Babbitt Rex

Boob and boho in the businessman’s republic

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If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em, goes the native adage; but in the case of [Sinclair] Lewis and America, it is difficult to say who joined up with whom.

—Steven Marcus, 1963

The Cartesians of this world must find it difficult to listen to WYPA, the Chicago AM radio station that fills its broadcast schedule with a torrent of three- and four-minute talks on aspects of success, leadership, and entrepreneurial virtue. Not only does the object of desire shift maddeningly from minute to minute—achievement, goals, “conversation power,” the ability to read, big houses, social success for the kiddies—but each of the day’s thirty or forty lecturers suggests a different protocol or lifelong regimen for attaining whatever it is, usually something involving numerology or alliteration. There’s the “friendly, fair, and flexible” system; there’s the fellow who has discovered that the way to go through life is to “match and mirror” other people’s gestures, inflections, expressions, and accents. Another exhorts listeners to acquire “the habit of visualization,” to run an “instant pre-play” of everything we say and do. A fourth instructs us to impose order on our lives by writing a “personal mission statement,” just as the Founding Fathers are said to have done with the Constitution, “the standard of excellence for the land.” Inspirers pause in mid-sentence to spell out an acronym for the word they have just uttered, revealing what each letter stands for (“… smart. The acronym is: Successful, Manageable, Attainable, Realistic, and Trackable”) as though it were the most natural thing in the world, the way Adam or Shakespeare or Webster thought them all up in the first place. Then there are the zanier exhortations which understand business endeavor as a transcendental state, a quest for oceanic oneness with the timeless spirit of acquisition: Last summer the easy winner in this category was the trippy gospel of “Flow,” which counsels all manner of marketing managers and photocopier salesmen on the virtues of “becoming immersed,” getting “in-groove,” and “learning to enjoy the immediate experience.”

To listen to “Personal Achievement Radio” for the first time is a thrilling experience. Here, it seems, is the last frontier of virgin, unironized kitsch: cheesy sound tracks and tinny voice-overs, transparent hucksterism and pathetic sincerity, all emanating from the low end of the AM—AM!—dial. The feeling of bottomless banality is heightened by the peppy patter of the DJs, who introduce each mini-sermon as though inspiration was just as interchangeable as Top-40 music, with Zig Ziglar in the place of, say, Ace of Base. But however sedulously the various stars of WYPA may have embraced current buzzwords (one boosts a Web site publishing only good news), there’s an unmistakable echo in their routines of the business patter Sinclair Lewis satirized in his 1922 novel, Babbitt. Sometimes the resemblance is so exact that one might well be listening to a radio station whose signals have been bouncing around the Solar System since the days of Coolidge. Consider this passage from Babbitt, a statement of principle given by one of Zenith’s leading advertising men at a meeting of the city’s Boosters’ Club, but which could easily (with only a few words changed) enliven the afternoon rotation on WYPA:

Service finds its broadest opportunity and development only in its broadest and deepest application and the consideration of its perpetual action upon reaction. I believe the highest type of Service, like the most progressive tenets of ethics, senses unceasingly and is motived by active adherence and loyalty to that which is the essential principle of Boosterism—Good Citizenship in all its factors and aspects.

From the crude days of One Hundred Percent Pep and Dale Carnegie down to the sophisticated postmodern transcendentalism of Flow, this hollow gospel of affirmation has been the public mythology of our economic order, relentlessly turning any questions about larger purpose back on the individual, casting any society-wide failings as symptoms of your personal failure to be sufficiently affirmative. While it may be pitiable in its obvious meretriciousness, its sham scholarship, its desperately repeated assurances that the pixies of success will someday promote each of us to “executive” status, it is also the folklore of power, the catechism of our national faith. Like George F. Babbitt, the average WYPA listener is hardly a great titan of business, but it is nonetheless appropriate to apply to him, in his mountainous will to believe, Sinclair Lewis’s reference to his subject as “the ruler of America. . . . Our conqueror, dictator over our commerce, education, labor, art, politics, morals, and lack of conversation.”

