Source of book: I own this
Elmer Gantry is my selection this year for Banned Books Week. This book was written in 1926, and was banned in Boston and other cities. Lewis was also physically threatened, and there were calls for his imprisonment. So what about this book drew the ire of book banners? And was it really as offensive as claimed?
Well, the answer is complicated.
At the outset, let me mention that in my project of reading banned books, I have found they tend to fall into two categories. There are some that have clear issues that led to the ban. For example, Tropic of Cancer is pretty sex-soaked, and Strange Fruit depicts an interracial sexual relationship. But others seem pretty mild - Wild Swans is descriptive of reality, but hardly an anti-communist screed.
Elmer Gantry to me seems to fall into that latter category. Yes, it is critical of religion in general - and Fundamentalist Evangelicalism specifically. But it also isn’t a screed, but just a story - and a rather nuanced story at that. There are admirable religious people throughout the book, pastors who sound like good men, parishioners who are genuine in their faith, and social reformers who wish to do good in the name of Christ. And even the titular anti-hero, as bad as he becomes by the end, is nowhere near the level of evil that characterizes modern religious celebrities from Bill Gothard to Mark Driscoll to so many others.
I think the reasons that Elmer Gantry struck such a nerve are more subtle. Lewis put in hours and hours of time in churches, until he got the details and the subcultures right. Having spent the first 40 years of my own life in the Fundamentalist/Evangelical subculture myself, it was astonishing how well Lewis “got it.” And also fascinating to see how little has changed in the century since. I mean, I recognized all the hymns, the Christianese phrases, the emotional manipulations, the rhetoric - I mean, modern Fundamentalists are still trying to re-create the revival era in every detail today!
Thus, Lewis infuriated them because he saw through them all too well. He wasn’t some “ivory tower liberal” who misunderstood and thus made idiotic mistakes in describing them. He knew…and yet refused to venerate them.
The other issue that I think caused the book to be controversial is that Lewis makes it clear that the Elmer Gantrys of the world aren’t the problem. They are just a symptom of a greater disease in Fundamentalist religion. Gantry himself may be a hypocrite, but he isn’t a horrible person at first - he feels human and indeed sympathetic. But as he finds out, hypocrisy pays the bills. Appeals to hate pay the bills more than appeals to love. Screeds against the “sins” that other people commit sell, and sell big time. Going after alcohol and tobacco and dancing and evolution propel him to fame and fortune, while those pastors who work to improve the lives of the poor, accept immigrants, and encourage intellectual honesty are doomed to failure and obscurity.
This hasn’t changed today. Gothard, to name one person who profoundly affected my own life, literally sold bigotry and cultural chauvinism as “godliness.” And it made him and his organization rich. Well, at least until it came out that he was a serial sexual predator. (Although, like Gantry, he was able to keep his sexual indiscretions secret for a long time.) The system still rewards narcissistic hypocrites, still rewards every turn toward legalistic moralism, still is obsessed with culture wars, and still protects the reputations of institutions rather than the victims.
This was my first experience of Sinclair Lewis, although I remember getting his postage stamp as a kid - the first one I picked out myself. Apparently, most people start with Main Street, but a few friends have expressed a particular love for Elmer Gantry. What I would say, having read this book, is that Lewis writes with great subtlety, avoids caricatures, and understands that most humans exist in a grey area, neither wholly good nor wholly evil, and with motives which are mixed and obscure even to themselves. This is why I couldn’t truly hate Gantry. I was sorry at what he became eventually, but understood all too well how he got there.
The plot is a pretty simple one, but the details are a lot of the fun. Elmer Gantry is a type we all know: the college jock who is a bit too good looking for his own good. And he has a sonorous voice, a way with the ladies, and a love for booze. You know the sort.
At the beginning of the book, he intends to go into law. Influenced by his friend, he is non-religious, and a bit proud of his boozing and womanizing. But after an incident where he saves an aspiring preacher classmate from bullies, he realizes that he could use his natural talents in the field of religion, and make a real name and fortune for himself. Heck, it might even be worth cutting back on the drinking.
