Promoting, supporting and encouraging the study of the United States since 1955

British Association for American Studies


Issue 9, Autumn 2006: Article 2


Issue 9, Autumn 2006: Article 2

U.S. Studies Online: The BAAS Postgraduate Journal

Issue 9, Autumn 2006

The Geography of Production: Charting the Modernist Spaces in Sinclair Lewis’s Babbitt

Michael P. Moreno
© Michael P. Moreno. All Rights Reserved

In his celebrated study of spatiality entitled The Production of Space (1991), Henri Lefebvre posits that ‘[e]very language is located in a space. Every discourse says something about a space (places or sets of places); and every discourse is emitted from a space’. [1] Indeed, space itself is a language which can be used to articulate not only the material manifestations surrounding us, but also the social relationships we forge in our varied communities. This vocabulary of place and the characterization of space are evident in Lewis’s Babbitt (1922), a satirical portrait of the post-Great War American middle-class businessman and the quirkiness of efficient Modernist living.

At the dawn of the 20th century, the United States had recognized the supremacy of the machine and was widely celebrating a new system of production and consumption that transcended the language of a capitalist economy. A new culture emerged as a result of the machine, one which re-established the everyday experience of living for Americans whereby their lives could be defined by the very modern machines, gadgets, and mechanisms they consumed or encountered on an hourly basis. Such a new Modernist language simultaneously reflected and created the world people inhabited. Lewis’s Babbitt captured the genesis of this transformation in American society. Moreover, quotidian locales in the novel reveal another side to Modernism that was rapidly transforming the early 20th century American landscape.

The post-World War I terrains in the United States—the landscapes of early suburban homes, the sky-scrapers, the philanthropic and company lodges, the trolleys, and automobiles inhabited by the American bourgeoisie—engender a spatial vernacular through which the notions of mobility, standardization, and production in the industrial age can be articulated and understood. While the European continent was engaged in sweeping up the political and psychological debris remaining from World War I, the United States emerged by default as the sole politico-economic superpower. With this success, the country abounded in material wealth that manifested itself in the mass production of industrial and domestic goods. The American Modern period is characterized by the illusion that the common citizen could participate in forging this new America while simultaneously sharing in its power and prosperity. Thus, the philosophy of production gave birth to and saw the proliferation of machines and gadgetry, such as the automobile, trolley, train, telegraph, and telephone, and made it possible for professional businessmen and their families to move to the growing suburbs, deliberate middle-class communities which offered sanctuary from the sky-scraping mountains of glass and steel and the urban features of crime and immigration which marked the industrialized cities. Babbitt details America’s initiation into this period of industrialization by establishing an aesthetic of acceleration and innovation within the narrative’s literary architecture.

Whereas the Babbitts of middle America endorse a standardization of all new and efficient things–everything from the colossal skyscrapers to the ‘nifty’ electric starters in automobiles–this philosophy of production is even more evident in the protagonist’s speedy and colloquial vernacular, the language of the ‘cult of business,’ a characteristic ‘Babbitt-speak’ that illustrates the mechanization of the human environment. This article will examine how these modernist symptoms of American power during the 1920s (mechanization, mass-production, standardization, and speed) correlate with one another by analyzing the literary landscape of Sinclair Lewis’s satirical representation of emerging suburbanites as portrayed in Babbitt. Indeed, Babbitt underlines the emergence of suburban literature on the newly articulated landscape of American Modernism.

