HE solemnly finished the last copy of the American Magazine, while his wife sighed, laid away her darning, and looked enviously at the lingerie designs in a women’s magazine. The room was very still.
It was a room which observed the best Floral Heights standards. The gray walls were divided into artificial paneling by strips of white-enameled pine. From the Babbitts’ former house had come two much-carved rocking-chairs, but the other chairs were new, very deep and restful, upholstered in blue and gold-striped velvet. A blue velvet davenport faced the fireplace, and behind it was a cherrywood table and a tall piano-lamp with a shade of golden silk. (Two out of every three houses in Floral Heights had before the fireplace a davenport, a mahogany table real or imitation, and a piano-lamp or a reading-lamp with a shade of yellow or rose silk.)
On the table was a runner of gold-threaded Chinese fabric, four magazines, a silver box containing cigarette-crumbs, and three “gift-books”— large, expensive editions of fairy-tales illustrated by English artists and as yet unread by any Babbitt save Tinka.
In a corner by the front windows was a large cabinet Victrola. (Eight out of every nine Floral Heights houses had a cabinet phonograph.)
Among the pictures, hung in the exact center of each gray panel, were a red and black imitation English hunting-print, an anemic imitation boudoir-print with a French caption of whose morality Babbitt had always been rather suspicious, and a “hand-colored” photograph of a Colonial room — rag rug, maiden spinning, cat demure before a white fireplace. (Nineteen out of every twenty houses in Floral Heights had either a hunting-print, a Madame Feit la Toilette print, a colored photograph of a New England house, a photograph of a Rocky Mountain, or all four.)
It was a room as superior in comfort to the “parlor” of Babbitt’s boyhood as his motor was superior to his father’s buggy. Though there was nothing in the room that was interesting, there was nothing that was offensive. It was as neat, and as negative, as a block of artificial ice. The fireplace was unsoftened by downy ashes or by sooty brick; the brass fire-irons were of immaculate polish; and the grenadier andirons were like samples in a shop, desolate, unwanted, lifeless things of commerce.
Against the wall was a piano, with another piano-lamp, but no one used it save Tinka. The hard briskness of the phonograph contented them; their store of jazz records made them feel wealthy and cultured; and all they knew of creating music was the nice adjustment of a bamboo needle. The books on the table were unspotted and laid in rigid parallels; not one corner of the carpet-rug was curled; and nowhere was there a hockey-stick, a torn picture-book, an old cap, or a gregarious and disorganizing dog.
At home, Babbitt never read with absorption. He was concentrated enough at the office but here he crossed his legs and fidgeted. When his story was interesting he read the best, that is the funniest, paragraphs to his wife; when it did not hold him he coughed, scratched his ankles and his right ear, thrust his left thumb into his vest pocket, jingled his silver, whirled the cigar-cutter and the keys on one end of his watch chain, yawned, rubbed his nose, and found errands to do. He went upstairs to put on his slippers — his elegant slippers of seal-brown, shaped like medieval shoes. He brought up an apple from the barrel which stood by the trunk-closet in the basement.
“An apple a day keeps the doctor away,” he enlightened Mrs. Babbitt, for quite the first time in fourteen hours.
“An apple is Nature’s best regulator.”
“Yes, it —”
“Trouble with women is, they never have sense enough to form regular habits.”
“Always nibbling and eating between meals.”
“George!” She looked up from her reading. “Did you have a light lunch to-day, like you were going to? I did!”
This malicious and unprovoked attack astounded him. “Well, maybe it wasn’t as light as — Went to lunch with Paul and didn’t have much chance to diet. Oh, you needn’t to grin like a chessy cat! If it wasn’t for me watching out and keeping an eye on our diet — I’m the only member of this family that appreciates the value of oatmeal for breakfast. I—”
She stooped over her story while he piously sliced and gulped down the apple, discoursing:
“One thing I’ve done: cut down my smoking.
“Had kind of a run-in with Graff in the office. He’s getting too darn fresh. I’ll stand for a good deal, but once in a while I got to assert my authority, and I jumped him. ‘Stan,’ I said — Well, I told him just exactly where he got off.
“Funny kind of a day. Makes you feel restless.
“Wellllllllll, uh —” That sleepiest sound in the world, the terminal yawn. Mrs. Babbitt yawned with it, and looked grateful as he droned, “How about going to bed, eh? Don’t suppose Rone and Ted will be in till all hours. Yep, funny kind of a day; not terribly warm but yet — Gosh, I’d like — Some day I’m going to take a long motor trip.”
“Yes, we’d enjoy that,” she yawned.
