Printer Friendly

The diagnostician and the national pastime: baseball as metaphor in sinclair Lewis's Babbitt.

In a November 26, 1920 letter to Sinclair Lewis, after reading the bestseller Main Street, the English novelist John Galsworthy declares: "Every country, of course, has its Main Streets, all richly deserving of diagnosis, but America is lucky to have found in you so poignant and just and stimulating a diagnostician." (1) Galsworthy's letter praising Lewis is an effective, early analysis of the writer's greatest strengths. In fact, it mirrors Lewis's own attempt to define his writing. A mere eleven months before his death, in a February 1950 interview with New York Times reporter John A. Barry, Sinclair Lewis reaffirms that his authorial role is simply that of "the diagnostician." He stresses that, in his writing, he offers no concrete answers to the country's problems, and furthermore, he lacks the impetus to be a true reformer. Lewis was not, he declared, an Upton Sinclair. (2) Yet, despite this lack of inclination for reform, the author's works often easily allow the reader to infer at least the partial solution to the diagnostician's outlined problem. Michael Augspurger insightfully identifies this phenomenon as the affirmative power of Lewis's satire: "By 'inviting' readers to share a way of looking at the world, the satirist creates a divide between a perceptive 'us' and a misguided 'them.' In doing so, satire pulls the reader into agreement with its own pointed perspective." (3) Or, as May Sinclair of the New York Times Book Review quipped in 1922, "For though nobody will recognize himself in George F. Babbitt, everybody will recognize somebody else." (4)

Joel Fisher's study of Lewis as a diagnostician builds upon this idea. He writes:
 The remarkable fact ... and the fact that has unfortunately
 rendered it virtually invisible to critics, is that Lewis is making
 an analysis of America in the vernacular. By ignoring and thus
 transcending mode and manner and by writing what is unashamedly
 popular fiction, he is defining America on its own terms; not
 working through any imposed or contrived analytical system, but
 working in the peculiarly American idiom of the contractual
 creation of a nation and individual identity, and of the necessary
 structural links between the two. (5)


With his strong desire to define America on its own terms, one useful way to think of Lewis is as an early American anthropologist. Although the popular consensus among American literary critics in the last few decades has been to pigeonhole Lewis into the 1920s as a product of his times or a mere artifact, his anthropological work is nevertheless capable of transcending its era of examination and offering us insights into our own. In fact, in many ways, Lewis was a visionary writer far ahead of the coming curve in the social sciences. His turn from the small town of Gopher Prairie in Main Street to Babbitt's Zenith anticipates the popularity of urban anthropology in the latter half of the twentieth century. We see this style at work in Babbitt, a novel filled with motor cars and advertisements, slang vernacular and prohibition, and Rotary clubs and patriotic Boosterism. It is also a novel laced with important references to what was, in the 1920s, by far America's most popular sport--baseball. This article examines Lewis's diagnosis of disease in his second major novel, Babbitt--the disease afflicting the "Tired American Businessman." (6) It is a sickness that displays its symptoms in relation to America's national pastime, baseball--and its side effects, including inane conversation and a life of inactivity.

In its earliest years, prior to the Civil War, baseball was a game played mainly by various brands of roughs, toughs, and immigrant workers. But, with the mass migration to northern cities in the post-bellum period, baseball began to undergo a transformation. America became a nation intent on solidifying its newly won commitment to unity, and baseball became an arena for the country's leading cities both to engage in minor competitive battle and to understand the basic homogeneity of American life. Christian Messenger describes the early stages of the construction of baseball into a national sport in his Sport and the Spirit of Play in AmericanFiction:
 After the Civil War, sports heroes were created primarily in the
 cities by a mixture of media, capital, and advertising, and these
 heroes had a broader, more artificial national audience. (7) The
 new sport and its manufactured heroes captured the spirit of
 American progress, where, according to Leo Marx, "Within the
 lifetime of a single generation, a rustic and in large part wild
 landscape was transformed into the site of the world's most
 productive industrial machine" (8)


Baseball's ballparks became a symbolic link to the nation's pastoral past in the midst of the modern, urban, technological city, but the game was symbolic of conquest. By the turn of the nineteenth century, at a speech commemorating the return of the Chicago White Sox from a six-month international goodwill tour in 1889 that included a stop in the Sandwich Islands, Mark Twain remarks on the growing reach of baseball as a metaphor for American life: "Baseball," he declared, "is the very symbol, the outward and visible expression of the drive and push and rush of the raging, tearing, booming, nineteenth century!" (9)

