Sinclair Lewis was born in 1885 and died in 1951. He was the first American author to win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1930 after a phenomenally productive 1920’s when he produced five classic bestselling novels which helped to create for America and the world a picture of the first modern consumer society: the small towns and rapidly expanding mid West provincial cities peopled by T Model driving, radio owning, movie watching first, second and third generation Americans whose forebears arrived from all over Europe to build their dreams in a land cleared of native Americans.
Lewis was a bestselling author of the 1920’s and Main Street (small town conformity), Babbitt (bourgeois materialist’s mid life crisis), Elmer Gantry (hypocritical preacher) and the later It can’t happen here (US fascism) have become proverbial, in a way that few novels since have done. For all of his success Lewis was not simply a go-go booster of the American way, but rather an incisive researcher and mimic of the world around him. His first wife thought that he had written Main Street straight, but when the world took it as satire he was prepared to play along in his later novels. His 1930 Nobel Prize was a literary peak for Lewis and the quality and relevance of his work declined thereafter and his audience dwindled.
An early biographer helped to bury his work by performing a literary hatchet job on Lewis’ personal and literary failings. By the mid 1980’s he was not even rating a mention in the Norton’s Anthology of American Literature, which is a big comedown from the heights of 1930. It is also some sort of indictment of the compilers of Norton’s Anthology’s judgement.
The estimable Gore Vidal wrote a mainly positive essay about Sinclair Lewis and his post Nobel fall from grace in the American consciousness in which he left the last word to Lewis’ first wife – he influenced public opinion more than he influenced literature. Even the hostile biographer conceded that Americans could not imagine themselves without Lewis’ contribution.
I was inspired to read Elmer Gantry in this, the year of Drumpf, to see how American hypocrisy and pandering to people’s hopes and fears played out a century ago. Elmer Gantry is a somewhat reluctant preacher from America’s Mid West. Sinclair Lewis set many of his novels in the state of Winnemac and its capital Zenith City, located in between New York and Chicago.
Elmer’s single mother had pushed him toward a small town religious training college to fulfil her spiritual aspirations and being a good boy with seemingly little initiative at that stage he complied with his mother’s wishes. Elmer manages to scrape through religious college on the strength of his football skills, good looks and wonderful preaching voice.
Various episodes of drunkenness and womanising threaten his position at the school but in each case the crisis is averted and Elmer “repents his sins”. No-one at the college mistakes him for a person with a religious vocation but they think he could do well as a preacher by virtue of his looks, his demeanour and his voice.
Lewis portrays the Baptist theological college of the 1910’s as a standard bureaucratic school with the usual staff rivalries and concern for advancement overlain with a bit of Bible reading, usually of the more dire Old Testament kind.
After graduating from college one step ahead of a false paternity claim from the rural chapel’s deacon’s daughter Elmer decides on a more secular life as a travelling salesman for a time, a career at which he is successful enough with his “Hail fellow, well met” manner. After several years he walks into a travelling religious revival show and is smitten with the female preacher, Sharon Falconer who was partly modelled on America’s most successful religious revivalist of that era, Aimee Semple McPherson. Sharon Falconer is a cross between a speaking in tongues preacher and a successful business woman. Elmer becomes her organiser/advance man and eventually her lover. They plan to marry and settle down with a little church of their own built on a pier on the New Jersey shore but tragedy strikes and a fire consumes the church, Sharon and all within except for Elmer. This section of the book with its portrait of travelling revivalist preachers was the basis of the 1960 film which still manages to upset televangelist preachers.
Elmer then joins the Methodist Church and advances himself to a point where he can see a future advising Presidents on moral renewal, the evils of alcohol (he is fairly abstemious in later life) and the dangers of loose women. Needless to say his own penchant for loose women comes back to threaten him with the possibility of exposure and the conclusion of the book shows the mysterious ways of the Lord in preserving Elmer’s career. That these ways involve blackmail, threats of violence and hitting up wealthy parishioners for money prior to a massive public redemption should be no real surprise. And there we leave Elmer Gantry, all American preacher.
The book was controversial when it came out for its portrayals of hypocritical preachers. Sinclair Lewis was invited by some religiously inspired hotheads to attend his own lynching. We are much more jaded and less religious nowadays and we have ready access to enough high bandwidth stories of infidelity, fraud, drug abuse and megalomania to attract our attention as we scroll the headlines. Elmer Gantry’s “sins” seem almost quaint by comparison.
In the end I was reminded not of Trump but of Reagan, the showman huckster from the Mid West of seemingly few moral principles save for Kiss Up, Kick Down. Reagan first made his way with sporty good looks and a great radio voice. He was about 20 years younger than Elmer Gantry and so had far greater opportunities to use his talents in the “new media”, as opposed to working somewhere like Sharon Falconer’s travelling revival show.
Sinclair Lewis has been accused of humourlessness in his fiction but there were some amusements to be had through the book. There was the ex sporting hero spiritual adviser who almost seems to know in advance the mortal sin afflicting the young college boys – “Fresh air, and run like hell boys.” And Lewis takes the time to have a more thoughtful character devote half a page of literary criticism to Main Street: “Lord. How that book of Lewis’ did bore me; as much of it as I read; it just rambled on forever , and all he could see was that some of the Gopher Prairie hicks didn’t go to literary teas quite as often as he does! – that was all he could see among those splendid heroic pioneers”.
He’s better than that, Sinclair Lewis, and his America is a lot more representative of the 1920’s than Scott Fitzgerald’s Long Island bootlegger.