He enters seminary, but is unable to complete it. While he survives a love affair, pawning the spurned woman off on a man who wants her, he manages to get drunk before a pulpit audition, and ends up out of the ministry.
After working for a few years in sales, he runs into Sharon Falconer, an evangelist in the Pentecostal vein. He becomes her assistant, and appears well on his way to fame in his own right. Unfortunately, she dies in a fire that breaks out in her newly-built temple, and Elmer is never able to make a go of revival meetings by himself.
Instead, he switches from the Baptists to the Methodists, and starts working his way up the chain, eventually becoming a mega-church pastor and anti-sin crusader. While he does manage to give up the booze, he never entirely stops chasing women. While neglecting his frigid wife, of course. (That is a whole story there - including a really great example of what NOT to do on the honeymoon if you have a virginal wife.)
As I mentioned, along the way, Lewis paints a portrait of various branches of Christianity in turn-of-the-century America, the good the bad and the ugly. The combination of excellent writing, attention to detail, and a compelling story made this book a surprisingly quick read despite its more than 400 pages of small print.
I ended up taking a lot of notes, and feel like I could have quoted dozens more lines. It was hard to pick and choose, because of how perceptive his descriptions and dialogue were. Any person who grew up in the uniquely American conservative religious subculture will find this book interesting and compelling, in my opinion. At least if they can avoid defensiveness.
Here is a great description of Gantry, from the first page of the book:
He was born to be a senator. He never said anything important, and he always said it sonorously.
And this one:
Elmer assumed that he was the center of the universe and that the rest of the system was valuable only as it afforded him help and pleasure.
These together perhaps illuminate everything that will follow. Elmer realizes that the perfect profession for a narcissist with a great voice is the ministry. It is tailor made for his personality - and he is correct.
Eventually, Elmer converts. And, the thing is, it would be easy for Lewis to have made the conversion either wholly sincere or wholly insincere. Instead, the conversion is that very human combination of factors, some sincere, and others not. But it is difficult to fault Elmer for this. Or any of us whose relationship to religion and tribe and family is…complicated.
They stood for the singing of “Shall We Gather at the River?” Elmer inarticulately began to feel his community with these humble, aspiring people - his own prairie tribe; this gaunt carpenter, a good fellow, full of friendly greetings; this farmwife, so courageous, channeled by pioneer labor; this classmate, an admirable basket-ball player, yet now changing beatifically, his head back, his eyes closed, his voice ringing. Elmer’s own people. Could he be a traitor to them, could he resist the current of their united belief and longing?
As many of us exvangelicals have realized, the sense of belonging is a hell of a drug. But when it wears off, the hangover is crushing. But that high is a real high, and Elmer feels it.
He was certain that he would never again want to guzzle, to follow loose women, to blaspheme; he knew the rapture of salvation - yes, and of being the center of interest in the crowd.
Oh yes, he sees the possibilities too.
“Wouldn’t be so bad to be a preacher if you had a big church and - Lot easier than digging out law-cases and having to put it over a jury and another lawyer maybe smarter than you are.
“The crowd have to swallow what you tell ‘em in a pulpit and no back-talk or cross-examination allowed!”
The thing is, Elmer is right about one thing: preaching is one of the few professions where you can get away with incoherent logic, false statements of fact, and use of platitudes as if they were profound. As long as you put enough familiar stuff in to signal the unspoken tribal code.
For all his slang, his cursing, his mauled plurals and singulars, Elmer had been compelled in college to read certain books, to hear certain lectures, all filled with flushed, florid polysyllables, with juicy sentiments about God, sunsets, the moral improvement inherent in a daily view of mountain scenery, angels, fishing for souls, ideals, patriotism, democracy, purity, the error of Providence in creating the female leg, courage, humility, justice, the agricultural methods of Palestine circ. 4 A.D., the beauty of domesticity, and preachers’ salaries. These blossoming words, these organ-like phrases, these profound notions, had been rammed home till they stuck in his brain, ready for use.
That’s pretty much American Civic Religion in a nutshell. And I have to laugh about “the error of Providence in creating the female leg.”
