"His name was George F. Babbitt. He was 46 years old now, in April 1920, and he made nothing in particular, neither butter nor shoes nor poetry, but he was nimble in the calling of selling houses for more than people could afford to pay."
-- From "Babbitt" by Sinclair Lewis (1922)
But today his name is Warren Schmidt. He is 66 now as he stolidly watches the clock on his otherwise bare office wall tick the final seconds of his career as an actuary at Woodmen of the World Insurance in Omaha.
"Babbitt" begins: "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." Beautiful, Lewis intimates, if only because of the frankness of their banality.
"About Schmidt," the new Jack Nicholson movie, begins with the camera lingering on a flat slab of a spire in Omaha, the Woodmen building, which is replicated in the cake at Schmidt's retirement party that evening. If "party" is applicable to so flat an affair. Flat as champagne that has lost its fizz. Flat as the Midwest landscape through which Schmidt, suddenly widowed, rolls, a depressed Jack Kerouac in a gigantic Winnebago, on the road to Denver to try to forestall yet another disappointment, the marriage of his daughter to a waterbed salesman Schmidt despises.
In the novel on which "About Schmidt" is loosely based, Schmidt retires from a Manhattan law firm to Long Island affluence. So why (other than the fact that director Alexander Payne is from Omaha) turn Schmidt into a stereotypical midwesterner whose taciturnity is presumably symptomatic not of still waters running deep but only of a low emotional metabolism?
Because it is still very modern to suppose that people like Schmidt who do not "share their feelings" have none. And because it is very traditional to disparage life in the Midwest's small towns, such as Sherwood Anderson's "Winesburg, Ohio" (1919).
In 1920 Sinclair Lewis, from Sauk Centre, Minn., who in 1930 became the first American winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, published "Main Street," an unaffectionate depiction of fictional Gopher Prairie, Minn., where individualism is suffocated by what was later to be called "conformity." In England, E.M. Forster said Lewis had lodged "a piece of a continent" -- the Midwest -- "in our imagination."
Also in 1920, another Minnesotan, F. Scott Fitzgerald, published "This Side of Paradise," in which Amory Blaine decides he has "grown up to find all gods dead, all wars fought, all faiths in man shaken." But whereas Fitzgerald came east to be exhilarated by Princeton and the 1920s, and kept moving east, to Europe, Lewis was unhappy at Yale and looked back in anger at the Midwest. His curdled spirit considered that region unforgivably middling -- no longer a heroic frontier, never likely to become more than (as another young midwesterner, Ernest Hemingway, called his native Oak Park, Ill.) a place of "broad lawns and narrow minds."
Some critics insist that the portraits of Winesburg, Gopher Prairie, Zenith and Schmidt's Omaha are "really" sympathetic. Perhaps the recurring cows in "About Schmidt" (in paintings on a restaurant wall, in a cattle truck) are not supposed to suggest that the people, too, are bovine. See the movie and decide for yourself if it is yet another exercise in condescension. As Evan Connell's two nuanced novels about Mr. and Mrs. Bridge of Kansas City (and the Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward movie made from them) are not.
"I don't say he's a great man," says Linda Loman of her husband, Willy, in Arthur Miller's "Death of a Salesman" (1949), another depiction of disappointed American striving. But, she says, "attention must be finally paid to such a person." Surely ample attention is paid. The likes of Loman, Babbitt and Schmidt inhabit a large American literature of regret. Which may be what Schmidt is feeling in the movie's final frame, when he is reduced to tears by receiving in the mail the slender evidence of his single success in connecting with another -- a drawing from a 6-year-old Tanzanian boy to whom Schmidt has sent hilariously inapposite, hence unconnecting, letters.
Babbitt says, "I've never done a single thing I wanted to in my whole life! I don't know's I've accomplished anything except just get along." However, a haunting sense of regret about time wasted is a timeless theme of literature. Timeless, and placeless. It is the human condition, not a midwestern affliction.