Fiction > Sinclair Lewis > Babbitt
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Sinclair Lewis (1885–1951).  Babbitt.  1922.

Chapter IV
 
I

IT was a morning of artistic creation. Fifteen minutes after the purple prose of Babbitt’s form-letter, Chester Kirby Laylock, the resident salesman at Glen Oriole, came in to report a sale and submit an advertisement. Babbitt disapproved of Laylock, who sang in choirs and was merry at home over games of Hearts and Old Maid. He had a tenor voice, wavy chestnut hair, and a mustache like a camel’s-hair brush. Babbitt considered it excusable in a family-man to growl, “Seen this new picture of the kid—husky little devil, eh?” but Laylock’s domestic confidences were as bubbling as a girl’s.
   1
  “Say, I think I got a peach of an ad for the Glen, Mr. Babbitt. Why don’t we try something in poetry? Honest, it’d have wonderful pulling-power. Listen:
        ’Mid pleasures and palaces,
        Wherever you may roam,
        You just provide the little bride
        And we’ll provide the home.
Do you get it? See—like ‘Home Sweet Home.’ Don’t you—”
   2
  “Yes, yes, yes, hell yes, of course I get it. But— Oh, I think we’d better use something more dignified and forceful, like ‘We lead, others follow,’ or ‘Eventually, why not now?’ Course I believe in using poetry and humor and all that junk when it turns the trick, but with a high-class restricted development like the Glen we better stick to the more dignified approach, see how I mean? Well, I guess that’s all, this morning, Chet.”   3
  
II

By a tragedy familiar to the world of art, the April enthusiasm of Chet Laylock served only to stimulate the talent of the older craftsman, George F. Babbitt. He grumbled to Stanley Graff, “That tan-colored voice of Chet’s gets on my nerves,” yet he was aroused and in one swoop he wrote:

DO YOU RESPECT YOUR LOVED ONES?

When the last sad rites of bereavement are over, do you know for certain that you have done your best for the Departed? You haven’t unless they lie in the Cemetery Beautiful
LINDEN LANE

the only strictly up-to-date burial place in or near Zenith, where exquisitely gardened plots look from daisy-dotted hill-slopes across the smiling fields of Dorchester.
Sole agents
BABBITT-THOMPSON REALTY COMPANY
Reeves Building

   4
  He rejoiced, “I guess that’ll show Chan Mott and his weedy old Wildwood Cemetery something about modern merchandizing!”   5
  