Throughout the book, minor characters express varying degrees of doubt about religion, particularly the fundamentalist version. For example, here is a bit from the wife of the seminary dean:
“Why is it that it’s only in religion that the things you got to believe are agin all experience? Now drat it, don’t you go and quote that ‘I believe because it is impossible’ thing at me again! Believe because it’s impossible! Huh! Just like a minister!”
This is an ongoing problem for fundamentalist religion, and a significant reason why religion is in decline in the United States. Religion cannot survive in the long term if it is incompatible with experience. “Believing because it is impossible” is not a sustainable strategy. Sure, it will work for a generation. But the kids rarely are willing or able to continue to hold irrational beliefs. It certainly is a significant reason why I left Evangelicalism, and why my kids are not religious.
Oh, and Lewis has no illusions about why there is a Southern Baptist Convention.
There is a Northern and Southern convention of this distinguished denomination, because before the Civil War the Northern Baptists proved by the Bible, unanswerably, that slavery was wrong; and the Southern Baptists proved by the Bible, unanswerably, that slavery was the will of God.
As Mark Noll put it, theology proved entirely unable to resolve the single most important moral issue of the day - it ended up being resolved instead by a bloody war. Again, this still is the problem. Our theology seems incapable of definitively agreeing to love our neighbors, regardless of whether they are like us or not. Continuing today, Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism remain far more racist than the population at large.
Lewis also hits a nerve with this observation about the clergy - another fact that remains relevant today. Interestingly, it is part of a discussion among future pastors, about denominational differences.
“Why is it that the clergy are so given to sex crimes?”
And the question of this fundamentally dishonest statement:
“[L]ong winded preachers always springing a bright new idea like ‘All the world needs to solve its problems is to get back to the gospel of Jesus Christ.’”
I’m sorry. I am so sick and tired of hearing this. As if some magical theology will by sanctified voodoo fix all the problems in this world. Hell, theology has made things worse, not better. Theology justified slavery. Theology justified Jim Crow. Theology continues to justify xenophobia and gross inequality. I’ll believe theology is a force for good once it starts acting like it, rather than spending its time justifying injustice that just happens to benefit those claiming the One True Theology™.
Or how about another issue that continues to plague consevative religion of all sorts?
“Of all the fool Baptist egotisms, close communion is the worst! Nobody but people we consider saved to be allowed to take communion with us! Nobody can meet God unless we introduce ‘em! Self-appointed guardians of the blood and body of Jesus Christ!”
This is something to think about whenever you hear the latest screed by a conservative priest or pastor about why they want to deny eucharist or communion to people from the “wrong” (meaning not Republican) political party.
I found the extended episode involving Sharon Falconer to be quite fascinating. She is not a fundamentalist, but a showman. Like Elmer, her personal life doesn’t match up with her “official” teaching either, although she makes her living on spectacle, not puritanism. When she takes Elmer on, she holds this weird ceremony that is very ecumenical. As in, it embraces a plethora of religious symbols from around the world, including, interestingly, a swastika. Remember, this was 1926. Hitler hadn’t yet appropriated the swastika (which was previously a symbol of good fortune), so Lewis included it with a number of other symbols which were then rather benign. Now, of course, the swastika means some very different things, none of them good.
As part of Sharon’s troupe, Elmer comes to understand a lot more about how to emotionally manipulate people. He makes an observation that stunned me, and expressed a fundamental trauma from my church days.
Elmer saw that the real purpose of singing was to lead the audience to a state of mind where they would do as they were told.
This really hurts. I was a good church musician. I could make people feel things, engage their emotions. But in retrospect, I was used. The system used people like me. We did what we believed was a good thing - we helped people gain a degree of wholeness between mind, body, and emotion. This is the power of music. But our talents were used by the system, not to bring people closer to the love of god and neighbor we intended, but as a means of control, to make them susceptible to believing horrible things. It served to unite a culture war, not further Christ-following.
On a related note:
The gospel crew could never consider their converts as human beings, like waiters or manicurists or brakemen, but they had in them such a professional interest as surgeons take in patients, critics in an author, fishermen in trout.
