Elmer Gantry, American Huckster

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.

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The Oldest Profession

Sapiens by Yuval Harari is a “long view” history of humanity. Harari’s view is that history only starts about 70,000 years ago with the “cognitive revolution” which helped to separate “Homo Sapiens” from all the other members of the genus “Homo”. About 100,000 years ago there were Neanderthals, Denisovans, the Flores dwarf Homo species and several other human species spread across the Earth. Then we happened to them, as we also did to other large animals in any new habitat we reached – eg Australia, the Americas, the New Zealand Moa and the Mauritian Dodo.

In Harari’s view the cognitive revolution enabled Homo Sapiens to tell stories to one another, to trade with other bands of Sapiens and to plan ahead. The capacity for longer distance trade was a distinct advantage Homo Sap had over the Neanderthals and other hominids.

The cognitive revolution led to the development of more complex societies built on the fictions of religion, monarchy, the state and money. As Harari points out tellingly, no chimpanzee would willingly hand over a banana now on the somewhat vague promise of six bananas in the afterlife. Humans have the ability to conceptualise the ideas of trade, co-operation, religion and the hierarchies of power such that the bargain at least seems plausible or politic.

There is plenty of long view history to enjoy in this book and the illustrations are well chosen too.

“Between 3,500 and 3,000 BC some unknown Sumerian geniuses invented a system for storing and processing information outside their brains …. writing.

The earliest messages left by our ancestors read, for example ‘29,086 measures barley 37 months Kushim’. The most probable reading of this sentence is ‘A total of 29,086 measures of barley were received over the course of 37 months. Signed Kushim’

‘Kushim’ may be the generic title of an office holder, or the name of a particular individual. If Kushim was indeed a person, he may be the first individual in history whose name is known to us! …It is telling that the first recorded name in history belongs to an accountant, rather than a prophet, a poet or a great conqueror.”

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Music and dance in Liberia in the 1930s

Graham Greene took a Journey without Maps in the mid 1930’s to Liberia. “I examined the usual blank map on the wall, a few towns along the coast, a few villages along the border.” One other map Greene saw had the interior of Liberia inhabited in part by “Cannibals”. The mapping of a smaller world was really only partly complete.

Liberia is an oddity among African states as it was partly colonised from the Americas by C19 freed slaves, some of whom bore a close resemblance to the slave owners. By the 1930’s the descendants of these freed slaves numbered around 15,000 people who exerted a degree of colonial control over the lives of 1 million tribal Africans. The Government, such as it was, was funded mostly by revenues paid by Firestone Rubber for the long term lease of vast areas of land used as rubber plantations. The Afro-American elite had recently been sanctioned by the League of Nations for engaging in “labour hire” practices regarded as being close to slavery.

The roads were almost non existent but Europeans could be admitted on “Explorer” visas. Graham Greene and his cousin Barbara Greene took a month to travel 300 miles overland from the border with Sierra Leone down to the coast, often by guesswork, supported and sometimes carried by around 20 local “bearers”.

Greene’s description of “Music at Night”

That night Gissi, a Buzie man, came up to play the harp. A row of black heads lined the verandah, while he sat with dangling legs picking out of the palm fibres light melancholy monotonous music, beautifully superficial music, which just tickled the surface of the mind, didn’t tiresomely claim any deep emotion whether of grief or exaltation, the claim which fixes strained masks on the faces in a concert hall. This was the music of a cigarette box; it was sad but it didn’t really care, everything would always be the same. The little recurring notes plucked with four nails died out and began again unvaried against the night, the black faces the hurricane lamp and the moths that drove by in swarms to shrivel their wings against it. ….

The goatherd came and danced, stamping and flinging out his arms, and one by one the men came out of the dark and on to the verandah, into the lamplight, hurling themselves this way and that, sending the shadows flying from their arms and legs. Their faces were strange but soon they were to become familiar, for these were the labourers who Vande, my newly appointed headman, had found for me, to carry fifty pound weights for four weeks on end, for three shillings a week and their food. It sounded to stranger next door to slave labour, but these were not slaves stamping up and down with a controlled wildness and an unconscious grace. …

They didn’t speak a word as they swayed and stamped; each improvised, dancing alone with no reference to the others; it was only the music and the shadows which lent them unity. I was to see these improvised dances again and again during the long trek. The slightest hint of a tune would set them off; if there was no music someone would tap a twig on an empty tin. They were more easy to appreciate than the communal dances. They had obvious dramatic qualities and one could see hidden under the personal idiosyncrasies the germ of the Charleston. But to the native, I suppose, the communal dance was on a higher, more subtle level; only one hadn’t oneself got a clue to their appreciation. I saw such a dance in the village. A band of youths with drums chanted an air, while about seven boys shuffled in a small circle with their hands at their sides, one foot forward, the other brought up beside it, then forward again. Presently three girls joined them and the circle became smaller than ever; a girl’s nipples bulged against the back in front, her buttocks were pressed by the girl behind. Round and round they went to the monotonous beat, a snake eating its own tail.     ……

More recently the Financial Times interviewed Ellen Sirleaf, Liberia’s President since 2007 about the difficulties of governing a country with a recent history of large scale civil war and the Ebola virus.

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Derivation of Silly Mid Off

It is well known that the breaking of the non striker’s stumps by the bowler prior to delivering the ball is called a “Mankad” after Vinoo Mankad, the Indian bowler who dismissed the Australian batsman Bill Brown in this manner in 1947.

