In writing Babbitt, Lewis had very clear goals. He wanted to create not a caricature but a living and breathing individual with recognizable hopes and dreams. In a letter to his publisher, Lewis wrote: "He is all of us Americans at 46, prosperous but worried, wanting – passionately – to seize something more than motor cars and a house before it's too late." Babbitt's mediocrity is central to Lewis's hopes of creating a realistic character. He believed the fatal flaw of other authors' attempts to capture the American businessman was that they always made him out to be exceptional. In early descriptions of Babbitt, Lewis mused: "This is the story of the ruler of America." As he saw it, the "Tired American Businessman" wielded power not through his exceptionality, but through militant normalcy. But Lewis also strove to portray the American businessman as deeply dissatisfied and privately aware of his shortcomings. He was "the most grievous victim of his own militant dullness" and secretly longed for freedom and romance. Readers praising Lewis for his "realism" eagerly admitted the regularity with which they encountered Babbitts in their daily lives, but could also relate to some of Babbitt's anxieties about conformity and personal fulfillment.
In its first year alone, Babbitt sold 140,997 copies in the United States. Published only two years after Lewis's previous bestselling novel, Main Street, the book was highly anticipated, and comparisons between the two were not uncommon. As one reviewer put it, both novels presented a portrait in which "the principal character is brought into conflict with the accepted order of things sufficiently to illustrate its ruthlessness." Like Main Street, the portrait of American life that Babbitt presented was controversial and had its share of admirers and critics.
Social critic and fellow satirist H. L. Mencken was among Lewis's most ardent supporters. Calling himself "an old professor of Babbittry," Mencken declared the novel a stunning work of realism. To Mencken, George F. Babbitt was more than a character; he was an archetype, representing swarms of American city dwellers who touted the virtues of Republicanism, Presbyterianism, and absolute conformity. He wrote, "It is not what he [Babbitt] feels and aspires that moves him primarily; it is what the folks about him will think of him. His politics is communal politics, mob politics, herd politics; his religion is a public rite wholly without subjective significance." Babbitt, he believed, was the literary embodiment of everything wrong with American society. Followers of Mencken, along with like-minded critics, were sometimes called "Babbitt-baiters."
While Mencken praised Babbitt as unflinching satire, others argued that Lewis took his depiction of the American businessman too far. One reviewer, comparing Babbitt to the writing of such more "graceful" satirists as Dickens and Twain, argued that Lewis's "gift is almost entirely for making people nasty" and that his characters therefore wind up unbelievable. Another reviewer, agreeing that Lewis was no Twain, calls Babbitt "a monstrous, bawling, unconscionable satire," and writes "Mr. Lewis is the most phenomenally skillful exaggerator in literature today." Although many critics agreed that there was some truth in the depiction of America Lewis put forth, they could not agree that it existed to the extent portrayed in Babbitt.
In the mid-1920s, after spending several years as the subjects of "Babbitt-baiting," American businessmen, Rotary members, and the like began defending the country's so-called "Babbitts." Taking to the radio waves, and publishing in major magazines, they highlighted the virtues of community organization and the positive contributions industrial cities made to society. Some even traced positive examples of Babbitt types throughout American and world history.
Babbitt continued to be used as a negative archetype throughout the 20th century. The Oxford English Dictionary defines Babbittry as "behaviour and attitudes characteristic of or associated with the character George F. Babbitt; esp. materialistic complacency and unthinking conformity."