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!