III

He sent Mat Penniman to the recorder’s office to dig out the names of the owners of houses which were displaying For Rent signs of other brokers; he talked to a man who desired to lease a store-building for a pool-room; he ran over the list of home-leases which were about to expire; he sent Thomas Bywaters, a street-car conductor who played at real estate in spare time, to call on side-street “prospects” who were unworthy the strategies of Stanley Graff. But he had spent his credulous excitement of creation, and these routine details annoyed him. One moment of heroism he had, in discovering a new way of stopping smoking.
   6
  He stopped smoking at least once a month. He went through with it like the solid citizen he was: admitted the evils of tobacco, courageously made resolves, laid out plans to check the vice, tapered off his allowance of cigars, and expounded the pleasures of virtuousness to every one he met. He did everything, in fact, except stop smoking.   7
  Two months before, by ruling out a schedule, noting down the hour and minute of each smoke, and ecstatically increasing the intervals between smokes, he had brought himself down to three cigars a day. Then he had lost the schedule.   8
  A week ago he had invented a system of leaving his cigar-case and cigarette-box in an unused drawer at the bottom of the correspondence-file, in the outer office. “I’ll just naturally be ashamed to go poking in there all day long, making a fool of myself before my own employees!” he reasoned. By the end of three days he was trained to leave his desk, walk to the file, take out and light a cigar, without knowing that he was doing it.   9
  This morning it was revealed to him that it had been too easy to open the file. Lock it, that was the thing! Inspired, he rushed out and locked up his cigars, his cigarettes, and even his box of safety matches; and the key to the file drawer he hid in his desk. But the crusading passion of it made him so tobacco-hungry that he immediately recovered the key, walked with forbidding dignity to the file, took out a cigar and a match—“but only one match; if ole cigar goes out, it’ll by golly have to stay out!” Later, when the cigar did go out, he took one more match from the file, and when a buyer and a seller came in for a conference at eleven-thirty, naturally he had to offer them cigars. His conscience protested, “Why, you’re smoking with them!” but he bullied it, “Oh, shut up! I’m busy now. Of course by-and-by—” There was no by-and-by, yet his belief that he had crushed the unclean habit made him feel noble and very happy. When he called up Paul Riesling he was, in his moral splendor, unusually eager.  10
  He was fonder of Paul Riesling than of any one on earth except himself and his daughter Tinka. They had been classmates, roommates, in the State University, but always he thought of Paul Riesling, with his dark slimness, his precisely parted hair, his nose-glasses, his hesitant speech, his moodiness, his love of music, as a younger brother, to be petted and protected. Paul had gone into his father’s business, after graduation; he was now a wholesaler and small manufacturer of prepared-paper roofing. But Babbitt strenuously believed and lengthily announced to the world of Good Fellows that Paul could have been a great violinist or painter or writer. “Why say, the letters that boy sent me on his trip to the Canadian Rockies, they just absolutely make you see the place as if you were standing there. Believe me, he could have given any of these bloomin’ authors a whale of a run for their money!”  11
  Yet on the telephone they said only:  12
  “South 343. No, no, no! I said South—South 343. Say, operator, what the dickens is the trouble? Can’t you get me South 343? Why certainly they’ll answer. Oh, Hello, 343? Wanta speak Mist’ Riesling, Mist’ Babbitt talking.... ’Lo, Paul?”  13
  “Yuh.”  14
  “’S George speaking.”  15
  “Yuh.”  16
  “How’s old socks?”  17
  “Fair to middlin’. How ’re you?”  18
  “Fine, Paulibus. Well, what do you know?”  19
  “Oh, nothing much.”  20
  “Where you been keepin’ yourself?”  21
  “Oh, just stickin’ round. What’s up, Georgie?”  22
  “How ’bout lil lunch ’s noon?”  23
  “Be all right with me, I guess. Club?’  24
  “Yuh. Meet you there twelve-thirty.”  25
  “A’ right. Twelve-thirty. S’ long, Georgie.”  26
  
