The Organization Man Still Matters: Sinclair Lewis's Babbitt (1922)

Marcel Hartwig

The 1920s in the U.S.A. have become firmly connoted as the ‘Jazz Age’ and the ‘Roaring Twenties.’ Yet it is also the decade of Fordist economy, of the political return to ‘normalcy’ (after the apocalyptic experience of World War I), and of a renewed isolationism. Assembly line production, prosperity, and ‘boosterism’1 are the most important keywords of the time. After the expenditures and the victory in World War I (cf. Miller 113) the benefits of a strengthened position in the world resulted in a renewed economic boom. Yet, this domestic change came with a negative aftertaste: "The 1920s […] [are] commonly described as a shallow and materialistic period in American history" (Love 3). Such a view was due to a growing materialism and the evolution of class division. After the Gilded Age and World War I, the nouveaux riches2, clerks3, and businessmen spearheaded the economic boom. They rose with the postwar era's upbeat feeling. Particularly businessmen represented the thrift, materialism, and conformity that characterized the 1920s. As for businessmen statistics and financial investment proved to be much better tools for profit than craftsmanship, their sphere of work appeared intangible to many. Hence, both their working day and lifestyle became a popular object for satire and parody.

In September 1922 Sinclair Lewis sketched the average American businessman in his novel Babbitt. The story revolves around George F. Babbitt, a 46-year-old realtor and family man. Lewis traces Babbitt's daily routine and his 'career' in the business clubs of the fictitious Midwestern town of Zenith. Throughout his career, Babbitt tries in vain to break with social conformity and to rebel against the mechanism of his daily routine. Eventually, however, he joins the conservative Good Citizens' League and thus returns to conformity. Hence, he soon finds himself back in his regular suburban life, further benefits from the contacts and contracts of his business class peers, and acknowledges the normative social influence by eventually taking his place in the League.

Because the novel implies that individualism and an alternative way of life are impossible under the conditions of a growing commodity fetishism during the 1920s, the book’s publication had an incomparable impact on individual businessmen as well as on their organizations (i.e. the Kiwanis International, the Rotary International, or the Lions Clubs International); "[t]he reaction intensified as the word 'Babbitt' became increasingly synonymous with the term 'American businessmen'" (Hines 123). In letters and reviews they left nothing undone to curb the novel’s appeal. Similar reactions came from the ranks of literary criticism. Apart from its provocative content, the form of the novel was also subject to harsh reviews. Indeed, Lewis's Babbitt features a fragmentary framework and the author chose to briefly put emphasis on different stages of his protagonist’s life. Hence many chapters of the novel are only loosely connected. This eventually enables the reader to experience distance and detachment. The novel's episodic style allows not only for the depiction of one businessman's identity but also for the presentation of an almost complete picture of American middle-class life at the dawn of the 'Roaring Twenties.' Yet the phenomena Lewis rendered fictionally and personified in the protagonist George F. Babbitt were later taken up and analyzed empirically by the American sociologist William H. Whyte in his study The Organization Man (1956):

If the term is vague, it is because I can think of no other way to describe the people I am talking about. They are not the workers, nor are they the white-collar people in the usual, clerk sense of the word. These people only work for The Organization. The ones I am talking about belong to it as well. They are the ones of our middle class who have left home, spiritually as well as physically, to take the vows of organization life, and it is they who are the mind and soul of our great self-perpetuating institutions. [...] [T]hey are of the staff as much as the line [...]. [T]hey are the dominant members of our society nonetheless [...]. [I]t is from their ranks that are coming most of the first and second echelons of our leadership, and it is their values which will set the American temper. (3, emphasis in original)

Despite the initial outrage caused by the novel and its rich implications for social analysis, it disappeared from American Studies' curricula. My paper aims at reviving interest in the novel not only for courses on the American 1920s but also for an analysis and discussion of economic development during further economic boom phases in the twentieth-century United States. This paper seeks to interpret the cultural and social changes that are outlined for American society during the 1920s in Babbitt as foundational for the establishment of a contemporary business identity under the conditions of a digital capitalism. In the character of George F. Babbitt the novel then preconfigures the ego ideal of  the organization men of the 1950s as well as the yuppie of the 1980s.

