Cities greatly influence fiction. From Eugene Sue’s Mysteries of Paris to Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, literature and cinema have used urban transformations and their social effects to criticize our society. Fritz Lang’s masterpiece Metropolis depicts a very unequal society and the growing role of mechanization.
More recently, in China, Lou Ye’s Suzhou River has shown us the other side of Shanghai’s transformation under the reforms. We may argue that fiction can help us to understand China’s urbanisation and help us to improve our urban environment.
In 1924, Sinclair Lewis, who won the Nobel Prize of literature in 1930, published a novel, Babbitt, that has now become a classic. In this masterpiece, Sinclair’s main character “George F. Babbitt” a real estate agent of the American middle-West is going through an existential crisis. In this novel, Lewis criticizes the daily life of the new American middle class, and their consumer frenzy.
Lewis also depicts the dull life of Middle West cities. Unlike European cities or US historical cities on the East coast, “Zenith”, the fictional city where Babbitt lives” is quite a new town. Lewis tells us that it was founded in 1792 by only five settlers, but experienced a rapid and massive expansion in the early 1920’s. “Zenith” symbolizes the urbanisation process that the USA experienced at the beginning of the 20th century, with the development of suburbs and urban sprawl. For the first time, the majority of Americans were no longer famers, but urban settlers, and they invented an urban way of life that still influences modern urbanism. This unprecedented massive urbanisation favoured urban standardisation. In this novel, Babbitt is delighted and comforted by this standardization. But, as a result of this phenomenon, all cities look similar. They do not have a distinctive atmosphere. Zenith looks like every city of the Middle-West. When Babbitt was published, many American cities boasted that they were the real “Zenith”. In Zenith, businessmen, who belong to clubs such as the Boosters, the Rotary club or the Elks, are also urban designers: they shape the city according to their economic interests. The inhabitants do not intervene in the making of Zenith.
Culture and arts are considered marketing products that need to be exploited.
“Culture has become as necessary an adornment and advertisement for a city to-day as pavements or bank-clearances. It’s Culture, in theaters and art-galleries and so on, that brings thousands of visitors to New York every year and, to be frank, for all our splendid attainments we haven’t yet got the Culture of a New York or Chicago or Boston—or at least we don’t get the credit for it. The thing to do then, as a live bunch of go-getters, is to CAPITALIZE CULTURE; to go right out and grab it”
These businessmen try to grab every opportunity the new city has to offer, and so work closely with the authorities in order to know where the latest land development will take place. In the novel, Babbitt and his friends make good business deals by buying lands where they know tramway lines will be built.
The unprecedented urbanisation in Zenith also creates increasing inequalities among its inhabitants. The newcomers, the migrants, live in poor housing, and work in harsh conditions, whereas other people, including Babbitt, enjoy very modern and even luxurious living and can’t wait to buy the latest gadgets.
But Babbitt, the symbol of the modern urban dweller, does not feel at ease. Of course, he enjoys his new car, his nice house and his marble office, but he also feels the emptiness of his life, and so tries to find a more exciting way of life by meeting new people outside his social class, having an affair and supporting socialist ideas. However, in the end, his relatives and his business associates urge him to reintegrate his “normal life”. Although Babbitt cannot escape from this world, he will support his son, who will demand more freedom.
After reading “Babbitt”, the first remark we might make is that the urbanisation process occurring in China is not completely new: Western countries have already experienced it. Inequality and corruption are not unique to China. But the most important point, in my view, is that cities should strive to be places of aspiration.“Zenith, despite its name,” only fulfils materialistic needs: it is a place of consumerism, but this is not enough for Babbitt. Cities like Zenith create frustrations, not dreams.
Because of rapid urbanisation, there must be a large number of Zeniths in China, and there must also be many Babbitts in these cities who, unlike Lewis’s characters will hopefully succeed in building meaningful cities.
Ph.D. in political science (EHESS, Paris); M.A. in social sciences (EHESS, Paris); M.A. in international relations (IRIS, Paris), B.A. (Hons) in international political studies (ESE - Nottingham Trent University)