THE towers of Zenith aspired above the morning mist;
austere towers of steel and cement and limestone, sturdy as cliffs and
delicate as silver rods. They were neither citadels nor churches, but
frankly and beautifully office-buildings.
The mist took pity on the fretted structures of
earlier generations: the Post Office with its shingle-tortured mansard,
the red brick minarets of hulking old houses, factories with stingy and
sooted windows, wooden tenements colored like mud. The city was full of
such grotesqueries, but the clean towers were thrusting them from the
business center, and on the farther hills were shining new houses,
homes--they seemed--for laughter and tranquillity.
Over a concrete bridge fled a limousine of long sleek
hood and noiseless engine. These people in evening clothes were
returning from an all-night rehearsal of a Little Theater play, an
artistic adventure considerably illuminated by champagne. Below the
bridge curved a railroad, a maze of green and crimson lights. The New
York Flyer boomed past, and twenty lines of polished steel leaped into
In one of the skyscrapers the wires of the Associated
Press were closing down. The telegraph operators wearily raised their
celluloid eye-shades after a night of talking with Paris and Peking.
Through the building crawled the scrubwomen, yawning, their old shoes
slapping. The dawn mist spun away. Cues of men with lunch-boxes clumped
toward the immensity of new factories, sheets of glass and hollow tile,
glittering shops where five thousand men worked beneath one roof,
pouring out the honest wares that would be sold up the Euphrates and
across the veldt. The whistles rolled out in greeting a chorus cheerful
as the April dawn; the song of labor in a city built--it seemed--for
There was nothing of the giant in the aspect of the
man who was beginning to awaken on the sleeping-porch of a Dutch
Colonial house in that residential district of Zenith known as Floral
His name was George F. Babbitt. He was forty-six years
old now, in April, 1920, and he made nothing in particular, neither
butter nor shoes nor poetry, but he was nimble in the calling of selling
houses for more than people could afford to pay.
His large head was pink, his brown hair thin and dry.
His face was babyish in slumber, despite his wrinkles and the red
spectacle-dents on the slopes of his nose. He was not fat but he was
exceedingly well fed; his cheeks were pads, and the unroughened hand
which lay helpless upon the khaki-colored blanket was slightly puffy. He
seemed prosperous, extremely married and unromantic; and altogether
unromantic appeared this sleeping-porch, which looked on one sizable
elm, two respectable grass-plots, a cement driveway, and a corrugated
iron garage. Yet Babbitt was again dreaming of the fairy child, a dream
more romantic than scarlet pagodas by a silver sea.
For years the fairy child had come to him. Where
others saw but Georgie Babbitt, she discerned gallant youth. She waited
for him, in the darkness beyond mysterious groves. When at last he could
slip away from the crowded house he darted to her. His wife, his
clamoring friends, sought to follow, but he escaped, the girl fleet
beside him, and they crouched together on a shadowy hillside. She was so
slim, so white, so eager! She cried that he was gay and valiant, that
she would wait for him, that they would sail--
Rumble and bang of the milk-truck.
Babbitt moaned; turned over; struggled back toward his
dream. He could see only her face now, beyond misty waters. The
furnace-man slammed the basement door. A dog barked in the next yard. As
Babbitt sank blissfully into a dim warm tide, the paper-carrier went by
whistling, and the rolled-up Advocate thumped the front door. Babbitt
roused, his stomach constricted with alarm. As he relaxed, he was
pierced by the familiar and irritating rattle of some one cranking a
Ford: snap-ah-ah, snap-ah-ah, snap-ah-ah. Himself a pious motorist,
Babbitt cranked with the unseen driver, with him waited through taut
hours for the roar of the starting engine, with him agonized as the roar
ceased and again began the infernal patient snap-ah-ah--a round, flat
sound, a shivering cold-morning sound, a sound infuriating and
inescapable. Not till the rising voice of the motor told him that the
Ford was moving was he released from the panting tension. He glanced
once at his favorite tree, elm twigs against the gold patina of sky, and
fumbled for sleep as for a drug. He who had been a boy very credulous of
life was no longer greatly interested in the possible and improbable
adventures of each new day.