When Babbitt was published in 1922, the novel was quite popular. Readers like H.L. Mencken, E.M. Forster, and Alfred Kazin celebrated Lewis's prose as "genuine realism" (Gollwitzer 7). Yet owing to its prose style, the unconventional tone, and the use of rather static characters, the novel also faced harsh criticism. According to Gollwitzer, Mark Schorer, Carl Van Doren, and Edward Wagenknecht count among Lewis's most rigorous critics, railing against his work as that of a profound satirist (19). Indeed, many reviews tried to undermine Babbitt's literary merits. Generally, Lewis's fiction was repeatedly criticized for its "rigid narrowness of range" and his obsession with "the thriving, philistine, middle-class society from which he sprang" (Dooley 236). Then again, Babbitt was considered to be too ambiguous and was even said to lack any narrative coherence (Doctorow 451). Mark Schorer notes that "in some ways Babbitt is hardly a novel at all" ("Afterword" 320). He even states that "there is no real plot or connected march of events from the beginning to the end" (320). Grant Overton, a critic of the 1920s, criticized Lewis for what he called his "anti-fiction." Overton refused to call Lewis a novelist, instead he sees "a strain in Sinclair Lewis which allies him to the statistician and the census-taker" (qtd. in Dooley 244). In his essay, "Sinclair Lewis and the Methods of Half Truths" (1963), Schorer even goes so far as to conclude that in Babbitt "[t]he fact that there is never any real opposition of substantial values to 'convention,' or false values [...], is what makes Lewis's world so blank and limits so drastically his social realism" (102). Following Schorer’s statement, the reader then experiences a confrontation with a fragment devoid of any coherence and totally lacking any sympathies with the working class.

Such double-edged reactions towards Lewis's work even caused the inevitable question whether Babbitt is a "novel with purpose" at all (Schorer, "Half Truths" 97). Several times, the author was mapped in-between the journalists' and the novelists' sphere, while never fulfilling the expectation of either of the two.4 Perhaps it is owing to the critical headwind Lewis was facing that the novel rarely appears in today's American Studies courses. However, Helmbrecht Breinig (1984) convincingly proposes to define Lewis's piece as a satirical novel. As he concludes from Lewis's self-dedicated obituary "The Death of Arrowsmith," the author consciously renunciated plot-oriented narratives and thus could even be regarded as an early precursor of post-modern popular fiction (291). However, this does not only hold true for the prose in Babbitt; it also applies to the novel’s proclamation of the common businessman that prefigures social identities in the decades to follow.

Lewis presents the novel's eponymous protagonist as an average Zenith citizen. He serves as a role model for his class peers and the whole society of Zenith, a fictitious mid-sized town with a population of 300,000 to 400,000, is projected onto the protagonist. After introducing Babbitt’s everyday life during one exemplary working day in the first six chapters, all the features we find in the sketches of various Zenith citizens in the city panoramas of chapter seven can be found again in Babbitt's character traits. There, spotlights on affairs, illegal alcohol consumption, rugged patriotism, and murder foreshadow Babbitt's own escapist excursions. On the whole, Zenith's fictitious middle-class society takes center stage in the novel, which in the dynamics of the fiction can be related to its all-American counterpart (Schorer, "Half Truths" 109). Thus, the protagonist exemplifies the average middle-class male of the 1920s in his search for morality and truth. Indeed, it is through the novel's fragmentary framework that niches and milieus of the middle-class's various corporal areas can be mapped. Sinclair Lewis overtly uses the narrative strategy of generalization to clarify such a mapping:

