Small Town Babbitt
Main Street by Sinclair Lewis
Sinclair Lewis's satiric novel, Main Street took America by storm in 1920. Its unflinching look at small-town life seemed perfectly timed to meet the post-war need for cultural reflection. The travails of Carol Kennicott, the novel's heroine, are modeled on Lewis's own experience of growing up in a small midwestern town. A bookish, romantic-minded boy with bad skin and red hair, Lewis was ostracized for being different. Carol, too, is an outsider in her doctor-husband's small Minnesota town, Gopher Prairie. After having worked as a librarian in Chicago, she is by turns despondent over the town's small-minded ugliness, and inspired to introduce the new and the "strange" to it.
Her efforts at culture—Chinese-themed dinner parties, theater
and building initiatives among them—all fail, and she falls victim
paralyzing "village virus." But she revives herself after
narrowly avoiding an affair with a romantic young tailor. Her brush with
the social annihilation risked by such an affair prompts her to move to
the east coast to reevaluate her life. Her husband accepts her move and
waits for her decision on the future. After a year and a half, she
returns, strengthened and still determined to improve the town, but
humbler and more realistic about people's capacity for change.
His "photographic" narrative lays out the nuances of small-town business practices, class divisions, family life, religion, education, cultural activities, leisure pursuits, charities, and civic efforts. Lewis continued his satirical documentation of American life throughout the Twenties, offering critiques of the American middle class in Babbitt (1922), the medical profession in Arrowsmith (1925), and of popular religious leaders in Elmer Gantry (1927).
The Ultimate Businessman
Even as many writers, including Sinclair Lewis, found fault with the ideals of the American businessman, legendary advertising executive Bruce Barton believed that the qualities of a good businessman dated back to a rather auspicious figure. In his 1925 non-fiction bestseller, The Man Nobody Knows, Barton claimed that Jesus was the forerunner of the modern business executive.
In the book's introduction, Barton explained that as a child he had been bored by depictions of Jesus as "a pale young man with flabby forearms and a sad expression." As an adult, Barton determined that such a man could not have been a successful leader and so set about trying to find the "real" Jesus.
For Barton, the results were startling. Jesus, he found, was a muscular carpenter, "the most popular dinner guest in Jerusalem," and, ultimately, the "founder of the modern business." Barton's depiction of Jesus provides a glimpse of the qualities deemed necessary for business in the 1920s: leadership, masculinity, sociability, and organization.
Critics labeled the book an example of "Babbittry" and indicative of the materialism of the decade. Barton's book, however, struck a chord with many Americans, and the book went through almost thirty printings in less than three years.