He escaped from reality till the alarm-clock rang, at
It was the best of nationally advertised and
quantitatively produced alarm-clocks, with all modern attachments,
including cathedral chime, intermittent alarm, and a phosphorescent
dial. Babbitt was proud of being awakened by such a rich device.
Socially it was almost as creditable as buying expensive cord tires.
He sulkily admitted now that there was no more escape,
but he lay and detested the grind of the real-estate business, and
disliked his family, and disliked himself for disliking them. The
evening before, he had played poker at Vergil Gunch's till midnight, and
after such holidays he was irritable before breakfast. It may have been
the tremendous home-brewed beer of the prohibition-era and the cigars to
which that beer enticed him; it may have been resentment of return from
this fine, bold man-world to a restricted region of wives and
stenographers, and of suggestions not to smoke so much.
From the bedroom beside the sleeping-porch, his wife's
detestably cheerful "Time to get up, Georgie boy," and the itchy sound,
the brisk and scratchy sound, of combing hairs out of a stiff brush.
He grunted; he dragged his thick legs, in faded
baby-blue pajamas, from under the khaki blanket; he sat on the edge of
the cot, running his fingers through his wild hair, while his plump feet
mechanically felt for his slippers. He looked regretfully at the
blanket--forever a suggestion to him of freedom and heroism. He had
bought it for a camping trip which had never come off. It symbolized
gorgeous loafing, gorgeous cursing, virile flannel shirts.
He creaked to his feet, groaning at the waves of pain
which passed behind his eyeballs. Though he waited for their scorching
recurrence, he looked blurrily out at the yard. It delighted him, as
always; it was the neat yard of a successful business man of Zenith,
that is, it was perfection, and made him also perfect. He regarded the
corrugated iron garage. For the three-hundred-and-sixty-fifth time in a
year he reflected, "No class to that tin shack. Have to build me a frame
garage. But by golly it's the only thing on the place that isn't
up-to-date!" While he stared he thought of a community garage for his
acreage development, Glen Oriole. He stopped puffing and jiggling. His
arms were akimbo. His petulant, sleep-swollen face was set in harder
lines. He suddenly seemed capable, an official, a man to contrive, to
direct, to get things done.
On the vigor of his idea he was carried down the hard,
dean, unused-looking hall into the bathroom.
Though the house was not large it had, like all houses
on Floral Heights, an altogether royal bathroom of porcelain and glazed
tile and metal sleek as silver. The towel-rack was a rod of clear glass
set in nickel. The tub was long enough for a Prussian Guard, and above
the set bowl was a sensational exhibit of tooth-brush holder,
shaving-brush holder, soap-dish, sponge-dish, and medicine-cabinet, so
glittering and so ingenious that they resembled an electrical
instrument-board. But the Babbitt whose god was Modern Appliances was
not pleased. The air of the bathroom was thick with the smell of a
heathen toothpaste. "Verona been at it again! 'Stead of sticking to
Lilidol, like I've re-peat-ed-ly asked her, she's gone and gotten some
confounded stinkum stuff that makes you sick!"
The bath-mat was wrinkled and the floor was wet. (His
daughter Verona eccentrically took baths in the morning, now and then.)
He slipped on the mat, and slid against the tub. He said "Damn!"
Furiously he snatched up his tube of shaving-cream, furiously he
lathered, with a belligerent slapping of the unctuous brush, furiously
he raked his plump cheeks with a safety-razor. It pulled. The blade was
dull. He said, "Damn--oh--oh--damn it!"
