Political Flavors

Elmer Gantry

Posted in Book Reviews on July 8th, 2011

After hearing many compare Glenn Beck to the title character in Sinclair Lewis’ classic novel Elmer Gantry, I was very curious to read it. It Can’t Happen Here is one of my favorite books, and so I was looking forward to another sharp political classic that has stood the test of time.

I was completely engrossed in this book from the start, when young Elmer is in college in Kansas in 1902. The first of many surprises in this book was that college kids haven’t changed much. The scenes describing the landmines of social interactions and the earnest piousness of college ministries could have come right from any campus in the 21st century. Throughout the novel, Lewis’ dialogue is realistic and does not sound dated at all, aside from a stray reference here or there. There is a running gag in the book which had me delighted every time it was used. The humor has not gone stale, and I found myself laughing out loud a lot.

The story follows Elmer Ganrty from avowed college atheist through his conversion, time in divinity school, and his work as a minister. His journey takes him to places unexpected but the narrative works; though there are several distinct stories that are much like acts in a play or episodes of a miniseries.

Elmer is conniving, but not quite evil. His womanizing and the liberties he takes with theology were enough to get the book banned when it was published. Like Brave New World, scenes and subtext that are not at all shocking today were scandalous when it was published, especially when concerning the life of a clergyman. Elmer is intelligent, but not as smart as he thinks he is. His charm and tenacity make him impossible to hate, though you get the feeling you probably should. Despite the fact that it is fashionable to say so, I found him nothing like Glenn Beck. Gantry is a gifted orator with the power to sway people. There are dozens of conservatives with more charisma than Beck. Beck’s talents are not in speech writing or delivery but in both subtle dog whistles and angry, paranoid ranting. Although there is one scene in particular where Gantry gets a bit carried away where I do see a slight resemblance, that they are both ambitious people who use religion to further themselves is where the similarities end. If anything, Gantry is part Roissy (without a blog), and part Ted Haggard (without the gay). Perhaps people are referring to the film adaptation for the Glenn Beck allusions?

Sinclair Lewis spent time in several churches researching this book, and so it’s no surprise he has something to say about many different denominations. A few of the stereotypes have been lost over the years, but he meant to critique all religions, not just one. The book sometimes strays in to Stranger In A Strange Land territory in that a short vingette seems only there to tell us Lewis’ opinion on a topic rather than to advance the plot, but these are few and brief.

We do see how life turns out for several of Elmer’s classmates and their endings are sometimes bittersweet. The women of this novel are more than a backdrop, they are as three dimensional as the supporting men are but we only really see them through Elmer’s eyes. As the book spans the course of decades we can see how his relationships or all kinds change over time, and this is a powerful device.

Elmer Gantry is such a good read. The humor and story have aged so well. In part it’s because Sinclair Lewis is a masterful storyteller. But it’s also because the strong influence that religion has in the United States has not left our politics or private lives. Elmer uses religion to influence both in all the ways we fear it can be used. This is why his story still resonates.

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