Thirteen years ago, while a freshman at a small private college in Florida, I picked up Sinclair Lewis's Babbitt. An amusing, often vicious satire of mindless conformity and middle-class morals, Babbitt plucked a chord in me at a time when I fancied myself a rebel. Blue-collar Irish from a manufacturing town near Boston, woefully unworldly, I found myself that September plopped down among old-money debutantes and scions of Caribbean rum barons. I reacted predictably: What I secretly coveted, I made fun of; what I never had the privilege of belonging to, I scorned. Fraternities and campus social clubs didn't interest me. I was a loner who considered Lewis a kindred spirit and most of my classmates young Babbitts.
I followed a routine: Friday nights, having stumbled back to my dorm with a bellyful of beer and a sack of cheeseburgers, I'd pull out my worn copy of Babbitt (stolen, naturally, from the campus library) and turn to the first chapter. It was the familiar, opening pages that I enjoyed most — the first glimpse at the spires of Zenith, the introduction to.George F. Babbitt himself: "There was nothing of the giant in the aspect of the man who was beginning to awaken on the sleeping-porch of a Dutch Colonial house in that residential district of Zenith known as Floral Heights."
I didn't know then that "Babbitt" and "Babbittry" had been accepted into the American lexicon; I didn't realize that Lewis was considered by some critics to be less a novelist than a mere commentator who had indiscriminately skewered American businessmen, "boosterism," and religion. I simply loved the book.
It became my hymnal as I sang the praises of nonconformity. The buzz words of the 1920s - Pep! Punch! Vigor! — made me laugh out loud. I was delighted, naively, to discover that alarm clocks and electric cigar lighters existed in 1922 Zenith.
I continued to read Babbitt through my four years at college. The cliques I had despised as an underclassman — golfers, student politicians, Bible-toting ROTC recruits — gradually seemed less sinister. I even joined a fraternity my senior year, ostensibly to be with two friends who were already "brothers"; once inducted, I felt a curious mixture of relief and disgust — much like Babbitt, I realized, when he shed the temporary mantle of rebelliousness and scurried back to the fold and joined the Good Citizens' League. He admits to his son on the book's final page, "I've never done a single thing I've wanted to in my whole life! I don't know's I've accomplished anything except just get along... those folks in there will try to bully you and tame you down. Tell 'em to go to the devil!"
I quit the fraternity within a month. All their puffery about image and brotherhood and proper attire (my surfing togs were brought up at one meeting; I'm not kidding) rang hollow to me. I went back to my solitary weekends, surfing all day and staving off boredom and hunger at night with my copy of Babbitt and a sack of cheeseburgers.
I have yet to put the book down.