Babbitt Shrugged: How Sinclair Lewis Skewers Ayn Rand

Who’s afraid of Ayn Rand?

The philosopher queen-cum-fantasy novelist has been exhaustively name checked of late. Her most famous novel, Atlas Shrugged, has sold several millions copies since the election of a certain un-Randian president in 2008. Two parts of a planned Atlas Shrugged trilogy have been released in the last  two years, though the free market was not as kind to them (as a fan of pages over film frames, I consider this a literary victory). The recent Republican vice presidential candidate said her work was required reading for his staff.  Lefties HATE here. Righties LOVE her. And finally, on a personal note, Rand’s The Fountainhead was the only book in my parent’s library that my mother noted as having so profound an effect on her that she went through a “Rand phase,” before quickly adding that it was the 70s and everyone was going through a Rand phase.

Having a “Rand phase,” though, appears to be a particularly American phenomenon. Unlike other philosopher-writers whose work is well-received abroad, Rand does not have the international appeal of, say, an Albert Camus or Umberto Ecco. If you look at the BBC’s The Big Read poll from 2003 or Le Monde’s 100 Books of the Century from 1999 (both of them reader polls), you won’t see any Rand entries among the worldly selection, despite American writers being the largest foreign contingent on both lists. In a piece in the conservative Washington Times, columnist Joseph Cotto calls Rand a “true American philosopher.” In Ayn Rand, it appears, we have a writer with ideas, but those ideas have borders. Regardless, if the philosophical idealism of Ayn Rand’s tends to resound most with an American audience, then I humbly suggest that her ideas should be tempered by the satirical realism of another American writer with big ideas: the great Sinclair Lewis. In short, if Atlas Shrugged is required reading, add Lewis’ Babbitt to that list.

In Babbitt, you see a vision of what an Atlas Shrugged America looks like. It isn’t a future dream world. It’s the Midwest in 1922. The men and women who fill the streets of George F. Babbitt’s City of Zenith are the families dreamed of to settle in Galt’s Gulch. They are, quite recognizably, WASPs. Go-get-em types who like to talk business prospects and how you “got to know the territory.” The word “pep” or “peppy” appears in Babbitt 18 times. Every home has a nice guest towel–which never gets used– and the most modern refrigerator. It should be heaven on earth, but instead it is a miasma of discontent, full of successful men and women who have nothing to complain about any longer, but still long to complain.  

One way they do this is by imagining themselves as heroes in their own story. They are Titans of Industry, always being threatened by the anonymous enemies of the state. Sound familiar?

 Despite the imagination and bloviation of some, in  Babbitt I see a far more familiar world than that found in Atlas Shrugged. It is a world that shows how horribly boring life is when the state is not radically seizing control. Without a foe to fight, the citizens of Zenith go to church and join the Booster Club:

If you had asked Babbitt what his religion was, he would have answered in sonorous Boosters’-Club rhetoric, “My religion is to serve my fellow men, to honor my brother as myself, and to do my bit to make life happier for one and all.” If you had pressed him for more detail, he would have announced, “I’m a member of the Presbyterian Church, and naturally, I accept its doctrines.” If you had been so brutal as to go on, he would have protested, “There’s no use discussing and arguing about religion; it just stirs up bad feeling.” …Upon theology he rarely pondered. The kernel of his practical religion was that it was respectable, and beneficial to one’s business, to be seen going to services; that the church kept the Worst Elements from being still worse; and that the pastor’s sermons, however dull they might seem at the time of taking, yet had a voodooistic power which “did a fellow good—kept him in touch with Higher Things.”

The people of Zenith play bridge and golf. They discuss the weather and cars. And, of course, they complain about unions and academic liberals planning to take over:

“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. 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!”

