Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)


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...

(The entire section is 732 words.)

Historical Context

(Novels for Students)

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

(The entire section is 627 words.)

Literary Style

(Novels for Students)

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

(The entire section is 423 words.)

Literary Techniques

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

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...

(The entire section is 176 words.)

Social Concerns

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

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

(The entire section is 95 words.)

Compare and Contrast

(Novels for Students)

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

(The entire section is 213 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Novels for Students)

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

(The entire section is 250 words.)

Literary Precedents

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

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

(The entire section is 161 words.)

Related Titles

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

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

(The entire section is 131 words.)


(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

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

(The entire section is 50 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Novels for Students)

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

(The entire section is 247 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Novels for Students)

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


(The entire section is 353 words.)


(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.)