In interpreting literature spatially, the reader can align physical bodies and cultural constructs within the built environment. This enables the development of a critical discourse with which to articulate how bodies inform and engineer space, while simultaneously helping to understand how space is both marked and classified by its occupants and how it thus assembles human subjects. Conversely, reading architectural and spatial systems through a literary lens provides an artistic foundation upon which to reinterpret the role of the civic and national body politic. This methodology is valuable for conceptualizing the figurative thumb-prints which mark literary landscapes at the start of the 20th century. Little attention has been given to the detailed spaces and places in Babbitt’s world, yet a spatial reading of Babbitt demonstrates how early suburbia and the emerging ‘new cities’ of the Modern Era mirrored the economic, cultural, and political tenets of the corporate philosophy of ceaseless production and standardization, for such a philosophy empowered the modernist suburbanite and crafted him/her into a ‘Standardized American Citizen’. [2] This was an altogether different creature from the Bohemian/Jazz-inflected one which paradoxically emerged at this same time and marked the intellectual and pro-labor spaces of urban cafes, galleries, speakeasies, and cabarets, for this particular American identity articulated its own distinctive and critical vocabulary and challenged the isolating grids and contours of Babbitt’s America. Nevertheless, the central goal of this article is to demonstrate exactly how Babbitt reveals not only a spatial language within American Modernism, that is a ‘suburban modernism’, but also how this language manifests the form and function of political, cultural, and ideological architecture within one of the earliest works of American suburban literature.

The study of the suburb in American literature is a rapidly emerging field. What ‘qualifies’ as ‘suburban literature’ in today’s scholarship is at present being debated and articulated. Suburban literature is more than literature that employs the suburbs as a scenic backdrop for a story. It is a literary genre that treats the suburb as a force that both creates and is created by the characters and conditions in each respective suburban novel. Babbitt sets a pace for establishing a suburban discourse within American literature and offers a look, albeit a satirical and parodic one, at suburban sensibilities forged during the zenith in American productivity and power.

Throughout the architectural evolution of Western civilization, a given city could be identified by the largest structures along the urban skyline visible from afar. In contemporary times, major urban centers each have identifiable features that continue to signify that location in the popular imagination: the Golden Gate Bridge for San Francisco, the Statue of Liberty for New York City, Big Ben for London, or the Eiffel Tower for Paris. Such quintessential structures represent the centers of political, economic, and social power of their time. For instance, during the medieval period, the largest edifice in a wealthy European city was the cathedral, whereas in the Renaissance, when bankers and merchants began to rise in the economic ranks to govern city-states and provinces, the citadel or merchant villa/palace towered above the roof-tops. Conversely, during the Enlightenment, parliamentary and civic structures were the visible giants on the horizon. In the Industrial period, however, it was the skyscraper whose glittering trunks ‘enacted the twentieth-century traits of functionalism, efficiency, and speed’ [3] and within which corporate princes dwelled.

Thus, it was not coincidental that the ‘literary establishing shot’ Sinclair Lewis employed to commence Babbitt is a visual image of the city of Zenith itself, the American ‘Everycity’ in which newness, mobility, and innovation reign supreme: ‘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’. [4] The emphasis placed on the newness of the secular skyscrapers and, in the continued quotation, of a growing city and surrounding suburbs illustrates how the spaces of Zenith denote not ‘an arrival’, that is, a completed journey whose goal is advancement, but instead connote the symbol of constant upward-mobility, a ceaseless motion. It is in the act of aspiring towards this zenith of modernism that America sustains its role as principal producer and innovator for a new century. There was no room in this network of production and construction for the spatial tenets and monuments of the past; the topography of the old world was quickly fading, and American cities like Zenith were rising everywhere from their former urban necropolises:

The mist took pity on the fretted structures of earlier generations: the Post Office with its shingle-tortured mansard, the red brick minarets of hulking old houses, factories with stingy and sooted windows, wooden tenements colored like mud. The city was full of such grotesqueries, but the clean towers were thrusting them from the business center, and on the farther hills were shining new houses, homes—they seemed—for laughter and tranquility. [5]

In the United States, the 1920s heralded a forward-looking era that would leave behind the travesties of Europe’s Great War and the dark-inlayed claustrophobia of America’s Victorian period. New machines and materials suggested architectural possibility and gave birth to new American styles of domestic design that freed up living spaces and exposed rooms that once traditionally divided and demarcated servants from family members, parents from children, and women from men. ‘With the overcoming of the Victorian pattern of interior segregation’, according to Robert Fishman’s Bourgeois Utopias (1987), ‘the suburban house reclaimed the domestic openness which was its true legacy’. [6] Indeed, growing machine use and the prosperity that was forging a new industrial Eden was now eclipsing the old horse-drawn system.