To George F. Babbitt, as to most prosperous citizens of Zenith, his motor car was poetry and tragedy, love and heroism. (23)

[Babbitt's] shoulders were broad enough, his voice deep enough, his relish of hearty humour strong enough, to establish him as one of the ruling caste of Good Fellows. (37)

Every second house in Floral Heights had a bedroom precisely like his [Babbitt's bedroom]. (16)

Through commodities that are shared and used by everyone in the same or a similar manner, he is portrayed as a regular citizen of Zenith. It is due to these objects of consumption that Babbitt becomes one of many. Yet, his persona is also placed within the particular milieu of the "Good Fellows," insulated from the rest of society as the "ruling caste." The protagonist thus is also turned into the spokesperson of a certain class. He represents the paradoxical aspirations of the average white, middle-aged and middle-class American.

In the course of the novel, Babbitt shares the fate of the middle-class in general and thereby remains "a continuing reminder of just how insecure and anxious the nation's middle class is, poised between the threat of failing and the hope of rising" (Minter 89). In this respect, the novel serves as "an exact and mimetic transcription of American life" of the 1920s (Kazin 210). The character of Georg F. Babbitt contributes to this transcription by means of such minor acts as buying alcohol despite the prohibition or not sticking to his promise to quit smoking as well as in terms of greater misdemeanours such as "this last Street Traction option steal" (195) that earned him $3,000. Nevertheless, his publicly expressed opinions illustrate a general attitude that, unsurprisingly, is shared by the citizens of Zenith:

"What I tell everybody, and it can't be too generally understood, is that what we need first, last and all the time is a good sound business administration." (27)

"A good labour union is of value because it keeps out radical unions, which would destroy property. No one ought to be forced to belong to a union, however. All labour agitators who try to force men to join a union should be hanged. In fact, just between ourselves, there oughtn't to be any unions allowed at all; and as it's the best way of fighting the unions, every business man ought to belong to an employers' association and to the Chamber of Commerce. In union there is strength. So any selfish hog who doesn't join the Chamber of Commerce ought to be forced to." (39)

In proposing that every businessman should belong to the Chamber of Commerce, Babbitt already exemplifies what Whyte later on would ascribe to the organization man: his belonging to a business institution and thus his reduction to an organizational property. The process of incorporation is fundamental to the articulation of a collective identity for the business world of the 1920s and is in line with the political course pursued under President Calvin Coolidge. Coolidge's ethics that "[t]he business of America is business […] [t]he man who builds a factory builds a temple […] the man who works there worships there" (qtd. in Minter 90) summarizes the U.S.-American business creed of the early 1920s: "urban, industrial, commercial, affluent, and secular" (Minter 90). Objective ‘Culture’ had by then become readily available and affordable, it was put on display, expressed itself in the economic boom, in commercial affluence, in access to new technologies, and in affordable commodities for everyone.

This also constitutes Babbitt's central concern. Similar to Dos Passos's montage technique, Lewis repeatedly "stops the narrative flow to give us a horizontal scan of the entire city of Zenith, bringing in […] a montage of simultaneous events, vignettes of character and scene, ranging from low life to high, from urban despair to joy, from mindlessness to intellectual sophistication" (Love 70). The fragmentary framework resembles the fast-paced economic development during the 1920s: just like advertisements or articles written in an impersonal style, the episodes mirror the change in the social and physical environment of the 1920s. In order to subsume the experience of an era when increasingly the individual loses him- or herself in the anonymous crowd, the structure of the narrative fragments into loosely connected episodes. The literary style mirrors the individuals' discontinuous experiences and also records a change in ethics. Consumer culture and a new leisure ethic displace Protestant work ethic. In Babbitt this is represented in the recurring theme of the cocktail-party, when Babbitt presents himself in the latest fashion (e.g. new khaki suits) or in the detailed description of the interior design of the protagonist's house:

The Babbitts' house was five years old. […] It had the best of taste, the best of inexpensive rugs, a simple and laudable architecture, and the latest conveniences. […] The trim dining room (with its 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. In fact there was but one thing with the Babbitt house: It was not a home. (16)

Especially the last sentence literally 'hits home.' It comments on the 'objective culture' (G. Simmel)5 that is about to cultivate Babbitt's as well as Zenith's personal culture. Commodities precede the subject. In this case the furniture and objects of interior design prefigure the idea of home. They are representative of a certain monetary and social value. The individual can only gain access to the objective culture through other objects. To Georg Simmel, money is exemplary for the objective culture, because it is already decoupled of its materiality and replaced by the paper it is printed on. As Simmel proposes in The Philosophy of Money (1900), money itself becomes the ungraspable object as it merely signifies a certain numeric value. The subject has barely a chance to influence the object of barter. However, Babbitt needs money, the agent of objective culture, to establish his subjective culture at all. Thus, it is objects rather than individuals that represent family in Babbitt's house.

Spykman (1966) refers to Georg Simmel when he warns against the possible dangers of such a reification of cultural values, for "[o]nce objectified, they tend to develop according to an immanent logic and a dynamics of their own" (Spykman 239). Following Simmel, this could allow for a cultural reassimilation of the personal culture through objectified cultural values. Thereby, the personal culture in a steadily ongoing process will be overtaken by the objective culture. Babbitt suggests estrangement as a first stage of such a development in presenting “a human-created world of immense technological dazzle, but one devoid of meaningful human relationships, not only among its inhabitants, but between them and the products of their technology […]. [T]he buildings, houses, porcelain and tile bathrooms, and electric cigar lighters overwhelm the human figures and reduce their actions to insignificance” (Love 69).

Babbitt represents such an estrangement in his function as an organization man. While belonging to his organization and being literally inscribed in its name, the Babbitt-Thompson Realty Company, he is "nimble only in the business of selling houses to people for more than they can afford to pay" (Love 71). He fails in bringing in any creativity or productivity, "he can only barter structures; he cannot create them" (Love 71). Thus George F. Babbitt is not only an agent middleman of objective culture, he already appears to be a reified subject.

His estrangement can be traced by his references to other objects, for example when he refers to his office as "his pirate ship" or a trip in his car as "his perilous excursion ashore" (23). What appear to be traces of his creative imagination are in fact already preceded by the inherent value of the objects he is referring to. A pirate ship signifies material corruption and barbarity; a perilous excursion is predefined by the adventurous holiday trip to be booked at the next travel agency. Objects dissociate Babbitt from social life and relocate him into an imaginary world with objectified experiences. Even in his recurring dream about the fairy child, his own childhood memories are assimilated and replaced by the values of a fairy tale. Since we never get to know more about his childhood experiences than in those dreams, he thus becomes a man without a history of his own, a spontaneous document of the society he embodies.

With Babbitt as a prototype, the novel traces white American middle-class experiences of the "mute drama of dissociation" (Daniels 89) and proffers "the vaguenesses of a fantasy world that is often the adjunct of youth" (88). Such vagueness is to be replaced by consumption, understood as a search for new identities through commodities in the glorified metropolis of the 1920s. That the citizens of Zenith are yearning to achieve metropolitan status is expressed by their slogan: "Zenith the Zip City—Zeal, Zest and Zowie—1,000,000 in 1935" (133). They mean to get rid of the 'village virus' that constructed their town as a commonplace. Therefore, they must estrange themselves from the place where they grew up and become omnipotent businessmen by trading places, selling spaces and insuring a growing population. Working as a realtor, Babbitt represents the problem of sub-urban living. In his job position he sells spaces, defines values for a place to be, and eventually reifies family homes. In doing so, he displaces those who are no longer able to access this material realm through the required financial instruments. As Minter states, Babbitt has to learn in the course of the novel that, once in conformity with the system, an escape from this system appears impossible (88). However, Babbitt tries to escape: "Moved by the affection he feels for Paul and his own son—inspired by the example of one and the promise of the other—Babbitt tries to rebel: he flaunts the mores of his society, chooses the Bohemian Bunch over the Regular Guys, publicly supports his unpopular friend Seneca Doane, and defends a group of strikers" (Minter 88). Eventually, "[h]e and Zenith's other rebels are almost as culturally deprived as its conformists [...]. Possessing little strength and no independent imagination, he is from the outset overmatched by his world" (88). George F. Babbitt experiences the vicious circle of the world he is living in, the constant repetition of pre-produced life. Consequently, his character mirrors elements of Nietzschean nihilism as he lives "the eternal recurrence" (Frisby, Fragments 34). It is through consumption that Babbit actively participates in the constant reproduction of meaninglessness. The novel in its narrative structure formally underlines this recurrence. In the end, George F. Babbitt's attempt to rebel against conformity results in the very return to it.