For fans of Atlas Shrugged, which reality sounds more familiar? The reality of Dagney Taggart, Masters of the Universe, heroically standing up against the immoral government machine, or the reality of George F. Babbitt: bored, lonely, and angry? I’ll leave you with two quotes from both books. First, a line from the famous, and lengthy “Galt Speech” where John Galt, the long-unseen hero of Atlas Shrugged finally speaks:

“The symbol of all relationships among such men, the moral symbol of respect for human beings, is the trader. We, who live by values, not by loot, are traders, both in matter and in spirit. A trader is a man who earns what he gets and does not give or take the undeserved… The mystic parasites who have, throughout the ages, reviled the traders and held them in contempt, while honoring the beggars and the looters, have known the secret motive of their sneers: a trader is the entity they dread-a man of justice. Do you ask what moral obligation I owe to my fellow men? None-except the obligation I owe to myself, to material objects and to all of existence: rationality. I deal with men as my nature and their demands: by means of reason. I seek or desire nothing from them except such relations as they care to enter of their own voluntary choice.”

In reply, here is a few lines from that brilliant novel of realism written thirty years before Atlas Shrugged was published. It is a conversation between George F. Babbitt and his jaded friend, Paul:

“And business! The roofing business! Roofs for cowsheds! Oh, I don’t mean I haven’t had a lot of fun out of the Game; out of putting it over on the labor unions, and seeing a big check coming in, and the business increasing. But what’s the use of it? You know, my business isn’t distributing roofing—it’s principally keeping my competitors from distributing roofing. Same with you. All we do is cut each other’s throats and make the public pay for it!”

“Look here now, Paul! You’re pretty darn near talking socialism!”

“Oh yes, of course I don’t really exactly mean that—I s’pose. Course—competition—brings out the best—survival of the fittest—but—But I mean: Take all these fellows we know, the kind right here in the club now, that seem to be perfectly content with their home-life and their businesses, and that boost Zenith and the Chamber of Commerce and holler for a million population. I bet if you could cut into their heads you’d find that one-third of ’em are sure-enough satisfied with their wives and kids and friends and their offices; and one-third feel kind of restless but won’t admit it; and one-third are miserable and know it. They hate the whole peppy, boosting, go-ahead game, and they’re bored by their wives and think their families are fools—at least when they come to forty or forty-five they’re bored—and they hate business, and they’d go—Why do you suppose there’s so many ‘mysterious’ suicides? Why do you suppose so many Substantial Citizens jumped right into the war? Think it was all patriotism?”

Babbitt snorted, “What do you expect? Think we were sent into the world to have a soft time and—what is it?—’float on flowery beds of ease’? Think Man was just made to be happy?”

“Why not? Though I’ve never discovered anybody that knew what the deuce Man really was made for!”

“Well we know—not just in the Bible alone, but it stands to reason—a man who doesn’t buckle down and do his duty, even if it does bore him sometimes, is nothing but a—well, he’s simply a weakling. Mollycoddle, in fact! And what do you advocate? Come down to cases! If a man is bored by his wife, do you seriously mean he has a right to chuck her and take a sneak, or even kill himself?”

“Good Lord, I don’t know what ‘rights’ a man has! And I don’t know the solution of boredom. If I did, I’d be the one philosopher that had the cure for living. But I do know that about ten times as many people find their lives dull, and unnecessarily dull, as ever admit it; and I do believe that if we busted out and admitted it sometimes, instead of being nice and patient and loyal for sixty years, and then nice and patient and dead for the rest of eternity, why, maybe, possibly, we might make life more fun.”

P.S. Ayn Rand, an atheist and unapologetic denouncer of what she saw as staid, rudderless morality, would no doubt agree with most of what Paul says in that last paragraph. Only thing is, most folks in their Rand phase conveniently forget about that side of her philosophy.

One Response to “Babbitt Shrugged: How Sinclair Lewis Skewers Ayn Rand”
Check out what others are saying...
  1. […] I reading Atlas Shrugged in the first place? The truth is I felt intellectually dishonest. In a previous post, I took some easy potshots at the version of Rand’s philosophy that fits within a movie […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: