Thoughts on Elmer Gantry
July 2006
Part of a special reading quest:
Famous Books No One Reads Anymore

Few people read this book anymore because of the movie, and I rarely see it on a high school reading list. How sad. Just before the 4th of July, I finished Elmer Gantry. It turned out to be one of the greatest novels I have ever read. It may be THE American novel for me, second only to The Grapes of Wrath. Elmer Gantry, published in 1927, was so much more complex, so much more biting and chilling in its description of the worst parts of the American psyche, so much more timeless, than I ever imagined it would be. I expected a comic-book story and dated prose -- I got, instead, vivid characters and lines of text I found myself re-reading per their beautiful structure and perfect descriptions. This book isn't just as it's usually, simply described: adventures of a golden-tongued evangelist who lives a live of hypocrisy and self-indulgence. This also isn't a novel whose primary, sole purpose is to attack the clergy. Elmer Gantry is a searingly-accurate profile of the USA, one that still stands oh-so-many years later. I finished the book and sat staring out the window for 10 minutes. I didn't know whether to laugh or weep.

What's so disheartening about this book, for me, is, as noted in the afterword by Mark Schorer, "The forces of social good and enlightenment as presented in Elmer Gantry are not strong enough to offer any real resistance to the forces of social evil and banality." Frank Shallard is defeated. So is Jim Lefferts. All the good people go down.

Maybe you have to have been raised in the South or Midwest of the USA, and to have been brought up Baptist or Methodist, to really, truly get all the layers of Elmer Gantry, all the hidden humor, all the razor-sharp and, at times, incredibly subtle, criticism and commentary. If you've never been to a church supper where a person claims to have traced their lineage all the way back to Adam and Eve, if you have never had your school board or local city council hear arguments about why certain books should be banned from school or local libraries, if a significant number of your family wouldn't boycott your wedding if you chose to serve alcohol, if you have never heard Catholics called "Papists" from a pulpit, if school friends haven't told you, in all sincerity, that they are going to pray for you because of your questions and intellect, if you haven't heard "Christians" rationalize about their actions that are in direct conflict to what the Bible says, I'm not sure you can really, truly get this book. But I could be wrong (I frequently am)

Ofcourse, all you have to have done is lived in the USA and paid attention to the actions of Jerry Fallwell, Pat Robertson and the Christian Coalition in order to be chilled by the last line of the novel -- and don't go reading it before you've read the entire book. Part of me is ashamed to have only finally read Sinclair Lewis when I'm already 40 -- and part of me wonders if I could ever have understood this book on the level I feel that I do had I not been this age.

And don't go looking for these characters, nor this story, in the movie version. The events of the movie are less than 100 pages of the book, and are so incredibly sanitized in comparison -- the novel's Sharon Falconer is NOTHING like the Celluloid version. I love the movie, but it's a completely different story.

Sinclair Lewis is quoted as saying "I love America, but I don't like it" and "when fascism comes to America it will be wrapped in a flag and carrying a cross." My sentiments exactly.

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