Portrait of the American; The advent of Babbitts
Gentleman it strikes me that each year at this annual occasion when Friend and foe alike get together and lay down the battleaxe and let the waves of friendship waft them up the flowering slopes of amity. It behooves us standing together eye to eye and shoulder to shoulder as fellow citizens of the best city of the world to consider who we are. Believe me it's the fellow with four to ten thousand a year say an automobile and a nice little family in a bungalow on the edge of town that makes the wheels of progress go round. That's the type of fellow Those ruling America today. In fact that's the ideal type to which the entire world must tend. If there is to be a decent well-balanced Christian go ahead future for this little old planet. With all modesty I want to stand up here as a representative business man and gently whisper. Here is a kind of folks. Here is the new generation of Americans that has wet hair on their
chests and smiles at not used and adding machines in their offices. That was the voice of George F. Babbitt Sinclair Lewis his caricature of the ideal type to represent what in one thousand in the one thousand twenty seemed to be the new generation of Americans. The advent of BabyTalk upon the American scene signals a great change in the tradition of the American success myth. For it is Babbitt I think who stands midway between the era of the rugged individualists and the era of the organization man. I am Betty Sree and this is a portrait of the American portrait of the American produced with a national education already done at work under a grant from the National Home Library Foundation. Program number eight the advent of Babbitt's the producer moderator Dr Bedi may author scholar and teacher of American studies. Last time we saw the portrait of the American as a rugged individualists change from a dominant American type of the 19th century to a deviant type by
mid 20th. Today I want to ask what happened who displaced him and what happened in America to bring about what Frederick Lewis Allen had labeled simply the big change because the forces that effect American economic history during the first few decades of this century are so immense are almost hopeless to conceive and describe. And none of the words that we have bitch really used to cover them seems quite large enough. We speak of growth expansion industrialization organization the separation of ownership and control urbanization and suburb innovation mass production automation specialization professionalization. It's as if modern technology rolls like a juggernaut over the 20th century erasing all the old ways and myths that seem to matter so much. Before the big change we're given an image of the American as a producer a man who believes in producing and who works hard to produce after the big changes more and more likely to be a consumer more likely to work in a service industry to be a
salesman are white collar men rather than to work in actual production. In fact it's significant that Babbitt makes his appearance in literature as a real estate man for a middle class suburb again before the big change. A company large or small is very likely to be owned and controlled by the man who built it from the ground up or at the very least by member of his family or ethnic group or region. But after the big change it is more likely to be owned by thousands upon thousands of anonymous stockholders and to be controlled by professional managers who are hired on salary for this job. Well how does this big change affect the man at the center. Several interpretations have been offered in David Reese MN's terms for instance the American before the big changes the inner directed man the man who seeks to rise to get ahead of others and who is propelled by an inner gyroscope. After the big change of the American men as other directed he seeks success by getting
along with others instead of getting ahead. And he's guided by inner radar. Or in William white terms in his book The organization man before the big change we have the Protestant Ethic dominating the thoughts of the business man while after the big change the official dogma is that of the social ethic. Although White feels that the Protestant Ethic continued long after it was obsolete. Here's how he put it. When I talk to him in New York thing that struck me most of all. Where I think. It is a logical conflict comes in. That we keep reinterpreting or trying to reinterpret new institutions new change in terms of our practice. That's over a long time you've got. You've had a sort of a business etiology. Little change from the from the 19th century with this great emphasis
on the old virtues of threat of personal savings independence of thought independence of mind and man beholden to himself and nobody else. The problem hard work yet the promise that work as an end in itself. All these things really quite at variance with the actual facts this morning or. This simply doesn't jive didn't jibe with reality a great extent even then and certainly jobs a reality even less than today. But we always have to we have to create our stereotypes we have to create our mess or at least try to. Refurbish them much. And this is what struck me as one of the. Really glaring inconsistency this divergence and whatever I met there or whatever reality in a myth get too far apart something has got to get. I asked White when he would date the big change. That is what a turning point in
