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.)