The world in which George F. Babbitt resides is marked by the mechanical and material spaces which Sinclair Lewis has elaborately crafted in this novel, for such places function not as backdrops for the scenes between individuals, but rather, as multi-dimensional ‘characters’ whose associations with their inhabitants form a narrative mirror that reflects the American sub/urban middle-class sentiments of the 1920s.

During this pivotal time in history, both American and European architects and urban designers, such as Frank Lloyd Wright, Walter Gropius, and Le Corbusier, were articulating how modern mechanical spaces could be constructed in an effort to provide a sustainable apparatus in which both inhabitant and structure could co-exist harmoniously and pragmatically. In 1928, for example, a collection of European architects representing France, Switzerland, Germany, the Netherlands, Italy, Spain, Austria, and Belgium formed a design school known as CIAM (Congrès Internationaux d’Architecture Moderne) with the desire to establish:

a new conception of architecture that satisfies the spiritual, intellectual and material demands of present-day life. Conscious of the deep disturbances of the social structure brought about by machines, [CIAM] recognize[d] that the transformation of the economic order and of social life inescapably brings with it a corresponding transformation of the architectural phenomenon. [7]

The desire to create a new method for transforming space into the modern period was strong and passionate, as evidenced by the countless creeds and manifestoes which emerged from architectural schools of thought like those of the Prairie School, Bauhaus, or International Style. As such, many design schools sought to develop a language that expressed the Modernist phenomenon of production and mechanization through constructed spaces.

Like CIAM and other Modernist architectural movements, Sinclair Lewis designed not simply a parodic archetype in modern American literature in the form of George F. Babbitt, but a landscape of American ‘sights and sounds of common life’. This was an authentic environment that expressed the language of capitalism, standardization, and innovation. [8] In short, Babbitt is a literary place as well as a person, a machine as well as a suburban paragon. The assertion that spaces in American Modernist literature reflect the post-World War I symptoms of mechanization and alienation is further illustrated by many important works, such as Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises (1926) and William Carlos Williams’ Paterson (1946). Whereas in Hemingway’s novel, the ubiquity of war and its wounding-effect is reflected in ‘the broken walls of old houses that were being torn down’ or the explosive images of the Spanish fiesta [9], Williams’s Paterson assembles the quotidian artifacts of everyday mechanized living, such as newspapers, maps, photographs, and letters, into a living machine that generates a new language from the geographical, historical, and psychological spaces of this New Jersey industrial city. Like Hemingway, Williams recognized how the process of writing and producing art was similar to the machine’s transmission of power in that the ‘fixed and moving parts’ had the artistic ability to generate and create new arrangements from pre-constructed material, for, indeed, this was the ideological principle employed by architects like Frank Lloyd Wright. [10]

Although Lewis’s Babbitt does not precisely parallel the economical prose and leanness that characterizes Hemingway’s writing or the complex narrative architecture of Paterson, Babbitt does complicate Lewis’s ethnographic utilization of built environments by emphasizing how such spaces can produce a language of machinery. The inclusion of fictional advertisements, pro-business poems, public speeches, and memorandums manufactures a narrative rooted within a vibrant business world. Moreover, George F. Babbitt’s dialogue throughout the novel incarnates the efficiency, speed, and pro-production ‘pep’ of a machine, for his standardized vernacular is the ‘[embodiment of] the harried verbal nature of the American businessman’. [11] When applying the cartographic design of CIAM’s planning apparatus – spaces of dwelling, production, recreation, and transportation – to this spatial language of machinery in Lewis’s writing, we see that the various geographies of Babbitt, such as the suburban home, the skyscraper, the lodge, and the automobile, correspondingly function as alternative agents (and purveyors) of Modernist ideologies in Lewis’s literary world.

