Mrs. Austin and Babbitt

Isn't it astounding the difference a single person can make?

When I was in high school, I was the archetypal hoodlum, running with a group which was truly notorious. At the risk of sounding a trifle egomaniacal, I headed up this mob of misfits. Our roster included: Sheel-Teat, Admiral Andy, Armpit, Fake-Nose, Whitey, Cuds, Dugg Bedd, Tiny, Van-O, with others occasionally joining in the merriment.

We were constantly in trouble, and I do mean constantly. Every day, some sort of prank was being prosecuted, most of them less than constructive in nature. Lots of giggles were always on tap, with a sporadic slug fest thrown in for good measure. No lavatory was safe. The Gang's reputation was truly noteworthy, with just about everyone leaving us unmolested, teachers and students alike.

And yet in junior year, 1970 I guess, I had an English teacher who was an absolute nut and so unfazed by me that I was startled out of complacency. Most teachers avoided my presence like the plague, but Mrs. Austin paid no nevermind to my so-called reputation at all. I feel certain that had Charles Manson attended her class, it still would have been business as usual. If she knew just what a powder keg sat in the third row, Mrs. Austin never let on.

One day, she led the class outside, and we conducted our session on the bleachers of the football field under a bright, cheery sky. The discussion concerned what we had been reading that week, a William Faulkner novel. In it was a passage describing chewing tobacco, the story taking place down south somewhere. Mrs. Austin, paused and turned to the class, exuberantly spouting, "It's worth a dollar of anyone's money to go out and buy a pack of chewing tobacco, just so you can see what it's all about and why the author thought it important enough to describe."

Nonchalantly, in my usual wiseguy fashion, I reached into my back pocket to withdraw a red, green and white pouch of Redman looseleaf chewing tobacco. Mrs. Austin, excitedly started to shriek, "Yes! That's it! That's the stuff!" She snatched the pouch from my hands, opened it up and reached in, pulling out a few strands while describing how often she saw it everywhere when growing up in Louisiana. Then she insisted on passing it around so all the students could view it up close. After it made the circuit, she sealed up the foil pouch, returning it to me. I slipped it into my back pocket once again, a constant companion.

Can you imagine the consequences of that little scene had it occurred nowadays? Mrs. Austin would be out of a job, and I'd be expelled flat-out. But like I said, she was a genuine nut, mad for the humanities and sharing their worth, and understood that Faulkner was far more important than stupid convention. For being a devotee of the liberal arts, Mrs. Austin could be singularly pragmatic.

I'll always remember this. The previous summer, the very first images of Apollo 11 came flitting across the television. As Neil Armstrong daintily tip-toed down the Eagle ladder to the surface, Mrs. Austin ran out to her front yard, craned her head up to the moon as if expecting to see him 240,000 miles away, all the while waving a little flag on a wooden dowel, no doubt to mentally conjured strains of John Phillips Sousa. Or so she told us, and it certainly fits. She truly was zany and always full of enthusiasm for anything and everything, I'm telling you.

Back to high school. One day she pulled me aside and led me to the rear of the room where stood the book racks of our class room. (Mrs. Austin's charge was to teach American literature that semester). Her hand reached out to the revolving black wire rack and withdrew a book, and thrust it my way. In her inimical Louisiana patois she said, "Studs, here's a book I think you might find right up your alley."

Mrs. Austin never gave a reason, but I trusted her unlike any other teacher. I took her recommendation at face value and started devouring the book at once, instantly hooked. Moreover, the work was a life-changer, becoming one of the three most influential seeds in my unconventional stay on this planet.

That book was Babbitt, by Sinclair Lewis.

Why, you might ask, would this seemingly comical novel be so important to me?

Well, there are lots of reasons, from the outwardly trivial to the deeply philosophical. And then of course, there's that business of craft. Lewis truly was one of America's finest writers. This chance encounter led me to read all of his novels by the time I was out of high school.

