Literature –– no, the world –– needs more people like Azar Nafisi. A strident proponent of fiction, Nafisi has done much more than simply write about literature and its vital role in our lives, she’s taught it –– in America, England, Iran, and in lecture halls all over the world, in which she advocates for literature as an antidote to ideology. In her bestselling Reading Lolita in Tehran, she tells how she quit the university where she was teaching because of the potential intrusion of the totalitarian government. Then, she invited her students into her home, which one could be tempted to describe as Nafisi putting her money where her mouth is, if the mention of money in such a context weren’t so gratuitously irrelevant.
In that book, Nafisi brought the power of American fiction into the world of Iran. In her latest book, The Republic of Imagination: America in Three Books, she brings lessons from Iran to America. In Tehran, her students valued the freedom to read in a profound and immediate way, since such activities were often forbidden, especially for women. In America, reading isn’t cherished in the same way; it’s old hat to us. Or, at least, so said an Iranian man named Ramin who came to one of Nafisi’s readings in Seattle. “It’s useless,” he tells her, “your talk about books. These people are different from us –– they’re from another world. They don’t care about books and such things. It’s not like Iran, where we were crazy enough to Xerox hundreds of pages of Madame Bovary and A Farewell to Arms.”
Is he right? Nafisi doesn’t think so, but her resulting project doesn’t end up explaining why Ramin isn’t right so much as passionately explain why he shouldn’t be right. Having become an American citizen in 2008, Nafisi has a real stake in the answer to Ramin’s question, and so much to contribute to a possible answer. Her book, then, tries valiantly, if not always successfully, to cover a lot of ground. In these pages we find discussions of the three books of the subtitle –– Huck Finn, Babbitt, and The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, but also many others, including a long epilogue focused on James Baldwin and J.D. Salinger –– as well as the founding fathers, conservatives, Common Core, the Iranian Revolution in 1979, her long-time friend Farrah, college friends Mike and Joanna, and numerous other personal anecdotes of life in America and Iran. It’s a testament to Nafisi’s considerable skill that she’s able to wrangle all this into a mostly cohesive unit. But wholeness actually seems a little beside the point, here, since what makes The Republic of Imagination so wonderful is Nafisi’s irrepressible conviction in the power of fiction to show us who we are.
But it’s more than that, too. Underneath her literary analysis and her personal reflections, Nafisi’s book carries an implicit argument about American values. For her, an American not by birth but by choice, the country she loves was both formed and created by its literature, the myths that both reflect us and instruct us. That’s where we belong, she says. And that’s what we should look to for guidance and difficult truths. Instead, she sees an America steeped in religiosity and jingoism. She quotes Mark Twain, “Patriotism is supporting your country all the time, and your government when it deserves it.” In other words, a true republic must be malleable, open to constant scrutiny and endless revision, and we as citizens must reciprocate by criticizing in the hopes of change and making the necessary changes in ourselves as well. Religion and fervent, uncritical patriotism simplify things. Or, as Nafisi puts it:
Ideology eliminates paradox and seeks to destroy contradiction and ambiguity. While it is generally ruthless to outsiders, it can be consoling when you are in the group that always wears the white hat no matter what.
In her long chapter on Huck Finn, Nafisi celebrates Huck’s “subversive character” and how Jim “questions the system of beliefs sanctioned by religious and social authorities.” (She even valiantly defends the book’s notoriously unsatisfying ending, or, as George Saunders put it, “The ending, oh my god, the ending.”) In Sinclair Lewis’s Babbitt, Nafisi sees the “iconically American” character of “lonely, dissatisfied career men, family men yearning to escape the seemingly desirable entrapments of their mundane lives.” The “standardized” Babbitt, in his desire to please, to be liked, to be successful, is contrasted with the figures in Carson McCullers’s The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, who are “solitary misfits who cannot create a bond.” They represent “a new kind of urban loneliness that will cast a long shadow over American fiction.” Huck and the characters of McCullers’s first novel stand on one side of American values, Babbitt on the other. Nafisi asks, “What if we let Babbitt win?”