As the nation grew into an economic world power in the twentieth century, the popularity of baseball spectatorship increased proportionately. In 1917, on the eve of America's entrance into World War 1, baseball was the biggest entertainment industry in America. (10) Its nuances were understood by millions of fans who duly paid their quarter to see professional ball-teams play in person, and likewise by the many more that followed the excitement of the pennant race each day in the daily newspapers. In fact, the national spirit and the national pastime became so entwined in those early decades of the twentieth century that French historian and educator Jacques Barzun would famously write, "Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball, the rules and realities of the game." (11)

This devotion to baseball did not occur by accident massively. In many ways, America's political Progressives nurtured and championed the relationship in the early twentieth century. In baseball, they saw a perfect middle-class, family-oriented game. Consequently, Progressive leaders consciously attempted to create a "remarkable synergy ... between the game of baseball and the aspirations of Americans." (12) G. Edward White, in Creating the National Pastime, recognizes both the patriotic and economic advantages that opportunistic owners of ball clubs saw in the promotion of baseball, when he states that, "put starkly, the first generation of twentieth-century owner-builders was interested in establishing their sport as the personification of middle-class values, which, at the time, were synonymous with morality, respectability, and civic-mindedness." (13) And perhaps most importantly for the types of families we see in Sinclair Lewis's Zenith, White goes on to explain

that "[baseball] was the partisanship of a rooted sense of belonging to an early twentieth-century American city. Major league baseball was part of a city resident's commitment to the locally distinctive, but at the same time nationally ambitious, growing urban space in which he or she lived." (14) Jacques Barzun interestingly likened baseball to a poetic, metaphoric version of the interactions between classic civilizations. "Baseball," he wrote, "is Greek in being national, heroic, and broken up in the rivalries of city-states. It fitly expresses the powers of the nation's mind and body." (15)

It is the sense of belonging to both a city and a country, fostered by baseball in the 1920s, that George F. Babbitt so perfectly expresses in one of his most shining moments as an orator. In the famous speech he delivers before the Zenith Real Estate Board (that Sinclair Lewis had originally intended to open the novel), (16) Babbitt reads the doggerel of his celebrity poet/advertising friend Chum Frink. Frink's poem celebrates the fact that in every city he visits, he has always found, "all the fellows standing round / a-talkin' always, I'll be bound / [about] baseball players of renown / that Nice Guys talk in my home town." (17) Clearly, by the 1920s, as evidenced by its meriting an inclusion in a Chum Frink poem, baseball had become another staple in the cookie-cutter middle-class lifestyle, another accoutrement to standardize the standard businessmen who resided in standard subdivisions like Babbitt's Floral Heights. And because baseball was so universally followed as America's premier spectator and newspaper sport, it naturally became an important cultural artifact in Sinclair Lewis's unique anthropological style. The disaster of the 1919 World Series fix, and its verifiable effect on the country and its media, further widened the opportunity to be seized by Lewis in Babbitt. (18) And with his usual precision and his finger on the pulse of the nation, Lewis does so, attacking America's fascination with baseball spectatorship, both subtly and directly.

Essentially, Lewis diagnoses this fascination as a problem for two reasons. The first major problem with the sport is that the constant recourse to baseball in men's conversation turns the game into an intoxicating language of inanity that shuts off access to more important topics. The second, equally troublesome problem, is the nation's preference for watching professional baseball games, as opposed to actually partaking in sporting activity. The latter was an emblematic manifestation of the American shift away from participation and production that Lewis, like Thorstein Veblen and Ring Lardner, so abhorred. However, we shall first turn our attention towards the treatment in Babbitt of baseball as a somatic language.

In the novel, the reader's introduction to the character, or caricature, of George F. Babbitt, occurs on what we are told is an April morning in 1920, as Lewis leads us through the typical pre-work preparations of a typical businessman. While doing so, the author describes the title character's attachment to a collection of such inconsequential objects as a fountain pen, a leadless pencil, and a pocketbook filled with month-old receipts and dried out stamps: Babbitt "was earnest about these objects. They were of eternal importance, like baseball or the Republican Party" (13). But by casting such a trivial lot of objects against America's pastime, or against a national political party, Lewis seems to be more intent on lowering the latter set in the minds of his reader than he is on elevating the former. Professional baseball, Lewis argues, along with (as he saw it) the ridiculous Republican Party and its corresponding league of Rotary Clubs, were the purview of the tired businessman. (19) Yet, this same tired businessman, acting in legion, had become, "our conqueror, dictator over our commerce ... and lack of conversation." (20)

