For the better part of a century, the title of Sinclair Lewis’s phenomenally successful and often reviled novel Elmer Gantry (1927) has been a byword for religious fraud and “bunk” evangelism. It might have been supposed that Lewis’s form of “sociological realism,” in which he wove innumerable details from contemporary life into his narrative, would date badly and that his books would not outlast their own era, but this has not been the case: his Main Street (1920), which satirized life in a fictional hick town — Gopher Prairie, Minnesota — is as vivid now as it ever was; there is something of Gopher Prairie in all provincial communities, and not just American ones. Elmer Gantry, too, is timeless; one can hardly turn on a television or radio today without seeing a grisly array of Gantrys plying their trade. Elmer Gantry has even been made into a new opera, with a score by Robert Aldridge and a libretto by Herschel Garfein, that recently premiered in Nashville.
Lewis had long wanted to write a novel about what he called the religion racket. His own experiences at Oberlin College (at that time overtly Christian), the memory of a 1917 visit to a Billy Sunday show, and the galvanic 1925 Scopes Trial had all left their mark. In 1923 he had written his publisher, Alfred Harcourt, about his plans for “the big religious novel I’ve planned so long, paying my compliments to the Methodist cardinals, the Lord’s Day Alliance, the S.P.V. , and all the rest — not slightly and meekly as in MSt and Babbitt but at full length, and very, very lovingly. I think it’ll be just the right time for this novel, and I think I can do it con amore.” The hero was to be a “fundamentalist capitalistic preacher,” cynical and sexually predatory, who exploits the credulity of the faithful as he grabs life’s worldly rewards. Lewis’s objections to American religious life, he said, were “not so much the positive evils of the system as that great negative evil — the turning of young, fresh emotion-charged thought from reality to devotion to symbols, priest-worship, ‘church-work,’ listening to shallow sermons and singing damned bad verse, while a whole world of nobility and need waits outside.”
Elmer Gantry, whose gifts of persuasion might have been used to better purpose, “was born to be a senator,” we learn on the novel’s first page. “He never said anything important, and he always said it sonorously. He could make ‘Good morning’ seem profound as Kant, welcoming as a brass band, and uplifting as a cathedral organ.” This is certainly a recognizable type, now as then. Lewis threw himself into research for the characterization with his customary enthusiasm, moving temporarily to Kansas City, one of the models for his fictional midwestern metropolis of Zenith. There he filled his room with church newspapers, Bible dictionaries, theological works, and hymn books (all of which he dutifully perused), and on Wednesdays he would invite a crowd of ministers of every denomination to lunch with him in his hotel suite. Through these get-togethers, which became known as “Sinclair Lewis’s Sunday-school classes” and where generous portions of alcohol were served, Lewis won the confidence of many of these men of God and persuaded them to discuss their beliefs, their doubts, and their all-too-human-failings. A friend of Lewis’s later said that “everything Gantry did had been done by someone we knew — someone in the ministry.”
What always made Lewis’s novels richer than mere satire was the affection he so clearly felt even for the people and institutions he was most eager to expose. As awful as Gantry is, we can’t suppress a sneaking liking for him, and neither can his author. “It was lamentable to see this broad young man,” Lewis writes of the college-age Gantry, “who would have been so happy in the prize-ring, the fish-market, or the stock exchange, poking through the cobwebbed corridors of Terwilliger.” Terwilliger College is a Baptist institution on the outskirts of Gritzmacher Springs, Kansas — real Sinclair Lewis country, and no one has ever matched his ability to bring the gritty squalor of this world so starkly to life. Here, for instance, is a local train:
To every surface of the old smoking-car, to streaked windows and rusty ironwork and mud-smeared cocoanut matting, clung a sickening bitterness of cheap tobacco fumes, and whenever they touched the red plush of the seat, dust whisked up and the prints of their hands remained on the plush.
This is the bleak aura Gantry has grown up in, and it goes some way toward excusing what he has become. Why has he chosen the church as his m?tier, after all? Partly because it was his mother’s dearest wish; partly because he cannot repress a superstitious fear instilled in him by the religious machinery; and partly because the church, grim and joyless as it was in the rural Kansas of his youth, was also all there was of beauty and art — a fact that in itself is a terrible indictment of the culture.
The church provided his only oratory, except for campaign speeches by politicians ardent about Jefferson and the price of binding-twine; it provided all his painting and sculpture, except for the portraits of Lincoln, Longfellow, and Emerson in the school-building, and the two china statuettes of pink ladies with gilt flower-baskets which stood on his mother’s bureau. From the church came all his profounder philosophy?.
the church had guided him. In Bible stories, in the words of the great hymns, in the anecdotes which the various preachers quoted, he had his only knowledge of literature.
?He had, in fact, got everything from the church and Sunday School, except, perhaps, any longing whatever for decency and kindness and reason.
Lewis had successfully satirized the business world in Babbitt (1922) and possessed a keen appreciation for Gantry’s all-American commercial acumen. The preacher has “a reverent admiration for money” and an eye for the main chance, and he cleverly applies the advertising techniques that were being pioneered in early-20th-century America to boost his own persuasive powers.
His career is not without its setbacks. Ordained a Baptist minister, Gantry fails to graduate from Terwilliger because of a drunken spree and has to spend a few years selling farm implements, acquiring useful sales skills in the process. He then meets Sharon Falconer, an inspired evangelist loosely based on Aimee Semple McPherson, and becomes her manager and lover until her death in a tabernacle fire. After this he moonlights as a “New Thought” evangelist but eventually returns to the Protestant fold and turns Methodist.
Once he has taken this step, his trajectory is swift: his first church is in a tiny burg called Banjo Crossing, but he moves onward and upward to Rudd Center, Vulcan, Sparta, Zenith — the state capital — and finally achieves his life’s ambition by becoming pastor of the Yorkville Methodist Church in New York City and head of the National Association for the Purification of Art and the Press (NAPAP). At the end of the novel Gantry is gloating over a vision of new worlds to conquer: the combination of all the moral organizations in America under one umbrella. Representing 30 million Protestant churchgoers,
they would have such a treasury and such a membership that they would no longer have to coax Congress and the state legislatures into passing moral legislation, but in a quiet way they would merely state to the representatives of the people what they wanted, and get it.
And the head of this united organization would be the Warwick of America, the man behind the throne, the man who would send for presidents, of whatever party, and give orders?.
The founding of the Moral Majority would not have surprised Lewis; he would only have wondered why it took so long.
For Lewis was a prophetic writer as well as being an exact chronicler of his own times. The political organization of evangelical Protestants that he foresaw did eventually take shape. He deplored the pressure on public school curricula exerted by fundamentalist Christians in the wake of the Scopes Trial and didn’t mistake it for a momentary aberration. In response to the Americans who looked at Hitler’s Germany and smugly said, “It can’t happen here,” he penned a satirical novel called It Can Happen Here (1935). Elmer Gantry was banned in Boston on publication, and no doubt various school and library boards are still trying to ban it. So much a product of its own historic moment, it turns out to be a book for our time as well, and probably for all times.