Letting Babbitt win amounts to succumbing to ideology, to allowing the comforting sway of conformism, of strict allegiance, to win out over critical individualism. Literature, with all its complexity and nuance, its ambiguities and contradictions, is not a replacement for these ideas but rather an antidote to them. Literature is not an ideology; it is not a religion. It is something grander, more human and humane. For literature asks nothing of you. It doesn’t tell you how to live or who to love. It doesn’t tell you that you aren’t good enough or that you were born wrong. It doesn’t promise punishment for lack of adherence, and it doesn’t condemn those who don’t follow it. And the best part? Literature acknowledges its fiction, its artifice, its ultimate inability to express the capital-T Truth. Literature only promises an attempt, over and over from endless artists, to see the world as their author sees it, to add if only one speck of useful insight, of meaningful observation, to the great tradition of the written word. Literature doesn’t just invite criticism and contribution, it demands it –– the basis of literature is a kind of call and response. Each new author is in some way responding to all who came before them, before they even write one word. Ideally, literature is complete freedom, and as such it’s a messy world –– cheaters and philanderers run rampant as evil characters get away with evil deeds and good people’s values are compromised and deep-seated values are not only questioned but irreverently tossed out the window. If you’re looking for an easy road map to human ethics, literature ain’t the place for you. But this is Nafisi’s point. We shouldn’t look for the easy instructions, for unambiguous demands; we need to challenge every belief we have, to test them, strengthen them, or replace them if need be.
Growing up in Ohio, religion was a normal part of everyday life. As an atheist from a young age, I clung to literature for its confrontational attitude toward accepted values, but I always disagreed when people would say to me, “Well, books are your religion.” Because literature is not a synonym for religion; it’s not a replacement. It’s another territory altogether. In fact, it is as Nafisi describes it, a country. “So much of who we are,” she writes, “no matter where we live, depends on how we imagine ourselves to be.” She goes on to say:
Stories endure –– they have been with us since the dawn of history –– but they need to be refreshed and retold in every generation through the eyes and experiences of new readers sharing a common space that knows no boundaries of politics or religion, ethnicity or gender –– a Republic of Imagination, that most democratic republic of all.
And like a true republic, citizenship here requires work and thought and an open mind, because literature isn’t easy –– it can still offend, provoke, or cause controversy. Even then, we must engage and not simplistically condemn. As Philip Pullman once put it when I saw him speak at the Sheldonian Theatre at Oxford University, in response to a question about the “offensive” title of his book The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ:
Yes, it was shocking thing to say, and I knew it was a shocking thing to say. Uh, but no one has the right to live without being shocked. No one has the right to spend their life without being offended. Nobody has to read this book. Nobody has to pick it up. Nobody has to open it. And if they open it and read it they don’t have to like it. And if you read it and dislike it you don’t have to remain silent about it. You can write to me. You can complain about it. You can write to the publisher. You can write to the papers. You can write your own book. You can do all those things, but there your rights stop. No one has the right to stop me writing this book. No one has the right to stop it being published or sold or bought or read. And that’s all I have to say on that subject.
Literature always gives you choices –– to act, to respond, to criticize, to protest –– and, more than that, it actually thrives on this process. Whereas ideology, religion, and jingoism flourish in rigidity, in adherence. As Salman Rushdie put it in The Satanic Verses, “unbendingess can also be monomania, he wanted to say, it can be tyranny, and also it can be brittle, whereas what is flexible can also be humane, and strong enough to last.”
I’m deeply appreciative of Azar Nafisi and her project of promoting fiction throughout the world. But more I’m grateful for her Republic of Imagination. My whole life I’ve been a citizen of a complex moral landscape, a rich world created by some of the greatest minds humanity has had to offer, peopled by every type of person from every type of culture –– I’ve always lived here, but now, thanks to Nafisi, I have a name for my adopted home.
Babbittry’s an old word but hardly a dead concept. It first emerged — by that name, anyway — 90 years ago with the publication of Sinclair Lewis’s Babbitt, a slim, strange novel that drifts through its chapters with little thought to plot. At the heart of the novel is George F. Babbitt, a real estate salesman in his mid-40s whose life revolves around his family, dinner parties, boosters’ club, his business ambitions, and all the middlebrow fashion concerns of his age in the fictional neighborhood of Floral Heights in the equally make-believe town of Zenith.
Lewis showcases Babbitt’s morning routine: “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 Betta Kappa key.”
See how society weighs on this poor soul? Babbittry refers to the disease of conventionality and banality. The novel traces its way through the title character’s colloquial phrases, his fretting over social etiquette, and his laundry list of goals and frustrations. It’s the American dream at its most mundane, the inertia of the lifestyle a constant palpable anvil. Ultimately the sin of Babbittry relies on the social mores and manners of others — Babbitt doesn’t have a strong enough sense of his own self to defy that broader socially constructed set of values and meaning. The diagnosis of Babbittry entered our lexicon and stayed for a half century or so before fading away.