American history he felt had the most significance in shaping the American character as we now know it. I don't believe he'll. I think a very good chance to read from the perspective of two hundred two or three hundred years from now. But that all of the elements for the chains have existed long before. But this brought to a head in an excruciatingly short period of time. So many of these conflicts the theory the independence of the old laissez faire which hadn't really existed for quite some time. But as I was suddenly. All of this was ended when in fact we know it spread over a longer time but it was one of those areas where so much comes to a focus of this post and the matter back to my from my own image on the Sabbath. Walking into the New Deal and Charlie Ray walking out. Yeah I've been wonderful That's a wonderful Yeah that is I'm going off the point that's what I got so annoyed in time Europeans like to talk about Babbitt and to have you read Mark on this is that this is the
person we're worrying about now. Not bad. Or to put it another way the advent of Babbit in the one thousand twenty years represents the first stage in the big change. While the advent of Charlie greatly in the post-World War Two era would represent a second and equally important change. Charles Gray is the central character in John P. Marquand novel point of no return. I'd like now to present six scenes from these two works by Lewis and Mark want to point out both the similarities and the differences that emerge. My guess is that while a few of the listeners would actually recognize themselves in Babbitt though they would know the type and perhaps even use the word bad to describe these kinds of people. Many more might be more likely at least to see themselves and possibly their neighbors reflected in Charles Gray's situation. It's interesting that both novels open with descriptions of the hero waking in the morning and going from room to room of his suburban house preparing for a day at the office choosing a suit conferring
with his wife going to the bathroom and so on. In fact the whole house and particularly the bathroom become important measures of the hero's character. Here are contrast and descriptions first of Babbitt's And then of Gray's visit to the bathroom in the morning and their reflections while shaving though the house was not large. It had like all the houses on Floral Heights the residential section of Zenith in which the Babbitts lived and altogether royal bathroom of porcelain and glazed tile and metal sleekest silver. The tile rack was a rod of clear glass nickel. The tub was long enough for a brush and guard and above the bowl was a sensational exhibit of tooth brush old shaving brush holder soap dish sponge dish a medicine cabinet so glittering and so ingenious if they resembled an electrical instrument board. The Babbitt whose god was modern appliances hunted through the cabinet for a packet of new razor blades and when he discovered the packet behind a box of bicarbonate of soda he thought it ill of his wife for putting it there. And very well of himself why not say damn.
But he did say it immediately afterward when with wet and slippery fingers he tried to remove the horrible little envelope in crisp clinging paper from the new blade. When Charles was in the bathroom shaving he disassociated himself from the activities of the moment and thought he had always heard people say that you had your best thoughts while shaving. All that he usually thought about at such a time was that he was in a hurry. Now that he looked in the plate glass mirror in the baked enamel medicine cabinet the expensive cabinet that Nancy had induced the architect to install the entire bathroom gave him a transients feeling the house had been a $30000 house before the war not including extras and there'd been a number of extras. It had been more than they could possibly afford but Nancy had wanted everything to be right and she had always dreamed about the right sort of bathroom. Charles had wanted the waterproof wallpaper with fishes. But Nancy had wanted the one with sailboats and after all he was doing it for Nancy and the children.
Another part of the morning ritual of choosing a suit and in the next two scenes we also get a chance to meet the respective wives to see how they respond to their husbands hangovers and how they help to decide on the food. David recently has noted that one characteristic of the inner directed man is that he scarcely ever sees his secretary or his wife or his children. The description that seems to me would certainly apply to Babbitt. Myra Babbitt was definitely mature. The thing that marked her as having passed the line was that she no longer had reticences before her husband and no longer worried about not having residences. She had become so dully habituated to married life that in her full matronly ness she was as sexless as an anemic nun. She was a good woman a kind woman a diligent woman. But no one save perhaps her 10 year old was at all interested in her or entirely aware that she was alive. She apologized to Babbitt for his having an alcoholic headache and he was fairly amiable during the conference on the
brown suit. What do you think Myra. Shall I wear the brown suit another day. Well it looks awfully nice on you you know but gosh it needs pressing. Perhaps it wouldn't hurt to be pressed. Gee the goat doesn't need pressing. No sense in having the whole darned supressed when the goat doesn't need that so that's the pence urgently needed All right. Look at them. Look at those wrinkles. Parents certainly do need that so. Oh Georgie Why couldn't you wear the brown coat with blue trousers we were wondering what you do with them. Good lord did you ever in all my life know me to wear the coat of one to within the pants of another. Do you think I am a busted bookkeeper. Well why don't you put on the dark gray suit today and stop in at the tailor and leave the brown trousers. Really certainly need no devil is that Griese suit. Are you awake now. Yes naturally I'm awake. It's a terrible morning isn't it. If you'd only remember not to take anything to drink after dinner. I blundered long ago and I
