George Babbitt, Main Street and the Origins of the Culture War

In the 1910s, Modernism arrived in America.

In the 1920s, the culture war began between Moderns in the cities who repudiated traditional religious and moral values in favor of self-expression and cultural liberation and Victorians in the small towns and countryside who clung to them. Prohibition was the first big flash point in the culture war.

A century ago, Sinclair Lewis published Main Street which was a scathing satire of rural and small-town America. Main Street was the opening shot in the culture war which has raged down to our own times and created the stereotype of the American Heartland as a cultural desert inhabited by boobs and philistines like George Babbitt. Lewis won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1930 for his second novel Babbitt. Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio began the tradition of portraying rural and small-town America as being full of grotesque rubes like those in the movie Deliverance. Main Street, Babbitt and Winesburg, Ohio were all expressions of modernist contempt for the values of the bourgeois.

The following excerpt comes from Nathan Miller’s book New World Coming: The 1920s and the Making of Modern America:

“Yet, even as small-town America was being romanticized, it was losing its central role in American life and fading before the implacable onslaught of urbanization, standardization, and the Tin Lizzie. America was being homogenized by national advertising, chain stores, and mass circulation magazines – foreshadowing the rise of mass culture and the decline of regional variety. The 1920 census revealed that for the first time in the nation’s history, a majority of Americans were town dwellers. The number of Americans living in incorporated towns of more than 2,500 people exceeded (51.4 and 48.6 percent) those residing in rural areas. But the trend toward urbanization can be overemphasized. More than 31 million farmers – one in three Americans – toiled on the land in the 1920s, and 44 percent of the population was still counted as rural in 1930. Most lacked indoor plumbing and electricity.

Many Americans were alarmed by the wrenching social upheaval caused by the forces of modernism. Could liberty and equality be maintained in an era dominated by technology and industrial concentration? Rural and small-town America were not yet ready to surrender to urban domination, even though all the trends were running in favor of the urbanized majority. The story of the Twenties is one of constant struggle between city and countryside for control of the nation’s soul.

The countryside was the home of white, Protestant America, which saw itself as the repository of the old Puritan values of thrift, hard work, and self-denial. To these people, the industrial cities, swarming with recent, as yet unassimilated and heavily Catholic immigrants, represented a loss of community and neighborliness and embodied all that was sordid and ungodly about modernism. Almost a third of Chicago’s 2.7 million residents were foreign-born; more than a million were Catholic, and another 125,000 Jews. New Yorkers spoke more than thirty languages, and only one in seven worshipped in a Protestant church. Bigotry, religious fundamentalism, Prohibition, and the intolerant nativism that marked the era were all open manifestations of this struggle.

The virtues and defects of small-town America were being hotly debated. In 1919, Sherwood Anderson flipped over the flat rock of small-town life in his book of stories, Winesburg, Ohio, to reveal the grotesque secret lives Americans led behind the prim facades of their slumbering hamlets. A year later, Sinclair Lewis’s best-selling novel Main Street satirized Gopher Prairie, a thinly disguised portrait of Sauk Center, his hometown in Minnesota, where “dullness is made God.” The Chamber of Commerce boosters, the backslapping Rotarians, the lodge members in their comic regalia, and the women of the uplift societies – in fact, all middle-class America – were skewered for what Lewis saw as provincialism, moral poverty, and lack of spiritual values. The publication of Main Street ranks with that of Uncle Tom’s Cabin as one of the few literary events with a profound political or social fallout, for it established a new way of looking at small-town America.

Lewis’s blast did not go unanswered. William Allen White, a well-known Kansas editor, made the opposite case in an article, “The Other Side of Main Street,” in the mass circulation magazine Collier’s. White described the small town as close to “the Utopia of the American dream.” It was prosperous and it was keeping pace with the city. There were rich and poor in the small towns, but “great wealth is as unusual as bitter poverty.” The greatest difference between the city and the small town, according to White, was the “collective neighborliness” of the latter. “Death, poverty, grief, tragedy visit the city and no friends hurry to heal the wounds,” he continued. “But good will in the American country town is institutionalized. In some organized way the town’s good will touches every family. Men feel the strength of it, take courage from it, give themselves to it … and they grow in stature by what they give.”