This too resonates. My generation of fundies were looked on, not as fully human beings, with our own needs and desires and brains and emotions. Rather, we were pawns - foot soldiers in a fucked-up culture war that has culminated in a worship of Trump and an embrace of fascism. I strongly resent that, whether it was the “arrows in your parents’ quiver” thing from Gothard or the “generation Joshua” of fundie homeschooling. We did our best to believe it, but in the end, it all turned out to just be racism and misogyny in the end. With a strong side dish of homophobia. An “us versus them” scorched earth war against other humans.
As I mentioned, Sharon isn’t a neo-puritan, but a Pentecostal, and that is a very different subculture from the Baptist one, or the formerly Methodist one - when Methodism was conservative denomination very different from the Episcopalians and Presbyterians they are now more associated with. This Pentecostalism manifested in part with an emphasis on healing.
It was not her eloquence but her healing of the sick which raised Sharon to such eminence that she promised to become the most renowned evangelist in America. People were tired of eloquence; and the whole evangelist business was limited, since eve the most ardent were not likely to be saved more than three or four times. But they could be healed constantly, and of the same disease.
Prior to my family’s foray into Gothard’s cult, my parents went from essentially Baptist to Pentecostal for a brief time. So I got a bit of the charismatic experience as well. Literally both John MacArthur (we attended his church when I was a kid) and John Wimber (attended some conferences, and I learned a lot of Vineyard songs.) This too is a true description by Lewis - the constant “healing” of the same person for the same problem. And always one which is difficult to medically verify.
After Sharon dies - in part because she took her own theology too seriously and refused to flee the fire - Elmer dabbles for a while in “New Thought.” For those not familiar with it, this was arguably the first New Age movement, and came about in part because white Europeans came in contact with Eastern philosophy, many of them for the first time. I myself was surprised when reading classics like the Tao Te Ching, just how much seemingly disparate religions and philosophies have in common - there is a deeper universal human psychological and mystical language that we share. Some might call it our common spirituality, or that God speaks to all of us, not just white European theologians of a certain era. And also, that theological bullshit can be found in every tradition. And someone will turn a buck selling that bullshit.
In any case, Elmer finds that New Thought actually suits him pretty well. He never truly believes any of the theologies he uses - they are just tools for what he really wants, which is attention and prestige and money. The problem with New Thought turns out to be that it doesn’t sell like he needs it to. But how about this description of it?
In some ways, he preferred New Thought to standard Protestantism. It was safer to play with. He had never been sure but that there might be something to the doctrines he had preached as an evangelist. Perhaps God really had dictated every word of the Bible. Perhaps there really was a hell of burning sulfur. Perhaps the Holy Ghost really was hovering around watching him and reporting. But he knew with serenity that all of his New Thoughts, his theosophical utterances, were pure and uncontaminated bunk. No one could deny his theories because none of his theories meant anything. It did not matter what he said, so long as he kept them listening; and he enjoyed the buoyancy of power as he bespelled his classes with long, involved, fruity sentences rhapsodic as perfume advertisements.
One of the secondary characters serves as a counterpart to Elmer. Frank Shallard is the son of a preacher, and is under tremendous pressure to follow the family profession. So he does. Unfortunately, he has his doubts, which conflict with his need to support his family. Probably the worst thing Elmer does in the book is throw Frank under the bus in his own pursuit of power. Frank is allowed to express the doubts that many of us have felt, and our own aspirations to actually do good in the world. There is too much to quote, but I was particularly struck by this one item listed in the things that Frank learned in seminary.
The theory that India and Africa have woes because they are not Christianized, but that Christianized Bangor and Des Moines have woes because the devil, a being obviously more potent than omnipotent God, sneaks around counteracting the work of Baptist preachers.
Tell me you haven’t heard that one a million times…
The book spends some time on social issues too - this was the era of the first union organizing and strikes and violence against strikers. Although Elmer occasionally takes the side of the workers when he things the winds of public sentiment are blowing that way, he mostly ends up palling around with the rich in his community. Here is a bit from Mr. Rigg.
“We like religion; like the good old hymns - takes us back to the hick town we came from; and we believe religion is a fine thing to keep people in order - they think of higher things instead of all these strikes and big wages and the kind of hell-raising that’s throwing the industrial system all out of kilter.”
