Fiction > Sinclair Lewis > Babbitt
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Sinclair Lewis (1885–1951).  Babbitt.  1922.

Chapter XIV
 
I

THIS autumn a Mr. W. G. Harding, of Marion, Ohio, was appointed President of the United States, but Zenith was less interested in the national campaign than in the local election. Seneca Doane, though he was a lawyer and a graduate of the State University, was candidate for mayor of Zenith on an alarming labor ticket. To oppose him the Democrats and Republicans united on Lucas Prout, a mattress-manufacturer with a perfect record for sanity. Mr. Prout was supported by the banks, the Chamber of Commerce, all the decent newspapers, and George F. Babbitt.
   1
  Babbitt was precinct-leader on Floral Heights, but his district was safe and he longed for stouter battling. His convention paper had given him the beginning of a reputation for oratory, so the Republican-Democratic Central Committee sent him to the Seventh Ward and South Zenith, to address small audiences of workmen and clerks, and wives uneasy with their new votes. He acquired a fame enduring for weeks. Now and then a reporter was present at one of his meetings, and the headlines (though they were not very large) indicated that George F. Babbitt had addressed Cheering Throng, and Distinguished Man of Affairs had pointed out the Fallacies of Doane. Once, in the rotogravure section of the Sunday Advocate-Times, there was a photograph of Babbitt and a dozen other business men, with the caption “Leaders of Zenith Finance and Commerce Who Back Prout.”   2
  He deserved his glory. He was an excellent campaigner. He had faith; he was certain that if Lincoln were alive, he would be electioneering for Mr. W. G. Harding—unless he came to Zenith and electioneered for Lucas Prout. He did not confuse audiences by silly subtleties; Prout represented honest industry, Seneca Doane represented whining laziness, and you could take your choice. With his broad shoulders and vigorous voice, he was obviously a Good Fellow; and, rarest of all, he really liked people. He almost liked common workmen. He wanted them to be well paid, and able to afford high rents—though, naturally, they must not interfere with the reasonable profits of stockholders. Thus nobly endowed, and keyed high by the discovery that he was a natural orator, he was popular with audiences, and he raged through the campaign, renowned not only in the Seventh and Eighth Wards but even in parts of the Sixteenth.   3
  
II

Crowded in his car, they came driving up to Turnverein Hall, South Zenith—Babbitt, his wife, Verona, Ted, and Paul and Zilla Riesling. The hall was over a delicatessen shop, in a street banging with trolleys and smelling of onions and gasoline and fried fish. A new appreciation of Babbitt filled all of them, including Babbitt.
   4
  “Don’t know how you keep it up, talking to three bunches in one evening. Wish I had your strength,” said Paul; and Ted exclaimed to Verona, “The old man certainly does know how to kid these roughnecks along!”   5
  Men in black sateen shirts, their faces new-washed but with a hint of grime under their eyes, were loitering on the broad stairs up to the hall. Babbitt’s party politely edged through them and into the whitewashed room, at the front of which was a dais with a red-plush throne and a pine altar painted watery blue, as used nightly by the Grand Masters and Supreme Potentates of innumerable lodges. The hall was full. As Babbitt pushed through the fringe standing at the back, he heard the precious tribute, “That’s him!” The chairman bustled down the center aisle with an impressive, “The speaker? All ready, sir! Uh—let’s see—what was the name, sir?”   6
  Then Babbitt slid into a sea of eloquence:   7
  “Ladies and gentlemen of the Sixteenth Ward, there is one who cannot be with us here to-night, a man than whom there is no more stalwart Trojan in all the political arena—I refer to our leader, the Honorable Lucas Prout, standard-bearer of the city and county of Zenith. Since he is not here, I trust that you will bear with me if, as a friend and neighbor, as one who is proud to share with you the common blessing of being a resident of the great city of Zenith, I tell you in all candor, honesty, and sincerity how the issues of this critical campaign appear to one plain man of business—to one who, brought up to the blessings of poverty and of manual labor, has, even when Fate condemned him to sit at a desk, yet never forgotten how it feels, by heck, to be up at five-thirty and at the factory with the ole dinner-pail in his hardened mitt when the whistle blew at seven, unless the owner sneaked in ten minutes on us and blew it early! (Laughter.) To come down to the basic and fundamental issues of this campaign, the great error, insincerely promulgated by Seneca Doane—”   8
  There were workmen who jeered—young cynical workmen, for the most part foreigners, Jews, Swedes, Irishmen, Italians—but the older men, the patient, bleached, stooped carpenters and mechanics, cheered him; and when he worked up to his anecdote of Lincoln their eyes were wet.   9
  Modestly, busily, he hurried out of the hall on delicious applause, and sped off to his third audience of the evening. “Ted, you better drive,” he said. “Kind of all in after that spiel. Well, Paul, how’d it go? Did I get ’em?”  10
  “Bully! Corking! You had a lot of pep.”  11
  Mrs. Babbitt worshiped, “Oh, it was fine! So clear and interesting, and such nice ideas. When I hear you orating I realize I don’t appreciate how profoundly you think and what a splendid brain and vocabulary you have. Just—splendid.”  12
  But Verona was irritating. “Dad,” she worried, “how do you know that public ownership of utilities and so on and so forth will always be a failure?”  13
  Mrs. Babbitt reproved, “Rone, I should think you could see and realize that when your father’s all worn out with orating, it’s no time to expect him to explain these complicated subjects. I’m sure when he’s rested he’ll be glad to explain it to you. Now let’s all be quiet and give Papa a chance to get ready for his next speech. Just think! Right now they’re gathering in Maccabee Temple, and waiting for us!”  14
  
III

Mr. Lucas Prout and Sound Business defeated Mr. Seneca Doane and Class Rule, and Zenith was again saved. Babbitt was offered several minor appointments to distribute among poor relations, but he preferred advance information about the extension of paved highways, and this a grateful administration gave to him. Also, he was one of only nineteen speakers at the dinner with which the Chamber of Commerce celebrated the victory of righteousness.
  15
  His reputation for oratory established, at the dinner of the Zenith Real Estate Board he made the Annual Address. The Advocate-Times reported this speech with unusual fullness:  16
  “One of the livest banquets that has recently been pulled off occurred last night in the annual Get-Together Fest of the Zenith Real Estate Board, held in the Venetian Ball Room of the O’Hearn House. Mine host Gil O’Hearn had as usual done himself proud and those assembled feasted on such an assemblage of plates as could be rivaled nowhere west of New York, if there, and washed down the plenteous feed with the cup which inspired but did not inebriate in the shape of cider from the farm of Chandler Mott, president of the board and who acted as witty and efficient chairman.  17
  “As Mr. Mott was suffering from slight infection and sore throat, G. F. Babbitt made the principal talk. Besides outlining the progress of Torrensing real estate titles, Mr. Babbitt spoke in part as follows:  18
  “‘In rising to address you, with my impromptu speech carefully tucked into my vest pocket, I am reminded of the story of the two Irishmen, Mike and Pat, who were riding on the Pullman. Both of them, I forgot to say, were sailors in the Navy. It seems Mike had the lower berth and by and by he heard a terrible racket from the upper, and when he yelled up to find out what the trouble was, Pat answered, “Shure an’ bedad an’ how can I ever get a night’s sleep at all, at all? I been trying to get into this darned little hammock ever since eight bells!”  19
  “‘Now, gentlemen, standing up here before you, I feel a good deal like Pat, and maybe after I’ve spieled along for a while, I may feel so darn small that I’ll be able to crawl into a Pullman hammock with no trouble at all, at all!  20
  “‘Gentlemen, it strikes me that each year at this annual occasion when friend and foe get together and lay down the battle-ax and let the waves of good-fellowship waft them up the flowery slopes of amity, it behooves us, standing together eye to eye and shoulder to shoulder as fellow-citizens of the best city in the world, to consider where we are both as regards ourselves and the common weal.  21
  “‘It is true that even with our 361,000, or practically 362,000, population, there are, by the last census, almost a score of larger cities in the United States. But, gentlemen, if by the next census we do not stand at least tenth, then I’ll be the first to request any knocker to remove my shirt and to eat the same, with the compliments of G. F. Babbitt, Esquire! It may be true that New York, Chicago, and Philadelphia will continue to keep ahead of us in size. But aside from these three cities, which are notoriously so overgrown that no decent white man, nobody who loves his wife and kiddies and God’s good out-o’doors and likes to shake the hand of his neighbor in greeting, would want to live in them—and let me tell you right here and now, I wouldn’t trade a high-class Zenith acreage development for the whole length and breadth of Broadway or State Street!—aside from these three, it’s evident to any one with a head for facts that Zenith is the finest example of American life and prosperity to be found anywhere.  22
  “‘I don’t mean to say we’re perfect. We’ve got a lot to do in the way of extending the paving of motor boulevards, for, believe me, it’s the fellow with four to ten thousand a year, say, and an automobile and a nice little family in a bungalow on the edge of town, that makes the wheels of progress go round!  23
  “‘That’s the type of fellow that’s ruling America to-day; in fact, it’s the ideal type to which the entire world must tend, if there’s to be a decent, well-balanced, Christian, go-ahead future for this little old planet! Once in a while I just naturally sit back and size up this Solid American Citizen, with a whale of a lot of satisfaction.  24
  “‘Our Ideal Citizen—I picture him first and foremost as being busier than a bird-dog, not wasting a lot of good time in day-dreaming or going to sassiety teas or kicking about things that are none of his business, but putting the zip into some store or profession or art. At night he lights up a good cigar, and climbs into the little old ’bus, and maybe cusses the carburetor, and shoots out home. He mows the lawn, or sneaks in some practice putting, and then he’s ready for dinner. After dinner he tells the kiddies a story, or takes the family to the movies, or plays a few fists of bridge, or reads the evening paper, and a chapter or two of some good lively Western novel if he has a taste for literature, and maybe the folks next-door drop in and they sit and visit about their friends and the topics of the day. Then he goes happily to bed, his conscience clear, having contributed his mite to the prosperity of the city and to his own bank-account.  25