He looked away from her as he realized that he did not wish to have her go with him. As he locked doors and tried windows and set the heat regulator so that the furnace-drafts would open automatically in the morning, he sighed a little, heavy with a lonely feeling which perplexed and frightened him. So absent-minded was he that he could not remember which window-catches he had inspected, and through the darkness, fumbling at unseen perilous chairs, he crept back to try them all over again. His feet were loud on the steps as he clumped upstairs at the end of this great and treacherous day of veiled rebellions.
Before breakfast he always reverted to up-state village boyhood, and shrank from the complex urban demands of shaving, bathing, deciding whether the current shirt was clean enough for another day. Whenever he stayed home in the evening he went to bed early, and thriftily got ahead in those dismal duties. It was his luxurious custom to shave while sitting snugly in a tubful of hot water. He may be viewed to-night as a plump, smooth, pink, baldish, podgy goodman, robbed of the importance of spectacles, squatting in breast-high water, scraping his lather-smeared cheeks with a safety-razor like a tiny lawn-mower, and with melancholy dignity clawing through the water to recover a slippery and active piece of soap.
He was lulled to dreaming by the caressing warmth. The light fell on the inner surface of the tub in a pattern of delicate wrinkled lines which slipped with a green sparkle over the curving porcelain as the clear water trembled. Babbitt lazily watched it; noted that along the silhouette of his legs against the radiance on the bottom of the tub, the shadows of the air-bubbles clinging to the hairs were reproduced as strange jungle mosses. He patted the water, and the reflected light capsized and leaped and volleyed. He was content and childish. He played. He shaved a swath down the calf of one plump leg.
The drain-pipe was dripping, a dulcet and lively song: drippety drip drip dribble, drippety drip drip drip. He was enchanted by it. He looked at the solid tub, the beautiful nickel taps, the tiled walls of the room, and felt virtuous in the possession of this splendor.
He roused himself and spoke gruffly to his bath-things. “Come here! You’ve done enough fooling!” he reproved the treacherous soap, and defied the scratchy nail-brush with “Oh, you would, would you!” He soaped himself, and rinsed himself, and austerely rubbed himself; he noted a hole in the Turkish towel, and meditatively thrust a finger through it, and marched back to the bedroom, a grave and unbending citizen.
There was a moment of gorgeous abandon, a flash of melodrama such as he found in traffic-driving, when he laid out a clean collar, discovered that it was frayed in front, and tore it up with a magnificent yeeeeeing sound.
Most important of all was the preparation of his bed and the sleeping-porch.
It is not known whether he enjoyed his sleeping-porch because of the fresh air or because it was the standard thing to have a sleeping-porch.
Just as he was an Elk, a Booster, and a member of the Chamber of Commerce, just as the priests of the Presbyterian Church determined his every religious belief and the senators who controlled the Republican Party decided in little smoky rooms in Washington what he should think about disarmament, tariff, and Germany, so did the large national advertisers fix the surface of his life, fix what he believed to be his individuality. These standard advertised wares — toothpastes, socks, tires, cameras, instantaneous hot-water heaters — were his symbols and proofs of excellence; at first the signs, then the substitutes, for joy and passion and wisdom.
But none of these advertised tokens of financial and social success was more significant than a sleeping-porch with a sun-parlor below.
The rites of preparing for bed were elaborate and unchanging. The blankets had to be tucked in at the foot of his cot. (Also, the reason why the maid hadn’t tucked in the blankets had to be discussed with Mrs. Babbitt.) The rag rug was adjusted so that his bare feet would strike it when he arose in the morning. The alarm clock was wound. The hot-water bottle was filled and placed precisely two feet from the bottom of the cot.
These tremendous undertakings yielded to his determination; one by one they were announced to Mrs. Babbitt and smashed through to accomplishment. At last his brow cleared, and in his “Gnight!” rang virile power. But there was yet need of courage. As he sank into sleep, just at the first exquisite relaxation, the Doppelbrau car came home. He bounced into wakefulness, lamenting, “Why the devil can’t some people never get to bed at a reasonable hour?” So familiar was he with the process of putting up his own car that he awaited each step like an able executioner condemned to his own rack.
The car insultingly cheerful on the driveway. The car door opened and banged shut, then the garage door slid open, grating on the sill, and the car door again. The motor raced for the climb up into the garage and raced once more, explosively, before it was shut off. A final opening and slamming of the car door. Silence then, a horrible silence filled with waiting, till the leisurely Mr. Doppelbrau had examined the state of his tires and had at last shut the garage door. Instantly, for Babbitt, a blessed state of oblivion.
At that moment In the city of Zenith, Horace Updike was making love to Lucile McKelvey in her mauve drawing-room on Royal Ridge, after their return from a lecture by an eminent English novelist. Updike was Zenith’s professional bachelor; a slim-waisted man of forty-six with an effeminate voice and taste in flowers, cretonnes, and flappers. Mrs. McKelvey was red-haired, creamy, discontented, exquisite, rude, and honest. Updike tried his invariable first maneuver — touching her nervous wrist.