After being banished from my hometown and emigrating northward, I took up powerlifting with my brother Bill. I was still sixteen years old, by the way. We worked out at the YMCA, which obeyed a very definite caste system within its membership. Some of the patrons got thrust into the trashy old dilapidated locker-room, the wrong side of the tracks as it were. On the other hand, the aristocracy were ushered into a special, spiffier area with plush carpeting, overstuffed chairs and chromed niceties called "The Health Club." It had its own towel-boy and even a private masseur. Somehow Bill and I finagled our ways into this ritzy part by sheer chutzpah, primarily just to use the scales to monitor our weight gains. Most of the "boys" here were town boosters attending nightly after their day's labor, ostensibly to play handball; that was the elitist country club type activity in those days. No one ever became Grand Leader of their lodge without a commitment to daily handball.

In action, we'd see the oily president of the local dairy, loudmouthed filling station managers, dull and repetitive CPA's, realtors with ill-fitting toupees, contentious City Council members, pompous attorneys, sour school teachers bemoaning lack of respect, boisterous members of the Eagles, Elks, Masons, Odd Fellows, Jaycees: all filling the air with noisy and meaningless shouts of hollow good-fellowship and chumminess. Tons of backslapping ensued without surcease. Here's a typical exchange from that YMCA, forever burned into my memory:
"Hey, Warren, how's it going?"
"Gotta go! Gotta go!"
"Bob, you old rascal, when did you stop beating your wife?"
"I'll get you, Herb. Anyway, which wife did you mean?"
And so on...all at a fearsome volume, shouted through a multitude of grins and guffaws to rival Bedlam.

Compare that with a passage straight from Babbitt:
How’s the boys? How’s the boys? Well, well, fine day!”
..Jovially they whooped back—Vergil Gunch, the coal-dealer, Sidney Finkelstein, the ladies’-ready-to-wear buyer for Parcher & Stein’s department-store, and Professor Joseph K. Pumphrey, owner of the Riteway Business College and instructor in Public Speaking, Business English, Scenario Writing, and Commercial Law. Though Babbitt admired this savant, and appreciated Sidney Finkelstein as “a mighty smart buyer and a good liberal spender,” it was to Vergil Gunch that he turned with enthusiasm. Mr. Gunch was president of the Boosters’ Club, a weekly lunch-club, local chapter of a national organization which promoted sound business and friendliness among Regular Fellows. He was also no less an official than Esteemed Leading Knight in the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks, and it was rumored that at the next election he would be a candidate for Exalted Ruler.
 ...Gunch shouted, "How’s the old Bolsheviki? How do you feel, the morning after the night before?"

 "Oh, boy! Some head! That was a regular party you threw, Verg! Hope you haven’t forgotten I took that last cute little jack-pot!" Babbitt bellowed. (He was three feet from Gunch.)

 "That’s all right now! What I’ll hand you next time, Georgie!"
First lesson learned: flee from vacuous existence.

And then, the heart of the novel concerns George F. Babbitt's attempt to brook convention, almost making it, but eventually succumbing to the pressures of a society he so venerated. Along the way, there was a thankless marriage to a bit of a nonentity, providing very little other than a lethargy of custom--as Oscar Wilde so eloquently once phrased it.

Second lesson learned: Screw convention, despite the loss of certain not-so-important benefits in doing so.

And the last lesson is perhaps the strongest of all, the sort of thing a sixteen year-old kid like me needed to learn just starting out in life. I'll let Lewis tell us in his own words:
Now, for heaven’s sake, don’t repeat this to your mother, or she’d remove what little hair I’ve got left, but practically, I’ve never done a single thing I’ve wanted to in my whole life! I don’t know’s I’ve accomplished anything except just get along. I figure out I’ve made about a quarter of an inch out of a possible hundred rods.
I think that's the saddest passage I've ever read in a book.

There's so much more I could say (having enjoyed reading it dozens of times now). Let's just leave it at, I believe it to be the American classic. At one time in my life, I thought Lewis's Arrowsmith was the finest of his novels, from a craft point of view. But I've changed my mind. I had always assumed that the Nobel prize came for his later work which some people consider more mature. But I read recently that the Swedish committee was actually most swayed by Babbitt. I concur.

So, in closing, why do you think Mrs. Austin sent this book my way?

Next installment: Tiny

No comments:

Post a Comment