In many ways, the 1920s were the first decade of 20th century America. Electricity, flight and automobiles had existed before the 1920s, but became far more commonplace afterwards. Charles Lindbergh flew the first plane nonstop across the Atlantic. Radio and mass circulation magazines emerged in the 1920s. New York City became the hegemonic cultural capital of the United States.

Americans began to go to the movies in the 1920s. Women gained the right to vote and the “New Woman” emerged in the 1920s. Hollywood celebrities and sports stars became prominent in American culture. Consumer culture developed in the 1920s along with advertising and chain stores. Supermarkets, fast food restaurants, stop signs and traffic signals became common in the 1920s. The country became majority urban and the old Victorian cultural consensus broke down. “Moderns” were people who began to reject or drift away from the old cultural values in favor of self-expression and individual autonomy.

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14 Comments

  1. Sinclair Lewis was a self-congratulating liberal and modernist.-an icon and totem of both Movements No greater confirmation of this can exist than the fact that H.G. Wells, the granddaddy of them all(liberals and modernists, said that he wished that he had written Babbitt.

  2. I don’t mind the country side as long as I live somewhat close to the city.

    Despite being a Whiter city and slightly larger in population, Knoxville is a stunted cousin to Chattanooga. Chattanooga may be much Blacker than Knoxville, but the city is full of life and feels much more developed. I never heard of someone talk bad about the city of Chattanooga, can’t say the same thing for Knoxville.

    Currently and temporary living in Butthole, Tennessee, which is a bit too far from Chattanooga. i work in the Chattanooga metro area though. Would be much happier living in Hixson or similar area which is right next to Chattanooga. Rossville, GA is rural but at least it’s right on the border of Chattanooga, wouldn’t mind living there either.

    There is such a thing as too rural, I’ve experienced it both in the South and up North.. You don’t want to be so far out of the city that your bored to tears. It sucks.

  3. I read Babbitt for “fun,” long after they made me read things like that in school. It actually was fun, a good read, and not for the reasons Lewis or critics would have liked. Babbitt was a good man. He supported his family and I seem to remember his son liked him. He was proud of mundane, good things like his house’s sleeping porch. He had an affair, but the woman he had an affair with was worse than he was. He was a conformist and Lewis seemed to think that that was his worst “crime.” It is a crime if you conform to a criminal society’s standards. But Midwest small-city* America circa 1920 was not a criminal society. I enjoyed reading Babbitt by approving of Babbitt or at least not thinking he was a bad guy, which is what Sinclair wanted the reader to think, apparently.

    *And Babbitt did live in a city, not a town. It sported a tall office building Babbitt could see from his house from far away. He admired it and got inspiration from it.

  4. Since a paywall prevents me from reading “Sinclair Lewis and the Diagnostic Novel,” which is the only thing I’ve found via Google that mentions both “Sinclair Lewis” and “Babbitt metal,” I don’t really know what that article says; so I’ll make this point on my own, as well as I can:

    “Babbitt metal” is an alloy that was developed in the early 1800s to line friction bearings, which I guess is the term for a bearing that is just a piece of metal with a hole through it and that has no freely-moving inner part of the type found in, say, a ball bearing. In factories of the early Industrial Revolution and even into the early 1900s—before the development of electric motors small enough to run individual machines—bearings lined with Babbitt metal would support, from ceilings, the rotating “line shafts” that would receive power, via pulleys and belts, from a central source—say, a steam engine—and that would, in turn, transmit that power to machines, on the factory floor, via pulleys and belts as well. At the following link is a 1925 photograph of a line shaft in a wool spinning factory in Germany:

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Line_shaft#/media/File:AHW_Kammgarnspinnerei_Pfaffendorf_Leipzig_um_1925.jpg

    Babbitt metal, as I understand this, fulfilled its role because it was soft enough to CONFORM to the shape of the rotating shaft that would pass through the hole that it, the metal, would line. This, when I first learned it, immediately struck me as the reason Sinclair Lewis had named his conformist character Babbitt; though as I say, that seems to have gone all-but-entirely-unnoticed by literary scholars.

    Wikipedia entries about Babbitt metal and Isaac Babbitt, its creator, here:

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Babbitt_(alloy)

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Isaac_Babbitt

      • It’s interesting you say that, KW. Recently, when circumstances I needn’t detail, have resulted in my seeing, on TV, many black-and-white movies of the ’30s and ’40s, I’ve been getting that impression.