“Don’t be an idiot!” she said.
“Do you mind awfully?”
“No! That’s what I mind!”
He changed to conversation. He was famous at conversation. He spoke reasonably of psychoanalysis, Long Island polo, and the Ming platter he had found in Vancouver. She promised to meet him in Deauville, the coming summer, “though,” she sighed, “it’s becoming too dreadfully banal; nothing but Americans and frowsy English baronesses.”
And at that moment in Zenith, a cocaine-runner and a prostitute were drinking cocktails in Healey Hanson’s saloon on Front Street. Since national prohibition was now in force, and since Zenith was notoriously law-abiding, they were compelled to keep the cocktails innocent by drinking them out of tea-cups. The lady threw her cup at the cocaine-runner’s head. He worked his revolver out of the pocket in his sleeve, and casually murdered her.
At that moment in Zenith, two men sat in a laboratory. For thirty-seven hours now they had been working on a report of their investigations of synthetic rubber.
At that moment in Zenith, there was a conference of four union officials as to whether the twelve thousand coal-miners within a hundred miles of the city should strike. Of these men one resembled a testy and prosperous grocer, one a Yankee carpenter, one a soda-clerk, and one a Russian Jewish actor The Russian Jew quoted Kautsky, Gene Debs, and Abraham Lincoln.
At that moment a G. A. R. veteran was dying. He had come from the Civil War straight to a farm which, though it was officially within the city-limits of Zenith, was primitive as the backwoods. He had never ridden in a motor car, never seen a bath-tub, never read any book save the Bible, McGuffey’s readers, and religious tracts; and he believed that the earth is flat, that the English are the Lost Ten Tribes of Israel, and that the United States is a democracy.
At that moment the steel and cement town which composed the factory of the Pullmore Tractor Company of Zenith was running on night shift to fill an order of tractors for the Polish army. It hummed like a million bees, glared through its wide windows like a volcano. Along the high wire fences, searchlights played on cinder-lined yards, switch-tracks, and armed guards on patrol.
At that moment Mike Monday was finishing a meeting. Mr. Monday, the distinguished evangelist, the best-known Protestant pontiff in America, had once been a prize-fighter. Satan had not dealt justly with him. As a prize-fighter he gained nothing but his crooked nose, his celebrated vocabulary, and his stage-presence. The service of the Lord had been more profitable. He was about to retire with a fortune. It had been well earned, for, to quote his last report, “Rev. Mr. Monday, the Prophet with a Punch, has shown that he is the world’s greatest salesman of salvation, and that by efficient organization the overhead of spiritual regeneration may be kept down to an unprecedented rock-bottom basis. He has converted over two hundred thousand lost and priceless souls at an average cost of less than ten dollars a head.”
Of the larger cities of the land, only Zenith had hesitated to submit its vices to Mike Monday and his expert reclamation corps. The more enterprising organizations of the city had voted to invite him — Mr. George F. Babbitt had once praised him in a speech at the Boosters’ Club. But there was opposition from certain Episcopalian and Congregationalist ministers, those renegades whom Mr. Monday so finely called “a bunch of gospel-pushers with dish-water instead of blood, a gang of squealers that need more dust on the knees of their pants and more hair on their skinny old chests.” This opposition had been crushed when the secretary of the Chamber of Commerce had reported to a committee of manufacturers that in every city where he had appeared, Mr. Monday had turned the minds of workmen from wages and hours to higher things, and thus averted strikes. He was immediately invited.
An expense fund of forty thousand dollars had been underwritten; out on the County Fair Grounds a Mike Monday Tabernacle had been erected, to seat fifteen thousand people. In it the prophet was at this moment concluding his message:
“There’s a lot of smart college professors and tea-guzzling slobs in this burg that say I’m a roughneck and a never-wuzzer and my knowledge of history is not-yet. Oh, there’s a gang of woolly-whiskered book-lice that think they know more than Almighty God, and prefer a lot of Hun science and smutty German criticism to the straight and simple Word of God. Oh, there’s a swell bunch of Lizzie boys and lemon-suckers and pie-faces and infidels and beer-bloated scribblers that love to fire off their filthy mouths and yip that Mike Monday is vulgar and full of mush. Those pups are saying now that I hog the gospel-show, that I’m in it for the coin. Well, now listen, folks! I’m going to give those birds a chance! They can stand right up here and tell me to my face that I’m a galoot and a liar and a hick! Only if they do — if they do! — don’t faint with surprise if some of those rum-dumm liars get one good swift poke from Mike, with all the kick of God’s Flaming Righteousness behind the wallop! Well, come on, folks! Who says it? Who says Mike Monday is a fourflush and a yahoo? Huh? Don’t I see anybody standing up? Well, there you are! Now I guess the folks in this man’s town will quit listening to all this kyoodling from behind the fence; I guess you’ll quit listening to the guys that pan and roast and kick and beef, and vomit out filthy atheism; and all of you ’ll come in, with every grain of pep and reverence you got, and boost all together for Jesus Christ and his everlasting mercy and tenderness!”
