07 March 2010

Elmer Gantry

Aside from Dante Alighieri, Sinclair Lewis might well be my favorite author. Born and raised in the American Midwest -- specifically, Minnesota -- Lewis is quite familiar with the society and culture of Middle America, and is thus well-poised to take note of various neuroses that seem to be hereditary within it. Among these neuroses may be counted jingoism, anti-intellectualism and -- in the case of his 1927 novel Elmer Gantry -- religious and moral hypocrisy.

As Lewis envisions him, Elmer is a out-and-out cad -- pick any vice or iniquity at random, and the odds are that Elmer engages in it at some point in the novel -- and yet he finds no fault in any of his actions (unless, that is, they come back to haunt him in some way). The far-from-subtle irony in this is that Elmer is minister who harps mercilessly on the immorality of contemporary society. This might seem like old hat in an age where the pastor-cum-pedophile is a frequent hobbyhorse for many a hackneyed satirist, but the novel caused quite the stir at the time of its original publication. Elmer's hypocrisy -- combined with his unwavering cocksureness -- makes for one of those unusual circumstances wherein the primary character of the novel is one whom the reader more than likely detests, and whose comeuppance the reader impatiently anticipates.

Equally as detestable as Elmer himself -- if not more so -- is the wide-ranging influence he is able to wield over his parishioners and fellow clergymen, thanks in no small part to his limitless charisma and imposing stature. At one point in the novel, Elmer organizes a Committee on Public Morals, and leads several raids on various dens of iniquity (while having an extramarital affair with an old lover). Towards the end of the novel, Elmer plots to organize organize various religious and moral groups to lobby en masse in Washington, an effort which is nearly derailed by his being caught in a scandalous affair with his married secretary (nearly, but apparently not quite).

Elmer Gantry is a sobering reminder of the sort of influence that Christian Fundamentalism has had on American society and government, and one that -- in the epoch of such titans of televangelism as Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson -- continues to be quite relevant to modern times.

As a personal note, it is quite interesting that Sinclair Lewis performed much of his research for Elmer Gantry here in Kansas City. Why is it, I have to wonder, that Missouri is so often a case study for America's innumerable cultural neuroses?

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