Literature Study GuidesBabbittChapters 13 14 Summary

Babbitt | Study Guide

Sinclair Lewis

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Babbitt | Chapters 13–14 | Summary

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Summary

Chapter 13

Babbitt is asked to give a speech at a meeting of the State Association of Real Estate Boards, when he happens to mention that he prefers to be called a realtor and not a real-estate man. He says he wants to be recognized for his public service and professionalism, and his comments seem important enough to be shared. At first, he struggles to get down a sentence and just doodles; then he has a sudden burst of inspiration and writes it all, deciding that writing is very easy and he can beat others at it too.

Babbitt is an official delegate to the state conference, and 50 others also accompany him to Monarch, a rival city to Zenith. They wear buttons with their motto and slogans: "We zoom for Zenith" and "Zenith the Zip City—Zeal, Zest, and Zowie." They claim the city will reach a population of one million in 100 years. Babbitt actually leads cheers at the train station: "Oh, here we come, / The fellows from / Zenith, the Zip Citee. / We wish to state / In real estate / There's none so live as we." Their enthusiasm knows no limits as each city tries to outdo the others. Babbitt goes so far in his pride as to have his clothes pressed on the train in a private washroom.

Monarch is the host city, promoting itself as "Monarch the Mighty Motor Mart" and entertaining all the visiting delegates. One prominent Monarch manufacturer hosts over 600 at her private villa and garden. Afterward, she finds caricatures drawn on ancient sculpture, crumpled napkins, butts in the goldfish pond, and other party souvenirs.

Babbitt gives his formal address to much applause and attention. The Zenith papers back home publish an account of it and his photo, saying his speech was a "sensation." As the convention ends, Zenith and other cities vie to host the next one, but Sparta offers $8,000 in entertainment costs and is selected.

On the last evening, Babbitt, now known to many of the other delegates, drinks bootleg whiskey in one of the suites and goes out with several other men who all talk about how much they would like to have some fun. First, they dine at the Hotel Sedgwick and mercilessly tease an Italian waiter, "a poor Dago," calling him Gooseppy, Pedro, Carlo, Antonio, Garibaldi, and Michelovitch Angeloni. They make stupid remarks about Italy to him for their own amusement. Eventually, they head to a burlesque show, where "a Jewish comedian made vicious fun of Jews" and they all overdrank on prohibition-era alcohol, becoming sick and ugly drunks. Upon his return next day to Zenith, Babbitt has the sense of having broken out and behaved badly, with no consequences.

Chapter 14

Babbitt takes an active part in the election in autumn 1920, not at the presidential level, but locally. Seneca Doane is running for mayor on a liberal platform based on an appeal to labor. The other parties unite to back Lucas Prout, a nondescript local manufacturer. Babbitt campaigns heavily for Prout, whose victory is an indication of Babbitt's rhetorical abilities. His reputation grows as a leading speaker, and he is asked to give the annual address for the Zenith Real Estate Board. The local newspaper reports the full text, in which Babbitt repeats over and over the claim that Zenith is the best city in the world. He knocks New York, Chicago, and Philadelphia as places where "no decent white [would] shake the hand of his neighbor" and instead proposes Zenith as the best location for a "well-balanced, Christian, go-ahead future for this little old planet."

He praises the population made up of ideal regular guys who have a natural taste in the arts, more paintings, more phonographs, more records, and more operas. He criticizes other parts of the world, where he has never been, for being old, shabby, out of date, and useless. For him, the standardized citizen of Zenith, unlike those in larger American cities or "the decayed nations of Europe," has hair on his chest, a smile in his eyes, and adding machines in his office.

Other cities suffer from too many foreigners, from alien ideas and communism. He calls Zenith "Zip City" for its spirit and contrasts it with "moth-eaten, mildewed, out of date, old European dumps." Instead of those places with their "bootblacks ... and booze," Zenith produces more condensed milk and cream and paper cartons than any other city, as well as numerous other consumer goods. Moreover, he quotes a long rambling piece by Chum Frink in praise of standardization in the way of life across the United States so that no traveler is ever far from feeling at home wherever he finds himself, as these places are all rather like his own.

Babbitt is also sure to mention the Second National Tower he appreciates so much from his windows, "the second highest business building in any inland city in the entire country." He goes on for pages and pages of laudatory statistics to prove that Zenith is supreme in his eye and, in closing, criticizes the state university he attended for undesirable radicals, liberals, socialists, and other "hoboes and roustabouts" on the faculty, people whose patriotism he questions and whom he would like to fire. It is the all-around regular American guy with church and social memberships that forms the foundation of Zenith and draws Babbitt's praise in point after point.

Analysis

Babbitt is not content with his successful real-estate career but aspires to be a leader in the life of his city and its citizens. He leverages his position in real estate to do this and has real success because he enjoys public speaking and never hesitates to praise the city and its population by making elaborate and exaggerated claims of greatness. He is a cheerleader—not in sports but in spirit building—and has the gift of finding alliterative slogans and sayings that play on the role of Zenith as a medium-sized manufacturing city. Just as he sold and rented countless properties, so he sells the entire city to those who already have chosen to live there. He plays on their self-esteem to convince them they are doing things no one else is doing or can do. Zenith produces more condensed milk than any other city, but naturally be does not mention the fact that those other places could brag about the products they produce more of than Zenith. He has catchy sayings and slogans branding Zenith with all manner of adjectives starting with Z.

None of his claims are ever challenged, because they are all so flattering and self-promotional. Negatives are reserved for non-Americans both abroad and in U.S. cities. He neither knows nor has had any experience with them, so any type of wild claims can be made against them. The conservative politics of 1920 America permit the demonization of all liberal, labor-oriented ideas as harbingers of the feared communism that was gaining ground in European countries after the destruction of World War I. The very mention of socialist figures stirs feelings of patriotism in Babbitt's audiences, and he can sway them to accept his exalted claims for the rather ordinary city by pointing to dangers outside, as well as his anti-intellectual bias against university members who do not agree with his sales pitch.

For all his optimistic and moralistic speeches, the ugly bigoted behavior the drunk delegates indulge in at the convention gives a totally different coloration to their intolerance and cruelty toward the standard targets of their stereotypes—commonly Italians and Jews who were entering mainstream American economic life, which Babbitt and his friends thought was theirs exclusively.

Sinclair Lewis provides the entire text of Babbitt's masterly and comprehensive address at the Real Estate Board and gives it its own chapter, since it would be hard to summarize or shorten the speech. Babbitt makes unfounded and wild claims against much of the rest of the world in order to praise Americans in general and Zenith in particular. Although he has no interest in the arts, he confidently asserts that Zenith is a world leader in reproductions of art of the proper kind, not the subversive useless works done in dirty attics by drunkards and spaghetti-eaters. Every stereotype and cliché imaginable is introduced with such number and impact that an audience would be quite powerless to single out an instance of something they had not encountered before.

Typical of the meaninglessness of his statistics is the nod to his favorite bank tower as a citadel of faith and prosperity. It is the second tallest, not even the first, and only in inland cities. Such a triviality, however, becomes a stellar example of some distinction even if no one can be very interested in its banality. The address is remarkable for the flow of detail Babbitt piles on a very slender base. He has grown into a highly skilled and demagogic public figure, a very big fish in an inland setting no more remarkable than many others—but to him exemplary.

He realizes his own growing importance, attributing it to his revival of spirits during the time spent with Paul Riesling in Maine when he believes he purged himself of doubts and negativity. He would like to continue his ascent through all aspects of life in Zenith.

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