IV

His morning was not sharply marked into divisions. Interwoven with correspondence and advertisement-writing were a thousand nervous details: calls from clerks who were incessantly and hopefully seeking five furnished rooms and bath at sixty dollars a month; advice to Mat Penniman on getting money out of tenants who had no money.
  27
  Babbitt’s virtues as a real-estate broker—as the servant of society in the department of finding homes for families and shops for distributors of food—were steadiness and diligence. He was conventionally honest, he kept his records of buyers and sellers complete, he had experience with leases and titles and an excellent memory for prices. His shoulders were broad enough, his voice deep enough, his relish of hearty humor strong enough, to establish him as one of the ruling caste of Good Fellows. Yet his eventual importance to mankind was perhaps lessened by his large and complacent ignorance of all architecture save the types of houses turned out by speculative builders; all landscape gardening save the use of curving roads, grass, and six ordinary shrubs; and all the commonest axioms of economics. 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 at Boosters’ Club lunches, and all the varieties of Annual Banquets to which Good Fellows were invited, 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, and a fly-by-night. These virtues awakened Confidence, and enabled you to handle Bigger Propositions. 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 jew you down on the asking-price.  28
  Babbitt spoke well—and often—at these orgies of commercial righteousness about the “realtor’s function as a seer of the future development of the community, and as a prophetic engineer clearing the pathway for inevitable changes”—which meant that a real-estate broker could make money by guessing which way the town would grow. This guessing he called Vision.  29
  In an address at the Boosters’ Club he had admitted, “It is at once the duty and the privilege of the realtor to know everything about his own city and its environs. Where a surgeon is a specialist on every vein and mysterious cell of the human body, and the engineer upon electricity in all its phases, or every bolt of some great bridge majestically arching o’er a mighty flood, the realtor must know his city, inch by inch, and all its faults and virtues.”  30
  Though he did know the market-price, inch by inch, of certain districts of Zenith, he did not know whether the police force was too large or too small, or whether it was in alliance with gambling and prostitution. He knew the means of fire-proofing buildings and the relation of insurance-rates to fire-proofing, but he did not know how many firemen there were in the city, how they were trained and paid, or how complete their apparatus. He sang eloquently the advantages of proximity of school-buildings to rentable homes, but he did not know—he did not know that it was worth while to know—whether the city schoolrooms were properly heated, lighted, ventilated, furnished; he did not know how the teachers were chosen; and though he chanted “One of the boasts of Zenith is that we pay our teachers adequately,” that was because he had read the statement in the Advocate-Times. Himself, he could not have given the average salary of teachers in Zenith or anywhere else.  31
  He had heard it said that “conditions” in the County Jail and the Zenith City Prison were not very “scientific;” he had, with indignation at the criticism of Zenith, skimmed through a report in which the notorious pessimist Seneca Doane, the radical lawyer, asserted that to throw boys and young girls into a bull-pen crammed with men suffering from syphilis, delirium tremens, and insanity was not the perfect way of educating them. He had controverted the report by growling, “Folks that think a jail ought to be a bloomin’ Hotel Thornleigh make me sick. If people don’t like a jail, let ’em behave ’emselves and keep out of it. Besides, these reform cranks always exaggerate.” That was the beginning and quite completely the end of his investigations into Zenith’s charities and corrections; and as to the “vice districts” he brightly expressed it, “Those are things that no decent man monkeys with. Besides, smatter fact, I’ll tell you confidentially: it’s a protection to our daughters and to decent women to have a district where tough nuts can raise cain. Keeps ’em away from our own homes.”  32
  As to industrial conditions, however, Babbitt had thought a great deal, and his opinions may be coördinated as follows:  33