Seventy-five years later, as the free-market faith stands on the verge of becoming a national cult, as superstar entrepreneurs and the power of positive thinking become objects of both journalistic reverence and cinematic homage, Babbitt appears like a manifesto of American satire, a model for the sound thrashing so richly deserved by all our contemporary priests of boosterism. Even today Lewis’s cast of characters are still easily recognizable as contemporary types: the authoritative economist, the charlatan business school professor, the lyricist of the American salesman who writes advertising on the side.

Lewis’s description of the sometimes bizarre minutiae of middle-class life is similarly enduring: the story of the man who lords his low license plate number over his colleagues at the Elks; the realtors singing Zenith’s official city song on their way to the convention; the characters marvelling over the comical slang of the newspaper advertisements. Each could have happened yesterday.

But Babbitt is also a strangely limited satire, easy even for those who inhabit the same social and regional place as George F. Babbitt to regard as a document strictly of its time, a painstaking description of life in a particular social stratum in the American Midwest in 1922. Despite some surface similarities, the Midwestern cities that Zenith has grown into don’t really suffocate people in the blunt and obtuse way Sinclair Lewis described. One can even read Babbitt as a sort of cultural analog of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, a critique which served its purpose at the time but which progress has superseded. This is at least partially attributable to Lewis’s powers of literary demolition: For at least ten years his scorn was capable of obsoleting entire bodies of slang, style, and belief; his drolleries became overnight buzzwords and universal epithets.

Babbitt’s drolleries became overnight buzzwords and universal epithet.

Which raises the most interesting aspect of Babbitt at seventy-five: the dynamic relationship between Babbitt and the Babbittry—what we might call the Babbitt Equation. Babbitts coast to coast bought the book in huge numbers; the newspapers of any number of Midwestern cities insisted that their burg was his model for Zenith; and legions of individuals claimed to be Babbitt himself. The book does not include a chapter in which George F. Babbitt sails into a Zenith book shop and picks up a novel savaging his fellow boosters, but it might well have done so. The real lesson of Babbitt, it turned out, was that smug self-satisfaction thrives in a strange symbiosis with self-loathing in the soul of the American businessman, the two driving him to acts that look simultaneously like bold self-overcoming and a dog chasing its tail. What Babbitt revealed was that the American business class enjoys few things more than a witty dressing-down of just this type, the author’s sympathy for the regular guys showing clearly through his good-natured mockery.

Consider the specific criticism of business civilization that the book makes. George F. Babbitt may be successful but he is a boor, a man who has turned his back on true feeling and filled his life with emotion-substitutes, with empty talk of zest and zip. The guy even sells suburban homes for a living! The commercial imperatives that dominate his world are fake, hollow, and tasteless. This is a point that Lewis wanted to be sure nobody misunderstood, driving it home dogmatically in the maudlin story of Babbitt’s artist manqué friend Paul Riesling (he who sighs at a steel mill’s “picturesque” beauty) and in the unspoken admissions of Babbitt himself that “his way of life [was] incredibly mechanical.”

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Again and again, Lewis has Babbitt and his fellow Zip Citians encounter bits of the real high culture stuff (Dante, Virgil, the classical columns in the movie theater, a “marble seat warm from five hundred summers of Amalfi”), and follows each meeting invariably and automatically with some act of degradation or some incomprehensible crassitude. The reader’s response was no doubt meant to be equally invariable and automatic: We cluck disapprovingly, shake our head over the illiteracy of these boobs, and realize that the great tragedy of middle-class life is its distance from the sacred stuff of culture. When Lewis gives us passages like the hilariously banal newspaper poetry of Chum Frink (which, guess what, actually celebrates conformity and cultural standardization) or records Babbitt’s proud declaration that “in America the successful writer or picture-painter is indistinguishable from any other decent business man,” he is setting up one of the criticisms of American life that he would later make explicit in his Nobel acceptance speech. While we Americans had proven our ability to amass capital proper, we were sadly deficient in acquiring cultural capital, the real stuff of social class.