He hunted through the medicine-cabinet for a packet of
new razor-blades (reflecting, as invariably, "Be cheaper to buy one of
these dinguses and strop your own blades,") and when he discovered the
packet, behind the round box of bicarbonate of soda, he thought ill of
his wife for putting it there and very well of himself for not saying
"Damn." But he did say it, immediately afterward, when with wet and
soap-slippery fingers he tried to remove the horrible little envelope
and crisp clinging oiled paper from the new blade. Then there was the
problem, oft-pondered, never solved, of what to do with the old blade,
which might imperil the fingers of his young. As usual, he tossed it on
top of the medicine-cabinet, with a mental note that some day he must
remove the fifty or sixty other blades that were also temporarily, piled
up there. He finished his shaving in a growing testiness increased by
his spinning headache and by the emptiness in his stomach. When he was
done, his round face smooth and streamy and his eyes stinging from soapy
water, he reached for a towel. The family towels were wet, wet and
clammy and vile, all of them wet, he found, as he blindly snatched
them--his own face-towel, his wife's, Verona's, Ted's, Tinka's, and the
lone bath-towel with the huge welt of initial. Then George F. Babbitt
did a dismaying thing. He wiped his face on the guest-towel! It was a
pansy-embroidered trifle which always hung there to indicate that the
Babbitts were in the best Floral Heights society. No one had ever used
it. No guest had ever dared to. Guests secretively took a corner of the
nearest regular towel.
He was raging, "By golly, here they go and use up all
the towels, every doggone one of 'em, and they use 'em and get 'em all
wet and sopping, and never put out a dry one for me--of course, I'm the
goat!--and then I want one and--I'm the only person in the doggone house
that's got the slightest doggone bit of consideration for other people
and thoughtfulness and consider there may be others that may want to use
the doggone bathroom after me and consider--"
He was pitching the chill abominations into the
bath-tub, pleased by the vindictiveness of that desolate flapping sound;
and in the midst his wife serenely trotted in, observed serenely, "Why
Georgie dear, what are you doing? Are you going to wash out the towels?
Why, you needn't wash out the towels. Oh, Georgie, you didn't go and use
the guest-towel, did you?"
It is not recorded that he was able to answer.
For the first time in weeks he was sufficiently roused
by his wife to look at her.
Myra Babbitt--Mrs. George F. Babbitt--was definitely
mature. She had creases from the corners of her mouth to the bottom of
her chin, and her plump neck bagged. But the thing that marked her as
having passed the line was that she no longer had reticences before her
husband, and no longer worried about not having reticences. She was in a
petticoat now, and corsets which bulged, and unaware of being seen in
bulgy corsets. She had become so dully habituated to married life that
in her full matronliness she was as sexless as an anemic nun. She was a
good woman, a kind woman, a diligent woman, but no one, save perhaps
Tinka her ten-year-old, was at all interested in her or entirely aware
that she was alive.
After a rather thorough discussion of all the domestic
and social aspects of towels she apologized to Babbitt for his having an
alcoholic headache; and he recovered enough to endure the search for a
B.V.D. undershirt which had, he pointed out, malevolently been concealed
among his clean pajamas.
He was fairly amiable in the conference on the brown
"What do you think, Myra?" He pawed at the clothes
hunched on a chair in their bedroom, while she moved about mysteriously
adjusting and patting her petticoat and, to his jaundiced eye, never
seeming to get on with her dressing. "How about it? Shall I wear the
brown suit another day?"
"Well, it looks awfully nice on you."
"I know, but gosh, it needs pressing."
"That's so. Perhaps it does."
"It certainly could stand being pressed, all right."
"Yes, perhaps it wouldn't hurt it to be pressed."
"But gee, the coat doesn't need pressing. No sense in
having the whole darn suit pressed, when the coat doesn't need it."
"That's so." "But the pants certainly need it, all
right. Look at them--look at those wrinkles--the pants certainly do need
"That's so. Oh, Georgie, why couldn't you wear the
brown coat with the blue trousers we were wondering what we'd do with
"Good Lord! Did you ever in all my life know me to
wear the coat of one suit and the pants of another? What do you think I
am? A busted bookkeeper?"
"Well, why don't you put on the dark gray suit to-day,
and stop in at the tailor and leave the brown trousers?"
"Well, they certainly need--Now where the devil is
that gray suit? Oh, yes, here we are."
He was able to get through the other crises of
dressing with comparative resoluteness and calm.