It is Rigg who pushes Elmer in the direction of preaching “against vice” as a way of building popularity, and incidentally distracting people from social justice. The meeting of the town pastors is equally disturbing - although again totally familiar. They discuss how to increase attendance and giving, and what bells and whistles seem to work. And, thrown in there, a discussion about the “morality of violin solos.” Wait, what? I take offense at the implication there!
One of the issues on which I actually felt sorry for Elmer was in his need to navigate between the younger people, who [gasp] were okay with dancing, and the older set, who are described thus:
Elmer had, even in Zenith, to meet plenty of solemn and whiskery persons whose only pleasure aside from not doing agreeable things was keeping others from doing them.
As with most obstacles, Elmer is able to navigate them in part because he has no core beliefs. He can “be all things to all people” because his only goal is his own aggrandizement. This also holds true for his skill at fundraising.
He had made one discovery superb in its simple genius - the best way to get money was to ask for it, hard enough and often enough.
This is, unfortunately, true. Elmer also joins various service groups. One of these is Rotary (generally a fine organization, by the way), and the episode involving that club is mostly good-natured humor. More problematic is the rise of the Second Ku Klux Klan - which was far too respectable back in the day. As Lewis puts it:
The new Ku Klux Klan, an organization of the fathers, younger brothers, and employees of the men who had succeeded and become Rotarians, had just become a political difficulty. Many of the most worthy Methodist and Baptist clergymen supported it and were supported by it; and personally Elmer admired its principle - to keep all foreigners, Jews, Catholics, and negroes in their place, which was no place at all, and let the country be led by native Protestants, like Elmer Gantry.
If it isn’t obvious, this describes our present day as well. MAGA is nothing more than the latest iteration of the KKK, and it is supported by, and supports many white clergymen. Also telling in this passage is that Elmer manages to “thread the needle” by talking about freedom in a way that appeals to everyone. At least everyone who is fine with the status quo.
As Frank’s faith comes unraveled, one episode stood out. He is venting at another progressive preacher, and mentions an older woman who seems to resemble a few people I know. And might be related to.
“Darn it, I can’t seem to go on being interested in the fact that old Mrs. Besom finds God such a comfort in her trials. Mrs. Besom’s daughter-in-law doesn’t find Mrs. Besom any comfort in her trials, let me tell you! And yet I don’t see how I can say to her after she’s been fluttering around among the angels and advertising how dead certain she is that Jesus loves her - I haven’t quite found the nerve to say, ‘Sister, you tight-fisted, poison-tongued, old hellcat - you go home and forget your popularity in Heaven and ask your son and his wife to forgive you for trying to make them your kind of saint, with acidity of the spiritual stomach!”
Yeah, it really is irritating to hear piety expressed like that, and the insistence that we become someone else’s kind of saint. I’ll also point out that later in this passage, the other preacher issues a pretty big diss to….Sinclair Lewis. Claiming he was bored to death by Main Street. Kind of a funny in-joke. (See below for Lewis’ acerbity over the book and its reception…)
Elmer’s final soul-sale comes when he goes all-in on the rising neo-puritan movement - the culture war of its day, complete with the attempts to control government and force everyone else to agree. Check out this bit, about the organization that Elmer will eventually head up:
It was at this time that the brisker conservative clergymen saw that their influence and oratory and incomes were threatened by any authentic learning. A few of them were so intelligent as to know that not only was biology dangerous to their positions, but also history - which gave no very sanctified reputation to the Christian church; astronomy - which found no convenient Heaven in the skies and snickered politely at the notion of making the sun stand still in order to win a Jewish border skirmish; psychology - which doubted the superiority of a Baptist preacher fresh from the farm to trained laboratory researchers; and all the other sciences of the modern university. They saw that a proper school should teach nothing but bookkeeping, agriculture, geometry, dead languages made deader by leaving out all the amusing literature, and the Hebrew Bible as interpreted by men superbly trained to ignore contradictions, men technically called “Fundamentalists.”
This perception the clergy and their most admired laymen expressed in quick action. They formed half a dozen competent and well-financed organizations to threaten rustic state legislators with political failure and bribe them with unctuous clerical praise, so that these back-street and backwoods Solons would forbid the teaching in all state-supported schools and colleges of anything which was not approved by the evangelists.
Hey, the current jihad against “Critical Race Theory” (meaning any discussion of systemic racism) and acknowledgement of the existence of LGBTQ people, anyone? The attempts to teach “creationism” as an alternative to science? The whitewashing (in multiple senses of the word) of our national history? The hostility toward psychology and other disciplines? The disbelief in epidemiology during a pandemic? And, of course, the banning of books and topics in schools.
This was 100 years ago. And it still hasn’t ended. I for one am tired of having to kiss fundamentalist asses, and I know my kids’ generation is even more tired of it.
The last quote here is about what the neo-puritans wanted to attack back then. Many of these are the same, of course, although there are a few “vices” that seem quaint to us now. Elmer gets his vision to combine ALL of these into one great organization, and go after all cultural evil in one go. Under him of course - this is narcissistic aggrandizement, after all.
He would combine in one association all the moral organizations in America - perhaps, later, in the entire world. He would be the executive of that combination; he would be the super-president of the United States, and someday the dictator of the world.
Combine them all. The Anti-Saloon League, the W. C. T. U., and the other organizations fighting alcohol. The Napap and the other Vice Societies doing such magnificent work in censoring immoral novels and paintings and motion pictures and plays. The Anti-Cigarette League. The associations lobbying for anti-evolution laws in the state legislatures. The associations making so brave a fight against Sunday baseball, Sunday movies, Sunday golfing, Sunday motoring, and the other abominations whereby the Sabbath was desecrated and the preachers’ congregations and collections were lessened. The fraternities opposing Romanism. The societies which gallantly wanted to make it a crime to take the name of the Lord in vain or to use the nine Saxon physiological monosyllables. And all the rest.
The thing is, the Fundamentalists did win for a while. They enacted Prohibition (which was a total fucking disaster, and led to both organized crime AND the over policing that plagues us today.) they suppressed knowledge about sex and contraception through the Comstock Laws. They banned books and tried to get evolution banned from schools. The KKK went mainstream.
Ultimately, the end of the story isn’t written. Despite the best efforts of fundamentalist religion, Civil Rights laws were enacted. Book bans were struck down (and the books sold well because of the bans.) My kids’ generation is arguably the best educated about sex of any in the history of the United States. Craft breweries are in most small towns in the US. There is no final answer, ever. Things change, and they change because people make them change and also because of forces people do not understand and cannot control and certainly cannot foresee.
But I can say with certainty that I will not be on the side of the charlatans like Elmer Gantry, selling empty legalism while lining their own pockets. I’ve been there, done that, have the PTSD to show for it.
I must say, I really enjoyed this book, and want to read more by Sinclair Lewis. I didn’t get a particularly great education in 20th Century literature, although that statement is relative. I know my Victorians a lot better, obviously, but I suspect few read Sinclair Lewis in high school. It has been fun to discover so many excellent writers of the past, who might be a bit out of style today, or considered “inaccessible,” or whatever. I think Lewis deserves his reputation as a fine writer.
Note on Lewis and Main Street:
Ah, the Great American Novel™. Which doesn’t and probably cannot exist. No one book can encapsulate “America” in all its variety and contradictions. Main Street was quite obviously an attempt, though, and from what I have heard, it is a valiant one. The problem is that it is about small-town America. Which is a part of America - an important part. But it isn’t the whole.
Lewis himself considered the book to be his best, and also the one that best fit the criteria for the Pulitzer Prize.
Main Street did not win the Pulitzer. Arrowsmith did, however. And Lewis refused it.
Officially, this was because he felt that Arrowsmith wasn’t enough about America and wholesomeness and other things that the Pulitzer was supposed to recognize. As it later came out, however, Lewis was pissed that Main Street hadn’t won, and intended his refusal as a pointed statement at the Pulitzer committee for that oversight.
Now, of course, I want to read both Arrowsmith and Main Street.
Want to see what other banned books I have read for Banned Books Week? Here is the list.
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