Thus, Babbitt is both a comment on and a critical document of the "Roaring Twenties." In its remarks on the reification of subjective culture and on the rising commodity fetishism, the novel forecasts developments that are again to be found during later boom phases of twentieth-century America: In the 1950s, Whyte investigated the evolution of objective culture in his study on The Organization Man (1956). He proposed that the American organization systematically exterminates individuality and that this development is equally detrimental to the organization and the individual. The sociologist also remembered those who once observed the initial stages of this process: "Many historians and novelists have been unfair to business [...] but it is hard [...] to feel that there was not some logic to the impulse. Would businessmen be better if Babbitt had been less a caricature?" (107).

Then again in the 1980s, from the organization man evolved the yuppie. He appears in the working environment of the stockbroker, investment banker or realtor. The yuppie stands in for a "decade of greed" (Winn 307): his income funds an excessive lifestyle expressed through luxuries and his elite leisure time activities. He appears as an expression of materialistic wealth that results from a working sphere devoid of productivity. On the one hand, the stereotypical yuppie lacks the craftman's skills and his non-productive work estranges him from the products he barters with. On the other hand, he is working with simulated goods and structures such as real estate, bonds, or funds and numeric values such as statistics, prices, or the stock exchange index. Thus, the yuppie's working field again is constituted by impalpable entities; he himself is reduced to function as a switchpoint between the different spheres of an objective culture. At the dawn of a digital capitalism, the yuppie as representative of the modern businessman only appears as a fragmented and self-estranged individual due to his working environment. Bret Easton Ellis captures this development in American Psycho (1991). Again, it is literature that tests modes and evolutions in modern business and economy. Babbitt thus could stand as a starting point for a further discussion of the consequences for individuality and personality of the evolution of modern business and the organization man.

1 The term refers to the practice of promoting one's city in order to improve its public perception. Sinclair Lewis used the word as an antonym for 'knocking', i.e. advertising a city by disparaging competitors (cf. Schorer, American Life 142).

2 The term refers to the heirs of the ‘robber barons’ who were born rich without ever having to work for money.
For a further discussion see Osgerby (2002).

3 Clerks mark the beginning of a rapidly growing demand for office personnel.  See Davidson (2001) for a discussion of this new field of work sector and its effects on job-affiliated gender issues.

4 It appears that Lewis wanted to see himself rather as a novelist than a journalist. When he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize, he refused to accept it, stating "that such prizes infring[e] upon the artist's freedom" (qtd. in Dooley 255).

5 According to Georg Simmel, culture is a two-dimensional phenomenon. On the one hand, there are segments of life due to given forms of an 'objective culture.' Those segments are shaped by cultural artefacts that have a life of their own apart from individual human existence. On the other hand, there are cultural artefacts that are indeed incorporated into the 'subjective culture' of the individual being, that is the cultivated individual. "Subjective culture then is the personal culture of an individual, or in other words the life of an individual as a cultural being." (cf. Frisby, Simmel 5)

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