Later, during the same April day which opens the book (the novel's first one hundred pages are devoted to satirizing a single day in the life of George F. Babbitt), Babbitt takes his lunch at the Zenith Athletic Club, which is "not athletic and [not] exactly a club, but it is Zenith in perfection"(57). Since no sports are played at the club--rather, it is "represented" by the baseball teams, which it sponsors--the "lunch cafe" must be "athletic" in the sense that it is a place for men to gather and talk about the manly, sporting exploits of others. In the halls of this hallowed ground, we begin to see the emergence of a pattern, wherein Lewis identifies baseball conversation as a sedative. During Babbitt's lunch, "voices [which were] thick, satisfied, [and] authoritative, hurtled along the marble walls" and "announced ... that Babe Ruth, the eminent player of baseball was a noble man" (60-61). Here the word "thick" can be applied aptly to both the voices of the men and their relative capabilities for perceptive thinking. For, in 1920, although Babe Ruth was well on his way to an historic baseball career, he was far from a "noble man." Nevertheless, what is important to remember, is that talking about baseball, as the Chum Frink poem suggests, is a large part of manly conversation for a Regular Good Fellow. In a world where genuine academic learning was looked upon with skepticism, the ability to produce minute details about sporting events or motor cars was treated as a healthy brand of erudition. Certainly, the George Babbitt, Booster, and proud member of the Zenith Athletic Club, whom critics have delineated as the first of "two Babbitts," is conversant in this manly tongue. (21) In fact, in response to Mrs. Babbitt's praise of the neighborhood academic, Howard Littlefield, who speaks three languages, Babbitt responds, "Huh! That's nothing! So do I--American, baseball, and poker!" (104). This is Babbitt at his boastful, bragging, and boorish best.

Were Lewis's intentions in Babbitt solely to satirize a certain character type, he could have reasonably stopped one day into the novel, with George Babbitt's declaration of trilingual mastery. Yet, contrary to the opinion of one of Lewis's most ardent supporters, there is more purpose to the novel than just its function as a simple character sketch. In his review of Babbitt, "Portrait of an American Citizen," H. L. Mencken excitedly declares the book a masterpiece of realism because "there is no plot whatever, and very little of the hocus-pocus commonly called development of character." (22) But, in truth, Babbitt does have a plot--it is the story of George Babbitt's realization that something is wrong with his life, and that something is wrong with the materialist version of the American Dream as it has been sold to the citizens of Zenith. The novel traces the title character's awkward stumbling towards enlightenment. In the process, Babbitt discovers that he can not escape the web of Boosterism and business that he has built around himself. Furthermore, we see, as the novel progresses, that a telling barometer of Babbitt's level of satisfaction with his old life is his relationship to baseball. When the stirring of rebellion waxes, George Babbitt's satisfaction with the everyday language and details of his former life, including baseball conversation, begins to wane. For instance, during the trip to Maine with Paul Riesling in the summer of 1920, which is probably Babbitt's happiest moment in the novel, but also the moment where he first discovers his "hidden weariness" with life, the two men "did not talk much. The nervous loquacity and opinionation of the Zenith Athletic Club dropped from them" (150). But upon leaving behind the security of Maine and heading back to Zenith, Babbitt becomes, in the novel's middle third, an even stronger version of the satirized real-estate salesman the reader has been introduced to in the novel's opening chapters. Thus, it is fitting that, in "a year of activity [such] as he had never known," Babbitt's first display of Zenith Boosterism is the declaration of a resolution to go out and support Zenith's big-league ball club at least three times a week. He theorizes: "No sense a man's working his fool head off. Besides, [a] fellow ought to support the home team" (154).

If the story of Babbitt is the title character's search for self-awareness, then the cataclysmic event in George Babbitt's life is the implosion of Paul Riesling. Ultimately, it is Paul's attempted murder of his wife Zillah, and his subsequent incarceration that sends Babbitt briefly spiraling away from the orbit of the Good Citizens League. As the shock of Paul's tragedy sinks in, George finds it increasingly difficult to shed the "hidden weariness" that he first came to recognize in the Maine woods. Before he can truly rebel, however, he is treated to the soothing balm of baseball. Expecting to be cruelly joshed about Paul's breakdown by Vergil Cunch and the Boosters, Babbitt instead finds the arms of the Athletic Club open, ready to use baseball conversation to pull him back into the fold. He is surprised when: "At the Roughneck's Table, they did not mention Paul. They spoke with zeal of the coming baseball season. He loved them as he never had before" (267). Yet, the opiate effects of baseball for Babbitt do not last. It is soon after this, after a visit to Paul in prison in fact, that Babbitt commits himself to rebellion. And it is this act of rebellion that, for many readers, finally humanizes the two-dimensional George Babbitt, who had formerly been nothing more than a member of what H. L. Mencken called the "booboisie."

