Zenith, “the Zip City—Zeal, Zest, and Zowie,” is Sinclair Lewis’s satirical composite picture of the typical progressive American “business city” of the 1920’s, and middle-aged, middle-class midwesterner George F. Babbitt is its average prosperous citizen. Everything about Zenith is modern. A few old buildings, ramshackle witnesses of the city’s nineteenth century origins, are embarrassing, discordant notes amid the harmony of newness produced by shining skyscrapers, factories, and railroads. One by one, the old buildings are surrounded and bulldozed. The thrust of all energies in the city is toward growth: One of Zenith’s most booming businesses is real estate; one of its favorite occupations is the religious tallying and charting of population increase.
As Lewis presents his characters, however, the reader discovers that the prosperity and growth of Zenith are inversely proportional to the intellectual bankruptcy and spiritual stagnation of its inhabitants. They subscribe to the values of Zenith’s culture, which are all based on the “Dollar Ethic”; Lewis’s characters think in terms of production and consumption, judge people on the grounds of their purchasing power, and seek happiness in the earning and spending of money. This creed of prosperity permeates every aspect of society. It is evident not only in political and economic beliefs (discussion between Babbitt and his friends about government affairs is limited to the monotonous refrain, “What this country needs is a good, sound business administration”) but also in moral and religious attitudes. Thus, Dr. Drew attracts followers to his “Salvation and Five Percent” church with a combined cross-and-dollar-sign approach. Even more sinister is the facility with which the upright Babbitt carries through crooked deals in his real estate business. In one maneuver, he plots with a speculator to force a struggling grocer to buy the store building (which he has been renting for years) at a scalper’s price. The money ethic is so elemental to Babbitt’s conscience that he honestly feels nothing but delight and pride when the deal is completed; his only regret is that the speculator carries off nine thousand dollars while Babbitt receives a mere four hundred and fifty dollar commission. At the same time, Babbitt—with no inkling of his hypocrisy—discourses on his virtue to his friend Paul Riesling, touting his own integrity while denigrating the morality of his competitors.
The value placed on money also determines Zenith’s aesthetic standards. There is no frivolity about the city’s architecture; the most important structures are the strictly functional business buildings. Other structures, such as the Athletic Club—where the businessmen go to “relax” and discuss weighty matters of finance—are gaudy, unabashed copies of past styles; the club’s motley conglomeration includes everything from Roman to Gothic to Chinese. The culmination of literary talent in Zenith is the work of Chum Frink, whose daily newspaper lyrics are indistinguishable from his Zeeco car ads. He comes to Babbitt’s dinner party fresh from having written a lyric in praise of drinking water instead of poison booze; with bootleg cocktail in hand, he identifies the American genius as the fellow who can run a successful business or the man who writes the Prince Albert Tobacco ads.
Most important, the prosperity ethic is at the heart of social norms in Zenith; it is the basis upon which each citizen judges his individual worth. Lewis’s novel includes caricatures of men in every major field of endeavor: Howard Littlefield is the scholar; T. Cholmondeley Frink, the poet; Mike Monday, the popular preacher; Jake Offut, the politician; Vergil Gunch, the industrialist. Despite their various professions, however, these men are identical in their values; they are united in their...
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