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Home: The Story of Maine

A Place Apart: The Story Behind the Image of Maine
Assignment #1

Excerpts from Babbitt, by Sinclair Lewis

Who was Sinclair Lewis?

     Sinclair Lewis was a Minnesota-born writer who became very popular in the 1920s. Lewis traveled widely throughout his life, never settling in any one place for more than a few years. He earned the Pulitzer Prize for his novel Arrowsmith, but declined to accept the prize on principle. It was given to the American novel that best presents "the wholesome atmosphere of American life, and the highest standards of American manners and manhood." Lewis believed it should be rewarded on literary merit only. Later, he became the first American writer to win the Nobel Prize for literature. Lewis was plagued with alcoholism for much of his adult life. He traveled to Maine several times, spending the summer of 1920 at the Kennebago Lake House in western Maine, just before writing Babbitt. Later, he returned to act in theatres in Ogunquit and Skowhegan. Politically, Lewis was aligned with socialist and anarchist thinkers, and he supported the labor movement. Babbitt, published in 1922, sold 141,000 copies within three months, and received high praise in both America and England. Lewis continued to write stories, articles, novels, screenplays, and plays until his death in 1951.


    George Babbitt is a real estate broker in the prospering town of Zenith. He lives comfortably with his wife and three children in a home in the desirable section of town called Floral Heights, drives a new motor car, is incessantly trying to quit his habit of cigar-smoking, votes Republican, plays golf, and lunches at the Athletic Club with members who are pretty much like him. His good friend Paul Riesling is just about the only person he confides in: "he was fonder than Paul Riesling than of any one on earth except himself and his daughter Tinka." Here, as he lunches with Paul and the two commiserate about their dissatisfaction with life, Babbitt says:

"I wound up a nice little deal with Conrad Lyte this morning that put five hundred good round plunks in my pocket. Pretty nice--pretty nice! And yet--I don't know what's the matter with me to-day. Maybe it's an attack of spring fever, or staying up too late at Verg Gunch's, or maybe it's just the winter's work piling up, but I've felt kind of down in the mouth all day long. Course I wouldn't beef about it to the fellows at the Roughnecks' Table there, but you--Ever feel that way, Paul? Kind of comes over me: here I've pretty much done all the things I ought to; supported my family, and got a good house and a six-cylinder car, and built up a nice little business, and I haven't any vices, 'specially, except smoking--and I'm practically cutting that out, by the way. And I belong to the church, and play enough golf to keep in trim, and I only associate with good decent fellows. And yet, even so, I don't know that I'm entirely satisfied!'" [p. 541 of Main Street and Babbitt, by Sinclair Lewis. New York: Literary Classics of the United States, Inc. 1992]

     After Paul agrees, complains to Babbitt about his wife Zilla, and teases Babbitt about being too moralistic, he suggests that they take a vacation together:

"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 [in Maine], 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?'

'Great! Great idea!' Babbitt admired." [p. 546]

     Eventually, they manage to get their wives to agree to allowing them a few days in Maine before their families arrive, and Paul and Babbitt spend a great deal of money on fly fishing and camping gear:

"They were buying their Maine tackle at Ijams Brothers', the Sporting Goods Mart, with the help of Willis Ijams, fellow member of the Boosters' Club. Babbitt was completely mad. He trumpeted and danced. He muttered to Paul, 'Say, this is pretty good, eh? To be buying the stuff, eh? And good old Willis Ijams himself coming down on the floor to wait on us! Say, if those fellows that are getting their kit for the North Lakes knew we were going clear up to Maine, they'd have a fit, eh? . . . . Well, come on, Brother Ijams--Willis, I mean. Here's your chance! We're a couple of easy marks! Whee! Let me at it! I'm going to buy out the store!' He gloated on fly-rods and gorgeous rubber hip-boots, on tents with celluloid windows and folding chairs and ice-boxes. He simple-heartedly wanted to buy all of them. It was the Paul whom he was always vaguely protecting who kept him from his drunken desires.

