rut and at the same time he would like to change it he lacks the ambition to do anything about it. Once we learn this much about him, George has lunch with his best friend, Paul. Paul is sick of being hen-pecked by his wife. They plot to go off to Maine together on a camping trip prior to the rest of their families' joining them. It becomes a magical time for Babbitt, but his friend becomes even more miserable.

Eventually, Paul shoots his wife. He doesn't kill her, but he is sentenced to five years in jail. George realizes that in essence his friend and his friendship are dead. It leaves a hole in his life and opens his eyes to the possibilities of being a different kind of person, one who is a little less mainstream, who doesn't necessarily agree with every opinion that a man of his station is expected to hold and behave in a way that a man is of his station is expected to carry himself. He starts expressing some liberal political views and starts running around with a widow while is wife is away caring for her sister. He starts drinking to excess.

He starts to lose his acquaintances. Business opportunities start passing him by. People start to challenge the changes in him and rebels. His wife comes home and she knows that something is up. George runs away from it all and goes to Maine with the intention of never returning to his home in Zenith. The trip to Maine doesn't go well and he returns home with his tail between his legs and resumes the life he had always led. It seems sad, but you feel somewhat happy that George finally discovers that he was satisfied with his life just the way it was.

Now this novel isn't an exact parallel to my life story, but I sympathized with this man when he questioned working at the same job for so long and reflected on what might have been. When one has lived in the same location with the same woman for a long time you have similar thoughts. It's called a mid-life crisis. I had a mini-version when I went out drinking with single friends, acting as a flirtatious wing man. I flirted to the brink of infidelity and scared the crap out of myself. So I went back to the mundane, still wholly unsatisfied. When it boiled down to regrets, my biggest regret was leaving college early to take a job with the company I am working for 30 years later and abandoning my dream of becoming a writer or literature professor.

So I needed something that was uniquely mine and thus friends we have the road to Dos Passos. Which, by the way, I accidentally paved in an excellent way. I built the road with authors known for realism, naturalism, and setting a course to modernism. I've found authors that I want to explore more thoroughly, Dreiser, Norris, Lewis. I've discovered I'm not a Henry James fan. But the shelf of works on that road is almost clear, but you should see the mess on the backside of Dos Passos.

I think I'll turn to you good folks to help me organize that mess at a later time.
Q

Updated 12-07-2008 at 11:24 PM by PabloQ

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My Literary Journey

Comments

  1. Virgil's Avatar
    I didn't realize you were in your forties Pablo. I've never read Babbitt, so I can't comment otherwise.
  2. PabloQ's Avatar
    Forties in the rear view mirror.
  3. kiz_paws's Avatar
    Great book review, Pablo. And I thank you for sharing your personal thoughts.

    Forties in the rear view mirror.
    Brilliant quip. Love this blog!