His first adornment was the sleeveless dimity B.V.D.
undershirt, in which he resembled a small boy humorlessly wearing a
cheesecloth tabard at a civic pageant. He never put on B.V.D.'s without
thanking the God of Progress that he didn't wear tight, long,
old-fashioned undergarments, like his father-in-law and partner, Henry
Thompson. His second embellishment was combing and slicking back his
hair. It gave him a tremendous forehead, arching up two inches beyond
the former hair-line. But most wonder-working of all was the donning of
There is character in spectacles--the pretentious
tortoiseshell, the meek pince-nez of the school teacher, the twisted
silver-framed glasses of the old villager. Babbitt's spectacles had
huge, circular, frameless lenses of the very best glass; the ear-pieces
were thin bars of gold. In them he was the modern business man; one who
gave orders to clerks and drove a car and played occasional golf and was
scholarly in regard to Salesmanship. His head suddenly appeared not
babyish but weighty, and you noted his heavy, blunt nose, his straight
mouth and thick, long upper lip, his chin overfleshy but strong; with
respect you beheld him put on the rest of his uniform as a Solid
The gray suit was well cut, well made, and completely
undistinguished. It was a standard suit. White piping on the V of the
vest added a flavor of law and learning. His shoes were black laced
boots, good boots, honest boots, standard boots, extraordinarily
uninteresting boots. The only frivolity was in his purple knitted scarf.
With considerable comment on the matter to Mrs. Babbitt (who,
acrobatically fastening the back of her blouse to her skirt with a
safety-pin, did not hear a word he said), he chose between the purple
scarf and a tapestry effect with stringless brown harps among blown
palms, and into it he thrust a snake-head pin with opal eyes.
A sensational event was changing from the brown suit
to the gray the contents of his pockets. He was earnest about these
objects. They were of eternal importance, like baseball or the
Republican Party. They included a fountain pen and a silver pencil
(always lacking a supply of new leads) which belonged in the righthand
upper vest pocket. Without them he would have felt naked. On his
watch-chain were a gold penknife, silver cigar-cutter, seven keys (the
use of two of which he had forgotten), and incidentally a good watch.
Depending from the chain was a large, yellowish elk's-tooth-proclamation
of his membership in the Brotherly and Protective Order of Elks. Most
significant of all was his loose-leaf pocket note-book, that modern and
efficient note-book which contained the addresses of people whom he had
forgotten, prudent memoranda of postal money-orders which had reached
their destinations months ago, stamps which had lost their mucilage,
clippings of verses by T. Cholmondeley Frink and of the newspaper
editorials from which Babbitt got his opinions and his polysyllables,
notes to be sure and do things which he did not intend to do, and one
curious inscription--D.S.S. D.M.Y.P.D.F.
But he had no cigarette-case. No one had ever happened
to give him one, so he hadn't the habit, and people who carried
cigarette-cases he regarded as effeminate.
Last, he stuck in his lapel the Boosters' Club button.
With the conciseness of great art the button displayed two words:
"Boosters-Pep!" It made Babbitt feel loyal and important. It associated
him with Good Fellows, with men who were nice and human, and important
in business circles. It was his V.C., his Legion of Honor ribbon, his
Phi Beta Kappa key.
With the subtleties of dressing ran other complex
worries. "I feel kind of punk this morning," he said. "I think I had too
much dinner last evening. You oughtn't to serve those heavy banana
"But you asked me to have some."
"I know, but--I tell you, when a fellow gets past
forty he has to look after his digestion. There's a lot of fellows that
don't take proper care of themselves. I tell you at forty a man's a fool
or his doctor--I mean, his own doctor. Folks don't give enough attention
to this matter of dieting. Now I think--Course a man ought to have a
good meal after the day's work, but it would be a good thing for both of
us if we took lighter lunches."
"But Georgie, here at home I always do have a light
"Mean to imply I make a hog of myself, eating
down-town? Yes, sure! You'd have a swell time if you had to eat the
truck that new steward hands out to us at the Athletic Club! But I
certainly do feel out of sorts, this morning. Funny, got a pain down
here on the left side--but no, that wouldn't be appendicitis, would it?
Last night, when I was driving over to Verg Gunch's, I felt a pain in my
stomach, too. Right here it was--kind of a sharp shooting pain.
