In Babbitt (1922), Sinclair Lewis created a living and breathing man with recognizable hopes and dreams, not a caricature. 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.” George F. Babbitt's mediocrity is central to his realism; Lewis believed that the fatal flaw of previous literary representations of the American businessman was in portraying him as “an exceptional man.”
About the novel, Lewis said: “This is the story of the ruler of America” wherein the “tired American Businessman” wielded socioeconomic power not through his exceptionality but through militant conformity. Lewis portrayed the American businessman as a man deeply dissatisfied with and privately aware of his shortcomings; he is “the most grievous victim of his own militant dullness” who secretly longed for freedom and romance. Readers who praised the psychological realism of the portrait admitted to regularly encountering Babbitts in real life but also could relate to some of the character's anxieties about conformity and personal fulfillment. Published two years after Lewis's previous novel (Main Street, 1920), the story of George F. Babbitt was much anticipated because each novel presented a portrait of American society wherein “the principal character is brought into conflict with the accepted order of things, sufficiently to illustrate its ruthlessness.”
The social critic and satirist H. L. Mencken, an ardent supporter of Sinclair Lewis, called himself “an old professor of Babbittry” and said that Babbitt was a stunning work of literary realism about American society. To Mencken, George F. Babbitt was an archetype of the American city dwellers who touted the virtues of Republicanism, Presbyterianism, and absolute conformity because "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." Mencken said that Babbitt was the literary embodiment of everything wrong with American society. In the cultural climate of the early 20th century, like-minded critics and Mencken’s followers were known as "Babbitt-baiters".
Despite Mencken’s praise of Babbitt as unflinching social satire, other critics found exaggeration in Lewis's depiction of the American businessman. In the book review “From Maupassant to Mencken” (1922), Edmund Wilson compared Lewis's style in Babbitt to the more “graceful” writing styles of satirists such as Charles Dickens and Mark Twain and said that, as a prose stylist, Lewis’s literary “gift is almost entirely for making people nasty” and the characters unbelievable. Concurring with Wilson that Lewis was no Twain, another critic dismissed Babbitt as “a monstrous, bawling, unconscionable satire” and said “Mr. Lewis is the most phenomenally skillful exaggerator in literature today.” Nonetheless, in its first year of publication, 140,997 copies of the novel were sold in the U.S. In the mid–1920s, Babbitt-baiting became an irritant to American businessmen, Rotarians, and the like, who began defending the Babbitts of the U.S. by way of radio and magazine journalism. They emphasized the virtues of community organizations and the positive contributions that industrial cities have made to American society.
In American literature and popular culture, the character and behaviors of George F. Babbitt became established as negative archetypes of person and personality; a Babbitt is “a materialistic and complacent businessman conforming to the standards of his [social] set” and Babbittry is the “Philistine behaviour of a Babbitt”.