Friday, December 23, 2005

George Bailey or George Babbitt?

I grew up thinking of this man, my great-grandfather Latham T. Souther, in terms of George Bailey from Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life. It's clear that my hero, Vachel Lindsay, would have thought him more in the mold of Old Man Potter.

Now, an intriguing theory has popped up in my mind. Could it be that Sinclair Lewis' character, George Babbitt, was inspired by Souther? It's not beyond the realm of possibility.

Souther was family friend of Lindsay's parents and sisters and of Vachel Lindsay himself, but Lindsay described Souther to such literary friends as Harriet Monroe and Edgar Lee Masters in very much the same terms as Lewis described Babbitt.

In Babbitt, Lewis describes his title character looking for something to read. Here's the passage:

He ambled up to Verona’s room, sat on her maidenly blue and white bed, humming and grunting in a solid-citizen manner as he examined her books: Conrad’s “Rescue,” a volume strangely named “Figures of Earth,” poetry (quite irregular poetry, Babbitt thought) by Vachel Lindsay, and essays by H. L. Mencken—highly improper essays, making fun of the church and all the decencies. He liked none of the books. In them he felt a spirit of rebellion against niceness and solid-citizenship. These authors—and he supposed they were famous ones, too—did not seem to care about telling a good story which would enable a fellow to forget his troubles.


It was just such a wild theory that made me think the evil trust officer described in Masters' biography of Lindsay was in fact my great-grandfather, which I later found out was right on the mark.

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