This rather predictable line of criticism makes up one side of the Babbitt Equation: The businessman as boob. So easy a critique is it that Babbitt’s understanding of business life itself quickly became a standard element of business life, just one more item on the long list of self-improvements that we resolve to make as part of Philistine No Longer! or the Ten Days to Wit and Culture system.

It’s a struggle still fought today in the lyrics of an army of lavishly alienated tattoo boys.

The urgent cultural struggle of 1922 was the overthrow of the “genteel tradition” in American letters, the destruction of what H. L. Mencken called “puritanism as a literary force.” The enthusiastic public reception of Babbitt marked both the victory of the scoffers and the beginning of a great shift in the cultural battleground. What is remembered less clearly is how Lewis’s attack on the boorish tastes and unfulfilling life of the bourgeoisie fit the old puritan agenda, especially its tendency toward introspection and self-condemnation. Lewis didn’t renounce middle-class life (as did John Dos Passos and Floyd Dell) so much as call for a slight alteration of its goals. In Babbitt we can glimpse the first flashes of a new but still unmistakably middle-class style, what we might call bourgeois self-loathing as a literary force. Whether Lewis’s own name is remembered twenty years from now or not (and the steady downward trajectory of his fame suggests the latter), he created in 1922 a straw man of archetypal durability whose tepid tastes and insensitivity to culture will draw the hoots of the complacent middle class for decades to come. And for the left politics in which Lewis ached to participate, Babbitt substituted a politics of authenticity, an aestheticized struggle still fought today through TV commercials and in the lyrics of an army of lavishly alienated tattoo boys.

So while WYPA and its thick fog of patriotic positivity hold down one side of the Babbitt Equation, the other becomes more ubiquitous with every passing year, as Babbitt2 screams to the world that he’s not a “Standardized American Citizen.” Today Babbitt2 frequents fashionable restaurants and offers loud disquisitions on Midwesterners’ lamentable taste for iceberg lettuce, on their full and total ignorance of radicchio; Babbitt2 reads The New Yorker, where mildly daring slaps at middle-class propriety bracket fawning accounts of the captains of industry; Babbitt2 reveres not bland Rotarians but the extreme executives whose mad flava is detailed month after month in the business press. But for a truly candid picture of the two Babbitts locked in sham battle with each other, just move your tuner to an NPR affiliate for a few hours. One day recently the network presented a lengthy management jeremiad given by a leading CEO and followed it, immediately and quite unproblematically, with an inside look at the Tejano poetry scene, a gorgeously untouched backcountry bohemia where people are still in touch with the natural order, authenticity can be found at every backyard barbecue, nobody has been corrupted by the ways of the big city, and everyone seems to suffer from the curious delusion that they are fine poets.

Of course, what makes Babbitt a truly great satire is the fact that Lewis seemed to know that he was setting up a largely bogus opposition. Consider, for example, the episode four-fifths of the way through the book in which George F. Babbitt suddenly declares himself “in rebellion” and takes up with a crowd of Zenith bohemians. Many critics have taken exception to this plot turn, finding a fatal inconsistency in Babbitt’s overnight change from iron complacency into nonconformity. But how different are the two Babbitts really? Contemporary readers find nothing odd about the idea of a realtor doing a little subcultural dabbling on the side—today it’s virtually a part of the job, a mandatory prerequisite for anyone looking to do some speculation in the next hot neighborhood. It seems obvious now that Babbitt as a consorter with tippling aesthetes is still Babbitt the real-estate manipulator; that bohemia is just as much a boob’s game as is selling prefab houses in Floral Heights.