But what of the disease itself? The world George Babbitt inhabited changed radically in the nine decades since Lewis released his book. The United States engaged in wars, built highways and the Internet, embraced mass media and organic tomatoes, found drugs and the sexual revolution. Through our 21st-century lens, Babbitt looks all the more like a stuffy philistine dad. Lewis’s insights into human nature weren’t, however, limited by time, and we’re all guilty of Babbitt’s crime perhaps more now than ever before.
In 2012, social media thrives more than any 1920s booster club did. Millions engage in a bustling, active world in which not only can’t a person be alone, but dozens see and watch and, crucially, expect every day. One overriding criticism of the social soup of the Internet is the tendency toward groupthink. Once a few loud voices establish a joke or a premise, the herd follows. Binders of women! Bayonets! Chuck Norris as Superhuman! KONY 2012! A viral sentiment must be true, yes? This candidate completely botched the foreign policy debate questions. This politician is shady because of this allegation. Here’s the premise through which we should view X news story, and yes, expressing Y opinion makes you Z. Politicians understand this well. They send surrogates to the media right after to spin the common consensus. As The Washington Post’s Dana Milbank wrote in October, social media causes “conventional wisdom to be set, simplified and amplified, faster and more pervasively,” pointing to debate coverage as a prime example. There’s a “Twitter-forged consensus” gelling within 30 minutes, Milbank laments. Beware, Internet surfer. A disease is out there, and it’s infecting our iPhones, our Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and more. Disease, thy name is Babbittry.
The display of symptoms is all that’s changed. Modern technology fuels a far more insidious type, one not defined by 1920s fashion so much as the deeper sin Babbitt was guilty of throughout. Babbittry eats at Babbitt’s life not because he’s boring, but because there’s no control or independent intellectual force at work. His materialistic life is guided by what others dictate. Whether the information comes via a Twitter newsfeed or from 20th-century church fellows, ads, and business pals, the effect is the same. Leave it to the crowds! Let the masses decide! This is still straight Babbittry.
Babbitt makes the commodification of opinion clear in many different passages and specifically tries to kill the idea of Babbitt’s agency: “Just as he was an Elk, a Booster, and a member of the Chamber of Commerce, just as the priest 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 to believed to be his individuality.” Thus, toothpaste and socks are his “symbols and proofs of excellence,” Lewis declares.
Material details evolved, but has the critique ever disappeared? The charge has become its own cliché in the years since, shades flickering into Don DeLillo novels and American Beauty. Adbusters infamously ripped hipsterism as a lifestyle completely subject to marketing four years ago (an opinion then shared 48,000 times on Facebook). And the Babbitt archetype of course popped into our culture before Babbitt (the stuffy Karenin of Anna Karenina comes to mind) but never quite as crisply. Twitter and Facebook are just the latest avenues for Babbittry to thrive. Targeted advertising and niche media channels make the conformism and herding all the easier today. Social media editors practice just the right, predictable voice and casual humor that pulls in readers. The Internet elevates the right linguistic affectations and rewards them, just as Babbitt was rewarded for his own professional and fashionable ones. Modern groupthink often unfolds in trivial, unstructured ways — the social judging and banter of Facebook, say, comparing photos, adding your digital “like” to the mix. This anxiety surrounding social media is apparent, as any Google search will show. Real headlines: “Kony 2012 Movie and the Perils of Social Media ‘Group Think,’” “Social Media and the Groupthink Problem,” “Does Social Media Produce Groupthink?” Lewis artfully portrayed the phenomenon exactly 50 years before the first formal psychological study, Victims of Groupthink, was published (since republished as Groupthink: Psychological Studies of Policy Decisions and Fiascoes).
Celebrate the 90th anniversary of Babbitt, then, by tracing its connections with our lives now. Lewis, saint that he is, never quite demonized George F. Babbitt despite the satire. The character struggled his way into rebellion, questioning and quibbling away from the mainstream in small ways. Lewis recognized the fundamental humanity of even the iconic Babbitt — we’re social animals for a reason. But don’t cut Babbittry from our vocabulary quite yet. It creeps back, as Babbitt well knew. A rebellious streak would “endanger his security and popularity by straying from the Clan of Good Fellows.” We’re all guilty on bad days, one retweet at a time.
