Babbitt | Study Guide

Sinclair Lewis

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Babbitt | Context

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Prohibition in the United States

Babbitt takes place in the context of the new federal prohibition of alcohol consumption (except in special circumstances) as mandated by the 18th Amendment to the Constitution, passed in 1919. The movement to ban alcohol had grown during the 19th century from its origins as a Protestant church-led effort to improve conditions of life and introduce social justice, including abolitionism and woman's suffrage. Some states banned alcohol on their own (first Maine in 1846), and the Anti-Saloon League and Woman's Christian Temperance Union worked to bring it to a national scope. Both Houses of Congress passed the amendment in 1917, and when ratified by three-quarters of the states, it became law in January 1919. One year later it took effect over the veto of President Woodrow Wilson (1856–1924). The House Judiciary Committee was charged with enforcement, which became an immediate problem divided between federal and state jurisdictions.

Babbitt thus is narrated at the very start of the 13-year span of Prohibition. The new law met with much opposition from individual urban populations who were reluctant to surrender their right to consume wine, whiskey, and beer. The rural population was less opposed, but enforcing Prohibition anywhere was a great challenge. Alcohol from the start was smuggled in across the land borders and in great amounts by sea. Supplies were brought to the edge of the coastal jurisdiction limits of the country and then outraced the few boats sent to intercept them. People soon found sources of "medicinal whiskey" that could be transformed for sale and consumption. Organized criminals made great fortunes in bootlegging, running and supplying speakeasies, and managing distilling to circumvent the weak law.

The Mafia ran large-scale criminal operations linking illegal whiskey with prostitution, gambling, and loan-sharking. The gangster culture, with its violent celebrities and subsequent opposition to law enforcement, became a leading element of life in the 1920s, reflected in the media and popular culture.

During the economically depressed years following 1929, enforcing Prohibition was less and less popular because it was seen as a loss of important tax revenues and a drain on chances for economic recovery, with large amounts of money lost to state and federal governments. By 1933 the 21st Amendment repealed the entire effort.

Although the men in Babbitt present themselves as conservative and law-abiding, with great respect for authority and rule of law, they make no pretense of giving up alcohol. No one speaks in favor of following the law for themselves although they can accept it for the supposedly lower working classes who need controlling. It becomes a class differentiator and a matter of pride in being able to locate sources of drink, a matter of being clever and inventive. Double standards and corruption are seen as everyday parts of life, and the challenge to authority is accepted as part of being modern and up-to-date, giving a very different picture of life beyond the clichés and exaggerations of moral integrity and greatness.

Bigotry in 1920s American Culture

In Babbitt, which presents a comprehensive picture of life in a medium-sized American city in the post–World War I (1914–18) era, readers encounter a dismaying amount of unconcealed bigotry. No attempt is made to sugarcoat the stereotyped attitudes and perceptions of numerous characters, both major and minor, and when the remarks are launched, no one opposes or questions them. Zenith is proudly conservative and mainstream Christian, and its citizens have no inclination toward admitting or recognizing others of any sort. No violence takes place, but the bigotry and hatred are clear and have been passed down from earlier generations, just as citizens never hesitate to make remarks in full sight and hearing of their own families as well as strangers in trains or other public places.

Xenophobia is accepted and widespread. The public discourse consistently praises anything native and American, claiming with no factual evidence that in all aspects of life foreigners are deficient, inefficient, unhealthy, and wasteful. They lack the American know-how for standardization and pragmatic progress and are said to be backward and out of step with modern life. Part of the enormous amount of self-congratulatory flag-waving and self-promoting language in the novel is vilification of and insult toward all those outside their closed world. Jews and Italians are especially the targets of prejudice because they apparently have advanced sufficiently in professional fields to make the majority feel threatened. As people outside the mainstream Christian world, they are ridiculed at many points and never defended or accepted but instead seen as dangerous, likely "liberal," elements disloyal to the conservative majority.

Italians are consistently stereotyped as "Wops" by many speakers, and one of the most painful scenes involves a dinner companion of Babbitt insulting and harassing an Italian waiter by calling him insulting and childish names, while the others simply laugh. Wop is an offensive slur derived from the Italian word guappo, which in Southern Italian dialects is pronounced wah-po, or even wahp.

Jews are center stage in this phenomenon, with so many slights and insults launched that readers may come to expect them. A frequent lunch table guest is Sidney Finkelstein, a local businessman who has apparently Christianized himself at the YMCA to the extent that he can vilify his own family as old-fashioned Jews he has nothing to do with. He and others tell jokes in Jewish accents, including a Jewish comedian specializing in such routines. None of Finkelstein's friends even comment on his speech, since they must be accustomed to it. Lewis simply reports the words as apparently part of daily life.