At that moment Seneca Doane, the radical lawyer, and Dr. Kurt Yavitch, the histologist (whose report on the destruction of epithelial cells under radium had made the name of Zenith known in Munich, Prague, and Rome), were talking in Doane’s library.
“Zenith’s a city with gigantic power — gigantic buildings, gigantic machines, gigantic transportation,” meditated Doane.
“I hate your city. It has standardized all the beauty out of life. It is one big railroad station — with all the people taking tickets for the best cemeteries,” Dr. Yavitch said placidly.
Doane roused. “I’m hanged if it is! You make me sick, Kurt, with your perpetual whine about ‘standardization.’ Don’t you suppose any other nation is ‘standardized?’ Is anything more standardized than England, with every house that can afford it having the same muffins at the same tea-hour, and every retired general going to exactly the same evensong at the same gray stone church with a square tower, and every golfing prig in Harris tweeds saying ‘Right you are!’ to every other prosperous ass? Yet I love England. And for standardization — just look at the sidewalk cafes in France and the love-making in Italy!
“Standardization is excellent, per se. When I buy an Ingersoll watch or a Ford, I get a better tool for less money, and I know precisely what I’m getting, and that leaves me more time and energy to be individual in. And — I remember once in London I saw a picture of an American suburb, in a toothpaste ad on the back of the Saturday Evening Post — an elm-lined snowy street of these new houses, Georgian some of ’em, or with low raking roofs and — The kind of street you’d find here in Zenith, say in Floral Heights. Open. Trees. Grass. And I was homesick! There’s no other country in the world that has such pleasant houses. And I don’t care if they ARE standardized. It’s a corking standard!
“No, what I fight in Zenith is standardization of thought, and, of course, the traditions of competition. The real villains of the piece are the clean, kind, industrious Family Men who use every known brand of trickery and cruelty to insure the prosperity of their cubs. The worst thing about these fellows is that they’re so good and, in their work at least, so intelligent. You can’t hate them properly, and yet their standardized minds are the enemy.
“Then this boosting — Sneakingly I have a notion that Zenith is a better place to live in than Manchester or Glasgow or Lyons or Berlin or Turin —”
“It is not, and I have lift in most of them,” murmured Dr. Yavitch.
“Well, matter of taste. Personally, I prefer a city with a future so unknown that it excites my imagination. But what I particularly want —”
“You,” said Dr. Yavitch, “are a middle-road liberal, and you haven’t the slightest idea what you want. I, being a revolutionist, know exactly what I want — and what I want now is a drink.”
At that moment in Zenith, Jake Offutt, the politician, and Henry T. Thompson were in conference. Offutt suggested, “The thing to do is to get your fool son-in-law, Babbitt, to put it over. He’s one of these patriotic guys. When he grabs a piece of property for the gang, he makes it look like we were dyin’ of love for the dear peepul, and I do love to buy respectability — reasonable. Wonder how long we can keep it up, Hank? We’re safe as long as the good little boys like George Babbitt and all the nice respectable labor-leaders think you and me are rugged patriots. There’s swell pickings for an honest politician here, Hank: a whole city working to provide cigars and fried chicken and dry martinis for us, and rallying to our banner with indignation, oh, fierce indignation, whenever some squealer like this fellow Seneca Doane comes along! Honest, Hank, a smart codger like me ought to be ashamed of himself if he didn’t milk cattle like them, when they come around mooing for it! But the Traction gang can’t get away with grand larceny like it used to. I wonder when — Hank, I wish we could fix some way to run this fellow Seneca Doane out of town. It’s him or us!”
At that moment in Zenith, three hundred and forty or fifty thousand Ordinary People were asleep, a vast unpenetrated shadow. In the slum beyond the railroad tracks, a young man who for six months had sought work turned on the gas and killed himself and his wife.
At that moment Lloyd Mallam, the poet, owner of the Hafiz Book Shop, was finishing a rondeau to show how diverting was life amid the feuds of medieval Florence, but how dull it was in so obvious a place as Zenith.
And at that moment George F. Babbitt turned ponderously in bed — the last turn, signifying that he’d had enough of this worried business of falling asleep and was about it in earnest.
Instantly he was in the magic dream. He was somewhere among unknown people who laughed at him. He slipped away, ran down the paths of a midnight garden, and at the gate the fairy child was waiting. Her dear and tranquil hand caressed his cheek. He was gallant and wise and well-beloved; warm ivory were her arms; and beyond perilous moors the brave sea glittered.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:57