So thoroughly are all the Babbittry “in rebellion” today, of course, that the literary anniversary for which they boost with punch and pep is not the seventy-fifth of Babbitt but the fortieth of On the Road, an installment in the literature of bourgeois self-loathing so aesthetically predictable that it might better be titled Son of Babbitt. By 1957, though, the requirements had changed. Nobody wanted to read more details of middle-class life, so Kerouac cut the criticism, focused exclusively on the shallow soul-searching and boho merrymaking, and thereby hit upon the formula that, even today, brings the people of Zenith back to the bookstores, the cineplexes, the TV sets. Forget the fine points of business civilization, the mundane idiocies; what the fellow on Main Street wants to hear about is exotic enlightenment, Benzedrine tubes, big chunks of authentic dharma, the car-stuff. So while the seventy-fifth anniversary of Sinclair Lewis’s masterpiece is marked with paperback editions by small presses, On the Road is reissued as a hardbound by Viking and continues to sell (according to a recent report in the New York Times Magazine) more than a hundred thousand copies a year. Still, Kerouac’s indebtedness to Lewis is such that On the Road could well be read as one long homage to the advertisement for Zeeco cars that Chum Frink, the poet, recites at Babbitt’s dinner party:

The long white trail is calling—calling—and it’s over the hills and far away for every man or woman that has red blood in his veins and on his lips the ancient song of the buccaneers. It’s away with dull drudging, and a fig for care. Speed—glorious Speed—it’s more than just a moment’s exhilaration—it’s Life for you and me! . . . Listen, brother! You’ll never know what the high art of hiking is till you TRY LIFE’S ZIPPINGEST ZEST—THE ZEECO!

Allons Enfants de la Zip Cit-ee

One can only marvel at the devastation a satirist like Lewis could wreak in this age of overwrought free-market proclamations, of corporate millennialism and Wall Street astrology. Radicchio and Jack Kerouac notwithstanding, Babbitt seems to have become “ruler,” “conqueror,” and “dictator” not only over American “commerce, education, labor, art, politics, morals,” but over the world’s.

Almost exactly seventy-five years to the day after Babbitt appeared, the International Herald Tribune offered as its lead European headline a rosy “New Credo for [the] World.” The story’s first sentence, penned by Barbara Crossette of the New York Times, rivals—even mimics—the gushing phrases of advertising in its transcendent optimism: “Has there ever been a moment quite like this?” Back in America, Crossette announces with the smug confidence of a speaker at a Rotary Club luncheon, the class problem has been largely solved, as “high-yield retirement accounts are making near-millionaires of thousands of salaried workers and hourly wage earners.” Elsewhere in the world, she asserts, ancient conflicts are also disappearing under the benevolent pressure of sound business practices. Crossette is merely trying her hand at this year’s big journalistic idea, of course, and her effort is distinguished only by the fact that she dispenses with caution and humility more recklessly than last week’s entry in the Financial Times or wherever. The barrage continues in an article slightly lower on the page which carefully excepts the sneering French from this worldwide society of Solid Citizens and Regular Fellows. France’s mulish insistence on maintaining a welfare state and its arrogant repudiation of American leadership have made it, from here to The New Republic, the editorialist’s favorite target, the French now the inevitable cranks and knockers to the responsible journalist’s vision of Progress, Prosperity, and One-Hundred-Per-Cent Pep.

Crossette is a lesser pom-pom on the American free-market cheerleading squad that stars Robert Samuelson, Thomas Friedman, and Charles Krauthammer. And while their writing may consist largely of twentieth-generation repetitions of the stuff that makes up Babbitt’s speech to the Zenith Boosters’ Club, lately their ambitions have been anything but provincial. In this age of Clinton the American pundits have seen the old boundaries of taste, humility, and nation-states give way before them, and with an almost supernatural force the conviction has dawned on them that the American booster’s way of life can be—must be!—extended to the rest of the planet.

But can we all become Babbitt? The repeated journalistic attacks on the French for their alleged refusal to welcome market principles—attacks that always equate the French welfare state with snobbery—inevitably call to mind the first part of the Babbitt Equation: bourgeois as boob, market man as proud philistine. It can’t be long before the Wall Street Journal announces that the world will live under the specter of snob and socialist until AM transmitters broadcasting the purest principles of positivity are set up from Biarritz to Bourges; until the transcendent peace of Flow is made available to Communist charwomen and hairsplitting academics from Calais to Cannes.

Not that anyone here seems to have any more of an idea what this stuff means.

