If Lewis's first widely acclaimed novel, Main Street, sought to shatter early-20th-century romanticizations of small-town America, his next work, Babbitt, turned a critical eye towards the celebrated midsize industrial city, home to the enterprising American businessman. After the social instability and sharp economic depression that emerged in the wake of World War I, many Americans in the 1920s saw business and city growth as foundations for stability. The civic boosters and self-made men of the middle-class represented particularly American depictions of success, at a time when the promotion of the American identity was crucial in the face of rising fears of communism. At the same time, growing Midwestern cities, usually associated with mass production and the emergence of a consumer society, were also celebrated emblems of American progress. George F. Babbitt, the novel's main character, is described by the 1930 Nobel Prize committee as "the ideal of an American popular hero of the middle-class. The relativity of business morals as well as private rules of conduct is for him an accepted article of faith, and without hesitation he considers it God's purpose that man should work, increase his income, and enjoy modern improvements."
Although many other popular novelists writing at the time of Babbitt's publication depict the "Roaring Twenties" as an era of social change and disillusionment with material culture, modern scholars argue that Lewis was not himself a member of the "lost generation" of younger writers like Hemingway or Fitzgerald. Instead, he was influenced by the Progressive Era; and changes in the American identity that accompanied the country's rapid urbanization, technological growth, industrialization, and the closing of the frontier. Although the Progressive Era had built a protective barrier around the upstanding American businessman, as one literary scholar writes: "Lewis was fortunate enough to come on the scene just as the emperor's clothes were disappearing." Lewis has been compared to many authors, writing before and after the publication of Babbitt, who made similar criticisms of the middle class. Although published in 1899, long before Babbitt, Thorstein Veblen's The Theory of the Leisure Class, which critiqued consumer culture and social competition at the turn of the 20th century, is an oft-cited point of comparison. Written decades later, in 1950, David Riesman's The Lonely Crowd has also been compared to Lewis's writings.