The Culture Hour: George F. Babbitt, real estate broker, bogeyman and prototype.

Babbitt’s virtues as a real-estate broker…were steadiness and diligence. He was conventionally honest…He serenely believed that the one purpose of the real-estate business was to make money for George F. Babbitt. True, it was a good advertisement…to speak sonorously of Unselfish Public Service, the Broker’s Obligation to Keep Inviolate the Trust of His Clients, and a thing called Ethics, whose nature was confusing but if you had it you were a High-class Realtor and if you hadn’t you were a shyster, a piker, a fly-by-night…But they didn’t imply that you were to be impractical and refuse to take twice the value of a house if a buyer was such an idiot that he didn’t [haggle] you down on the asking-price.

Babbitt, Sinclair Lewis (1922)

The character of and name George F. Babbitt may be only vaguely familiar, if at all, nearly ninety years after Babbitt first appeared, but Georgie’s hard-sell descendants are still very much among us. When you see a Babbitt today you may not know to call it Babbittry but, like pornography, you know it when you see it.

I’ll admit I couldn’t finish Babbitt. Was it too close to the truth? Maybe, because it nailed, absolutely nailed a good one percent of the American business world, or at least the workaday business world I know. Babbitt is only tangentially about Realtors®, in 1922 a relatively new trade group. Babbitt is the New Man of the New Age, product of the 1920s—a decade of major social and technological change much like recent times—and its exemplar: confident and aggressive; carefully conventional; self-made, although not nearly as self-made as he thinks; better educated than his father but within the narrow confines of the specialist.

Babbitt’s education has failed to make him a well-rounded “gentleman”, a word that still had currency in 1922. “Common” the Babbitts of this world may be, but they often prosper, and their prosperity always offends their “betters”, the Sinclair Lewises of this world. Babbitts didn’t create their times but they’ve adapted to them far better than the anti-Babbitts. Georgie deserves recognition, if not exactly a standing ovation, for being organic and more real than the anti-Babbitt who preaches against a Babbittry that exists mostly in his mind.

So, no, Babbitt didn’t hit too close to home. On the contrary. I’m not a big fan of cardboard characters, whether they appear in a novel, in mainstream reporting, in academic studies or on a blog. I admit that snappy dialogue and the occasional flash of juvenile insight go only so far with me. After a few hundred pages of both it was obvious that George F. Babbitt, stolid businessman and handy bogeyman, would never develop beyond the mildly contemptible, mildly entertaining, mildly believable work product of one Yale-educated intellectual’s second-hand concept of the American go-getter.

“But you’re missing the point. Babbitt is the typical American, the Calvin Coolidge who says ‘the business of America is business’, the Realtor who’d sell his own grandmother to make a sale. How can Lewis develop a character that has no complexity?”

Maybe Sinclair Lewis believed this, but I’ll bet that Babbitt’s one-dimensionality comes more from an author ducking the heavy lifting of novel-writing. There’s no denying that Lewis thoroughly investigated the real estate profession before he wrote Babbitt, hiring a research assistant, hanging around the fringes of the business, learning to imitate its language and forms. That’s something, I guess, but not much, let alone enough, yet the public ate it up in its voracious appetite for the “inside story”. Sinclair Lewis, boy novelist, with little experience of the American business world beyond dealing with his publisher, was overnight an authority on the soul of the American businessman: Babbitt sold 141,000 copies in three months and added two words to the American vocabulary.

But as I put down Babbitt for good and with relief, it was with the feeling that I’d been to a carnival side show, or maybe a Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show for the Jazz Age dressed up as the Great American Novel, cheap thrills disguised as great literature. Step right up, la-dies and gentlemen! Watch the American businessman cheat on his wife! Observe as he skulks through seedy neighborhoods in search of bathtub gin! See him swindle clients and hardball competitors while he proclaims his virtue!

