There’s a scene in the great film Auntie Mame in which the bohemian socialite title character played by Rosalyn Russel angrily declares that the nephew she’s been trying to school in her way of life has become the most “beastly, bourgeois, babbitty little snob on the Eastern seaboard!” The alliterative reference is to Sinclair Lewis’s 1922 novel, Babbitt, which gave American English the word Babbitry, still occasionally used (sometimes amusingly misused) to mean small-minded smugness, although it refers to a species that has gone extinct, and one wonders if Lewis’s satire of the Middle American bourgeoisie makes sense today as anything but an artifact, a plaster-filled footprint of a lumbering mammal that once roamed the plains of suburbia searching for a hot toddy.
The novel centers on George F. Babbit, really more a type than a character, struggling in the novel to become a character instead of a type. Superficially, he thrashes about in a stifling middle class American micro-climate that Lewis describes in stultifying detail. In reality, Babbitt struggles for freedom in an existential sense- to give some meaning to a meaningless life before it’s all used up. One wonders, is the struggle of middle aged men to fight off an approaching tide of ridiculousness before it defines them, or just against the absurdity of existence as such? Babbitt is a gin-soaked Lear in tweed.
His kingdom is run from a real estate office in a mid-sized American city with a constellation of civic groups that Babbitt lords over through his ease with clichés, a perennial growth industry in American business. Lewis spent months travelling the United States doing research for the book and he has a way with the Zip! Pep! Powerful! Progress! style of 1920s American bulldada boosterism that would return after the second World War and echo on in the lofty fervor of the early digital age. He methodically sets up and dissects what Richard Lingeman calls “Babbitt’s holy trinity” of the church, rotary club, and Republican Party, the cornerstones of this particular world.
Perhaps a bit too thoroughly. When Babbitt finally loses faith in this milieu that Lewis, among others, finds spiritually vacuous, we’ve already perused a few hundred pages of satire that didn’t exactly endear us to him as a type, character, or avatar. His struggle also seems somewhat fantastical today as the Babbitts of the world have been rendered obsolete by years of cynicism won too easily to count.
One of the clichéd discussion topics of our considerably less zippy era is the “collapse of the American middle class” into a wealthy elite and a substratum that just barely qualifies as lower middle class via credit card debt. But I’ve not heard anyone discuss (citations certainly welcome) the potential subsequent loss of a bourgeois mentality in the United States and how this will affect politics and, more significantly, culture. Even in satire, the bourgeois mindset, central to the Western nineteenth-century and at least the first half of the twentieth, reads as somewhat fanciful today. You mean there was a time in which people worked in the same office for their entire lives? And they lived comfortably in the same home with the same spouse and ample time to worry about the meaning of it all? There were really people who had a distinctly defined code of behavior and ethos and self-confidently tied their way of life to the progress of their society? Well, no wonder they died out! (Ah, and yet, how many young adults today would jump for the chance at bourgeois security?)
Perhaps we can see the loss of a bourgeois mindset in American politics, where the traditional William F. Buckley country club conservatism that once thrilled the Babbitt heart has been replaced with brasher, more boorish locker room bluster aimed at any type of “elitism.” Ironically, liberals, once the scourge of the bourgeoisie, with their notions of community and right-living, now sound more bourgeois than conservatives. The Democratic President’s persona is that of a slightly dull Middle American bank manager! But all politicians aim their messages at a struggling underclass bitter and yearning for a way of life to be self-confident about.
In art, perhaps we see the collapse of a bourgeois mentality in the consequent disappearance of anything resembling an avant garde, that longstanding doppelganger of the bourgeoisie. Dead from self-inflicted flashbulb wounds in the East Village around 1982, the American avant garde lives on only in VHS tapes and visiting teaching positions in a few coastal universities. Karen Finley now seems as quaint as Jesse Helms.
Popular culture, meanwhile, is strangely devoid of anything resembling adults, much less bourgeois adults. There remains a vestigial disapproval of authority figures, but it’s hard to think of any such figures appearing in any medium. The closest we come to authority figures are comic book superheroes, who are now generally depicted as mentally unstable proto-fascist Dirty Harry fantasies in spandex. Fred MacMurray, where are you?
But I can attest that Babbitts did exist. My grandparents, who essentially raised me, were lifelong members of the Lion’s Club, real estate agents, devoted home keepers, lovingly married, and pillars of the community. He wore starched shirts and fedoras and she wore gloves to the park and they did so without a protective layer of irony. And they really did believe there was a right and proper way of living in every single thing that would preserve the order of the world, while entitling one to a quiet place in that world. Moreover, they had scores of friends who were neither as miserable as George Babbitt nor as saintly as the grandparents of my memory. Understand that I mean neither to extol nor vilify them. Only to note the passing of a way of life and of viewing the world that went with barely a trace or a peep.