When Sinclair Lewis wrote his publisher in 1920 to gush over the subject of his forthcoming book, Babbitt, his status as a gifted chronicler of Americana was already well established. Main Street, his exposé of the hapless cultural depravity that could coexist with small-town sentiment, had been published earlier that year to critical acclaim.
With Babbitt, Lewis turned his attention to the metropolis and to the newly prosperous lifestyle of a postwar middle class. For a hero, he traded the archetypal farmer for another species with emerging cultural significance: the businessman. In his letter to Alfred Harcourt, Lewis described George F. Babbitt this way: “He is all of us Americans at 46, prosperous but worried, wanting–passionately–to seize something more than motor cars and a house before it’s too late.“
Babbitt has sometimes been described as a lampoon of our materialistic culture. It is more than that. True, Babbitt is a man “whose god [is] Modern Appliances”–including the latest model of the electric lighter which, mounted on the dashboard of his (proudly) private automobile, is used to ignite a far-too-frequent cigar.
But the hard-earned trappings Babbitt relishes most are those that lend him a sense of acceptance by his peers. He enjoys membership at many of Zenith’s respectable clubs, though not at the most desirable. He is politically important enough to play host at a dinner for one of the city’s power brokers, yet fails ever to land a reciprocal invitation.
That his deepest yearnings are for elusive intangibles that depend on the whimsy of others is part of what makes Babbitt such an eternally relevant figure–one whom everyone, businessperson or not, can relate to even 81 years after the book’s first printing. In this saga, crime, punishment, and his wife’s close call with death force this proto-yuppie to reconsider all that he thinks matters–his priorities, his politics, and especially his conformist side that would have him do anything for success on other people’s terms.
Sidebar: Éminence Grise
“All around us there is a breakdown of values . . . It is not just the . . . overpowering greed that pervades our business life. It is the fact that we are not willing to sacrifice for the ethics and values we profess. For an ethic is not an ethic, and a value not a value without some sacrifice to it. Something given up, something not taken, something not gained.”
–Jerome Kohlberg Jr., addressing a conference of investors at his private equity firm, Kohlberg Kravis Roberts & Co., on May 18, 1987. In that speech, he also announced his decision to retire from active management of the firm.
Sidebar: The FC Ambition Index
How ambitious are we? Not as much as we used to be.
- Patents issued
- 2001: 187,822
- 2002: 177,317 (-5.6%)
- U.S. venture capital invested
- 2001: $41.1 billion
- 2002: $21.2 billion (-48.4%)
- New business startups
- 2001: 545,400
- 2002: 550,100 (+0.9%)
- New business book titles
- 2001: 5023
- 2002: 4731 (-5.8%)
- Spending on consultants, North America
- 2001: $73 billion
- 2002: $67 billion (-8.2%)
- Americans who took the GMAT test
- 2001: 106,884
- 2002: 124,370 (+16.4%)
- Investment in training and development (per employee)
- 2000: $704
- 2001: $761 (+8.1%)
Sources: U.S. Patent Office, National Venture Capital Association, the Small Business Administation, RR Bowker, Kennedy Information Inc., Graduate Management Admissions Council, and ASTD