Harry Ransom CenterThe University of Texas at Austin

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Teaching the American Twenties: Exploring the Decade through Literature and Art

Who Were the Babbitts and Bohemians?

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 groups, and building initiatives among them—all fail, and she falls victim to the 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.

In this "revolt from the village" novel, Lewis combines old and new forms: on the one hand he satirizes both the reformer and the self-satisfied people in need of reform, and on the other, he references the emerging social sciences of sociology and anthropology.

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.

Frontispiece and title page from <em>The Man Nobody Knows</em>
Frontispiece and title page from The Man Nobody Knows
Bruce Barton

Though men and women read Barton's book, his target audience was male readers who comprised the majority of American business. Barton was concerned with showing that the "real Jesus" was masculine, and, as the back cover of one edition noted, he attempte...

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