It was certain that this novel would generate attempts at censorship, for its author was no stranger to controversy and its publisher, Harcourt Brace and Company, was eager to promote it as a sensational exposé rather than as the fierce satire it really was. Lewis’ best-selling earlier satires, Main Street (1920) and Babbitt (1922), had lampooned the values of midwestern small town life, and he had created a firestorm in literary circles by refusing to accept a Pulitzer Prize for the novel Arrowsmith (1925).
Some objected to the spicy scenes of physical passion in Elmer Gantry, but most of the clergy who opposed the book were more outraged by the shallowness and hypocrisy of its main character. Much of Lewis’ background research took place in Kansas City, Missouri, and ministers there were particularly angered and vociferous. However, a local Unitarian clergyman, L. M. Birkhead, defended the novel as a warning against self-righteousness. In the decades that followed, the book would become widely available.
In 1960, a film version of Elmer Gantry was made, with Burt Lancaster, in the title role, winning an Oscar for best actor.
In Elmer Gantry, Sinclair Lewis uses the character of Elmer Gantry to represent, without nuance or ambiguity, what he viewed as the prototypical evangelical minister of his day: ambitious and charismatic; driven by his lust for women, money, and power; and completely unrepentant in his scorn for those who believe in the faith he deceptively proclaims. At the novel’s beginning, Gantry is captain of the football team at the rowdy campus at Terwillinger College, a Baptist school. Gantry’s mother is a strict fundamentalist, so Gantry spent much of his childhood in church, where he learned the dour lifestyle of a Christian. Now in college, Gantry and his roommate, Jim Lefferts, spend much of their time drinking and chasing women, but their primary amusement comes from ridiculing their classmates’ incessant religious proselytizing. When a charismatic preacher comes to town for a revival meeting, he seeks out Gantry and tricks him into attending. With Jim (who is more skeptical and quick-witted than Gantry) home sick in bed, Gantry attends the meeting with his mother and is converted. Gantry’s conversion makes him the talk of the campus, and Jim soon moves out. After several failed efforts to hear God calling him to the ministry, Gantry shares a bottle of whiskey with Jim and emerges with the feeling of having received the call.
He goes to Mizpah Seminary, where he entertains his classmates with tales of his sexual escapades. The dean sends Gantry and classmate Frank Shallard to pastor a nearby church. There they meet their host, Deacon Bains, and his daughter Lulu, an ingenue whom Gantry continually tries to seduce. Gantry is bored by school, but Shallard is drawn to a professor who eventually confesses his atheism to Shallard. After exposing the professor’s secret, Gantry receives an anonymous gift of thirty dimes, which he uses to buy photographs of strippers. Gantry considers Shallard’s company an obstacle to his plans with Lulu, so he engineers Shallard’s resignation with accusations of apostasy. When Deacon Bains discovers Gantry’s affair with Lulu and forces him to propose, Gantry tricks another man into an entanglement with Lulu and is released from the engagement. On the trip to his new church, he gets...
Elmer Gantry, known as Hell-cat to his classmates at Terwillinger College in Kansas in 1902, is a large man, six feet one, with a loud, booming voice. He leads the team as football captain and is twice elected class president. Although he is assumed to be popular, Gantry is not really well liked by his classmates. Elmer’s father, Logan Gantry, a feed dealer, died at a young age, leaving his widow to support herself and her son with her sewing. She was a religious woman and made Gantry go to church, where he learned about religion but failed to learn decency or kindness.
When the evangelist Judson Roberts speaks at the college for the YMCA Week of Prayer, Gantry is moved to kneel in prayer and announce that he is saved. The crowd cheers for the passionate speech Gantry delivers following his conversion, and the president of the college tells him he is a born preacher. Gantry’s mother, who attended the meeting, says it was her happiest moment. College officials and his mother urge Elmer to become a minister.
Gantry attends Mizpah Seminary, where he is ordained as a Baptist minister. While he is preaching in a small town, Gantry meets Lulu Bains, the daughter of a deacon at the church, and seduces her. He promises to marry her but quickly tires of her. When Floyd Naylor and Deacon Bains threaten to beat him if he does not marry Lulu, Gantry claims he always planned to marry her, and they announce the engagement. In a scheme to get out of his commitment, however, he stages a fight with Lulu and then leaves her alone with Floyd. As Floyd innocently embraces Lulu to comfort her, Gantry leads Deacon Bains to the spot and shines a flashlight on the couple. Outraged to see his daughter kissing Floyd, the deacon forces Lulu to marry Floyd. Gantry pretends to be devastated by Lulu’s betrayal and asks the dean for a transfer.
On his way to the new church, Gantry gets drunk with a stranger he meets on the train, passes out, and misses the church service. He is fired from the seminary and has to find work as a salesman for a farm implement company. On his travels, he falls under the spell of a female evangelist named Sharon Falconer. Acting as her assistant, Gantry pays people to fake being saved or feigns his own conversion. Following her rise to eminence as a healer of the sick, Sharon buys a resort on the New Jersey coast that she names Waters of Jordan Tabernacle. By holding meetings there, she does not have to share her profits with local churches. When a workman carelessly discards a cigarette, the tabernacle goes up in flames and kills 111 people, including Sharon and her crew. Gantry tries to lead...
In this novel, Lewis’s satire is unrelieved, beginning with his first description of Terwillinger College on the outskirts of Gritzmacher Springs, Kansas, where Elmer (nicknamed Hell-cat) Gantry is wasting his time and his mother’s money pretending to get an education.
Elmer meets Judson Roberts, a preacher, and is beginning to consider a career as an evangelical minister when he is pushed into the position of leading a crowd to exhort God. Because his original plan to become a lawyer would have required study, it is easy for him to change his vocational goal, but he needs to “get a Call.” This he fakes, with the help of some whiskey, and he is on his way.
At Mizpah Theological Seminary, near Zenith, he meets Frank Shallard (one of the few decent characters in the novel), with whom Elmer shares a part-time assignment at a small country church. Always extremely interested in sex, Elmer cannot resist seducing Lulu Bains, virginal daughter of the deacon, but when the girl begins to talk of marriage, Elmer devises a scheme to marry her off to Floyd Naylor, claiming her infidelity. For this, he is rewarded with a larger church in Monarch.
Unable to reach the deacon when he arrives, Elmer falls in with some salesmen, gets drunk, and forgets the Easter service completely. Summarily dismissed, and no longer a reverend, he becomes a salesman himself for the next two years. Although he is quite successful and enjoys the freedom to drink and womanize, Elmer misses the adulation he had as a preacher, so he becomes the assistant of an evangelist, Sharon Falconer, hoping to share...