I--Where'd that dime go to? Why don't you serve more prunes at
breakfast? Of course I eat an apple every evening--an apple a day keeps
the doctor away--but still, you ought to have more prunes, and not all
these fancy doodads."
"The last time I had prunes you didn't eat them."
"Well, I didn't feel like eating 'em, I suppose.
Matter of fact, I think I did eat some of 'em. Anyway--I tell you it's
mighty important to--I was saying to Verg Gunch, just last evening, most
people don't take sufficient care of their diges--"
"Shall we have the Gunches for our dinner, next week?"
"Why sure; you bet."
"Now see here, George: I want you to put on your nice
dinner-jacket that evening."
"Rats! The rest of 'em won't want to dress."
"Of course they will. You remember when you didn't
dress for the Littlefields' supper-party, and all the rest did, and how
embarrassed you were."
"Embarrassed, hell! I wasn't embarrassed. Everybody
knows I can put on as expensive a Tux. as anybody else, and I should
worry if I don't happen to have it on sometimes. All a darn nuisance,
anyway. All right for a woman, that stays around the house all the time,
but when a fellow's worked like the dickens all day, he doesn't want to
go and hustle his head off getting into the soup-and-fish for a lot of
folks that he's seen in just reg'lar ordinary clothes that same day."
"You know you enjoy being seen in one. The other
evening you admitted you were glad I'd insisted on your dressing. You
said you felt a lot better for it. And oh, Georgie, I do wish you
wouldn't say 'Tux.' It's 'dinner-jacket.'"
"Rats, what's the odds?"
"Well, it's what all the nice folks say. Suppose
Lucile McKelvey heard you calling it a 'Tux.'"
"Well, that's all right now! Lucile McKelvey can't
pull anything on me! Her folks are common as mud, even if her husband
and her dad are millionaires! I suppose you're trying to rub in your
exalted social position! Well, let me tell you that your revered
paternal ancestor, Henry T., doesn't even call it a 'Tux.'! He calls it
a 'bobtail jacket for a ringtail monkey,' and you couldn't get him into
one unless you chloroformed him!"
"Now don't be horrid, George."
"Well, I don't want to be horrid, but Lord! you're
getting as fussy as Verona. Ever since she got out of college she's been
too rambunctious to live with--doesn't know what she wants--well, I know
what she wants!--all she wants is to marry a millionaire, and live in
Europe, and hold some preacher's hand, and simultaneously at the same
time stay right here in Zenith and be some blooming kind of a socialist
agitator or boss charity-worker or some damn thing! Lord, and Ted is
just as bad! He wants to go to college, and he doesn't want to go to
college. Only one of the three that knows her own mind is Tinka. Simply
can't understand how I ever came to have a pair of shillyshallying
children like Rone and Ted. I may not be any Rockefeller or James J.
Shakespeare, but I certainly do know my own mind, and I do keep right on
plugging along in the office and--Do you know the latest? Far as I can
figure out, Ted's new bee is he'd like to be a movie actor and--And here
I've told him a hundred times, if he'll go to college and law-school and
make good, I'll set him up in business and--Verona just exactly as bad.
Doesn't know what she wants. Well, well, come on! Aren't you ready yet?
The girl rang the bell three minutes ago."
Before he followed his wife, Babbitt stood at the
westernmost window of their room. This residential settlement, Floral
Heights, was on a rise; and though the center of the city was three
miles away--Zenith had between three and four hundred thousand
inhabitants now--he could see the top of the Second National Tower, an
Indiana limestone building of thirty-five stories.
Its shining walls rose against April sky to a simple
cornice like a streak of white fire. Integrity was in the tower, and
decision. It bore its strength lightly as a tall soldier. As Babbitt
stared, the nervousness was soothed from his face, his slack chin lifted
in reverence. All he articulated was "That's one lovely sight!" but he
was inspired by the rhythm of the city; his love of it renewed. He
beheld the tower as a temple-spire of the religion of business, a faith
passionate, exalted, surpassing common men; and as he clumped down to
breakfast he whistled the ballad "Oh, by gee, by gosh, by jingo" as
though it were a hymn melancholy and noble.