don't see why you can't go to where you haven't gone suit. Came back from the cleaners yesterday. I put your ruptured duck on it. Never mind it I'm not running for any office the whole as you are know to keep forgetting. And you're right in that polishing Apple All right I'm not forgetting. And don't forget to put 200 into the housekeeping account is down to $20 and I'm going to draw on it today or again. Yes again and again and again. I thought you'd like some cheerful new dialing. All right that's a hell of a morning isn't it. And don't forget that herringbone and don't take that thing out of the buttonhole. No matter how well Roger Blakeslee looks he hasn't got a duck. Oh that's right he was too bright to get in the war and get one. And remember we're going to the Britons Friday night. Don't forget to tell Mr Burton you're looking forward to it when you see him. At this point I think I'd best fill in some of the plot in Marquand novel Charles Gray is competing or thinks he's competing for the vice presidency of the Stuyvesant bank against one Roger
Blakeslee and the man they must both impress is the bank president Tony Burton. In fact as Babbitt and Burton described their respective occupations real estate and banking in the next two scenes we get another measure of the distance between them and the arrows they may represent. But at the same time we also recognize a universal human tendency as these to describe their own professions. Here then Babbitt and Burton first place we had to insist that folks call us real tours and that real estate man sounds more like a regular profession. Second place. What is it distinguishes a profession from a mere trade business or occupation. Why it's the public service and the skill and the trained skill and Jever stop to consider that before a town can have buildings or prosperity or any of those things. Some realtor asked got the seller of the land all civilization starts with him Jever realize that.
I like to think a banking is being not only the oldest but well the most basically human business that there is in the world where it deals with all the most fundamental hopes and aspirations of human beings. In fact I don't like honestly I don't think of banking as a business or even as a profession banking. It may startle you a little bit I say this but I'm right I know I'm right. Banking or a good bank is an art. The last of the arts perhaps but the oldest of the professions and is Babbitt the third in that all civilization begins with the real estate man any more comic than Britain's declaration that banking is the most human art in the world. The tradesmen wants to be a professional the professional wants to be an artist and make no mistake about it the people who in real life utter such pronouncements and they are legion are usually dead serious about them. The difference I'm pointing to you see is not so much the difference in
substance but the difference in in sophistication and texture in tone. And I think one finds it also in the world through which these two heroes move all about in the city was hustling for hustling sake men in motors were hustling to pass one another in the hustling traffic men and dairy lunches were hustling to gulp down the food which cooks and hustled upright men in barber shops are snapping just shave me over once got to hustle men work get rid of visitors and offices adorned with a sign. The Lord created the world in six days. But you can speak it all you've got to say in six minutes. Men who had made five thousand year before last and ten thousand last year were urging on nerve yelping bodies that they might make twenty thousand this year and the men who had made twenty thousand were hustling to catch trains Dalzell to vacations their hustling doctors that ordered. Among them. That it back to his office to sit down with nothing much to do except see that the staff look as though they were hustling. You could see himself hurrying always hurrying and he would be hurrying again to morrow back to Nancy and the children and back to taking care of other people's money. It was not what he dreamed
of there in Clyde on his graduation day but he had had to start over again he wouldn't have acted differently. He would have used the same judgment and he would have made the same mistake. Of course there's a difference in the author's perspectives here and in the class orientation of the two characters but this too is typical I think. Lewis is the more obvious satirist but Mark Kwan means to satirize too though he's more subtle about it as Charles Grey is more subtle in his striving to succeed and the subtlety the difference between their worlds might even be measured in the distance between those two words. Hustle and hurry. Moreover Mark Ron's American again typically has become self-conscious about his motives. He is saddened by his helplessness before forces that he feel determine his life. Here is William White's comment on this issue. I bet it really is much more admirable or likeable person accident Charlie Grice I'll try you're not smart. How do you get yourself in this bind. Why do you end up with this sort of NOTA
futility about the whole thing. Babbitt was futile but there was no need to give a speech like that wonderful thing with a rotary club but I got something that already you know I mean it was even lost their father trying to grow you can't. It would be great wouldn't it. Most important in the two novels both Babbitt and Gray have their moments of rebellion against the system and the conformity it would impose upon them followed by their moments of surrender to it. In fact this is the surface plot of both novels. Here is how Lewis describes Babbitts moment of rebellion. It was coming to him that perhaps life as he knew it and vigorously practiced it was futile that heaven as portrayed by the river Dr. John Jennison Drew was neither probable nor very interesting that he had much pleasure out of making money that it was adult well worth to rear children merely that they might rear children who would reach Ill bring what was it all about. What do you want. As he fell asleep on the davenport he felt that he had just found something in