Yet the Chum Frinks of the American media have little to worry about. The evening that Crossette’s proud boasts crossed the cover of the Herald Tribune I went to dinner with six businesspeople, all young, well-educated, and cosmopolitan: one British, one Italian, one Swiss, one Dutch, one American, and one French. The conversation moved through topics that any reader of Pierre Bourdieu’s 1979 book, Distinction, could easily have predicted: questions of art, architecture, and history that always seem to interest members of the new managerial class. No one was embarrassed or silenced by ignorance; no one bleated crudely in the Babbitt manner; the American was not ugly. Then someone mentioned Tom Peters, and the table erupted with loud disquisitions on this or that theme in the great consultant’s work. Everyone had read him—they’d read every book he’s written—and they had each internalized his advice, embraced his thoughts on human enterprise as though Peters personally had stood over their shoulder and interpreted his athletic prose for them. An argument grew over whether Peters’s latest books, the hopelessly commercial paperbacks Pursuit of Wow and Crazy Times Call for Crazy Organizations, were or were not a betrayal of the weighty thoughts of earlier works like Thriving on Chaos. It was agreed, though, that Peters’s meditations on “excellence” rank among the century’s most significant thinkings; that his contribution to that body of theory we call management tower above all others.

Look in the right places and the creeping Babbittization of Europe starts to resemble one of the thousand paranoid subplots of a Pynchon novel, evidence of some grand scheme cropping up everywhere. One spots a copy of Getting to Yes on the bedside table of an otherwise hardheaded young Dutch foreign trade analyst; one listens as a rising Italian real-estate developer, after fairly literate talk about that nation’s class system and his experiences in the Vatican library, confides earnestly that one must (a) understand productive life as a journey and (b) learn the universal principles of Flow. Not that anyone here seems to have any more of an idea what this stuff means than the listeners of WYPA; American management talk is revered nonetheless, taken as a sort of totem—a status made possible by its very meaninglessness—of inexplicable prosperity.

The other side of the Babbitt Equation, the fake opposition, is almost impossible to miss in Western Europe, but here all of Lewis’s categories of reverence for European culture-stuff have been nicely inverted. Again “America” is understood mystically, but here it is U.S. junk culture that is revered, taken as a totem of the freedom available in Kerouac-kountry, the United States as a theme park of authenticity and unaffected expression, as a refuge from the Old World grind. If the omnipresent MTV knock-offs and anglophone Scandinavian pop bands aren’t enough, take the mad fantasies of American authenticity, American commercial practices (both honest and lazy), and nose-thumbing American disobedience (never disobedient enough to stage a general strike or secure a national health care plan) posited by the faux-American T-shirt slogans so popular among French, Spanish, Belgian, Dutch, and German vacationers (all spotted within the space of one hour on the beach at a popular French resort town):

“Wild Reserve”

“Back to my Roots”

“Original Grade”

“Biscuit Clothing: For Something Original”

“Ethnic West Coast Revolution”

“Wear the Blue: Our Style Remain”

“No Work Team” (fairly ubiquitous on T-shirts, bumper stickers, and surfboards)

“Street [email protected]

“Local Boyz Quality Trademark”

and, on a scooter, a slogan that would have made Babbitt proud: “Booster Spirit.”

We Are All Sinclair Lewis Now

At the downtown campus of the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business the contrast between neighborhood residents and students is not quite as remarkable as it is on the main South Side campus. But still the kids are something to see as they come rolling up to the shiny new North Loop complex in taxis and company-provided limos: the designated captains of whatever industry will still be left twenty years from now, the most promising junior executives in the world, hailing from all corners of the globe but still admirably uniform in thought, expression, clothing, and bearing; a homogeneous transnational business class, in straight teeth and standard-issue Burberry, stationed here in Babbitt country for a few years to soak up the timeless principles of Vision, Ideals, Inspiration, and, well, Pep. Tonight the tag-team scholars in charge, postmodern thinkers who celebrate what they call “non-linear thinking” and the trans disciplinary principles of Flow, have arranged for this golden throng a lecture by a marketplace thaumaturge of the thousand-percent variety, a bona fide artist whose talk leads the prodigies of the future directly into their first assignment: comparing the creativity and transgressiveness of Jasper Johns and Warren Buffett. Then it’s on to part two, the Sinclair Lewis exercise, in which the students are asked to invent personifications of two corporate organizations, one effervescently entrepreneurial, the other supported by (ugh!) state subsidies. To a man, the students have opted to cast the upstart firm as an outsider artist of some kind, the daughter of a Jamaican mother and an Italian father, a painter, a singer, an aficionado of sports and e-communication and exotic travel. The decrepit old company, meanwhile, is said to be a corpulent, tired, middle-aged, and distinctly white male beneficiary of some kind of nepotism—it’s George F. Babbitt.

