Elmer Gantry (1927)

One thing I will say, for sure, about Sinclair Lewis is that he is a good story teller. He develops the narrative very well around a particular individual, providing a lot of interesting sidetracks to contribute to a fuller narrative.  In the case of Elmer Gantry, he uses a lot of narrative development to provide a relatively broad view of the character of Elmer Gantry and the circles in which he rambles. For instance, the small town Baptist congregation, the Baptist Seminarians, the Evangelical movement, the life of a salesman, the metropolitan Methodist congregation, the hypocrisy of Elmer’s life; all of these are dealt with, and more, in great detail.

But it is too obvious to the reader that Elmer is a hypocrite who is less invested in his personal salvation than he is in his reputation and living up to his expected, oratorical potential; otherwise, we wouldn’t have been treated to all of the sordid details of Elmer’s two-faced life.

So what is it exactly that Lewis is telling the reader about Elmer and the world he lived in? It’s not just that hypocrisy exists with the Clergy. This is obvious in this novel. We all know this is true. I doubt anyone, anymore at least, looks at the Clergy and automatically thinks Purity. We all know that the more repressed they are, the more wild they are.  Perhaps in the 1920s people were still shocked by this information. Unfortunately, today we are more jaded and have come to expect the worst.

I think that reading this novel today, we have to look at it in terms of how we interpret and deal with our current perceptions of religious hypocrisy and the individuals who perpetuate it.  It’s not that Elmer was so bad and tried to act like he was so good; it’s that there was a system in place that supported, advised, and encouraged him to go against his very nature.

In the process of preaching salvation and damnation for others, Elmer essentially denied himself salvation because he clearly didn’t believe in God, though he persecuted his atheistic college buddy, Jim Lefferts, exactly for that. Elmer didn’t believe in God any more than Jim did, but Elmer was able to manipulate his way through the world of evangelism in a way that allowed for his own atheism to not be an issue. If he truly believed all the fire and damnation that he was preaching, then he would not have been such a sinner.  This is an obvious point.  Lewis can’t possibly have written a 400+ page book just to tell us this.

The larger problem was not Elmer’s individual hypocrisy, it was the system that engendered and perpetuated it. When I think of Elmer Gantry the individual, and of all of the preachers and evangelical ministers who helped Elmer along the way to his late-greatness, I think of Patrick Bateman (American Psycho 2000). Perhaps, dear reader, you may see this as a stretch, but it isn’t really.

Patrick Bateman was a pretty disturbed individual who lived a public life that was quite different from his private life. The final scene of the film shows Bateman confessing his murderous sins to his colleagues only to have them not believe him. In other words, despite the moment of catharsis (i.e. confession) for Bateman, and his desperate plea for help, the world around him didn’t care (or was in just as much denial as he was). The world around him essentially supported the level of denial that Bateman had been living in.  It is the system itself that both creates and perpetuates Bateman’s ability to continue, should he choose to do so, his murderous tendencies.  Of course, the viewer must also consider the very real possibility that Bateman never killed any of those people, and that it was all in his head the entire time (i.e. he’s just a psycho and not a murdering psycho).

But if we consider the first possibility as the most probable message/metaphor, then we must consider that the system itself allows individuals within it to do aberrant things, and it is the system itself that is in need of further analysis. This is why Elmer Gantry is like American Psycho: because both stories provide the reader/viewer with a dysfunctional system that allows individuals within it to run wild.

It’s an interesting thought at least.

The last thing I’d like to say about this novel is that I really and truly did not like Sinclair Lewis’s referencing of himself and his other novels (Babbitt, Main Street) within the novel itself, and I found this literarily distasteful and pointless (though Elmer ended up in the city of Zenith, the same setting as Babbitt, etc.). There were also quite a few editorial/proofreading errors throughout the edition I read and frequently I felt like it was a reflection on his writing style. I will give him the “good narrative” accolade, but I am not yet ready to endow him with a “good writer” award. Someone like Samuel Beckett can get away with poor grammar and confusing sentence structure, because it’s intentional, but someone at Signet should have done a better job of proofing Mr. Lewis’s copy!

 

 

The Grapes of Wrath (1939)

Taken from my film blog: http://cinematophiliac.wordpress.com/2009/05/10/the-grapes-of-wrath-novel-1939/

As my faithful readers know (thank you!), this is a blog devoted entirely to analyzing film. And, I normally stick pretty closely to the unspoken tenets of only writing about films. But once before on this blog, I ventured into writing about Arthur C. Clarke’s Odyssey Tetralogy because of the corresponding films and my overpowering desire to write about the books in a place where I knew it would be read. So I suppose I justify my actions now in that same way.

Now, I haven’t watched the 1940  Henry Fonda/John Ford film version yet because I like to read the book first and then watch the film, but I did just add it to the top of my Netflix queue.  But, I feel compelled to write about the novel right now because I just finished reading it this morning and it evoked a particular reaction in me.

I don’t know if I had the same reaction as every one else who has read this novel or not. The older I get, the more I realize how similar we all react to things. So what I say about this, or anything else I write about on this blog, is just what comes out: untainted, unfiltered.