Babbitt's attempt to slide into dissipation in the novel teaches us that being a rebel is not easy, particularly for someone plugged into the "moral" framework of boosterism. When his wife goes East to visit relatives in the summer of 1921, George Babbitt attempts to seduce the manicurist of the Thornleigh Hotel, Ida Putiak--only to find he is incapable of wooing her. In Ida, he hopes to find the magical fairy-girl that has haunted his dreams. He fleetingly latches on to the notion that this rather obvious gold-digger could be the unique someone capable of unlocking the mystifying secrets of his unhappiness. Instead, at Biddlemeier's Inn, where they were unable to get anything to drink, both Ida and "the head-waiter refused to understand who George F. Babbitt was. They sat steaming ... and made conversation about baseball" (289). Whereas, once Babbitt reveled in being fluently conversant in the language of the national pastime, he finds it a frustrating roadblock in his search for new identity. But the search in Babbitt for subversion is not over. When, a few months later, Babbitt successfully achieves his romantic rebellion with Tanis Judique and "The Bunch," there is no more talk of baseball in the novel. Rather, Babbitt finds that he is suddenly capable of weighing in on more substantial subjects. He unburdens his soul by speaking a new language, discoursing on the topics of "Paul Riesling, of Zilla, of Seneca Doane, of the strike" (320). It is also at this point that Babbitt begins defending the "radical" socialist Seneca Doane at the Athletic Club, for which, along with his new, more anarchic behavior, he is slowly ostracized. This George Babbitt--a slightly more introspective, slightly more independent, and slightly more alcoholic George Babbitt--carries more depth and complexity than his Regular Good Fellow twin. Of course, this George Babbitt is also eventually crushed by the illness of his long-faithful wife and the strong arm of the Good Citizens League. At the novel's close, Babbitt is presumably once again seated daily at his table at the Zenith Athletic Club, talking of baseball and boosting the Zip City.

Perhaps the best way to understand the relationship between baseball and George Babbitt--one of Sinclair Lewis's least redeemable, least likeable characters--is to look at the description of one of his most. In Dodsworth (1929), Lewis's second major novel focusing on a Zenith family, Lewis writes:
 To define what Sam Dodsworth was, at fifty, it is easiest to state
 what he was not. He was none of the things which most Europeans and
 many Americans expect in a leader of American industry. He was not
 a Babbitt, not a Rotarian, not an Elk, not a deacon. He rarely
 shouted, never slapped people on the back, and he had attended only
 six baseball games since 1900. He knew, and thoroughly, the
 Babbitts and baseball fans, but only in business. (23)


The explicit pairing in Sam Dodsworth's description of "Babbitts and baseball fans," and the emphasis Lewis places on the fact that the authentically likeable Dodsworth is neither of these, gives the reader a strong indication of the author's true thoughts on the worth of both linked parties. Furthermore, much of Dodsworth focuses on the title character's exploration of the world and self in an attempt to define what is most valuable in life and conversation. One of Sam Dodsworth's conclusions is voiced in agreement with his friend Ross Ireland, who argues that, "there are things outside of America ...; things that ought to be almost as interesting as the next baseball game" to the Babbitts of the world. But men like George Babbitt, Ireland continues, "they're so self-satisfied (like I was once!) that they don't care a hang for anything beyond the current price of gin!" (24) Ireland argues that man is capable of change, for he himself changed. And indeed, George Babbitt, the second of the "two Babbitts," at the very least deserves some respect for his futile try. Life, Dodsworth directly argues, as Babbitt does indirectly, should be about more than just baseball conversations. And life, Lewis also implies in Dodsworth and Babbitt, in the line of Thorstein Veblen and Ring Lardner, should be spent doing something more than just watching baseball as well. With that, we now turn our attention to Lewis's second critique of baseball and the tired businessman.

In the summer of 1921, under the guidance of Lewis's publisher Alfred Harcourt, the young academic Harold Stearns finished editing a revolutionary essay collection entitled Civilization in the United States. The book included a series of generally critical examinations of American culture and life by thirty young American writers. It counted among its contributors some of the nation's most recognized thinkers, including H. L. Mencken, Conrad Aiken, and a host of others. The conceit of the work was deceptively simple--Stearns issued a call for an encyclopedia-style entry on topics like "Politics," "Journalism," and "Education." He then allowed the carefully selected individual contributors free reign to discourse in whatever direction they felt was appropriate. The results were impressive--Civilization in the United States is one of the early masterpieces of American Studies, impacting both the field of study and the many writers who subsequently read the book. In his recent biography of Lewis, Richard Lingeman correctly notes that "the critique of America underpinning Babbitt had much in common with Stearns's anthology." (25) And indeed, Lewis was certainly familiar with the work. In fact, as soon as the book went to press, Stearns sailed across the Atlantic to meet up with Sinclair Lewis in London, and after visiting for a few days in England, the two men headed to Paris for a three-day bender. (26) Later, while Lewis was in the midst of composing the first draft of Babbitt, he wrote to Harcourt and requested an advance copy of Stearns's controversial masterpiece. (27)