But even Paul lightened when Willis Ijams, a salesman with poetry and diplomacy, discussed flies. 'Now, of course, you boys know,' he said, 'the great scrap is between dry flies and wet flies. Personally, I'm for dry flies. More sporting.'

'That's so. Lots more sporting,' fulminated Babbitt, who knew very little about flies either wet or dry.

'Now, if you'll take my advice, Georgie, you'll stock up well on these pale evening dims, and silver sedges, and red ants. Oh, boy, there's a fly, that red ant!'

'You bet! That's what it is--a fly!' rejoiced Babbitt.

'Yes, sir, that red ant,' said Ijams, 'is a real honest-to-God fly!'

'Oh, I guess old Mr. Trout won't come a-hustling when I drop one of those red ants on the water!' asserted Babbitt, and his thick wrists made a rapturous motion of casting.

'Yes, and the landlocked salmon will take it, too,' said Ijams, who had never seen a landlocked salmon.

'Salmon! Trout! Say, Paul, can you see Uncle George with his khaki pants on haulin' 'em in, some morning 'bout seven? Whee!'" [p. 611-612]

     They board a train, travel overnight to New York, explore a bit during their four hour layover, and then board another train for Maine. Finally, they arrive:

"Though he exulted, and made sage speculations about locomotive horse-power, as their train climbed the Maine mountain-ridge and from the summit he looked down the shining way among the pines; though he remarked, 'Well, by golly!' when he discovered that the station at Katadumcook, the end of the line, was an aged freight-car; Babbitt's moment of impassioned release came when they sat on a tiny wharf on Lake Sunasquam, awaiting the launch from the hotel. A raft had floated down the lake; between the logs and the shore, the water was transparent, thin-looking, flashing with minnows. A guide in black felt hat with trout-flies in the band, and flannel shirt of a peculiarly daring blue, sat on a log and whittled and was silent. A dog, a good country dog, black and wooly gray, a dog rich in leisure and in meditation, scratched and grunted and slept. The thick sunlight was lavish on the bright water, on the rim of gold-green balsam boughs, the silver birches and tropic ferns, and across the lake it burned on the sturdy shoulders of the mountains. Over everything was a holy peace. Silent, they loafed on the edge of the wharf, swinging their legs above the water. The immense tenderness of the place sank into Babbitt, and he murmured, 'I'd just like to sit here--the rest of my life--and whittle--and sit. And never hear a typewriter. Or Stan Graff fussing in the 'phone. Or Rone and Ted scrapping. Just sit. Gosh!'

He patted Paul's shoulder. 'How does it strike you, old snoozer?'

'Oh, it's darn good, Georgie. There's something sort of eternal about it.' For once, Babbitt understood him.

Their launch rounded the bend; at the head of the lake, under a mountain slope, they saw the little central dining-shack of their hotel and the crescent of squat log cottages which served as bedrooms. They landed, and endured the critical examination of the habitu»s who had been at the hotel for a whole week. In their cottage, with its high stone fireplace, they hastened, as Babbitt expressed it, to 'get into some regular he-togs.' They came out; Paul in an old gray suit and soft white shirt; Babbitt in khaki shirt and vast and flapping khaki trousers. It was excessively new khaki; his rimless spectacles belonged to a city office; and his face was not tanned but a city pink. He made a discordant noise in the place. But with infinite satisfaction he slapped his legs and crowed, 'Say, this is getting back home, eh?'

They stood on the wharf before the hotel. He winked at Paul and drew from his back pocket a plug of chewing-tobacco, a vulgarism forbidden in the Babbitt home. He took a chew, beaming and wagging his head as he tugged at it. 'Um! Um! Maybe I haven't been hungry for a wad of eating-tobacco! Have some?'

They looked at each other in a grin of understanding. Paul took the plug, gnawed at it. They stood quiet, their jaws working. They solemnly spat, one after the other, into the placid water. They stretched voluptuously, with lifted arms and arched backs. From beyond the mountains came the shuffling sound of a far-off train. A trout leaped, and fell back in a silver circle. They sighed together.

