Critical Overview

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In his introduction to Critical Essays on Sinclair Lewis, Martin Bucco writes that the literary community reviewed Babbitt very positively and saw it as an improvement on Main Street (1920) despite the fact that: “Reviews in business and club magazines naturally remonstrated against Lewis’s bestselling raillery of a ‘standardized’ American businessman discontented amid zippy fellow Rotarians, Realtors, and Boosters.” H. L. Mencken and Rebecca West were among the most influential early critics to praise Babbitt. West wrote in the New Statesman that the novel “has that something extra, over and above, which makes the work of art.”

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In 1930, Lewis won the Nobel Prize, and this award secured the place of the novel as a classic in American and international literature. Afterwards, however, Lewis suffered a major decline in reputation from which he never fully recovered. He was possibly less successful during the 1930s because America was no longer enjoying the prosperity of the 1920s; critics have suggested that the privileged circumstances of the 1920s caused people to be more receptive to Lewis’s satirical talents. Interest in Lewis revived after his death in 1951, but critics continued their skeptical reevaluation of all of his novels, including Babbitt.

Critics have most often treated Babbitt as a satire of the American business world, although topics have ranged from Clare Virginia Eby writing on the influence of social critic Thorstein Veblen over the novel, to Stephen Conroy writing on the popular-culture trend in Lewis’s work. David Pugh discusses whether the novel is applicable to the modern world in his 1975 essay “Baedekers, Babbittry, and Baudelaire,” and he continues the debate about Lewis’s critical appraisal by asking: “Babbitt: alive, readable? . . . or cold, boring, and very dead?” This question of whether Babbitt and Lewis’s other works will stand the test of time continues. John Updike observes in a 1993 article in The New Yorker that, “Sinclair Lewis is at last fading from the bookshops.” However, in his lengthy biography Sinclair Lewis: Rebel from Main Street, published in 2002, Richard Lingeman highlights “the apparent consensus among scholars and general readers that it was time for a fresh look at Lewis.”

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Criticism