Modern Library Revue is Lydia Kiesling’s irreverent, ongoing treatment of the Modern Library’s 100 best novels of the twentieth century. Lydia is a graduate of Hamilton College. She is an ardent book-lover and has spent the last two years working in the antiquarian book trade. The Modern Library project was recently born at her blog, Widmerpool’s Modern Library Revue.On occasion, my mom and other loved ones have gently suggested that I am a cranky sun of a gun. Sinclair Lewis is a panacea to people like me; I would have loved to hang out with him, drink to excess, and complain vociferously. This might help explain my belief that Lewis is one of our finest American novelists. He was not a particularly stylish or literary writer. A few of his novels were boring or bad. But he gave us a savage portrait of American attitudes in the early twentieth century, and he was, perhaps unintentionally, the most prescient of our authors.In Main Street, Lewis describes the American citizenry as a savorless people, gulping tasteless food, and sitting afterward, coatless and thoughtless, in rocking-chairs prickly with inane decorations, listening to mechanical music, saying mechanical things about the excellence of Ford automobiles, and viewing themselves as the greatest race of the world. The novel is about a woman named Carol, who starts out young and breathless and fey – an Anne Shirley with Modern Ideas. Carol goes to college, and then she gets a job. Like most of us, she discovers that working for a living is a drag. She meets a doctor, and they canoodle chastely. They get married, have relations in a tent, and go to live in Gopher Prairie, an up-and-coming Midwestern town. There it is necessary for Carol to comes face to face with American Values. She goes to parties with the smart set, who recite racist stories and complain about labor agitators. They judge her for lacking a foul something called “pep.” She fraternizes a little bit with immigrants, overpays the maid, admires Art, and thinks she yearns for city life. Carol is a Liberal Elitist. She tries to Reform the town, but not very hard. It doesn’t work, so she learns to play bridge. Everyone is watching her. She has a baby, and then she has enough. She goes to work in Washington, alone like a hussy. It’s a little better. Her husband comes to visit and respectfully woos her. Carol goes back to Gopher Prairie. She has another baby. Nothing changes. Life goes on.If you are like me, a hating liberal so-and-so, to read Main Street is to experience the pyrrhic victory of feeling that you are right about everything. Most of Lewis’s novels are demoralizing like that, especially right before or after a U.S. election, when everyone feels distinctly uncharitable toward fifty percent of his neighbors and we have heard those eternal sore spots, taxes, immigration, and morals, argued into the ground in fatuous platitudes. Lewis was not a subtle writer, but I will make bold to say that we are not, in many ways, a subtle people. The misinformed xenophobia and racism of Gopher Prairie are alive and well in America today. We still exhibit a distasteful reverence for “pep” in our politicians; we embrace a down-home rhetoric that is not so very different from the skin-crawling turn-of-the-century boosterism. We still feel the meddling hand of religion in our politics. We still (well, until recently), erect hideous buildings across our beautiful country with unbridled enthusiasm. Like the upstanding folks in Lewis’s novels, we talk about Family Values and goose receptionists in the back room. We are Gopher Prairie, except with cell phones and The Real Housewives of Orange County.If you think these ideas are tired, remember that Lewis wrote almost one hundred years ago, anticipating with strange accuracy the content of HuffPo or The Nation, as well as the often snobbish aversion of the Left for the Right. Sometimes it becomes necessary to shake yourself out of your high-minded ineffectual outrage and remember that some happy changes have in fact taken place since Lewis satirized those “regular Guys, the fellow with sticktuitiveness, that boost and get the world’s work done.” Big things like Civil Rights and the Pill, and smaller but still thrilling innovations like trousers for ladies.Main Street is, I think, the slightest bit longer than it needs be. I suppose it was Lewis’ intention to really paint that picture of how boring and tedious the life in Gopher Prairie was for Carol or someone like her, but it sometimes feels like rather too many iterations of one conversation. I preferred Babbit, which is a similar story but shorter and told from a man’s perspective, and Elmer Gantry, which is about an evangelical preacher and filled me with a really bracing rage. In fact, I have read and enjoyed almost all of his novels, with the exception of something comically terrible called The God-Seeker. I have seen a couple of articles which describe Sinclair Lewis as a forgotten figure of American letters, and I think that is sad. He was an important chronicler of this country’s people and ideas – a prosy Fitzgerald of the middle class.