  “‘In politics and religion this Sane Citizen is the canniest man on earth; and in the arts he invariably has a natural taste which makes him pick out the best, every time. In no country in the world will you find so many reproductions of the Old Masters and of well-known paintings on parlor walls as in these United States. No country has anything like our number of phonographs, with not only dance records and comic but also the best operas, such as Verdi, rendered by the world’s highest-paid singers.  26
  “‘In other countries, art and literature are left to a lot of shabby bums living in attics and feeding on booze and spaghetti, but in America the successful writer or picture-painter is indistinguishable from any other decent business man; and I, for one, am only too glad that the man who has the rare skill to season his message with interesting reading matter and who shows both purpose and pep in handling his literary wares has a chance to drag down his fifty thousand bucks a year, to mingle with the biggest executives on terms of perfect equality, and to show as big a house and as swell a car as any Captain of Industry! But, mind you, it’s the appreciation of the Regular Guy who I have been depicting which has made this possible, and you got to hand as much credit to him as to the authors themselves.  27
  “‘Finally, but most important, our Standardized Citizen, even if he is a bachelor, is a lover of the Little Ones, a supporter of the hearthstone which is the basic foundation of our civilization, first, last, and all the time, and the thing that most distinguishes us from the decayed nations of Europe.  28
  “‘I have never yet toured Europe—and as a matter of fact, I don’t know that I care to such an awful lot, as long as there’s our own mighty cities and mountains to be seen—but, the way I figure it out, there must be a good many of our own sort of folks abroad. Indeed, one of the most enthusiastic Rotarians I ever met boosted the tenets of one-hundred-per-cent pep in a burr that smacked o’ bonny Scutlond and all ye bonny braes o’ Bobby Burns. But same time, one thing that distinguishes us from our good brothers, the hustlers over there, is that they’re willing to take a lot off the snobs and journalists and politicians, while the modern American business man knows how to talk right up for himself, knows how to make it good and plenty clear that he intends to run the works. He doesn’t have to call in some highbrow hired-man when it’s necessary for him to answer the crooked critics of the sane and efficient life. He’s not dumb, like the old-fashioned merchant. He’s got a vocabulary and a punch.  29
  “‘With all modesty, I want to stand up here as a representative business man and gently whisper, “Here’s our kind of folks! Here’s the specifications of the Standardized American Citizen! Here’s the new generation of Americans: fellows with hair on their chests and smiles in their eyes and adding-machines in their offices. We’re not doing any boasting, but we like ourselves first-rate, and if you don’t like us, look out—better get under cover before the cyclone hits town!”  30
  “‘So! In my clumsy way I have tried to sketch the Real He-man, the fellow with Zip and Bang. And it’s because Zenith has so large a proportion of such men that it’s the most stable, the greatest of our cities. New York also has its thousands of Real Folks, but New York is cursed with unnumbered foreigners. So are Chicago and San Francisco. Oh, we have a golden roster of cities—Detroit and Cleveland with their renowned factories, Cincinnati with its great machine-tool and soap products, Pittsburg and Birmingham with their steel, Kansas City and Minneapolis and Omaha that open their bountiful gates on the bosom of the ocean-like wheatlands, and countless other magnificent sister-cities, for, by the last census, there were no less than sixty-eight glorious American burgs with a population of over one hundred thousand! And all these cities stand together for power and purity, and against foreign ideas and communism—Atlanta with Hartford, Rochester with Denver, Milwaukee with Indianapolis, Los Angeles with Scranton, Portland, Maine, with Portland, Oregon. A good live wire from Baltimore or Seattle or Duluth is the twin-brother of every like fellow booster from Buffalo or Akron, Fort Worth or Oskaloosa!  31