One professor tells the proto-executives about the weighty yet glorious burden of “vision,” about how it sometimes puts one at odds with the little people, the mundanely details-oriented. He reads from Leadership Without Easy Answers. He informs them that vision is a “spiritual” quality, while “mission” is more of a “left-brain” function. He lists the “Three Enabling Forces.” He tells them about “Personal Meaning.” And after a taped speech by the late Leo Burnett on the nature of creativity, he dismisses the students back into the night, to the taxis and company-provided limos, off to ponder, with the glamorous sense of responsibility peculiar to those born to power, the pleasantly arduous future stretching out ahead; all the boardroom battles with all the right-brained Babbitts of the older generation that lie before them, and that they are certain to win. What they have listened to for the last three hours, of course, is only marginally more useful than what they could have learned from a day’s close attention to “Personal Achievement Radio” or a volume by Napoleon Hill. But that’s not the point: Corporate bohemianism may be intellectually vacuous, but it works for them like the Great Chain of Being worked for medieval kings, a sound and convincing lesson in class entitlement, in the rightness and justness of the world, and in their own place in it.

Of course, to understand these golden avatars of creative corporate practice as largely identical to the boorish, slow-moving executives they believe to be their forebears, is to commit what they would no doubt regard as an act of inexcusable intellectual insensitivity. And as the republic of business extends its benevolent shade over the globe, the minor differences between the Elks Club variant of Babbitt and his China Club cousin—like the distance between radicchio and iceberg or between Bill Clinton and Bob Dole—will expand with it, until that fine day when the Babbitt Equation, the imaginary war of boob and boho, ingenue and ironist, philistine and connoisseur, will be the only public choice we have left.

attitude

For beneath the banal patter of the Babbittry is a public philosophy as comprehensive and as capable of explaining the world as any mankind has ever devised, one that works for those on the bottom as well as for those on top. I recall an enthusiastic young man who attended an institution of management training where they skipped the fine points about Jasper Johns and studied the rudiments of salesmanship instead. Still the curriculum amounted to pretty much the same thing—round upon round of hollow positivity-talk. But for my friend its promise was just as definite as it is for the gilded Babbitts2 of Chicago: This was to be his escape from the dull West Virginia wastes in which he had been reared; the way into a world of luxury and firm handshakes and masculine bonhomie that he was capable of imagining as vividly as any Dreiser character, and into the attainment of which he threw himself blindly and wholeheartedly. He understood the job offer he received just before graduation as the long-awaited summons into the executive class of his dreams, and he promptly betook himself to the Pontiac dealership in our university town and purchased a brand new Trans-Am.

The junior executives made short work of him, of course, finding in his eagerly gaping face an irresistible target. Over the years he bounced from firm to firm, the enthusiasm that made him so vulnerable dimming with each disaster, and today he passes his hours in a cubicle near a cloverleaf, cold-calling. Between calls he flips compulsively through a pack of flashcards inscribed with phrases like “I am a successful individual,” messages of full-strength, max-volume positivity, stripped of subtlety and undiluted by adverbs, 120-proof reassurance for one whose desperation has become intolerable.

Thomas Frank is a political analyst, historian, journalist and columnist for Salon. He is a former columnist for the Wall Street Journal, authoring “The Tilting Yard” from 2008 to 2010, and a founding editor of The Baffler. He is the author of a number of books, most notably What’s the Matter with Kansas? (2004). His newest book is Listen, Liberal.

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