Over the past few weeks, I’ve enjoyed Sinclair Lewis’ novel “Elmer Gantry” (as an audio book, beautifully read by Anthony Heald ) and it took me a while to figure out why. Published in 1926, this is the story of a “professional good man”, a preacher and pastor in those first decades of the 20th century before the Great Depression. In the book, Gantry rises to near-national fame as an evangelist exposing “vice” while being vicious himself throughout, desperately so. [Spoiler:] Though his hypocrisy comes close to being found out several times, he continues to escape and emerge each time more successful, while his antagonists and others who cross his path wither, vanish or perish altogether.
I wondered why I liked the book so much because Gantry, the protagonist, isn’t someone to identify with: he’s got very little going for him—he’s not even evil. He’s really just “a hog,” as one colleague calls him in the book. He’s so forgettable as a character that it seems writerly sin to assemble an entire novel around him. He does not undergo any growth of character, either in the positive or in the negative. Lewis continually repeats Gantry’s phrases and thoughts to underline the repetitiveness and banality of the man and his miserable career – miserable not in terms of worldly success but in terms of meaning and merit. After a few pages I knew all there was to be known about Elmer Gantry—and yet, I felt compelled to finish the book, sighing a lot throughout, but fully engaged to the end.
Once again: why?
One reason is the writing itself: it makes you want to listen to Elmer and his shenanigans. Here is a short excerpt from the first third of the book, describing Elmer’s first assignment as a baptist pastor. Behold the beautiful rhythm:
«Brother Gantry was shaking hands all around. His sanctifying ordination, or it might have been his summer of bouncing from pulpit to pulpit, had so elevated him that he could greet them as impressively and fraternally as a sewing-machine agent. He shook hands with a good grip, he looked at all the more aged sisters as though he were moved to give them a holy kiss, he said the right things about the weather, and by luck or inspiration it was to the most acidly devout man in Boone County that he quoted a homicidal text from Malachi.»
Elmer’s wholesomeness is deceptive and here as in many other parts of the book, he manages to deceive himself as well, by elevation, as it were. The author’s sarcasm is erudite, too: the Book of Malachi (I had to look it up, not being at all well-versed in the bible) contains a critique of the lax religious and social behavior of (Israelite) priests, hereby pointing at one of the issues of the plot: how can any full-blooded, able-bodied man take the religion as seriously as a preacher should? Baptised as a Catholic, I’ve always been equally fascinated by the rigor formally imprinted on the soft soul of god’s men as by the creativity, anchored both in their personalities and in their organizations, with which they permit themselves breathing space despite the harsh moralistic scaffold. Harsh and boring, in fact:
“It’s all so dull,” Elmer cries more than once, and means the doctrine, the learning and the telling of the doctrine and its endless ramifications. Dull and entrancing at once, because dullness, when it drones on and on, has this muzak-like ability to put us into trance before it puts us to sleep. Elmer spends his whole life in that trance, which excuses many of his misdeeds.
The following section illustrates the trance both on the side of the protagonist, and on the side of the reader—it takes place about half way through the book where Elmer muses upon the sight of Sharon Falconer, his only true love and a professional traveling evangelist, very shortly before Sharon dies tragicomically:
«Elmer, sitting back listening, was moved as in his first adoration for her. He had become so tired of her poetizing that he almost admitted to himself that he was tired. But tonight he felt her strangeness again, and in it he was humble. He saw her straight back, shimmering in white satin, he saw her superb arms as she stretched them out to these thousands, and in hot secret pride he gloated that his beauty, beheld and worshipped of so many, belonged to him alone.»
The sequence also illustrates how Sinclair Lewis manipulates POV: he remains an ‘involved’ narrator (Ursula Le Guin’s term for what is often called “omniscient”) while he at the same time leans deeply into the protagonist. He performs the same trick with other important characters, most notably with the sympathetic, ultimately terribly unlucky, preacher Frank Shallard, a one-time classmate of Gantry’s. Lewis uses this technique whenever he wants to reflect without leaving the character, and especially when, as in the previous passage, he wishes to paint the picture of ambivalence, which, in this novel, is as deep as the Nile is long.
There is so much more to be said about this book, which is not without weaknesses. Many reviewers mention that it slackens a little in the middle and that the story loses its grip on the reader while following some of Elmer Gantry’s less illuminating adventures in industry before he returns to the job of a preacher for good. This may well be—I appreciated this part as a breather and as necessary buildup of Gantry’s character (of which there is so little). The pace in this middle section is distinctly different, but Lewis uses it to establish a network of relationships to secondary characters.
These secondary characters, not the antagonists, of which there are few if any, and all of them good men & women (apart from Hettie Dowler and her spouse) are the third secret of the book for me: there is an army of secondary characters, friends and foes of Gantry, representatives of the entire American nation really, and through their scenes (often without Gantry’s presence), the world of the early twentieth century comes to life.
The one real weakness I see in the book is one which it shares with so many books that I wouldn’t know where to begin counting, including most of recent literature: the female characters aren’t so fully drawn as to really come to life (with the exception of Gantry’s female counterpart, Sharon Falconer). For the modern reader, this is dissatisfying. From the modern female reader it may even bring a death sentence—I hope not, because like all great literature, the book as a whole rises above gender stereotypes by, paradoxically, describing stereotype, but oh-so beautifully rendered.
It’s delightful to be filled to the brim by a book once again. It makes me feel young again, perhaps because it brings me back to days when I really just lived for and through books. Those days may be gone, but it is comforting to know that despite all that “stuff” between me and the land of fiction, including my own writing, I can still grow down and let myself be filled. And it’s good, too, to step back now, bowing to a master, and analyze his technique and his special effects.
And now I’m off putting some of these principles to work and upgrading the Wikipedia entry on the novel, which is a little undernourished given the rank of this work by a writer, who said “brokenly many things beautiful in their common-ness.” (Sinclair Lewis)