        When I, born in 1953, was seeing movies of that kind on television, in the late ’50s and early ’60s, they were not all that old, and the America they depicted was not terribly different from the one in which I was living. Accordingly, a character’s ordering a hamburger and a cup of coffee would not have struck me as old-fashioned, the way, say, a character’s ordering a sarsaparilla in a Western or a mint julep in a movie set in the Old South would have struck me. Threescore years later, it strikes me.

  5. Without the Babbitts of the world, we don’t maintain the material comfort that allows effete snobs like Lewis to be so dismissive and self-indulgent.

    When I was a young’un, I was interested in visiting Sauk Centre, which is the hometown Lewis disdains. What about the town so inspired a Nobel laureate from my home state? I was told that many living there then strongly despised Lewis, so don’t bother going there for that reason. It’s like visiting Hibbing to find out more about Bob Dylan. Dylan got out of there as soon as he could. If you’re a fan, why would you want to visit the place he desperately wanted to leave?

  6. HW, you have to go BEHIND the Curtain. You note that there were many ‘voices’ who were agitating for the rupture between City and Country ‘mice’ in early 20th-Century America. But who were these ‘voices’?
    Just one simple five minute hunt for the first non-Anglo author you quote, ‘Nathan Miller’ gives us these factoids:

    “Mr. Miller was born in Baltimore, the son of Russian immigrants.’https://www.baltimoresun.com/news/bs-xpm-2004-10-26-0410260057-story.html

    That he was married to someone,[Jeannette ‘Miller] and she was an ‘academic’,’ gives us this: “sister of Rose Martick, Morris Martick and Alexander Martick and the late Sanford Martick” – all very ‘Jewish names.’- https://www.legacy.com/obituaries/washingtonpost/obituary.aspx?page=lifestory&pid=2479121

    We also read that Ms. Miller “…[She] subsequently held jobs at the former Spring Grove State Hospital in Catonsville and with Jewish Social Services of the District of Columbia.”

    And that the ‘Millers’ established this ‘Center,’ is yet another clue:
    https://www.facebook.com/pg/millercenterumd/posts/

    And then we get this corroboration as well, from a FaceBERG page:
    “The Meyerhoff Center for Jewish Studies, University of Maryland
    Nathan and Jeanette Miller Center for Historical Studies
    University of Maryland, College Park
    Present:
    The Demonization of Jews in Antiquity and its Modern Repercussions”

    https://www.facebook.com/millercenterumd/photos/the-meyerhoff-center-for-jewish-studies-university-of-marylandnathan-and-jeanett/1080856738720810/

    Now, can you draw the lines? The rebellion may have come from Anglos [Sinclair Lewis- gawky, acne-riddled, skinny geek of a man from Minnesota] who played with matches out back (in the Midwest) but it was the Arsonist who poured the gasoline of anarchy [Jewish hatred of Christianity] on the fire!

    Just one look at the ‘Lectures,’ the ‘links and ties,’ and the ‘Russian Immigrant’ byline (the rest has been erased from the ‘Collective Memory’ at present) screams one thing: JUDEN!

    So, we’re back to the giant GEFILTE FISH in all of your research, that you studiously AVOID, unlike, say, Miles W. Mathis- who has been Jew-naming/blaming for some time. Why? Because he’s on to the con:

    cf.”In the sort of propagandized “democracy” we have —where the masses are controlled by military intelligence via the media—real intellectuals are no danger. In the past, when your average person read books and when the media supplied him with some real information, an intellectual might make a contribution to society and to cultural and political life. But the public has been trained to distrust intellectuals and all other non-government experts. This while at the same time the CIA has replaced all expert commentators with its own talking heads. In the distant past, commentary in the media might have been done by those who knew something of their fields, but now that commentary is instead supplied by “everyman” blowhards like Sean Hannity, who has no degree, no expertise in anything, and who just reads from a script. In such a milieu, all education is obsolete and all educated people can be treated like whooping cranes: proud maybe, and beautiful, but dwindling, antiqued, and ultimately inconsequential.”- http://mileswmathis.com/matrix.pdf

    Any historian worth his salt, should EXPOSE the deeds of Darkness, rather than continue to cover them up. This is most certainly true.

    • I’m not avoiding Jewish influence. I just haven’t gotten around yet to tying it all together. I have only written two articles that have briefly mentioned Franz Boas who was a central figure in this. I haven’t even started on Freud or Walter Lippmann.

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