Literature Study GuidesBabbittChapters 21 22 Summary

Babbitt | Study Guide

Sinclair Lewis

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Babbitt | Chapters 21–22 | Summary

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Summary

Chapter 21

The Zenith Boosters' Club, led by Vergil Gunch, is organized to promote to the maximum the twin goals of "Service and Boosterism," which are seen as twin poles of "Good Citizenship in all its factors and aspects." To ensure that the entire economic spectrum is covered and provide the most contacts for its members, only two members from each area of business can join, giving equal weight to "medicine and the manufacture of chewing-gum" as a democratic ideal. Guests often include members of the Rotary Club and Kiwanis, all united in the attempt to propel Zenith ever further ahead of other medium-sized cities.

The versifier Chum Frink addresses the members to gain support for his idea to organize a local symphony orchestra. It is hardly his love for "classical music and all that junk" but rather the competitive urge to have culture such as one finds in New York or Chicago. With no awareness of what a symphony involves, he calls for his friends in the club as go-getters to "capitalize Culture" and hire the highest paid conductor on the market (as long as he is not a German). The men applaud the idea before electing the surprised Babbitt as vice president. His high level of pleasure at this recognition is dashed when Myra Babbitt tells him that Paul Riesling is now in jail for having shot and seriously wounded Zilla Riesling.

Chapter 22

Babbitt bribes his way into seeing Paul in jail. Paul is afraid that Babbitt will lecture at him but expresses vague puzzlement at what he had done when he finally snapped. Babbitt would do anything to help Paul but is powerless and leaves. He learns that Zilla will survive with a bad shoulder injury; in his shock, he forbids any further dinner table talk about the event. He offers to Paul's lawyer that he would perjure himself and claim to have been there and seen that it was all accidental. He can attend only the abbreviated trial, where Paul is judged to have been temporarily insane and sentenced to three years' imprisonment.

Analysis

The report on the Boosters' Club meeting shows the comprehensive nature of the members' efforts to convince themselves and the city at large of their importance and power to sway opinion with relentless optimism and self-esteem. Under cover of "service" to others, they want not much more than to patronize one another's occupations, keeping commerce within the "happy fambly" they childishly sing and chant about. Their work is carefully constructed and directed toward every aspect of the economy: plumbers and painters sit next to one another in a kind of Noah's ark of total representation. The assumption is that every man should aim to promote himself as a Booster and be supported by all the others. They will not compete with one another but rather unite against all outside their closed community of interests.

Having knowledge or depth of commitment is not needed, exemplified in the ludicrous assumption that Zenith can and should compete with major cultural centers in fine music, for example, by simply spending the money to buy the talent of "first-class musickers and a swell conductor." If they can make a symphony part of Zenith's appeal, Frink believes it will create jobs for the future and draw branch factories from major cities. Culture holds no interest for the members other than as a business proposition that would propel Zenith into an unknown territory where their hustling mentality and powers of organization would make up for the total lack of background and ability. The men, as usual, are open to any such ideas and cannot tell common sense from enthusiasm, with their "anything is possible" mentality.

In a sense, the boosterism wave reaches its high point in anointing Babbitt as the club's rising vice president, giving him a climactic rush of pride at just the moment his life crashes down around him: the gathering cloud of doom surrounding his pal Paul Riesling breaks apart as he learns Paul has shot his wife and been arrested. The utter clarity and truth of the situation dispels the meaningless babble of the Boosters, as Babbitt finally must face reality and see that good cheer and backslapping are empty gestures.

Seeing Paul Riesling in jail, Babbitt comes face to face with what the two of them have been ignoring all through the novel. Desperate unhappiness and mental instability may have no place in an upbeat narrative such as the Boosters and others promote and sell. The same man who stood brooding on the ship in New York harbor has finally found a way to make himself heard and seen above the cacophony of self-affirming Zenith. Babbitt's influence counts for nothing when such real drama and suffering are apparent. He has been far too busy singing the praises of Zenith and his role in it to have noted the explosion inherent from the start—even though, as Paul's closest friend, he should have.

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