If poetry or literature can be construed as ‘machine[s] made of words’ as William Carlos Williams suggests [12], then the spaces about which Lewis writes operate as machines in and of themselves. This is most evident when examining the mechanization of the dwelling space in Babbitt: the suburban residence. In 1920, the French architect Le Corbusier recognized that the domestic realm of the family home had to mimic the 20th century machine in efficiency and function. Only then would this quotidian space serve the inhabitants’ growing dependency on manufactured gadgets and innovations. ‘If we eliminate from our hearts and minds all dead concepts in regard to the house’, Le Corbusier maintains, ‘and look at the question from a critical and objective point of view, we shall arrive at the “House-Machine”, the mass-production house, healthy (and morally so too) and beautiful in the same way that the working tools and instruments which accompany our existence are beautiful’. [13] Conceptualizing the house as a machine was a revolutionary notion in redefining vernacular domains; however, the modern house as a symptom of an automated aesthetic does not necessarily produce a home. In Lewis’s Babbitt, the American suburban domicile is a mechanical nurse designed to nourish the electrical lives of appliances while augmenting a sterile and standardized aura:

[The house] had the best of taste, the best of inexpensive rugs, a simple and laudable architecture, and the latest conveniences. Throughout, electricity took the place of candles and slatternly hearth-fires. Along the bedroom baseboard were three plugs for electric lamps, concealed by little brass doors. In the halls were plugs for the vacuum cleaner, and in the living-room plugs for the piano lamp, for the electric fan. The trim dining-room (with its admirable oak buffet, its leaded-glass cupboard, its creamy plaster walls, its modest scene of a salmon expiring upon a pile of oysters) had plugs which supplied the electric percolator and the electric toaster. [14]

As such, the Babbitt house itself, with its intricate network of electrical appliances, is more like a factory that generates the illusion of familial associations. Throughout the novel, Lewis’s meticulous attention to the Babbitt house projects greater connections between the inanimate objects themselves than between the Babbitt family members, for the Babbitts seem absent from the spaces and corridors of this typically bourgeois residence. The description of the house itself is reminiscent of the many advertisements selling the idea of the modern home in the early 20th century. In this same vein, while Lewis’s city of Zenith operates as a living hallmark for the newly mechanized society, the suburban house itself should theoretically foster ‘a world of good little people, comfortable, industrious, credulous’. [15] And yet, the suburban Dutch Colonial house of the Floral Heights development, ironically, ‘was not a home’. [16]

Part of Lewis’s own critique of white-collar Americans concerned their penchant for standardization and love for mechanization, for the principal deity in the pantheon of American Modernism was the god of ‘Modern Appliances’ to whom Babbitt is an unconditional devotee. [17] Accordingly, the suburban house functioned as the church of American consumption and underscored the values, behavior, and ideologies the middle-class wrought from the theology of production. Such critiques of the burgeoning middle-class were widespread and began to mark the suburbanite with a kind of secular zealotry towards material acquisition. ‘What distresses [the bourgeoisie’s] critics more than anything else’, posits Frederick J. Hoffman, author of The Twenties: American Writing in the Postwar Decade (1963), ‘was the religious intensity with which they exploited what had originally been chiefly an economic convenience. The bourgeoisie were condemned, not for having made money, but for having turned the making of it into a religion and a morality.’ [18] The domestic dwelling spaces in Babbitt are identified by a moralizing and didactic standardization and mechanization, for they embody not only a conformity which ‘conspicuous consumption’ engenders among suburbanites [19], but also a loyalty to a socio-economic system which guarantees the proliferation of monetary investments. [20] House as machine, therefore, transformed the family’s value system into one which emphasized mechanized innovation and consumptive standardization and de-emphasized meaningful relationships and emotional connections between members. Such an outcome, then, is antithetical to architectural principles of familial unity and fluidity, particularly those fostered by Wright’s Prairie School with its open design in domestic spaces.