The most pertinent essay in Civilization and the United States for our purposes is the one written by Ring Lardner, on "Sport and Play" in American life. At the time of publication, Lardner may have been the most accomplished author of short stories in America. His work regularly appeared in the Saturday Evening Post, alongside Sinclair Lewis's, and his "Letters from a gusher," which focused their satire on lack Keefe, a fictional member of the Chicago White Sox, were fabulously popular. Lardner was also, at least until the 1920 season, one of the country's most popular sportswriters. Based out of Chicago, he served as a baseball beat writer traveling with the White Sox during the course of several summers, including 1919. A first-rate ballplayer himself, Lardner was accepted by the club as something of a peculiarly literate equal--consequently granted access to, and intimacy with, members of the team in an uncommon way. That is, Lardner was a friend of the team until the Black Sox scandal was completely uncovered in 1920, which devastated him, and turned him forever from sports journalism. In the wake of his disenchantment, Lardner identified in himself a fundamental flaw that he believed was shared by millions of able-bodied Americans--he had been guilty of placing too much faith in professional baseball. He had been guilty of attempting to draw too much truth and enjoyment from the labor of someone else, rather than gaining the healthy benefits and mental joy that come with a productive physical examination of the self. He brings these new insights to his essay in the Stearns collection, attacking American idleness, and the turn of mind that allowed the nation to substitute spectatorship for participation. Of baseball, he writes:
 Twenty or twenty-one play. Three hundred to forty thousand
 look on. The latter are, for two hours, "out in the open
 air," and this, when the air is not so open as to give them
 pneumonia and when they don't catch something as bad
 or worse in the street-car or subway train that takes them
 and brings them back, is a physical benefit. Moreover,
 the habitual attendant at ball-games is not likely to die of
 brain fever. But otherwise, the only ones whose health is
 appreciably promoted are the twenty or twenty-one who play.
 And they are not doing it for their health. (28)


Of other spectator sports, Lardner critiques they often occur in "an atmosphere as fresh and clean as that of the Gopher Prairie day-coach," referencing the fictional town of Sinclair Lewis's 1920 bestseller, Main Street. (29) And finally, after listing all of the possible forms of healthy recreation that Americans could be taking in lieu of daily watching others, he analyzes the nation's inactivity thusly: "We don't play because (1) we lack imagination, and because (2) we are a nation of hero worshippers, gut hero worship is the disease that does the most to keep the grandstands full and the playgrounds empty." (30)

Well before drawing upon the same themes as the sports journalist in Babbitt, Sinclair Lewis had long been an admirer of Lardner. In a 1917 letter to friend Joseph Hergesheimer (author of the Three Black Pennys book that Babbitt tries to read one night while his wife is away), Lewis describes a sense of frustration with his inability to write in the style he wanted: "I'm groping again. Lemme be! I want to be Ring Lardner but--!." (31) In time, Lewis would find his authentic voice, one, which, much in the fashion of Lardner, did indeed "revel in the American vulgate." (32) But the two men had more in common than just the identification of a standardized urban lingo. Lewis's critique of Babbitt's "fondness" for baseball is a fictionalized representation of Lardner's argument in "Sport and Play." Indeed, in Babbitt's most extended treatment of the national pastime, the section wherein George Babbitt decides to go cheer on Zenith's home team and the beautifully named pitcher "Big Bill Bostwick," Lewis offers this analysis of the title character: "[Babbitt] honestly believed that he loved baseball. It is true that he hadn't, in twenty-five years, himself played any baseball except back-lot catch with Ted--very gentle, and strictly limited to ten minutes. But the game was a custom of his clan, and it gave outlet for the homicidal and sides-taking instincts which Babbitt called 'patriotism' and 'love of sport'" (154). Here, of course, in the love for a game watched and not for a game played, we feel the echoes of Lardner.

