Magazine article The American Prospect

The Good Book: The America Portrayed by Sinclair Lewis in Elmer Gantry Used to Be a Distant Memory. but the Novel's Surprising Lessons Are Relevant Again

Magazine article The American Prospect

The Good Book: The America Portrayed by Sinclair Lewis in Elmer Gantry Used to Be a Distant Memory. but the Novel's Surprising Lessons Are Relevant Again

Article excerpt

IT HAS BEEN ALMOST 80 YEARS SINCE novelist Sinclair Lewis set his most iconic fictional creation, a hell-raiser turned hellfire preacher named Elmer Gantry, loose on an unsuspecting America. For a clergyman in his 70s, Gantry has proven to be remarkably hale and hearty. Op-ed writers and columnists lean continually on Lewis' parson to represent a uniquely American type: the fundamentalist hypocrite serving up corn pone and brimstone to promulgate a strict public morality.

The type was on its way to the margins in Lewis' day; the 1920s were when modernity won, if not in fact in the great heartland, at least in the larger self-image of a nation gorging itself on jazz, burlesque, motorcars, and bathtub gin. But the type--the living, breathing Gantry, as it were--is now back with a vengeance.

Take, for instance, the open letter written to President Bush by fundamentalist educator Bob Jones III, president of Bob Jones University, on the day after the election. When Jones declares, "In your reelection, God has graciously granted America--though she doesn't deserve it--a reprieve from the agenda of paganism," and then argues that liberals despise the president "because they despise your Christ," he is channeling the call for a national "crusade" that Gantry delivers as the closing flourish of the novel: "... a crusade for complete morality and the domination of the Christian church through all the land. Dear Lord, thy work is but begun! We shall yet make these United States a moral nation!"

Elmer Gantry is sermonizing once again in the United States, and Lewis, once again, is relevant. He was, to be sure, an agnostic, and an intensely secular partisan whose rendering of the fundamentalist devout was brutal. But he was something else, too: He was a careful student and observer, and his method suggests a lesson for today's liberals as they grapple with these hard-shell literalists who are, incomprehensible as it may seem to them, their countrymen.

ELMER GANTRY BURST INTO AMERIcan bookshops in 1927 and became the year's best-selling novel. It also, as Mark Schorer observes in his 1961 biography of Lewis, faced "wholesale municipal bans--extended from Kansas City to Camden, from Boston to Glasgow." At that time, America was less than two years removed from the greatest clash between the forces of fundamentalism and secularism it had seen to that time, the 1925 Scopes "monkey trial." It was also on the cusp of an election in which religion and the public morals issue of the age, Prohibition, would play a major role.

Elmer Gantry is dedicated to Lewis' friend and booster H.L. Mencken, a writer who covered both the Scopes trial and the 1928 campaign between Republican Herbert Hoover and Democrat Al Smith. Looking back at Mencken's writing about that campaign today elicits a palpable shock of recognition. Update some context and swap Prohibition with gay marriage and Mencken might be filing from Cincinnati in November 2004 rather than Baltimore in November 1928:

   I daresay the extent of the bigotry prevailing
   in America, as it has been revealed
   by this campaign, has astounded
   a great many Americans, and perhaps
   even made them doubt the testimony
   of their own eyes and ears. This surprise
   is not in itself surprising, for Americans
   of one class seldom know anything
   about Americans of other classes. What
   the average native yokel believes about
   the average city man is probably nine-tenths
   untrue, and what the average city
   man believes about the average yokel is
   almost as inaccurate.... This campaign
   ... has brought bigotry out into the open,
   and revealed its true proportion. It has
   shown that millions of Americans, far
   from being free and tolerant men, are
   the slaves of an ignorant, impudent, and
   unconscionable clergy.

Mencken's verbal pyrotechnics are rough stuff to our contemporary ears. His sharp rhetoric flies in the face of the contemporary vogue for soft-pedaling any pungent talk about religion. …

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