  “‘But it’s here in Zenith, the home for manly men and womanly women and bright kids, that you find the largest proportion of these Regular Guys, and that’s what sets it in a class by itself; that’s why Zenith will be remembered in history as having set the pace for a civilization that shall endure when the old time-killing ways are gone forever and the day of earnest efficient endeavor shall have dawned all round the world!  32
  “‘Some time I hope folks will quit handing all the credit to a lot of moth-eaten, mildewed, out-of-date, old, European dumps, and give proper credit to the famous Zenith spirit, that clean fighting determination to win Success that has made the little old Zip City celebrated in every land and clime, wherever condensed milk and pasteboard cartons are known! Believe me, the world has fallen too long for these worn-out countries that aren’t producing anything but bootblacks and scenery and booze, that haven’t got one bathroom per hundred people, and that don’t know a loose-leaf ledger from a slip-cover; and it’s just about time for some Zenithite to get his back up and holler for a show-down!  33
  “‘I tell you, Zenith and her sister-cities are producing a new type of civilization. There are many resemblances between Zenith and these other burgs, and I’m darn glad of it! The extraordinary, growing, and sane standardization of stores, offices, streets, hotels, clothes, and newspapers throughout the United States shows how strong and enduring a type is ours.  34
  “‘I always like to remember a piece that Chum Frink wrote for the newspapers about his lecture-tours. It is doubtless familiar to many of you, but if you will permit me, I’ll take a chance and read it. It’s one of the classic poems, like “If” by Kipling, or Ella Wheeler Wilcox’s “The Man Worth While”; and I always carry this clipping of it in my note-book:
  When I am out upon the road, a poet with a pedler’s load I mostly sing a hearty song, and take a chew and hike along, a-handing out my samples fine of Cheero Brand of sweet sunshine, and peddling optimistic pokes and stable lines of japes and jokes to Lyceums and other folks, to Rotarys, Kiwanis’ Clubs, and feel I ain’t like other dubs. And then old Major Silas Satan, a brainy cuss who’s always waitin’, he gives his tail a lively quirk, and gets in quick his dirty work. He fills me up with mullygrubs; my hair the backward way he rubs; he makes me lonelier than a hound, on Sunday when the folks ain’t round. And then b’ gosh, I would prefer to never be a lecturer, a-ridin’ round in classy cars and smoking fifty-cent cigars, and never more I want to roam; I simply want to be back home, a-eatin’ flap jacks, hash, and ham, with folks who savvy whom I am!
  But when I get that lonely spell, I simply seek the best hotel, no matter in what town I be—St. Paul, Toledo, or K. C., in Washington, Schenectady, in Louisville or Albany. And at that inn it hits my dome that I again am right at home. If I should stand a lengthy spell in front of that first-class hotel, that to the drummers loves to cater, across from some big film theayter; if I should look around and buzz, and wonder in what town I was, I swear that I could never tell! For all the crowd would be so swell, in just the same fine sort of jeans they wear at home, and all the queens with spiffy bonnets on their beans, and all the fellows standing round a-talkin’ always, I’ll be bound, the same good jolly kind of guff, ’bout autos, politics and stuff and baseball players of renown that Nice Guys talk in my home town!
  Then when I entered that hotel, I’d look around and say, “Well, well!” For there would be the same news-stand, same magazines and candies grand, same smokes of famous standard brand, I’d find at home, I’ll tell! And when I saw the jolly bunch come waltzing in for eats at lunch, and squaring up in natty duds to platters large of French Fried spuds, why then I’d stand right up and bawl, “I’ve never left my home at all!” And all replete I’d sit me down beside some guy in derby brown upon a lobby chair of plush, and murmur to him in a rush, “Hello, Bill, tell me, good old scout, how is your stock a-holdin’ out?” Then we’d be off, two solid pals, a-chatterin’ like giddy gals of flivvers, weather, home, and wives, lodge-brothers then for all our lives! So when Sam Satan makes you blue, good friend, that’s what I’d up and do, for in these States where’er you roam, you never leave your home sweet home.
  35
  “‘Yes, sir, these other burgs are our true partners in the great game of vital living. But let’s not have any mistake about this. I claim that Zenith is the best partner and the fastest-growing partner of the whole caboodle. I trust I may be pardoned if I give a few statistics to back up my claims. If they are old stuff to any of you, yet the tidings of prosperity, like the good news of the Bible, never become tedious to the ears of a real hustler, no matter how oft the sweet story is told! Every intelligent person knows that Zenith manufactures more condensed milk and evaporated cream, more paper boxes, and more lighting-fixtures, than any other city in the United States, if not in the world. But it is not so universally known that we also stand second in the manufacture of package-butter, sixth in the giant realm of motors and automobiles, and somewhere about third in cheese, leather findings, tar roofing, breakfast food, and overalls!  36