Babbitt is one lurid vignette after another, and it’s this restless superficiality, tailored to the short attention span, that makes Lewis so modern and his type so familiar. There’s no understanding, no real insight, just random scraps of research gleaned from a safe distance to prove a point and sell it, no first-hand experience required or desired. Add a dose of Lewis’ Sunday School moralizing (again, and paradoxically, very modern), then heap on a helping of the nineteen-century Pep he ridicules in his own characters, and you have the only two Sinclair Lewis novels I’ve read, Babbitt and its immediate predecessor, Main Street. (Sorry, I almost forgot the first few chapters of Elmer Gantry, in which neither Burt Lancaster nor anyone else of compelling interest shows up.) These “ripped from real life” characters made Lewis’ novels best-sellers, but anyone who knows the people on which he based his characters knows that a Lewis character is simply a vehicle for page after page of transparent dialogue—not because these types are one-dimensional but because Lewis didn’t know the people behind the types. Sinclair Lewis hailed from the heartland, Sauk Centre, Minnesota but his view of Main Street came from Yale.

Maybe that’s why, as I read Babbitt—and it’s an easy read, as long as you can fend off the suspicion you’re reading a terribly earnest student’s term paper—I kept remembering Ernest Hemmingway’s dismissal of Lewis as “not a great writer, certainly”. Ol’ Hem may have had his “issues”, but what’s admirable about him, aside from talent and style, is his contention that a writer must write only what is true. Not always literal truth, of course, or every fiction writer would be a liar, but true to what the writer knows, true to his or her experience. Go past this—wander into territory you only think you know or wish you knew—and you’re just the latest monument to writer hubris.

Write only what is true.  Perhaps that’s why Hemmingway postponed American publication of his first book of short stories and risked his future to write an oddball parody of a Sinclair Lewis novel, The Torrents of Spring, that few people have heard of today and even fewer read. Write only what is true. Perhaps that’s why Hemmingway’s Across the River and Into the Trees has a Lewis-like novelist who hides in his room writing passionately about a life he knows only from watching.  Write only what is true. Hemingway knew the characters in The Sun Also Rises, A Farewell to Arms and For Whom the Bell Tolls because he’d lived their lives or lived with those who had.

Scott Fitzgerald, early in his career, wrote what he knew: ambition, young love and “the drinking habits of the upper class”. Near the end, he wrote what might be the last word on failure and disillusionment.

Graham Greene in his autobiography A Sort of Life marvels that “while I was making careful notes of the vivid life around me, I was content to pursue my romantic and derivative tale [a bad historical novel] to its disastrous conclusion”.

Write only what is true. For the writer, professional or not, talented or not so much, this admonition should be just as stirring as such time-honored exhortations as “they shall not pass” or “it is better to die on your feet than to live on your knees”.

So a writer should stay within the confines of his reality, and you promise you’ll do just that the next time you write a novel. But what does all this have to do with real estate?

Babbitt is a prototype. Babbitt is perhaps the first “Ten Things Your Realtor Won’t Tell You”, written by someone who knows less than ten things about real estate agents.

Babbitt  is the condescension of the man who makes his living in the world of ideas, ideas not always attached to reality, for the man who makes his living in the real world, by his wits or by his hands. Babbitt is the contempt of the highly-educated for the less-highly educated, especially when the less-highly educated have the bad taste to make more money than the highly-educated. Babbitt is the disdain of the liberal arts type and the technologist for the pragmatic businessman, of the outsider for the insider who because he is an insider must therefore be a crook.

Babbitt is an industry or a movement or an event or a way of life explained luridly, authoritatively and above all profitably by someone who had it explained to him five minutes ago—and didn’t quite get it. Babbitt is the lowdown!, the shocking revelation!, the dirty secrets revealed!, which for good salable reasons (Georgie would love this) is always what the public suspected and wants to hear.

Sinclair Lewis is a type, the fervent anti-Babbitt with simplistic explanations of things beyond his ken, Don Quixote tilting at monsters maybe even he knows are windmills, and knowing his readers are more interested in monsters than windmills.

So as the National Association of Real Estate Editors convenes in solemn assembly for its 42nd Annual Real Estate Journalism Conference, I suggest that a banner bearing the following exhortation be displayed behind the speaker’s stand: Write Only What Is True. Not Write Only What Your Gut Tells You Is True or Write Only What You’d Like To Think Is True. Not even Write What Everyone Knows Is True.

Bother to learn the facts, if you’ve developed a talent for this over the course of your career, then stick to them. Leave the commentary to the commentators. Leave the pandering to the tabloids. Leave the low blows to the blogs.

And leave the banner behind for any conferences the academic real estate economists might be holding.

copyright © John Fyten 2008

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