Less well known is the story of the personal name behind two of the fielding positions on the cricket field. In 1840 Fyodor Zilimidov, the younger son of a prominent Russian noble, was studying at Cambridge University in England. He was one of the first Russians to do so.

Two weeks into his first term at Cambridge Zilimidov was induced to play in a game of cricket for his Cambridge college despite never having previously seen the game played. The other students suggested, for a spot of amusement, that he stand only five feet from the batter; a position in which no-one had ever stood previously for the very sensible reason that they were concerned for their own safety.

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The World in 1930 – New Atlas

A “new” Atlas provides a different view of the world, or at least it did prior to the advent of Online mapping. Philips Handy Volume Atlas of the World, Vol 17, 1930 contains 80 maps in a book approximately the size of a largish, thick pocket diary. The 1930 edition includes “the very latest geographical changes … such as the recent settlement regarding the boundary between Canada and Labrador, the frontiers between Iraq, Transjordan and the Nejd …”.

The distribution of population by continent was as follows (and in 2015): Europe 417 m (742 m), Asia 901 m (4,397 m), Africa 131 m (1,171 m), North America 114 m (357 m), South America 43 m (630 m), Australasia 7 m (40 m) , Total 1,613 m (7,127 m).

The authors also divided the population by racial type – White 900 m, Yellow 500 m, Black 200 m. So, what could possibly go wrong with devising a racial typology of the world’s population? Intriguingly the Jews were included in the white column while some of Hitler’s more willing European allies in the Magyars and the Finns were included in the Yellow column so even the junk science of race had fuzzy bits around the edges.

Europe in 1930 looks generally similar to the map of 2016 after the breakup of the old empires in the aftermath of WWI. The significant difference lies in the location of Poland, which looks as if it has been pushed some distance eastward, out beyond the eastern border of Lithuania. In the west, Germany occupies all but a sliver of the south Baltic coast which is divided between Poland and the League of Nations Mandated Free City of Danzig, with East Prussia separated from the rest of Germany. This curious arrangement was designed to give Poland some access to a port city, if only indirectly. Danzig (now Gdansk) was then a 95% German city with a Polish hinterland and was in a Customs Union with Poland. WWII in Europe started with a German attack on Danzig and Poland. A glance at the map suggests that an efficient Panzer Division could easily have driven through the Polish sliver and Danzig from one side of Germany to the other in an hour or so.

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Little Desert 1970

My father Alan Tangey worked for the Lands Department and the Little Desert mapping project was a nice little earner for the Stawell Survey crew camping out in their new caravans being paid off by the living away from home allowances. As a 12 year old I was taken up there with the Surveyor’s son to amuse ourselves for a week on a school holiday break while the Survey crew mapped the Desert. It is fair to say that none of the Survey crew were gourmet cooks. “Who called the cook a bastard?” “Who called the bastard a cook?”

A voice in the (suburban) wilderness
An extract from
 Defending the Little Desert

Libby Robin

In the Melbourne suburb of Greensborough, Valerie Honey read this letter and saw red. Sir William McDonald, the Victorian Minister for Lands, was proposing to put farms on the Little Desert, an isolated area of undeveloped country near her birthplace in Western Victoria. Honey had nostalgic memories of visiting the area near her uncle’s farm, where she sometimes spent school holidays:

I didn’t know it was the Little Desert . . . we used to call it ‘the scrub’ . . . It was sunset and the sun was going with rays across this little salt lake… There were birds and parrots and the salt lake had turned red . . . It was the most magnificent sight!


Geomorphologists tell us that the Wimmera’s Little Desert was last inundated by the sea some 200 million years ago. It remains a place where tides continue to turn.

Here, in 1970, we saw the end of the colonial cornucopia culture. Sir William McDonald, Minister for Lands in the Bolte Government, had been attempting to continue his predecessors’ work of carving up and handing out a seemingly endless supply of Crown land.


In addition to working for the Lands Department Alan was active in the ALP and very happy to get rid of Sir William McDonald who he pretty much despised as a nasty version of the jumped up squattocracy. Local scuttlebutt had it that the bitumen road ran all the way to Sir Bill’s front gate in the middle of nowhere.

At the Victorian State Election of 1970 the Liberal Party vote fell 0.8% statewide while Sir William McDonald lost the seat of Dundas with an 8.4% 2PP swing to the ALP. Eddie Lewis was a one term ALP member from Hamilton before normal transmission was resumed. He camped out on our couch a couple of times. Ahhh, the glory days of the unreconstructed, unelectable Victorian ALP.

Nonetheless the Little Desert campaign was a significant moment in popular environmentalism here in Victoria, and there is no way it should ever have been sold off as farmland.

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Darkness at Noon

It has been sitting there on the bookshelf forever. I always thought I’d read the four inter-war totalitarian novels: Zamyatin’s “We”, Huxley’s “Brave New World”, Orwell’s slightly late 1984 and Koestler’s “Darkness at Noon” back in my Uni days. Turns out I hadn’t read Koestler but rather absorbed the gist of it by osmosis through other sources and through people talking about it.

I was inspired to get it off the shelf after reading Kisch in Australia. The novel “Darkness at noon” fully justifies its place in the totalitarian quartet even if we all know from the start that there will be no fairy godmother ending. I especially enjoyed the tale of the East European communist dumped on a train and sent to the USSR after 20 years in prison in his home country who can draw the map of the country blindfolded and is convinced the authorities in his home country put him on a train heading in the wrong direction.  Continue reading

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