Whereas domestic dwelling spaces in Babbitt mirror the standardization to which suburbanites were conforming, the urban skyscraper – the nucleus of production – operates as a self-contained metropolis free from the public spaces of the exterior city. This emphasis on the interiority of spaces thus establishes a controlled environment in which an urban-dweller acquires a new identity while inhabiting the structure. This identity is generated by the efficiency of ‘The Building’ [21] and by a kind of corporate nationalism or culture which signified neither a city nor a state, but which manufactured a corporate self that would transcend even national borders by the mid-20th century. [22] The skyscraper, as such, is a conjunction of mechanized spaces and corporeal bodies that work for the good of ‘The Building’ and the proliferation of capitalism. In Babbitt, the Reeves Building denotes this microcosm of American production and profit-making:

The little unknown people who inhabited the Reeves Building corridors—elevator-runners, starter, engineers, superintendent, and the doubtful-looking lame man who conducted the news and cigar stand—were in no way city-dwellers. They were rustics, living in a constricted valley, interested only in one another and in The Building. Their Main Street was the entrance hall, with its stone floor, severe marble ceiling, and the inner windows of the shops. The liveliest place on the street was the Reeves Building Barber Shop, but this was also Babbitt’s one embarrassment. Himself, he patronized the glittering Pompeian Barber Shop in the Hotel Thornleigh, and every time he passed the Reeves shop—ten times a day, a hundred times—he felt untrue to his own village. [23]

George F. Babbitt’s spatial relationship to the office building which holds his real estate company signifies a re-organization of social and productive space in the 20th century American city. Equating the skyscraper with a capitalist village underscores the transformation of the citizen into a loyal and faceless cog in the corporate apparatus of mechanization, a ‘Standardized American Citizen’. [24] Babbitt resides in a modern world ‘where man, menaced by organizations […] [and] machines, must resort to irrational forms of compensation in order to preserve his identity’ [25]; and yet, the seemingly irrational construct of a corporate villager makes sense when placing Babbitt and others in the social machine of the skyscraper and recognizing that urban ‘[a]rchitecture is the autobiography of economic systems and of social institutions.’ [26]

Whereas the suburban house-machine is read as a small religious site in the consumptive parameters of Babbitt, the office building serves as a ‘temple-spire of the religion of business, a faith passionate, exalted, surpassing common men’. [27] Powerful and sublime, the divine skyscrapers of Babbitt become the paradigm of American masculine virility, ‘tall soldier[s]’, leviathans, that could absorb the anonymous identities of their cell-like inhabitants into their bodily steel frames and concrete skin. [28]

Like the terrains of suburban dwelling and urban production throughout Babbitt, the recreational spaces of the social clubs and civic lodges are laboratories for cultivating a masculine communion of networking and conformity, for in a milieu where collectivity is esteemed above individuality, these leisure spaces contain and sustain the citizenry in an effort to ensure the hegemony of the middle-class lifestyle. Like his fellow joiners, Babbitt himself is not encouraged by these realms to be ‘the autocratic individualist, [for] he is the compromising conformist,’ according to Mark Schorer’s observations. ‘No producer himself, his success depends on public relations. He does not rule; he “joins” to be safe. He boosts and boasts with his fellows, sings and cheers and prays with the throng, derides all difference, denounces all dissent—and all to climb with the crowd’. [29] The recreational sectors throughout Zenith are more than social spaces; they are standardizing machines whose garish interiors poorly imitate an aesthetic of power found within the European villas, cathedrals, and courtly chambers of the distant past.

The famous Athletic Club, of which George F. Babbitt is an active member, is an example of the power aesthetic that constituents of Babbitt’s middle-class sphere are attempting to harness. Here, the spaces of leisure are marked by disparate design styles and lack of function; the purpose of this amalgamation of architectural languages is solely to effect an aristocratic air of tradition and elitism. However, the mixture of styles within these powerful buildings reveals both the sterility and the provincial tastes of these middle-class conformists:

The entrance of the Athletic Club was Gothic, the washroom Roman Imperial, the lounge Spanish Mission, and the reading-room in Chinese Chippendale, but the gem of the club was the dining-room. […] It was lofty and half-timbered, with Tudor leaded casements, an oriel, a somewhat musicianless musicians’-gallery, and tapestries believed to illustrate the granting of Magna Charta. The open beams had been hand-adzed at Jake Offutt’s car-body works, the hinges were of hand-wrought iron, the wainscot studded with hand-made wooden pegs, and at one end of the room was a heraldric and hooded stone fireplace which the club’s advertising-pamphlet asserted to be not only larger than any of the fireplaces in European castles but of a draught incomparably more scientific. It was also much cleaner, as no fire had ever been built in it. [30]

The Athletic Club, which ‘is not athletic and it isn’t exactly a club, but…is Zenith in perfection’ [31], functions as a heterotopic space ‘that lies outside all places and yet is actually localizable’ since it is an architectural pastiche assembled by the middle-class in an attempt to create a language of privilege and regency with which to pay homage to imperialist expressions of cultural potency while imparting that status and vitality onto common members of the American business community. [32] And yet, this spatial pastiche is merely a mechanical reproduction of these historical cultures and is actually disconnected from the ‘aura’ of the original architectural designs which they mimic. [33] More importantly, the overlapping and incongruent designs of the various chambers that Lewis so intricately describes further suggest the commodification of culture and an appropriation of noble virtues.

Another note-worthy example of commodifying culture that takes place in Babbitt occurs when Zenith’s Rotarians are trying to organize a patronage for a symphony hall in the city. However, rather than fostering a sense of cultural appreciation for classical music, the Rotarians see the hall as an incentive for attracting business. Chum Frink, a respected Rotarian, pleads his case, saying:

Culture has become as necessary an adornment and advertisement for a city today as pavements or bank-clearances. It’s Culture, in theaters and art-galleries and so on, that brings thousands of visitors to New York every year and, to be frank, for all our splendid attainments we haven’t yet or at least we don’t get the credit for it. The thing to do then, as a live bunch of go-getters, is to capitalize Culture; to go right out and grab it. [34]

Although the topography of the Athletic Club does not reveal the Modernist embrace of newness and innovation on the surface, the arcane designs imply a resurrection of classical motifs very common among middle-class members who were, at the time, rejecting the avant-garde themes in artistic expressions in favor of earlier, more familiar ones. Again, at the center of this leisure space is the will to empower a class through the vocabulary of architecture and design. The Athletic Club’s executive bathroom is an expression of this imperial, almost cult-like, language of power the American business class was cultivating during the 1920s:

[The members] grinned and went into the Neronian washroom, where a line of men bent over the bowls inset along a prodigious slab of marble as in religious prostration before their own images in the massy mirror. Voices thick, satisfied, authoritative, hurtled along the marble walls, bounded from the ceiling of lavender-bordered milky tiles, while the lords of the city, the barons of insurance and law and fertilizers and motor tires, laid down the law for Zenith. [35]

The recreational spheres throughout Babbitt indirectly reflect the fear many of the suburban class members had of being alienated or singled out for harboring a dissenting belief or position, for the anti-labor, anti-socialist, and anti-immigrant sentiments among these members worked to establish a closed system that preserved the home, the business, and the community’s social organizations. As such, the local club or lodge operated as a networking space that produced profitable ideas and was designed to function much like a regulated ‘piazza, […] [or] pavement café [where the businessman] could shoot pool and talk man-talk and be obscene and valiant’. [36] These exclusive and narcissistic designs ensured the white, middle-class male that his position within the capitalist culture and economy was not only necessary for the country’s continued domination in production and consumption, but also integral to fostering the emerging 20th century suburban ideal and identity.

Conjoining the dwelling spaces, the sectors of production, and the leisure sites are the transportational tentacles and mobile machines of Babbitt. Whereas the proliferation of rails across the American topography allowed trains and trolleys to extend beyond city limits and begin forming the early clusters of suburban communities along the urban frontiers, the automobile was the preeminent and romanticized mode of traversing the mutable landscape of the built and natural environments during the 1920s. According to Kenneth T. Jackson’s discussion of suburban construction after 1920, the author maintains that by 1922, the year of Babbitt’s publication, ‘about 135,000 suburban homes in sixty cities were already completely dependent upon cars for transportation […].’ [37] The mass production of the automobile during this time and its growing availability to middle-class consumers ignited the obsessive relationship Americans continue to have today with their cars, one marked by the equating automobile travel with basic democratic/consumer liberties.