In the above quotation, however, we can also trace a lineage to passages in Thorstein Veblen's writings concerning the popularity of spectator sports in America, who likewise negatively linked love of sport and misguided patriotism. When Lewis began the penning of Babbitt in 1921, Veblen was a giant in American philosophy, best known for his Theory of the Leisure Class (1899). But he was also the author of numerous other books critiquing American life, including The Engineers and the Price System (1919), which Michael Augspurger convincingly argues had a profound impact not only on Lewis's Babbitt, but also his Dodsworth and Arrowsmith (1925). (33) The link from Veblen to Lewis, however, is hardly being examined for the first time, in either this article or the work of Augspurger. Mark Schorer, in his scathing 1961 biography, Sinclair Lewis: An American Life, noted that "in some ways the major contribution of Lewis's novels was their continuation (or, at least, popularization) of certain leading ideas of Veblen, especially as to the leisure class and business enterprise." (34) Forty years later, Richard Lingeman would write about Lewis's construction of Babbitt that he "surely had in the back of his mind the views of Veblen, who invidiously contrasted the engineer, useful and productive, with the salesman, who exemplified 'wasteful and industrially futile practices.'" (35) It is this appreciation for society's producers that makes Sam Dodsworth, the engineer and designer, so much more redeemable in the eyes of Lewis than George Babbitt, who "made nothing in particular, neither butter nor shoes nor poetry, but he was nimble in the calling of selling houses for more than people could afford to pay" (6). This preference for Dodsworth is also manifested in a comparison of the two title characters' relationships with sporting activity. On the one hand, we have Dodsworth, the engineer, who puts such value in the production of cars and homes and motorcoaches, and has "attended only six baseball games" in twenty-nine years; on the other hand, we have Babbitt, who embodies waste, and decides that there is "no sense a man's working his fool head off. I'm going out to the Game three times a week" (154).

For Veblen, too much time spent watching sports was highly emblematic of what was wrong with the leisure class--they produced nothing. And although George Babbitt is slightly less wealthy than the prototypical man of leisure that Veblen had in mind (think, for example of The Great Gatsby's Tom Buchanan), much of his daily life in the novel is spent copying the symptoms of dissipation that his richer brethren displayed--taking two hour lunches, planning shallow dinner parties, or purchasing ridiculous gadgets. According to The Theory of the Leisure Class, "the leisure-class canon demands strict and comprehensive futility; the instinct of workmanship demands purposeful action." (36) The blunted innate desire among the leisurely that is supposed to respond to the "instinct of workmanship" is an important fundamental flaw. For the idle rich, or for those who wish to appear so, there develops a system of judging the relative value of an activity by its inverse proportion to productivity. Watching sports is therefore an attractive occupation for one's time, because it fits into the maxim that "in order to be decorous, an employment must conform to the leisure-class canon of reputable waste." (37) Thus, Sinclair Lewis argues in his work that, while playing sports is a worthwhile endeavor, the addiction to watching sports, as Veblen would write, "in a peculiar degree marks an arrested development of the man's moral nature." (38) America and its tired businessmen were plagued with a disease, and baseball spectatorship (along with baseball conversation), in a peculiar degree, was a marked symptom.

So George F. Babbitt stands in the batter's box of life with two strikes against him, and the question remains whether or not he can be rescued from the hole he has dug for himself. Is Lewis's diagnosis of the Tired Business Man fatal? Or, by taking the initiative, can he get back into the game? Unfortunately for Babbitt, at least as portrayed in the novel, his path may already be chosen. At the end of the book, George Babbitt realizes that "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. I figure out I've made about a quarter of an inch out of a possible hundred rods" (391)--and there's evident resignation that such is the way it will always be. But there is hope, and it surfaces in the determined rebellion of Ted Babbitt, or rather Theodore Roosevelt Babbitt. Like his namesake, who advocated "the strenuous life," George's son seems more intent on playing the game his way than sitting on the sidelines and watching others. Further, Ted Babbitt takes a step in the direction of Sam Dodsworth, the direction called for by Thorstein Veblen, in choosing a career as a mechanic, an inventor, over that supplied by a State University B.A. Sinclair Lewis closes Babbitt with a ray of hope.

Still, we would do well as a society to pay a little closer attention to what Lewis's anthropology unveiled in 1922. If anything, first due to the invention of radio, and then later to the explosion of television and internet technology, the popularity of spectator sports has grown exponentially since the time of Babbitt's publication. Watching a baseball game on television or at the ballpark is not necessarily a bad thing, but it becomes a poor choice when we choose that activity in lieu of doing something possibly more important. In elevating, or as Lardner would write, in hero-worshipping, the exploits of a professional ballplayer above our own concerns and healthy athletic endeavors, we fail to learn from the message of Babbitt. America is a fatter, lazier nation now than it was a hundred years ago. And with the passing of each year, our children fall further behind much of the rest of the world in the science and math scores that ultimately lead to invention and production. At this rate, there will be fewer Sam Dodsworths in the future in America. And when the money that is generated by the manufacturing of our Dodsworths dries up, there will be no more call for George Babbitts either. We would do well to pay more attention to Sinclair Lewis and Babbitt. We would do well to acknowledge the diagnostician's findings, and to incorporate a bit more of the strenuous life into our own activity.

