Sinclair Lewis wrote Elmer Gantry at the height of his fame, in the middle of the 1920’s. That decade began for Lewis with Main Street: The Story of Carol Kennicott (1920) and ended with Dodsworth (1929) and included not only Babbitt (1922) and Arrowsmith (1925) but also their author’s refusal of a Pulitzer Prize. Curiously, Elmer Gantry gives the first hint of the waning of Lewis’s powers. Before this novel, Lewis had served a long apprenticeship and achieved great success. Between 1915 and 1920, he wrote fifty short stories and five novels, experimenting with his themes and characterizations and sketching out his satiric portraits of various types, not the least of these being religious types. The climax of that kind of portraiture came with Elmer Gantry.
Lewis spent years perfecting his method of research to establish the realistic foundation on which his satires rest. Main Street was a sensational best seller, and apparently it occurred to Lewis that he could repeat his success if he would, in a programmatic way, turn his satiric eye upon the various aspects of American life in sequence. After his exposure of the village, he next chose Zenith, a middle-sized city, and George F. Babbitt, a middle-class businessman. Thereafter he applied his attention (in collaboration with Dr. Paul de Kruif) to medicine, public health, and medical experimentation. Finally, he found a challenging topic in the ministry. Undertaking an exposure of hypocrisy in religion was a formidable and dangerous task, but Lewis...
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