Now and then, something pops up to remind me what a wondrous device the Internet can be when it’s not put to horrible uses by lunatics, charlatans, and the worst impulses of human psychology.
The other day, I wanted to check something about George Babbitt.
As I’m sure my erudite readers need no reminding, Babbitt is the protagonist of the landmark 1922 Sinclair Lewis novel Babbitt.
George Babbit is an ordinary middle-class real estate agent who thinks of himself as a principled, hard-working, successful pillar of the community in Zenith, the most exciting city in America. He also believes he has a strong and independent mind. Babbitt is, in fact, a smug, mediocre huckster. He has no views about politics and the world of his own. He simply parrots what his smug, mediocre friends say. And Zenith is a mid-Western backwater.
Babbitt was a huge hit that made a lasting impression in American culture, and for good reason.
In the United States, the 1920s was the first decade of modern consumerism, the decade of “ballyhoo” and “boosterism” and Madison Avenue bullshit. It was a decade when an ad man could write a huge bestseller about how Jesus was really a take-charge businessman who would have voted Republican. In the witless, self-absorbed George Babbitt, Sinclair Lewis nailed the decade.
“Babbitt” even became a word in American English. A “Babbitt” is a smug, complacent, conformist schmo.
But you knew all that. And what’s this got to do with the Internet, you ask?
Well, as I said, I wanted to check something about the novel. So I Googled “George Babbitt.”
I discovered there is a Wikipedia entry for another George Babbitt.
He is a retired US Air Force four-star general.
Now 80 years old, this George Babbitt was born in 1942.
Think about that. His parents knew the poor child had the then-unfortunate surname “Babbitt.” Yet they called him “George.” Why?
I’m dying to know more. And thanks to Wikipedia and the Internet, there's always more to know.
This George Babbitt turns out to be George Babbitt … Junior.
Mystery solved. They called the baby George because his father was George.
But think about this. If Junior was born in 1942, Senior was probably born in the teens or the first decade of the 20th century.
When his name was perfectly fine. Because that novel hadn’t been published.
So here is a young man in, say, 1920, with the perfectly fine name of George Babbitt.
Then one day in 1922, Sinclair Lewis publishes a novel entitled Babbitt. It’s all about “George Babbitt.” Who is a smug fool. The novel becomes a massive hit. Calling someone “a Babbitt” becomes a way of saying someone is a smug fool. For the rest of George Babbitt’s life. What a thing to hang around a young man’s neck.
Then this man has a son. What does he name the baby? George Babbitt Jr., naturally.
That’s a better story than “A Boy Named Sue.” It’s a novel waiting to be written.
Naturally, I now feel the time I spent reading about George Babbitt Jr. was time well spent. It may have been the highlight of my week.
But this is the Internet we’re talking about. There’s always more. And I can’t help myself.
I plug “George Babbitt” into a database of American newspapers and find the distribution of hits is what I expected — a smattering here and there early in the 20th century, a big rise after the novel’s publication in 1922, followed by a gentle decline.
But there’s a big spike in the early 1960s. Why?
It is almost all in one newspaper. In Flagstaff, Arizona.
The name doesn’t appear in articles. “George Babbitt” is in ads.
Ads for… I swear I am not making this up…
“George Babbitt Realty.”
So there is a man named George Babbitt. He is a real estate agent. And he thought it was a good idea to name his business after himself — a name he shared with the most famous real estate hustler in American literature.
I have to know more.
I find an article that mentions this George Babbitt. It turns out “George Babbitt” isn’t his full name.
His full name is …
George Babbitt Jr.
Not the Air Force general. Another George Babbitt Jr.
George Babbitt Sr. — not the other George Babbitt Sr., this George Babbitt Sr. — turns out to have been a pioneer in the state who died in 1920. There’s also a George Babbitt III. But at this point I was concerned that I may be in violation of anti-stalking laws so I gave up.
But I have to share one last, completely useless bit of information about George Babbitts.
Remember George Babbitt Jr.? Not the real estate agent. The Air Force general.
It turns out that, as a teenager in 1959, George Babbitt Jr. played guitar. He joined a little band called the Ventures. The Ventures had a big hit with Walk Don’t Run and were also a major influence on the style of the Beach Boys.
But George Babbitt Jr. missed all that. When the Ventures started to have some success, they played in bars and Babbitt was too young to go inside. So he dropped out.
Fortunately, he found another line of work.
Sweet Republican-voting Jesus, I love the Internet.
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I’m always curious about how parents decide to give their children notorious names (not always explained by naming directly after the parent) -- some easy high profile examples, we have Richard Wagner and recently had Thomas Cromwell both sitting on our Supreme Court! The historic men have mixed and complex legacies and aren’t caricaturally horrible fictional characters, but I still can’t imagine the baggage of carrying one of those names.
I now feel like I have to go read this novel. Just the name of the town ‘Zenith’ makes it seem worthwhile.