At this time in Middle America, Jews were subject to a nationwide campaign by American industrialist Henry Ford (1863–1947). His newspaper, The Dearborn Independent, ran a series of vicious columns for two years denouncing "the International Jew" as a main threat to the homespun American values Ford claimed to represent. The work appeared in a four-volume set or could be bought for 5 cents weekly and was distributed to buyers of the Model-T. Up to a million copies may have circulated, and the columns were translated into 12 languages. German dictator Adolf Hitler (1889–1945) greatly admired Ford, and one of his chief lieutenants, Hitler Youth leader Baldur von Schirach (1907–74), testified at his trial after World War II (1939–45) that his anti-Semitism first arose after reading about "the International Jew." Ford later retracted his sentiments in 1927, but as late as 1938 for his 75th birthday, he received a Nazi Grand Cross from the German consul in Detroit.

Minorities were subject to open and unquestioned discrimination in mainstream media in the form of stereotyping jokes and illustrations playing on recognizable imagery. Newspapers ran advertisements for jobs and for permanent or vacation rentals openly indicating who should not bother applying, since quotas existed in education, employment, housing, and other areas of life. Decades before any civil rights legislation, to be in a minority often meant constant reminders of what was closed to you. The country changed greatly after World War I (1914–18), but the change was often accompanied by a withdrawal into the familiar and restricted environment of the past.

In Zenith—as well as outside its fictional location—bigotry and the classification of people into acceptable versus undesirable were a part of everyday life, even at a time of presumed affluence and growth. During the more difficult years of want and conflict that followed, it was never surprising to encounter such attitudes, so their widespread currency in Babbitt is simply noted and repeated.

Social Roles in Post–World War I America

World War I was the first involvement of the United States in a foreign war for those living at the time, and it brought great changes in the way they lived then and into the future. The maps of Europe and other continents were redrawn, old empires and traditions of power simply disappeared, and new—sometimes revolutionary—ideas were discussed. Europe was in many ways shattered by World War I, the bloody conflict costing millions of lives, and then further decimated by the spread of infectious disease that accompanied it. The United States had considerable losses, but in comparison it seemed less devastated and more likely to assume a world leadership role. The spread of communism and the mass movement of millions of uprooted peoples were seen as immediate threats to the future, bringing about defensive policies to control and limit the unknown menace.

But one area that did open to great change was the role of gender during the period following the war. Men returned to find women looking and acting very differently. Information about the world around them was available through the huge craze of radio access, vastly increased media in the form of newspapers, magazines, and motion pictures. Many women had emerged from sheltered and restricted, long-skirted and corseted lives into a modern era in which opportunities could be pursued.

Women had taken leading roles in social issues such as suffrage, temperance, and abolition, often combining several causes into one attempt to open the world to change that previously could be made only by men. Gaining the right to vote and hold office was but one significant step into modernity. Women could see the future in the media images of other women living so differently from their mothers or how they had lived before. Men still held power in all areas, but women would come to challenge them when they could, and the images they presented of themselves were an initial challenge impossible to ignore.

The availability of cars for transport also greatly increased options for women since they were no longer restricted to their family's home. As a result, they could experience far more of the world outside, especially in urban environments—where new appliances did much of their work for them—and in advertising, which showed them visions of life that seemed liberating. Their clothes went from street length to above the knee, their hair was often cut short, and their faces could be made up with newly developed cosmetics that previously were associated with immorality.

A youth culture equally shared with males was an immediate product of media influence, since now young people became consumers of objects and styles designed for them, often connected to sports and leisure activities or fads and trends that spread through communication paths previously unknown.

In Babbitt the change in gender images is significant. While Myra Babbitt represents to George a traditional and inexpressive female presence, the other women in the book are far more interesting and memorable. Women are in the workplace. They dress casually and even alluringly across class lines, write and spread information, and have independent existences that men have to learn to cope with. Men in turn speak very often about being he-men, to restore their confidence.

At the end of the novel, Babbitt accepts his son's elopement with Eunice Littlefield as part of an admiration he has had for him throughout the book. Her youth and energy make her a figure of the new woman already emerging, and Babbitt sees her influence on his son as a positive force that may take both of them far more compellingly into the future he always hesitated to enter. He himself may go on secretly pining for an ideal fairy girl of his dreams, but he has the realization that this is a fantasy compared to the actual women who are now much more a part of his city and his country because the old gender limitations have to a certain degree been brushed away.

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