Notes

(1.) Sinclair Lewis to Alfred Harcourt, 26 November 1920, From Main Street to Stockholm: Letters of Sinclair Lewis, ed. Harrison Smith (New York: Harcourt, Brace, and Company, 1952), p. 48.

(2.) See John A. Barry, "Sinclair Lewis: Sixty-Five and Far from Main Street," New York Times (February 5, 1950). It is ironic that upon the publication of Babbitt, Upton Sinclair likewise stressed that he was no Sinclair Lewis. In his review of Babbitt in The Appeal to Reason, Sinclair wrote that "it is the most effective piece of social satire that America has yet produced, and you understand this is something hard for me to say, because I have been trying as hard as I know how for the past twenty years to do the same thing myself." See Upton Sinclair, "Standardized America," The Appeal to Reason (September 23, 1922), rpt. in Studies in Babbitt, ed. Martin Light (Columbus, OH: Charles Merrill Publishing, 1971), pp. 28-30.

(3.) Michael Augspurger, "Sinclair Lewis' Primers for the Professional Managerial Class: Babbitt, Arrowsmith, and Dodsworth," Journal of the Midwestern Modern Language Association, 34 (2002): 86.

(4.) May Sinclair, "The Man from Main Street," New York Times Book Review (September 24, 1922). This review further builds on the medical metaphor of Lewis's role as a precise diagnostician. The author writes that Lewis "does not dissect and analyze his subject, but exhibits him all of a piece in a whole skin, yet under such powerful X-rays that the organism is transparent, you see all the articulated internal machinery at work."

(5.) Joel Fisher, "Sinclair Lewis and the Diagnostic Novel: Main Street and Babbitt," Journal of American Studies, 20 (1986): 421-433.

(6.) In a December 28, 1920 letter to Harcourt, Lewis writes of the sickness in his newest character--"He is the typical T.B.M. [Tired Business Man], the man you hear drooling in the Pullman smoker. He is all of us Americans at 46, prosperous but worried, wanting--passionately--to seize something more than motor cars and a house before it's too late. I want to make Babbitt big in his real-ness, in his relation to all of us, not in the least exceptional, yet dramatic, passionate, struggling." From Main Street to Stockholm, p. 59.

(7.) Christian K. Messenger, Sport and the Spirit of Play in American Fiction: Hawthorne to Faulkner (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1981), p. 83.

(8.) Leo Marx, The Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in America (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1964), p. 343.

(9.) Mark Twain, "Welcome Home," in Mark Twain's Speeches, ed. Albert Bigelow Paine (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1923), p. 145.

(10.) See Eliot Asinof, Eight Men Out: The Black Sox and the 1919 World Series (New York: Henry Holt, 1987), p. 12.

(11.) Jacques Barzun, God's Country and Mine: A Declaration of Love Spiced with a Few Harsh Words (Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1954), p. 159.

(12.) G. Edward White, Creating the National Pastime (Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press, 1996), p. 8.

(13.) White, Creating the National Pastime, p. 85.

(14.) White, Creating the National Pastime, p. 64.

(15.) Barzun, God's Country and Mine, p. 160.

(16.) For more on the original order of Babbitt, see James M. Hutchisson, "All of us Americans at 46: The Making of Sinclair Lewis's Babbitt," Journal of Modern Studies, 18 (1992): 101-103.

(17.) References in the text and notes will be to Sinclair Lewis, Babbitt (New York: Modern Library Classics, 2002). This quote appears on p. 186. All subsequent citations will be noted parenthetically.