They had a week before their families came. Each evening they planned to get up early and fish before breakfast. Each morning they lay abed till the breakfast-bell, pleasantly conscious that there were no efficient wives to rouse them. The mornings were cold; the fire was kindly as they dressed. Paul was distressingly clean, but Babbitt reveled in a good sound dirtiness, in not having to shave till his spirit was moved to it. He treasured every grease spot and fish-scale on his new khaki trousers.

All morning they fished unenergetically, or tramped the dim and aqueous-lighted trails among rank ferns and moss sprinkled with crimson bells. They slept all afternoon, and till midnight played stud-poker with the guides. Poker was a serious business to the guides. They did not gossip; they shuffled the thick greasy cards with a deft ferocity menacing to the 'sports;' and Joe Paradise, king of guides, was sarcastic to loiterers who halted the game even to scratch.

At midnight, as Paul and he blundered to their cottage over the pungent wet grass, and pine-roots confusing in the darkness, Babbitt rejoiced that he did not have to explain to his wife where he had been all evening. They did not talk much. The nervous loquacity and opinionation of the Zenith Athletic Club dropped from them. But when they did talk they slipped into the naive intimacy of college days. Once they drew their canoe up to the bank of Sunasquam Water, a stream walled in by the dense green of the hardhack. The sun roared on the green jungle but in the shade was sleepy peace, and the water was golden and rippling. Babbitt drew his hand through the cool flood, and mused:

'We never thought we'd come to Maine together.!'

'No. We've never done anything the way we thought we would. I expected to live in Germany with my granddad's people, and study fiddle.'

'That's so. And remember how I wanted to be a lawyer and go into politics? I still think I might have made a go of it. I've kind of got the gift of the gab--anyway, I can think on my feet, and make some kind of a spiel on most anything, and of course that's the thing you need in politics. By golly, Ted's going to law-school, even if I didn't! Well--I guess it's worked out all right. Myra's been a fine wife. And Zilla means well, Paulibus.' 'Yes. Up here, I figure out all sorts of plans to keep her amused. I kind of feel life is going to be different, now that we're getting a good rest and can go back and start over again.'

'I hope so, old boy.' Shyly: 'Say, gosh, it's been awful nice to sit around and loaf and gamble and act regular, with you along, you old horse-thief!' 'Well, you know what it means to me, Georgie. Saved my life.'

The shame of emotion overpowered them; they cursed a little, to prove they were good rough fellows; and in a mellow silence, Babbitt whistling while Paul hummed, they paddled back to the hotel." [p. 620-623]

     A year later, Paul has landed in jail for shooting his wife, and Babbitt returns to Maine alone. He fantasizes about leaving his family and starting a new life, and imagines himself living what he envisions to be the simple life of a Maine guide:

"All the way north he pictured the Maine guides: simple and strong and daring, jolly as they played stud-poker in their unceiled shack, wise in woodcraft as they tramped the forest and shot the rapids. He particularly remembered Joe Paradise, half Yankee, half Indian. If he could but take up a backwoods claim with a man like Joe, work hard with his hands, be free and noisy in a flannel shirt, and never come back to this dull decency! . . . .

So he came to Maine, again stood on the wharf before the camp-hotel, again spat heroically into the delicate and shivering water, while the pines rustled, the mountains glowed, and a trout leaped and fell in a sliding circle. He hurried to the guides' shack as to his real home, his real friends, long missed. They would be glad to see him. They would stand up and shout, 'Why, here's Mr. Babbitt! He ain't one of these ordinary sports! He's a real guy!'

In their boarded and rather littered cabin the guides sat about the greasy table playing stud-poker with greasy cards: half a dozen wrinkled men in old trousers and easy old felt hats. They glanced up and nodded. Joe Paradise, the swart aging man with the big mustache, grunted, 'How do. Back again?' Silence, except for the clatter of chips.