Moreover, the cult of the automobile begins to be represented in other Modernist literature of the 1920s, such as the works of John Dos Passos or F. Scott Fitzgerald. It was the contoured car, ‘terraced with a labyrinth of wind-shields that mirrored a dozen suns’ [38], that epitomized a mechanized space of mobility, privilege, and independence. The automobile was a liminal cell passing between the organs of fixed and conforming units such as the suburban home, the downtown skyscraper, or the social lodge. Although confined to a metal frame and asphalt roads, the driver could still partake of a kind of self-liberation by motoring across the open corridors. The open road thus offered an intimate relationship with the wider landscape for those who could afford to access it.

For George F. Babbitt, the automobile allows a private and personal interaction with the public, exterior spaces in and around Zenith. The automobile generates sundry rites which provide the operator with an assortment of spiritual experiences. For example, in re-fueling his vehicle, Babbitt experiences an aesthetic pleasure in gazing upon other machines and structures which sustain and are devoted to his own four-wheeled machine. The quotidian act of having gas pumped becomes not only religious, but highly sensual and empowering for Babbitt:

The familiarity of the rite fortified him: the sight of the tall red iron gasoline-pump, the hollow-tile and terra-cotta garage, the window full of the most agreeable accessories—shiny casings, spark-plugs with immaculate porcelain jackets, tire-chains of gold and silver. […] He admired the ingenuity of the automatic dial, clicking off gallon by gallon; admired the smartness of the sign: ‘A fill in time saves getting stuck—gas to-day 31 cents’; admired the rhythmic gurgle of the gasoline as it flowed into the tank, and the mechanical regularity with which [the attendant] turned the handle. [39]

Democratizing machinery during the 1920s—that is, making instruments like the automobile available to the rising middle-class—ensured a level of contentment among the consuming masses and secured the promise of their upward-mobility in the form of upgrades, something Madison Avenue was promoting at the time through widespread lifestyle-advertisements. As transportational space in Babbitt, the automobile becomes an extension of masculinized power and potency in the socio-economic sphere of corporate America. This characterization of automotive space is made clear in the exchange which transpires between Babbitt and Tanis Judique, Babbitt’s ephemeral mistress:

He boasted, ‘You know, there’s a lot of these fellows that are so scared and drive so slow that they get in everybody’s way. The safest driver is a fellow that knows how to handle his machine and yet isn’t scared to speed up when it’s necessary’ […]

[Tanis]: ‘Of course, we had a car—I mean, before my husband passed on—and I used to make believe drive it, but I don’t think any woman ever learns to drive like a man’. [40]

Accessing a multitude of spaces via the automated vehicle suggests a kind of masculine privilege and freedom. Yet, while this mobility empowered the male suburban car owner, there was also the safeguard against being exposed to the broader outside world. As such, a passive relationship commenced between traveler and landscape, one that disconnected the former from the immediate association with the latter. Nevertheless, being technologically savvy in a society that was becoming more and more mechanized is a Modernist attribute celebrated by the American middle-class; it is a trait which denotes civility and status in the cultural geography of Babbitt.

‘Suburban modernism’ was an ideology that reflected the changing value systems of the American middle-class. Values predicated upon cultural mechanization and commodification, ceaseless productivity, capitalist empowerment, and acceleration epitomized this form of Modernist behavior in many Standardized American Citizens during the 1920s. More significantly, the re-conception of human spaces such as the house, skyscraper, lodge, and automobile as machines provided middle-class Americans with a distinct Modernist vocabulary through which to produce a lexicon of suburban sensibilities in the early 20th century. Sinclair Lewis’s Babbitt, with the subsequent ‘Babbittry’ that marked American consciousness, is an important work (and movement) in that it succeeds in calling attention to the standardization, innovations, and production that greased the wheels of mechanizing America. While illuminating these Modernist features in middle-class/suburban life, the novel simultaneously warns of the dangers inherent in homogenization, xenophobia, alienation, and subjugation to the machine. Nowhere are these themes more resonant than in the very spaces Lewis constructs, for these literary blueprints reveal the genesis of the aesthetic of mechanization and power that is still ubiquitous in contemporary literature.

