Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)

Zenith

Zenith. Midwestern city that Lewis made a principal setting in this novel, as well as in Elmer Gantry (1927) and Dodsworth (1929). The opening sentences of Babbitt celebrate the material majesty of the twentieth century city: “The towers of Zenith aspired above the morning mist; austere towers of steel and cement and limestone, sturdy as cliffs and delicate as silver rods. They were neither citadels nor churches, but frankly and beautifully office-buildings.” The physical beauty of “a city built—it seemed—for giants” dwarfs Zenith’s inhabitants and the institutions they build—their homes, offices, clubs, and churches.

While preparing to write his novel, Lewis visited cities in Ohio, Illinois, Wisconsin, and Michigan absorbing the sights and sounds of midwestern American urban life. He filled a large loose-leaf notebook with observations on the language of middle-class businessmen, on how they lived, and on what their working lives were like, and constructed detailed “biographies” for even minor characters. Above all, he compiled elaborate maps of downtown Zenith and its suburbs, and even drew floor plans of Babbitt’s house and office, indicating doors, stairways, and furniture. He plotted the location of the city’s stores, factories, and hotels, and also specified the businesses that occupied the ground floor of each office building.

The novel effectively contrasts the majestic view of the city Babbitt sees as he awakens, with the bickering of his family over breakfast and the corrupt deals of his business day. Babbitt is proud of Zenith and admires the houses and stores he passes on his way to his office. He has a precise knowledge of urban real estate prices, but little understanding of...

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Babbitt Historical Context

The Roaring Twenties
After World War I, American politics and social life became increasingly conservative. Republican Warren G....

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Babbitt Literary Style

Satire
Lewis’s insightful exposure and condemnation of American values and institutions in the 1920s is effective and...

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Babbitt Literary Techniques

Very few critics or literary scholars praise Lewis for the aesthetics of his work. It makes some sense to think of Lewis more as a social...

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Babbitt Social Concerns

The name of the title character in Babbitt has become a symbol for a particular type of American described by Sinclair Lewis in this,...

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Babbitt Compare and Contrast

1920s: Prohibition is in effect throughout the United States, making it illegal to manufacture or consume alcohol. Although supporters...

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Babbitt Topics for Further Study

The critic David Pugh has suggested that Lewis’s satire is no longer powerful or applicable to young Americans today. Do you agree? Discuss...

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Babbitt Literary Precedents

Clearly, Sinclair Lewis descends from a line of social critics such as Thomas Paine, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Mark...

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Babbitt Related Titles

Besides Babbitt, Lewis's best novels include Main Street (1920), Arrowsmith (1925), Elmer Gantry (1927), and...

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Babbitt Adaptations

Because of Lewis's stinging social criticism and the colorful nature of his characters, his books have been popular choices for filmmakers,...

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Babbitt What Do I Read Next?

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925) uses techniques associated with European modernism to display the empty and hollow...

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Babbitt Bibliography and Further Reading

Sources
Bucco, Martin, “Introduction,” in Critical Essays on Sinclair Lewis, G. K. Hall, 1986, pp. 4–5.

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Babbitt Bibliography

(Great Characters in Literature)

Suggested Readings

Bucco, Martin, ed. Critical Essays on Sinclair Lewis. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1986. A collection of criticism on Sinclair Lewis. Begins with early interviews and goes on to contemporary critics. Many articles include discussion of Babbitt; one article addresses the book exclusively.

Dooley, D. J. The Art of Sinclair Lewis. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1967. Discusses Babbitt as the first novel to represent what would become Lewis’ characteristic method—the intensive study of a subject. Discusses the novel’s strengths and weaknesses, and explores the significance...

(The entire section is 208 words.)