  “‘Our greatness, however, lies not alone in punchful prosperity but equally in that public spirit, that forward-looking idealism and brotherhood, which has marked Zenith ever since its foundation by the Fathers. We have a right, indeed we have a duty toward our fair city, to announce broadcast the facts about our high schools, characterized by their complete plants and the finest school-ventilating systems in the country, bar none; our magnificent new hotels and banks and the paintings and carved marble in their lobbies; and the Second National Tower, the second highest business building in any inland city in the entire country. When I add that we have an unparalleled number of miles of paved streets, bathrooms vacuum cleaners, and all the other signs of civilization; that our library and art museum are well supported and housed in convenient and roomy buildings; that our park-system is more than up to par, with its handsome driveways adorned with grass, shrubs, and statuary, then I give but a hint of the all round unlimited greatness of Zenith!  37
  “‘I believe, however, in keeping the best to the last. When I remind you that we have one motor car for every five and seven-eighths persons in the city, then I give a rock-ribbed practical indication of the kind of progress and braininess which is synonymous with the name Zenith!  38
  “‘But the way of the righteous is not all roses. Before I close I must call your attention to a problem we have to face, this coming year. The worst menace to sound government is not the avowed socialists but a lot of cowards who work under cover—the long-haired gentry who call themselves “liberals” and “radicals” and “non-partisan” and “intelligentsia” and God only knows how many other trick names! Irresponsible teachers and professors constitute the worst of this whole gang, and I am ashamed to say that several of them are on the faculty of our great State University! The U. is my own Alma Mater, and I am proud to be known as an alumni, but there are certain instructors there who seem to think we ought to turn the conduct of the nation over to hoboes and roustabouts.  39
  “‘Those profs are the snakes to be scotched—they and all their milk-and-water ilk! The American business man is generous to a fault. but one thing he does demand of all teachers and lecturers and journalists: if we’re going to pay them our good money, they’ve got to help us by selling efficiency and whooping it up for rational prosperity! And when it comes to these blab-mouth, fault-finding, pessimistic, cynical University teachers, let me tell you that during this golden coming year it’s just as much our duty to bring influence to have those cusses fired as it is to sell all the real estate and gather in all the good shekels we can.  40
  “‘Not till that is done will our sons and daughters see that the ideal of American manhood and culture isn’t a lot of cranks sitting around chewing the rag about their Rights and their Wrongs, but a God-fearing, hustling, successful, two-fisted Regular Guy, who belongs to some church with pep and piety to it, who belongs to the Boosters or the Rotarians or the Kiwanis, to the Elks or Moose or Red Men or Knights of Columbus or any one of a score of organizations of good, jolly, kidding, laughing, sweating, upstanding, lend-a-handing Royal Good Fellows, who plays hard and works hard, and whose answer to his critics is a square-toed boot that’ll teach the grouches and smart alecks to respect the He-man and get out and root for Uncle Samuel, U.S.A.!’”  41
  
IV

Babbitt promised to become a recognized orator. He entertained a Smoker of the Men’s Club of the Chatham Road presbyterian Church with Irish, Jewish, and Chinese dialect stories.
  42
  But in nothing was he more clearly revealed as the Prominent Citizen than in his lecture on “Brass Tacks Facts on Real Estate,” as delivered before the class in Sales Methods at the Zenith Y.M.C.A.  43
  The Advocate-Times reported the lecture so fully that Vergil Gunch said to Babbitt, “You’re getting to be one of the classiest spellbinders in town. Seems ’s if I couldn’t pickup a paper without reading about your well-known eloquence. All this guff ought to bring a lot of business into your office. Good work! Keep it up!”  44
  “Go on, quit your kidding,” said Babbitt feebly, but at this tribute from Gunch, himself a man of no mean oratorical fame, he expanded with delight and wondered how, before his vacation, he could have questioned the joys of being a solid citizen.  45
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