I’ll get to my point in a bit but I’d like to build up to it by explaining that the reason I picked this novel up at the Library was because it’s a classic and I’d never read it. I’ve started to feel ashamed lately because of my lack of experience reading some of our great American classics.  I didn’t specifically pick the book up because I thought it had some relevance to today’s “economic hard times” as we keep hearing on the news…now, after reading The Grapes of Wrath, I know the real hard times is yet to come, folks!  (A side effect of reading this novel is that you want to write in Okie dialect too).

But as soon as the novel began, I started seeing the connection between the state of affairs in the novel and what we’re experiencing today: big businesses and banks taking the land and livelihoods away from the American people in order to turn a bigger profit.    But by the end of the novel, in the last paragraph actually, it really hit home for me that we’re not any where near the level of desperation and human suffering that Steinbeck was describing. I know this for a few reasons.

I know this because we’re still taking vacations and planning weddings; we’re still shopping online for iTunes; we’re still filing sexual harassment lawsuits; we’re still protesting gay marriage rights; we’re still having parties at our houses and inviting friends and feeding them all night long.

We’re nowhere near the level of desperation Steinbeck describes. I agree with you that that is an obvious statement. But until you’ve gone through the novel and you’ve let your imagination run wild with the characters and their plight, I think it’s too easy to say to yourself as a reader in 2009: the same thing’s happening now!

No, the same thing isn’t happening now. We keep hearing “these tough economic times” every time we turn around. Yeah, we are experiencing tough economic times. Yeah, many of us don’t have jobs or have jobs that don’t come close to paying the bills. Yeah, I know. I’m living it too.  But the connotation that the media is trying to convey with “these tough economic times” is something much more grande than we can fathom in 2009.

I know this because I know what Rose of Sharon did in that last paragraph of the novel, and I know what the penultimate chapter was foreshadowing. Don’t worry, I won’t give it away. In the paragraphs leading up to the final paragraph of the novel, I didn’t realize what was happening. I stopped and re-read it a few times before I got to the end because I couldn’t figure it out. Then, I finished the last paragraph and I knew.  And I cried. I can’t remember the last time I cried reading a novel.

I cried first because of the beauty of human nature. And the confusing part became clear.  Then I cried because of my confusion and I realized that’s the difference between us and them: we can’t fathom it, and Rose of Sharon and Ma both knew what had to be done.

Despite the 4-5 weeks it took me to read this 450 page novel (I won’t lie:  it’s long and it’s depressing, and that makes it hard to read for long durations), I made it to the end and found it to be one of the most beautiful novels I’ve ever read. At first, the rotating descriptive chapters are tedious because the reader hasn’t been brought thoroughly enough into the Joad Family story line yet.  But as the novel progresses, the descriptive chapters provide much-needed details and foreshadowing about the general state of affairs for migrants.  And by the penultimate chapter, it’s clear that it’s foreshadowing beyond the last words of the novel. It’s a lot like reading The Odyssey:  the narrative seemingly just ends without giving the reader the satisfaction of a truly happily-ever-after for Odysseus, Penelope and Telemachus, but the reader has to recall the prophecies and the omens and then he or she will know what is to come for them, and the reader can take some peace from that because the end is known.

Steinbeck has done the same thing for his readers but his Odysseus and Penelope and Telemachus will not grow old on Ithaca, and that is part of the sadness and beauty of this novel. We do not know what will specifically happen with Tom, but we know what happened to Casy. We do not specifically know what will happen with the rest of the Joad family, but we know what the penultimate chapter foreshadows. And we do not know what will specifically become of Rose of Sharon but we know that she is the embodiment of all that is good and pure in the human soul.

People relying on people who are in the same state of being as they are. People being good to others because they are good people, not because they’re being forced to for some ulterior motive.  People recognizing their own suffering in others and doing their best to assuage the pains of life.

This novel moralizes while also de-emphasizing the necessity for a fear of God. In fact, I think it is one of the best aspects of the book, and it is why Casy is in the narrative: to show that goodness and moral-ethical behavior do not have to be followed by God’s wrath. In fact, Steinbeck makes a point of showing that good judgment is just good judgment. (And there’s plenty of suffering for the living without having to worry about suffering after death).  And sometimes when wrong is being done to you, and you react in a way to protect yourself, bad things happen accidentally. I don’t think Steinbeck is justifying murder or violence; just the opposite. I think he’s justifying human behavior in the face of highly unethical treatment and oppression: the good, the bad, and the downright ugly.  I think he’s pointing out that if you push men to the brink, they will have no other choice (i.e. Tom) than to protect themselves, and at the same time, they will make the right choice (i.e. Rose of Sharon). When you’ve stripped man of his autonomy, you’ve opened up the can of worms on yourself; but when the can is empty, you’ll find the core of human nature.

Steinbeck was writing about real people.  We’re not quite real yet.  Nope. Far from it.  But I know there are Roses of Sharon out there waiting in many of us.