Go into a bookstore these days and often the only book you’ll find by Sinclair Lewis is It Can’t Happen Here, a satirical look at the rise of a fascist regime in America in the 1930s. Lewis’ book enjoys a resurgence every few years as American politics grows polarised, and never more so than following the election of Donald Trump in 2016.
Within weeks of Trump’s inauguration, the main shop window of one of London’s largest bookstores was filled with copies of It Can’t Happen Here. And that’s a pity, because Lewis’ forgotten earlier books, and in particular Babbitt, may offer a greater insight into the Trump era. Babbit and Lewis’ previous work, Main Street, are the reasons he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, the first American author to receive the honour.
George F. Babbitt is a real estate dealer in the fictional mid-western city of Zenith. His life revolves around his business, his family and his network of friends who he meets through his church and the various clubs he joins — the Elks, the Boosters, and so on. Babbitt sees the world through the eyes of a businessman; if he were to write an autobiography, he might well have entitled it The Art of the Deal. He is not intellectually curious, has no interest in foreign travel, is convinced that his country (and state, and city) are the very best in the whole world. He detests immigrants and labor unions. Does any of this sound familiar?
Babbitt is deeply opinionated and develops a reputation as an orator of sorts, though he has nothing particularly interesting or original to say. In the world of business, and later at home, he lies and cheats with impunity and without remorse.
Babbitt is a particular “American type” and this book, even more than It Can’t Happen Here, offers insights into today’s American president.