  “A good labor union is of value because it keeps out radical unions, which would destroy property. No one ought to be forced to belong to a union, however. All labor agitators who try to force men to join a union should be hanged. In fact, just between ourselves, there oughtn’t to be any unions allowed at all; and as it’s the best way of fighting the unions, every business man ought to belong to an employers’-association and to the Chamber of Commerce. In union there is strength. So any selfish hog who doesn’t join the Chamber of Commerce ought to be forced to.”  34
  In nothing—as the expert on whose advice families moved to new neighborhoods to live there for a generation—was Babbitt more splendidly innocent than in the science of sanitation. He did not know a malaria-bearing mosquito from a bat; he knew nothing about tests of drinking water; and in the matters of plumbing and sewage he was as unlearned as he was voluble. He often referred to the excellence of the bathrooms in the houses he sold. He was fond of explaining why it was that no European ever bathed. Some one had told him, when he was twenty-two, that all cesspools were unhealthy, and he still denounced them. If a client impertinently wanted him to sell a house which had a cesspool, Babbitt always spoke about it—before accepting the house and selling it.  35
  When he laid out the Glen Oriole acreage development, when he ironed woodland and dipping meadow into a glenless, orioleless, sunburnt flat prickly with small boards displaying the names of imaginary streets, he righteously put in a complete sewage-system. It made him feel superior; it enabled him to sneer privily at the Martin Lumsen development, Avonlea, which had a cesspool; and it provided a chorus for the full-page advertisements in which he announced the beauty, convenience, cheapness, and supererogatory healthfulness of Glen Oriole. The only flaw was that the Glen Oriole sewers had insufficient outlet, so that waste remained in them, not very agreeably, while the Avonlea cesspool was a Waring septic tank.  36
  The whole of the Glen Oriole project was a suggestion that Babbitt, though he really did hate men recognized as swindlers, was not too unreasonably honest. Operators and buyers prefer that brokers should not be in competition with them as operators and buyers themselves, but attend to their clients’ interests only. It was supposed that the Babbitt-Thompson Company were merely agents for Glen Oriole, serving the real owner, Jake Offutt, but the fact was that Babbitt and Thompson owned sixty-two per cent. of the Glen, the president and purchasing agent of the Zenith Street Traction Company owned twenty-eight per cent., and Jake Offutt (a gang-politician, a small manufacturer, a tobacco-chewing old farceur who enjoyed dirty politics, business diplomacy, and cheating at poker) had only ten per cent., which Babbitt and the Traction officials had given to him for “fixing” health inspectors and fire inspectors and a member of the State Transportation Commission.  37
  But Babbitt was virtuous. He advocated, though he did not practise, the prohibition of alcohol; he praised, though he did not obey, the laws against motor-speeding; he paid his debts; he contributed to the church, the Red Cross, and the Y. M. C. A.; he followed the custom of his clan and cheated only as it was sanctified by precedent; and he never descended to trickery—though, as he explained to Paul Riesling:  38
  “Course I don’t mean to say that every ad I write is literally true or that I always believe everything I say when I give some buyer a good strong selling-spiel. You see—you see it’s like this: In the first place, maybe the owner of the property exaggerated when he put it into my hands, and it certainly isn’t my place to go proving my principal a liar! And then most folks are so darn crooked themselves that they expect a fellow to do a little lying, so if I was fool enough to never whoop the ante I’d get the credit for lying anyway! In self-defense I got to toot my own horn, like a lawyer defending a client—his bounden duty, ain’t it, to bring out the poor dub’s good points? Why, the Judge himself would bawl out a lawyer that didn’t, even if they both knew the guy was guilty! But even so, I don’t pad out the truth like Cecil Rountree or Thayer or the rest of these realtors. Fact, I think a fellow that’s willing to deliberately up and profit by lying ought to be shot!”  39
  Babbitt’s value to his clients was rarely better shown than this morning, in the conference at eleven-thirty between himself, Conrad Lyte, and Archibald Purdy.  40
  
