Elmer Gantry

by Sinclair Lewis. New York: Harcourt, Brace & Co. 1927. 12mo. viii+ 432 pp. $2.50.
IF Sinclair Lewis is trying to prove that these United States are encased in a hard shell of religious dogma, he need ask for no more exquisite proof than the indignation which has greeted Elmer Gantry. Even a professional critic of literature rises to testify, in the newspapers, that no Baptist preacher like Elmer Gantry ever has existed — he feels that he has a right to an opinion on this subject because his grandfather, his father, all of his surviving brothers, and many of his friends are Baptist ministers; and, to judge from the advertisements cleverly reprinted by the publishers, the churches of Kansas City are slinging mud with a vehemence which betrays their own mental processes more clearly than it befouls the integrity or artistry of Mr. Lewis.
In a beautiful and compassionate passage at the beginning of the book, Mr. Lewis tells how the little pasty-white Baptist church of Paris, Kansas, provided all the music, oratory, enchantment, and dignity which gilded Elmer’s childhood — how it alone offered an escape from his mother’s bleak widowhood. I can imagine a timid theologue reading those pages eagerly, only to come up against the satiric sting of the last sentence: —
‘He had, in fact, got everything from the church and Sunday School, except, perhaps, any longing whatever for decency and kindness and reason.'
Now decency and kindness and reason are the attributes of men who are free from the inner compulsion of fear and guilt, which nourish mob action of all kinds, from lynching to evangelism. It is this inner conflict of the individual which delivers him over to the mob, rather than the outrages of the mob itself, which most deeply engages Mr. Lewis’s attention. This is the tragedy not only of Elmer Gantry, but also of Dr. Zechlin. who was old and fearful; of Frank Shallard, who had never freed himself from the pleasant childish emotions which centred in the church; of Carol Kennicott, in Main Street; of Babbitt. Were Mr. Lewis interested primarily in propaganda against conventional religion, he might have handled his weapons more skillfully by making Elmer Gantry a less complete blackguard. But he enters sympathetically into a barren, mediocre life, and shows how it is corrupted, yet sustained, by fear, ignorance, and cruelty. That, perhaps, is why those of us who would feel at home in a goldenoak church can hardly bear to admit that this superstructure is built on such emotions, as well as on the more presentable passion for service which also springs from self-distrust.
The humane sympathy of Sinclair Lewis, and his genius for exact, painstaking observation, have made his creations household words, his very titles additions to the American idiom. They carry his readers along a road which is pleasant because it is familiar, until, willy-nilly, they are brought up protesting against the spectre of inner conflict which darkens the very foundations of conventional belief and negates the axioms of the mob. If Mr. Lewis were either less genial or less intelligent, he would not evoke the torrents of emotion which are now betraying the acuteness of Elmer Gantry.