Babbitt stood beside them, very lonely. He hinted, after a period of highly concentrated playing, 'Guess I might take a hand, Joe.' 'Sure. Sit in. How many chips you want? Let's see; you were here with your wife, last year, wa'n't you?' said Joe Paradise.

That was all of Babbitt's welcome to the old home. [p. 751-2]

     Despite his disappointment at not being more warmly welcomed, Babbitt asks Joe to be his guide for a few days. Joe agrees, and the two meet the next morning at Babbitt's cabin. Joe reported at Babbitt's cabin at nine the next morning. Babbitt greeted him as a fellow caveman:
'Well, Joe, how d'you feel about hitting the trail, and getting away from these darn soft summerites and these women and all?' 'All right, Mr. Babbitt.'

'What do you say we go over to Box Car Pond--they tell me the shack there isn't being used--and camp out?'

'Well, all right, Mr. Babbitt, but it's nearer to Skowtuit Pond, and you can get just about as good fishing there.'

'No, I want to get into the real wilds.'

'Well, all right.'

'We'll put the old packs on our backs and get into the woods and really hike.'

'I think maybe it would be easier to go by water, through Lake Chogue. We can go all the way by motor boat--flat bottom boat with an Evinrude.'

'No, sir! Bust up the quiet with a chugging motor? Not on your life! You just throw a pair of socks in the old pack, and tell 'em what you want for eats. I'll be ready soon's you are.'

'Most of the sports go by boat, Mr. Babbitt. It's a long walk.'

'Look, here, Joe: are you objecting to walking?'

'Oh, no, I guess I can do it. But I haven't tramped that far for sixteen years. Most of the sports go by boat. But I can do it if you say so--I guess.' Joe walked away in sadness.

Babbitt had recovered from his touchy wrath before Joe returned. He pictured him as warming up and telling the most entertaining stories. But Joe had not yet warmed up when they took the trail. He persistently kept behind Babbitt, and however much his shoulders ached from the pack, however sorely he panted, Babbitt could hear his guide panting equally. But the trail was satisfying: a path brown with pine needles and rough with roots, among the balsams, the ferns, the sudden groves of white birch. He became credulous again, and rejoiced in sweating. When he stopped to rest he chuckled, 'Guess we're hitting it up pretty good for a couple o' old birds, eh?'

'Uh-huh,' admitted Joe.

'This is a mighty pretty place. Look, you can see the lake down through the trees. I tell you, Joe, you don't appreciate how lucky you are to live in woods like this, instead of a city with trolleys grinding and typewriters clacking and people bothering the life out of you all the time! I wish I knew the woods like you do. Say, what's the name of that little red flower?' Rubbing his back, Joe regarded the flower resentfully. 'Well, some folks call it one thing and some calls it another. I always just call it Pink Flower.'

Babbitt blessedly ceased thinking as tramping turned into blind plodding. He was submerged in weariness. His plump legs seemed to go on by themselves, without guidance, and he mechanically wiped away the sweat which stung his eyes. He was too tired to be consciously glad as, after a sun-scourged mile of corduroy tote-road through a swamp where flies hovered over a hot waste of brush, they reached the cool shore of Box Car Pond. When he lifted the pack from his back he staggered from the change in balance, and for a moment could not stand erect. He lay beneath an ample-bosomed maple tree near the guest-shack, and joyously felt sleep running through his veins.

He awoke toward dusk, to find Joe efficiently cooking bacon and eggs and flapjacks for supper, and his admiration of the woodsman returned. He sat on a stump and felt virile.

'Joe, what would you do if you had a lot of money? Would you stick to guiding, or would you take a claim 'way back in the woods and be independent of people?'

For the first time Joe brightened. He chewed his cud a second, and bubbled, 'I've often thought of that! If I had the money, I'd go down to Tinker's Falls and open a swell shoe store.'" [p. 753 - 755]

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