life. And then he made a terrifying thrilling break with everything that was decent and normal. Now here is Gray's moment of rebellion when he and Nancy are in there in the car on the way to the Burtons to find out finally whether he has gotten his job. JOLLY. What's the matter. God I wish everything weren't so contrived contrived. How do you mean contrive. I mean what I say. I mean it. Also superficial. The bank president in a big job and what will happen to JR If he can't go to a boarding school. But what about the payments on the new car and whether a boiled shirt for a ruptured duck will help. That's all I mean the values of it are childish. It hasn't any values at all. I know you've said it all before. Nantz I wish you wouldn't be so tense. This isn't as important as all that. Let's change the subject. You're acting a licht already. I hate it when you act that way. All right maybe I'm licked and maybe I don't give a damn. Finally the surrender the capitulation to the system for Babbitt that moment
comes when his booster friends put the pressure on him to join a new group a new conformist group called the Good Citizens Lee. At first Babbitt refuses and he takes his stand for freedom on this issue but then under the gentle urging of one Virgil Gunn she finally gives in and gladly. But for Charlie Gray the news that he has been given the job that he wanted after thinking he had lost the race and feeling he didn't give a damn. This news is anything but glad tidings here than the two surrender scenes from the closing chapters of Babbitt and point of no return. Then did Babbitt almost tearful with joy at being coaxed instead of bullied at being permitted to stop fighting at being able to desert without injuring his opinion of himself. Cease utterly to be a domestic revolutionary he bet a judge's shoulder and next day became a member of the Good Citizens League. Within two weeks no one in the league was more violent regarding the wickedness of liberals. The crimes of unions the perils of immigration and the delights of Gulf morality and bank accounts then was George F. Babbitt.
There was a weight on Charles again. The same old way. And it was heavier after that brief moment of freedom in spite of all those years in spite of all these striving. It was remarkable how little pleasure he took in final fulfillment. He was a vice president of the Stuyvesant bank. It was what he dreamed of long ago and yet it wasn't the true Textor of early dreams. The whole thing was contrived as he told Nancy an inevitable result. A strangely hollow climax he couldn't have changed a line of it being what he was. And Nancy would be pleased. But it wasn't what he had dreamed. He could not have changed a line of it being what he was. What Mark is saying is that the point of no return is located so far back in Gray's childhood that he can't do anything about it. The character lives in a deterministic
universe but it's a psychological determinism that in a way displaces the economic determinism popular in 100 thirties to explain American behavior. At any rate it's from this postwar universe which he feels he can't do anything to change that the organization man emerges as an American type. And it's time I asked William White what he meant by that term and what the business reaction to his book has been. When I started on this book I didn't mean the phrase Organization Man as an epithet or not as I've been an organization man I simply identify an organization man as basically a middle class college educated man who works for a large organization and who by and large is the heart and soul of our great bureaucracies private and public. This is the fact of the matter in itself is neither good nor bad. It is White's view that the dilemma for the individual is not whether to join an organization or stay out of it. And remember here that by organization I mean any large institution a large university hospital church organization or firm of any
kind. The question is not whether to join or not to join but how to retain one's independence while fighting not against the evils of organization life but against its very beneficence. It's so easy to take the conventional view and the devil with organization like I'm going to fight it with some sort of outward traffic which misses the whole point in a way. Is this struggle for the sense of personal independence. I'm assuming now that the way things are going that a very large and important slice of our citizenry is going to have to work in large organizations of one kind or even if they're in a small organization they're part of this thing is not some people miss this point of the beneficence of the ordinate This is the thing. There's no intellectual problem when you're being pushed around. You might not like it but there's nothing to to bedevil you about a sense of uncertainty of what your destiny should be and so it's almost a question of tactics as most organisation people will be glad to talk about for a long time. But it's when
you feel your own destiny being wench by the beneficence organization and you're not sure they're right. But this inevitable conflict between the individual and the authority has been complicated by the social ethic and it's stress on warm congenial human relations on togetherness of the individual who in White's terms is imprisoned in Brotherhood feels that it's not only in expedient but morally wrong to fight against the organization. And so the question that Americans must now recognize and face up to is this one. Where do you draw that line between Brotherhood in terror and how narrow it is and I think that so much of the human relations this whole human relations school of thought which is dominated Americans American corporate life was at least as idiotic as all of the ology for so on has emphasized one aspect of this. But but without being I think intellectually tough minded. I have emphasized the benefit of teamwork teamwork a brotherhood of yielding a bit of one's own individuality all of which is true to a point.
