Setting in Babbitt
Zenith: The novel is set in the fictional city of Zenith, Winnemac. Sinclair Lewis conceptualized the state of Winnemac as a combination of Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Michigan. Its name is a portmanteau of Native American placenames. Lewis’s aim with Winnemac was to invent a quintessential state, one which typified all of American culture as he saw it.
Sinclair Lewis's Other Works: From Babbitt onward, Winnemac served as the landscape for Lewis’s literary project, with most of his major novels set there. The largest city in Winnemac is Zenith. “Zenith” is an example of an aptronym, a name that is particularly suited to its object. The word literally refers to the highest of possible heights and metaphorically suggests supreme excellence and achievement. With Zenith, Lewis attempted to ridicule the American obsession with wealth, growth, and achievement. This characterization is made clear in the novel’s opening sentence: “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.” Zenith exemplifies literal and figurative heights: towering buildings and equally towering economic ambitions.
Setting Examples in Babbitt:
Chapter I 4
"New York Flyer..." See in text (Chapter I)
The New York Flyer is a train that zooms along the city railroad. This train is an invention of Lewis’s, assumedly to further highlight the modernity of the city. The image of the train, alongside other description of the city, serves to cast Zenith as the model of successful American industrialization.
"grotesqueries, but the clean towers ..." See in text (Chapter I)
The narrative describes old houses and factories as grotesque, while praising newer office buildings. Here, Lewis introduces the conceit that modernity should be valued whereas the past should be erased.
"They were neither citadels nor churches, but frankly and beautifully office-buildings...." See in text (Chapter I)
Notice the satirical tone of this observation about the novel’s setting. The narrator juxtaposes citadels and churches, the architectural masterpieces of Europe and the old world, to office-buildings, the achievement of the new world. Unlike citadels and churches, office-buildings lack majesty and grandeur. This suggests that U.S. culture and the U.S. itself lacks grandeur.
"Zenith..." See in text (Chapter I)
Lewis sets his novel in the fictional city of Zenith, Winnemac. The name of the city is a portmanteau, or combination of words, that merges Native American placenames. Winnemac is a portmanteau of Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Michigan. By creating a setting that combines many aspects of Midwestern states, Lewis creates a setting that is meant to represent typical American culture.