University of California, Riverside


[1] Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space, trans. by Donald Nicholson-Smith (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1991), p. 132.

[2] Sinclair Lewis, Babbitt (New York: Bantam Classics, 1998), p. 190.

[3] Cecelia Tichi, Shifting Gears: Technology, Literature, Culture in Modernist America (Chapel Hill, NC, and London: University of North Carolina Press, 1987), p. 289.

[4] Lewis, p. 1.

[5] Lewis, p. 1.

[6] Robert Fishman, Bourgeois Utopias: The Rise and Fall of Suburbia (New York: Basic Books, 1987), p. 150.

[7] Programs and Manifestos on 20th Century Architecture, ed. By Ulrich Conrads, trans. Michael Bullock (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1970), p. 109.

[8] John Wickersham, Introduction to Babbitt by Sinclair Lewis (New York: Bantam Classic Book, 1998), p. xiii.

[9] Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises (New York: Charles Scribner, 1954), p. 77, 152-4.

[10] Tichi, pp. 267-268.

[11] Wickersham, p. xvi.

[12] Williams Carlos Williams, ‘Author’s Introduction’ to ‘The Wedge’ in The Collected Later Poems of William Carlos Williams, (New York: New Directions Book, 1950), pp. 3-5 (p. 4).

[13] Quoted in Programs and Manifestos, p. 62.

[14] Lewis, p. 15.

[15] Lewis, p. 330.

[16] Lewis, p. 15.

[17] Lewis, p. 5.

[18] Frederick J. Hoffman, The Twenties: American Writing in the Postwar Decade (New York: Collier Books, 1962), p. 360.

[19] Thorstein Veblen, The Theory of the Leisure Class: An Economic Study of Institutions (Franklin Center, PA: The Franklin Library, 1979), p. 56.

[20] Catherine Jurca, White Diaspora: The Suburb and the Twentieth-Century American Novel (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2001), p. 52.

[21] Lewis, p. 33.

[22] Zeynep Çelik, ‘Cultural Intersections: Re-visioning Architecture and the City in the Twentieth Century’, in At the End of the Century: One Hundred Years of Architecture, ed. by Russell Ferguson (Los Angeles: Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles & Harry N. Abrams, 1998), pp. 190-228 (p. 191).

[23] Lewis, p. 33.

[24] Lewis, p. 190.

[25] Howell Daniels, ‘Sinclair Lewis and the Drama of Dissociation’, in Sinclair Lewis, ed. by Harold Bloom, (New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1987), pp. 83-102 (p. 92).

[26] Quoted in Bruno Zevi, Architecture as Space: How to Look at Architecture, ed. by Joseph A. Barry, trans. by Milton Gendel (New York: Horizon Press, 1974), p. 167.

[27] Lewis, p. 13.

[28] Lewis, p. 13.

[29] Mark Schorer, Sinclair Lewis: An American Life, (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1961), p. 356.

[30] Lewis, p. 60.

[31] Lewis, p. 56.

[32] Michel Foucault, ‘Of Other Spaces: Utopias and Heterotopias’, in Rethinking Architecture: A Reader in Cultural Theory, ed. by Neil Leach (London and New York: Routledge, 1997), pp. 350-356 (p. 352).

[33] Walter Benjamin, Illuminations, ed. by Hannah Arendt, trans. by Harry Zohn (New York: Schocken Books, 1968), p. 222-3.

[34] Lewis, p. 269.

[35] Lewis, p. 60.

[36] Lewis, p. 211.

[37] Kenneth T. Jackson, Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985), p. 176.

[38] F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby (New York: Charles Scribner, 1980), p. 64.

[39] Lewis, pp. 28-29.

[40] Lewis, p. 290.