How they believe the phrase of the ignition that you get from a group doing this and how if you work for this everybody is better able work so forth and so on. But with almost closing their eyes to the other aspect that as the Brotherhood becomes more successful you pay now. The model is not as do I would rather not become a bunch of individuals that's not it it is much more subtle. But there is this. There is this payment that must be made. Now who draws the line or where it should be that is entirely up to values but we've got to we've got to recognise that. One of the slogans that seems to be the social dynamics people has been that the product of a group is always more than the sum of the products vigil. I'm wondering if what you're saying is by paying you are also sort of subtracting something that some day this need you are.
But there is a colossal irony here in the development of the success myth in America on Ellen Harrington whose own experience as an organization man serves to verify many of White's findings put his finger on the irony when I talk to him in New York. We've been striving for. Since I don't know to take a day. 1890 to achieve. Social justice and certainly an. Enormous injustice still exists but never in large elements of the population. Look at those who work in large companies social justice has been achieved and yet it turns out after all to be quite a bore for everyone concerned this is the gripping absurdity that many of us face because a deep down I think ever Everyone knows that. You know what every many things he's doing don't really amount to very much in the scheme of things and secondly even if he's involved in something enormous. Yes. Such as for example exploration of space he himself being a member of a team.
Is not noticed. And thus that your card is striving to be noticed and also striving to believe him at the same time you are not noticed and there is an absurdity in the chair involved in trivial matters and this produces five mightiness can also produce self-delusion national self delusion. While I think separation is functional. I think unless you delude yourself you might kill yourself. It's so hard to live with. The truth. Now. Because it will tell you these things we've been talking about so therefore one must. Foster what allusions are possible among the delusions the nation has fostered out of the myth of the happy company man. The character who is a step beyond Mark was unhappy strivers and who conforms willingly to a code of affability as strict as any imposed on Babbitt by his booster friends. And it is this character whom Alan Harrington has written about at length who will be the subject of our
- Portrait of the American
- The advent of Babbitts
- Producing Organization
- Wayne State University
- WDET (Radio station : Detroit, Mich.)
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- University of Maryland (College Park, Maryland)
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- The big change in economic history, literary traditions, and the American character. The effect of social codes on the American. The tribal Americans and their rituals of affability.
- Series that examines assessments of the American using the themes of innocence, affluence, success and the American self. Features analysis by Dr. Betty Ch'maj, interviews, dramatic readings. Series features interviews with John Dos Passos, James Farmer, Marshall Fishwick, Alan Harrington, Ihab Hassan, Irving Howe, Alfred Kazin, R.W.B. Lewis, and William H. Whyte, Jr.
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Host: Ch'maj, Betty E. M.
Interviewee: Harrington, Alan, 1919-
Interviewee: Whyte, William Hollingsworth
Producer: Gouds, Moyra
Producing Organization: Wayne State University
Producing Organization: WDET (Radio station : Detroit, Mich.)
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University of Maryland
Identifier: 66-3-8 (National Association of Educational Broadcasters)
Format: 1/4 inch audio tape
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- Chicago: “Portrait of the American; The advent of Babbitts,” 1966-01-31, University of Maryland, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC, accessed April 12, 2021, http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-500-vh5chd7p.
- MLA: “Portrait of the American; The advent of Babbitts.” 1966-01-31. University of Maryland, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Web. April 12, 2021. <http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-500-vh5chd7p>.
- APA: Portrait of the American; The advent of Babbitts. Boston, MA: University of Maryland, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Retrieved from http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-500-vh5chd7p