V

Conrad Lyte was a real-estate speculator. He was a nervous speculator. Before he gambled he consulted bankers, lawyers, architects, contracting builders, and all of their clerks and stenographers who were willing to be cornered and give him advice. He was a bold entrepreneur, and he desired nothing more than complete safety in his investments, freedom from attention to details, and the thirty or forty per cent. profit which, according to all authorities, a pioneer deserves for his risks and foresight. He was a stubby man with a cap-like mass of short gray curls and clothes which, no matter how well cut, seemed shaggy. Below his eyes were semicircular hollows, as though silver dollars had been pressed against them and had left an imprint.
  41
  Particularly and always Lyte consulted Babbitt, and trusted in his slow cautiousness.  42
  Six months ago Babbitt had learned that one Archibald Purdy, a grocer in the indecisive residential district known as Linton, was talking of opening a butcher shop beside his grocery. Looking up the ownership of adjoining parcels of land, Babbitt found that Purdy owned his present shop but did not own the one available lot adjoining. He advised Conrad Lyte to purchase this lot, for eleven thousand dollars, though an appraisal on a basis of rents did not indicate its value as above nine thousand. The rents, declared Babbitt, were too low; and by waiting they could make Purdy come to their price. (This was Vision.) He had to bully Lyte into buying. His first act as agent for Lyte was to increase the rent of the battered store-building on the lot. The tenant said a number of rude things, but he paid.  43
  Now, Purdy seemed ready to buy, and his delay was going to cost him ten thousand extra dollars—the reward paid by the community to Mr. Conrad Lyte for the virtue of employing a broker who had Vision and who understood Talking Points, Strategic Values, Key Situations, Underappraisals, and the Psychology of Salesmanship.  44
  Lyte came to the conference exultantly. He was fond of Babbitt, this morning, and called him “old hoss.” Purdy, the grocer. a long-nosed man and solemn, seemed to care less for Babbitt and for Vision, but Babbitt met him at the street door of the office and guided him toward the private room with affectionate little cries of “This way, Brother Purdy!” He took from the correspondence-file the entire box of cigars and forced them on his guests. He pushed their chairs two inches forward and three inches back, which gave an hospitable note, then leaned back in his desk-chair and looked plump and jolly. But he spoke to the weakling grocer with firmness.  45
  “Well, Brother Purdy, we been having some pretty tempting offers from butchers and a slew of other folks for that lot next to your store, but I persuaded Brother Lyte that we ought to give you a shot at the property first. I said to Lyte, ‘It’d be a rotten shame,’ I said, ‘if somebody went and opened a combination grocery and meat market right next door and ruined Purdy’s nice little business.’ Especially—” Babbitt leaned forward, and his voice was harsh, “—it would be hard luck if one of these cash-and-carry chain-stores got in there and started cutting prices below cost till they got rid of competition and forced you to the wall!”  46
  Purdy snatched his thin hands from his pockets, pulled up his trousers, thrust his hands back into his pockets, tilted in the heavy oak chair, and tried to look amused, as he struggled:  47
  “Yes, they’re bad competition. But I guess you don’t realize the Pulling Power that Personality has in a neighborhood business.”  48
  The great Babbitt smiled. “That’s so. Just as you feel, old man. We thought we’d give you first chance. All right then—”  49
  “Now look here!” Purdy wailed. “I know f’r a fact that a piece of property ’bout same size, right near, sold for less ’n eighty-five hundred, ’twa’n’t two years ago, and here you fellows are asking me twenty-four thousand dollars! Why, I’d have to mortgage— I wouldn’t mind so much paying twelve thousand but— Why good God, Mr. Babbitt, you’re asking more ’n twice its value! And threatening to ruin me if I don’t take it!”  50
  “Purdy, I don’t like your way of talking! I don’t like it one little bit! Supposing Lyte and I were stinking enough to want to ruin any fellow human, don’t you suppose we know it’s to our own selfish interest to have everybody in Zenith prosperous? But all this is beside the point. Tell you what we’ll do: We’ll come down to twenty-three thousand—five thousand down and the rest on mortgage—and if you want to wreck the old shack and rebuild, I guess I can get Lyte here to loosen up for a building-mortgage on good liberal terms. Heavens, man, we’d be glad to oblige you! We don’t like these foreign grocery trusts any better ’n you do! But it isn’t reasonable to expect us to sacrifice eleven thousand or more just for neighborliness, is it! How about it, Lyte? You willing to come down?”  51
  By warmly taking Purdy’s part, Babbitt persuaded the benevolent Mr. Lyte to reduce his price to twenty-one thousand dollars. At the right moment Babbitt snatched from a drawer the agreement he had had Miss McGoun type out a week ago and thrust it into Purdy’s hands. He genially shook his fountain pen to make certain that it was flowing, handed it to Purdy, and approvingly watched him sign.  52
  The work of the world was being done. Lyte had made something over nine thousand dollars, Babbitt had made a four-hundred-and-fifty-dollar commission, Purdy had, by the sensitive mechanism of modern finance, been provided with a business-building, and soon the happy inhabitants of Linton would have meat lavished upon them at prices only a little higher than those down-town.  53
  It had been a manly battle, but after it Babbitt drooped. This was the only really amusing contest he had been planning. There was nothing ahead save details of leases, appraisals, mortgages.  54
  He muttered, “Makes me sick to think of Lyte carrying off most of the profit when I did all the work, the old skinflint! And— What else have I got to do to-day?.. Like to take a good long vacation. Motor trip. Something.”  55
  He sprang up, rekindled by the thought of lunching with Paul Riesling  56
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