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Sunday, August 26, 2012

Babbitt - A Must Read

I'm not all that far into it, but I can tell it's a book for the ages.  It was written 90 years ago in 1922 and is therefore in the public domain by one year (yippee), and it reminds us that things really weren't so different 90 years ago after all.  Siblings still squabble with each other over nothing, parents don't understand or even like each other, and society blunders along through a morass of false advertising and corruption.  A fairly hilarious scene at the breakfast table where the conversation starts with Ted (17) complaining about having to read Shakespeare in "cold blood" (as opposed to watching it on a stage with special effects), his mother noting that there are some things in Shakespeare that aren't very nice (i.e. are bawdy), and Babbitt thinking to himself that he's in above his head -- since neither of his primary newspapers had written an editorial on the issue, he found it hard to form an original opinion.

The conversation then moves to correspondence courses, and Babbitt decides right then and there that they may well have some merit, and might be even better than some of the stuff that's taught in schools.  They go through a number of them -- the discussion of the correspondence course on boxing is particularly funny; Ted wants to be prepared for the day when he is walking with his sister or his mother and someone makes a "slighting" remark toward one of them.  Babbitt is intrigued by the piano courses, and assumes that with all the progress that has been made on efficiency, someone probably really has figured out a way to teach piano mastery without all the bothersome practice.

All one has to do is watch a few infomercials to realize that nothing has changed all that much.

What sort of surprised me was to realize that technology hadn't really changed all that much either, despite all of the obvious enhancements all around us.  I.e. he had a car (although it took a lot more care and work than a car does today, and convertibles were cheaper than sedans), electricity, lighting, a vacuum cleaner, and apparently a very large and somewhat luxurious bathroom, although admittedly the whole family seemed to share it (the idea of a master bath was still some years off apparently).  The house sounds very comfortable and well appointed, although the description ends by pointing out that "it was not a home."

Ok, sure, technology has changed, and we have become even more spoiled and pampered in our efforts to keep ourselves comfortable.  But there's no doubt that the Babbitts - a middle class family -- lived more comfortably 90 years ago than do 95% of the citizens of the world today.  And although they didn't have cell phones, I think it's fair to say that they lived more comfortable, safer lives than many many Americans today.

The self-description of the boxer-turned-evangelist could apply to today's breed:

"Rev. Mr. Monday, the Prophet with a Punch, has shown that he is the world's greatest salesman of salvation, and that by efficient organization the overhead of spiritual regeneration may be kept down to an unprecedented rock-bottom basis. He has converted over two hundred thousand lost and priceless souls at an average cost of less than ten dollars a head."

His speech was priceless:

"There's a lot of smart college professors and tea-guzzling slobs in this burg that say I'm a roughneck and a never-wuzzer and my knowledge of history is not-yet. Oh, there's a gang of woolly-whiskered book-lice that think they know more than Almighty God, and prefer a lot of Hun science and smutty German criticism to the straight and simple Word of God. Oh, there's a swell bunch of Lizzie boys and lemon-suckers and pie-faces and infidels and beer-bloated scribblers that love to fire off their filthy mouths and yip that Mike Monday is vulgar and full of mush. Those pups are saying now that I hog the gospel-show, that I'm in it for the coin. Well, now listen, folks! I'm going to give those birds a chance! They can stand right up here and tell me to my face that I'm a galoot and a liar and a hick! Only if they do—if they do!—don't faint with surprise if some of those rum-dumm liars get one good swift poke from Mike, with all the kick of God's Flaming Righteousness behind the wallop! Well, come on, folks! Who says it? Who says Mike Monday is a fourflush and a yahoo? Huh? Don't I see anybody standing up? Well, there you are! Now I guess the folks in this man's town will quit listening to all this kyoodling from behind the fence; I guess you'll quit listening to the guys that pan and roast and kick and beef, and vomit out filthy atheism; and all of you 'll come in, with every grain of pep and reverence you got, and boost all together for Jesus Christ and his everlasting mercy and tenderness!"

And I like Paul Riesling's fantasy -- which I think a lot of married men today almost certainly share:

". . . . I bet if you could cut into their heads you'd find that one-third of 'em are sure-enough satisfied with their wives and kids and friends and their offices; and one-third feel kind of restless but won't admit it; and one-third are miserable and know it. They hate the whole peppy, boosting, go-ahead game, and they're bored by their wives and think their families are fools—at least when they come to forty or forty-five they're bored—and they hate business, and they'd go—Why do you suppose there's so many 'mysterious' suicides? Why do you suppose so many Substantial Citizens jumped right into the war? Think it was all patriotism?"

. . . .

"Good Lord, I don't know what 'rights' a man has! And I don't know the solution of boredom. If I did, I'd be the one philosopher that had the cure for living. But I do know that about ten times as many people find their lives dull, and unnecessarily dull, as ever admit it; and I do believe that if we busted out and admitted it sometimes, instead of being nice and patient and loyal for sixty years, and then nice and patient and dead for the rest of eternity, why, maybe, possibly, we might make life more fun."

. . . .

"Look here, old Paul, you do a lot of talking about kicking things in the face, but you never kick. Why don't you?"

"Nobody does. Habit too strong. But—Georgie, I've been thinking of one mild bat—oh, don't worry, old pillar of monogamy; it's highly proper. It seems to be settled now, isn't it—though of course Zilla keeps rooting for a nice expensive vacation in New York and Atlantic City, with the bright lights and the bootlegged cocktails and a bunch of lounge-lizards to dance with—but the Babbitts and the Rieslings are sure-enough going to Lake Sunasquam, aren't we? Why couldn't you and I make some excuse—say business in New York—and get up to Maine four or five days before they do, and just loaf by ourselves and smoke and cuss and be natural?"

Hmm....  I honestly thought I heard him say "cuss and wear old pants."  That's better, as far as I'm concerned.  Yet it's not in the gutenberg version.  It was either right here or somewhere when George was thinking about it.  But I can't find it there either.

Ahh:  Here it is:

He was fretting, "What a family! I don't know how we all get to scrapping this way. Like to go off some place and be able to hear myself think.... Paul ... Maine ... Wear old pants, and loaf, and cuss."

Interesting that I couldn't find that passage by searching for old, or cuss, or pants, but it finally showed up AFTER googling confirmed it was in the book, on a search for "loaf".  Bizarre.

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