(18.) At the time when Lewis sat down to write Babbitt, it did not take a particularly perceptive diagnostician to realize that there was something terribly wrong with professional baseball. In 1919, eight members of the Chicago White Sox conspired to intentionally lose the World Series, and the fallout of the fix can hardly be overstated. Historian George Grella, in "Baseball and the American Dream," Massachusetts Review, 16 (1975) has argued that it "may have been more important than World War I in educating the nation in the dubious lessons of disenchantment" (560). In The Great Gatsby, Nick Carraway remarks that the scandal "play[ed] with the faith of fifty million people." Although I have uncovered no direct evidence of Lewis's thoughts on the scandal, and although the fix is strangely unmentioned in Babbitt--given the seven separate baseball references and the nearly identical chronology of the scandal to the novel's plot--it can very reasonably be argued that the resonances of the Black Sox lie just below the surface of the book. For one thing, it was a story covered in almost every major newspaper in America while Lewis was planning. For another, Lewis did the majority of his primary research for Babbitt in Cincinnati, one of the two participating World Series teams, lie also spent significant time in Chicago during February 1921 as the heavily reported trial preparations were underway. For more on the scandal, see Eliot Asinof, Eight Men Out; or, Robert C. Cottrell, Blackball, the Black Sox, and the Babe: Baseball's Crucial 1920 Season (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2002). For an excellent study of Fitzgerald's usage of the scandal in The Great Gatsby, see John Lauricella, "The Black Sox Signature Baseball in The Great Gatsby," Aethlon: Tire Journal of Sport and Literature, 10 (1992): 83-98.

(19.) On the presidential campaign trail in 1920, Warren C. Harding, the pro-business candidate that Babbitt so admires, declared, "If I could plant a Rotary Club in every city and hamlet in this country I would then rest assured that our ideals of freedom would be safe and civilization would progress." See Sheldon Norman Grebstein, "Babbitt: Synonym for a State of Mind," in Studies in Babbitt, p. 44.

(20.) See the unpublished introduction to Babbitt by Sinclair Lewis, "This is the Story of the Ruler of America," which appears in The Man from Main Street: Selected Essays and Other Writings, 1904-1950, eds. Harry Maule and Melville Cane (New York: Random House, 1953), p. 21.

(21.) For more on the "two Babbitt" phenomenon, one "a boosting conformist" and one "a rebel wannabe," see Claire Virginia Eby, "Babbitt as Veblenian Critique of Manliness," American Studies, 34 (Fall 1993): 5-23.

(22.) H. L. Mencken, "Portrait of an American Citizen," in H. L. Mencken's "Smart Set" Criticism, ed. William Nolte (Ithaca, NY: Cornell Univ. Press, 1968), p. 282.

(23.) Sinclair Lewis, Dodsworth, in Arrowsmith, Elmer Gantry, Dodsworth (New York: Library of America, 2002), p. 927.

(24.) Lewis, Dodsworth, p. 1078.

(25.) Richard Lingeman, Sinclair Lewis: Rebel from Main Street (New York: Random House, 2002), p. 182.

(26.) Sinclair Lewis to Alfred Harcourt, 16 August 1921, From Main Street to Stockholm, p. 82. In the letter, Lewis refers to the bender as a "great time--pure but wet."

(27.) Sinclair Lewis to Alfred Harcourt, 12 February 1922, From Main Street to Stockholm, p. 98.

(28.) Ring Lardner, "Sport and Play," in Civilization in the United States: An Inquiry by Thirty Americans, ed. Harold E. Stearns (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1922), p. 458.

(29.) Lardner, "Sport and Play," p. 459.

(30.) Lardner, "Sport and Play," p. 461.

(31.) Qtd. in Lingeman, Sinclair Lewis, pp. 107-108.

(32.) Lingeman, Sinclair Lewis, p. 108.

(33.) See Augspurger, "Sinclair Lewis' Primers," pp. 78-80.

(34.) Mark Schorer, Sinclair Lewis: An American Life (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1961), p. 772.

(35.) Lingeman, Sinclair Lewis, p. 172.

(36.) Thorstein Veblen, The Theory of the Leisure Class (Fairfield, NJ: Augustus M. Kelly Publishers, 1991), p. 259.

(37.) Veblen, Leisure Class, p. 259.

(38.) Veblen, Leisure Class, p. 259. Although Thorstein Veblen and Sinclair Lewis certainly agreed in their respective critiques of the sports fan, Veblen probably had much less use for the active athlete than did Lewis, and it is here that the two begin to part ways. In Dodsworth, Lewis praises the title character for his commitment to lifelong fitness, and the author was similarly an admirer of many real-life athletes. Take for example, his long-time friendship with Yale professor and mentor William Lyon (Billy) Phelps, who according to Christian Messenger, in Sport and the Spirit of Play, was "always ready with a sporting anecdote" (192). As an undergraduate at Yale, Phelps played on the baseball team, the varsity tennis team, and was a champion cross-country runner. He continued to play competitive semipro baseball until the age of 45, and doubles tennis until the age of 70 (see Messenger's ftnt. on 345).
COPYRIGHT 2008 Sports Literature Association
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2008 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

 
Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Webb, Joe
Publication:Aethlon: The Journal of Sport Literature
Date:Sep 22, 2008
Words:6907
Previous Article:In the Stands.
Next Article:Eptitude.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2018 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters