Over the past week or so I have been dutifully plugging a hole in my literary education. I am reading Sinclair Lewis' novel Elmer Gantry. If you are unfamiliar with the story, the title character is a rudderless, narcissistic, unsavory fellow who, through a series of somewhat implausible events, gets ordained as a Baptist minister. Mayhem ensues! The book was somewhat controversial when it was first published, since it does not exactly make evangelical Christianity look good. I am currently halfway through it and loving every page of it.
In reading the following brief excerpt, keep in mind that this was published in 1927. The “Sharon” mentioned here is the leader of a traveling group of evangelists.
The lady Director of Personal Work had unexpected talent in making up anecdotes about the death-beds of drunkards and agnostics; Lily Anderson, the pretty though anemic pianist, had once been a school teacher and had read a couple of books about scientists, so she was able to furnish data with which Sharon absolutely confuted the rising fad of evolution; and Art Nichols, the cornetist, provided rude but moral Maine humor, stories about horse-trading, cabbages, and hard cider, very handy for cajoling skeptical business men. But Elmer, being trained theologically, had to weave all the elements -- dogma, poetry to the effect that God's palette held the sunsets or ever the world began, confessions of the dismally damned, and stories of Maine barn-dances -- into one ringing whole.
The more things change, and all that.
Sharon Falconer is loosely based on Aimee Semple McPherson, who (like Falconer) was no friend of evolution. During the Scopes trial, she sent a note to Bryan to encourage him and to report on her planned rally in his support, which was to culminate in a mock trial that would depict the "hanging and burial of monkey teachers."
Sinclair Lewis: "If fascism comes to America, it will arrive waving the flag and carrying a chross."
Is this book really that good?
Thanks for the context.
Glenn Branch's comment and a bit more about the book are at Wikipedia; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elmer_Gantry
One of my favorite novels by one of my favorite authors (you must, if you've time, read Arrowsmith).
My favorite quote, and I apologize if you haven't reached as far as page 237, is about Elmer's new agey employer:
Though to the commonplace and unspeculative eye Mrs. Evans Riddle was but a female blacksmith, yet Mrs. Riddle and her followers knew, in a bland smirking way, that she was instituting an era in which sickness, poverty, and folly would be ended forever.
She was the proprietor of the Victory Thought-power Headquarters, New York, and not even in Los Angeles was there a more important center of predigested philosophy and pansy-painted ethics. She maintained a magazine filled with such starry thoughts as âAll the worldâs a road whereon we are but fellow wayfarers.â She held morning and vesper services on Sunday at Euterpean Hall, on Eighty-seventh Street, and between moments of Silent Thought she boxed with the inexplicable. She taught, or farmed out, classes on Concentration, Prosperity, Love, Metaphysics, Oriental Mysticism, and the Fourth Dimension.
She instructed small Select Circles how to keep oneâs husband, how to understand Sanskrit philosophy without understanding either Sanskrit or philosophy, and how to become slim without giving up pastry. She healed all the diseases in the medical dictionary, and some which were not; and in personal consultations, at ten dollars the half hour, she explained to unappetizing elderly ladies how they might rouse passion in a football hero.
She had a staff, including a real Hindu swami â anyway, he was a real Hindu â but she was looking for an assistant.
A few paragraphs down we find the newly hired assistant (Elmer) giving a lecture to his class:
How agreeable on bright winter afternoons, in the gilt and velvet elegance of the lecture hall, to look at smart women, and moan, âAnd, oh, my beloved, can you not see, do you not perceive, have not your earth-bound eyes in-gathered, the supremacy of the rajaâs quality which each of us, by that inner contemplation which is the all however cloaked by the seeming, can consummate and build loftily to higher aspiring spheres?â
Almost any Hindu word was useful. It seems that the Hindus have Hidden Powers which enable them to do whatever they want to, except possibly to get rid of the Mohammedans, the plague, and the cobra. âSoul-breathingâ was also a good thing to talk about whenever he had nothing to say; and you could always keep an audience of satin-bosomed ladies through the last quarter-hour of lecturing by coming down hard on âConcentration.â
Also try to see the great movie. "Elmer Gantry". starring Burt Lancaster. The leading character in both the movie & the book was said to be based upon Billy Sunday who was, in his day, a really outrageous preacher.