Places Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Places)
Paris. Kansas village in which Gantry grows up. With some nine hundred residents, it is smaller than the real town of Sauk Centre, Minnesota, in which Lewis grew up, and the fictional Gopher Prairie, which Lewis satirizes in Main Street (1920). Pretentiously named Paris, Gantry’s hometown is even more culturally impoverished than either Sauk Centre or Gopher Prairie, and appears to have not even a pubic library or a social club. A small Baptist church and its Sunday school are the leading institutions of the village. Except for Fourth of July parades and circus bands, the only music Gantry hears is played during church services. Other than occasional political campaign speeches, weekly sermons provide his only exposure to oratory. Sunday school offers examples of painting and sculpture; Bible stories and the words of hymns provide Gantry’s main experience of literature. Lewis concludes his description of Paris by asserting that the church and Sunday School taught Gantry everything he needed, “except, perhaps, any longing whatever for decency and kindness and reason.” (There is a real town named Paris in north-central Kansas, but Lewis’s Paris probably has no connection with it.)
Winnemac. Fictional midwestern state in which Gantry preaches before being advanced to a large city. Its villages include Schoenheim, Banjo Crossing, and others, all of which Lewis disparages as he does Paris....
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Protestant fundamentalism was in part a reaction in the early twentieth century to the development of the “higher criticism” in Biblical scholarship. Higher criticism was a method of Biblical criticism that originated in Germany. It applied the methods of historical and literary analysis in order to determine the authorship, date and place of composition of the books of the Bible. Higher criticism also showed that some elements in the Bible were also found in other religions and mythologies (the virgin birth, for example). This tended to undermine the uniqueness of Christianity and the literal interpretation of the Bible. Traditionalists, therefore, rejected the new approach of liberal theology. In the novel, when Elmer takes up his first appointment in a small-town Methodist church, one of the first questions the fundamentalist trustees asks him is, “Do any monkeying with this higher criticism?” Against the tide of modernist thought that included science and secularism, fundamentalists insisted on the truth of their core doctrines, including the virgin birth, the physical resurrection of Jesus, the atonement, the infallibility of the Scriptures, and the second coming of Christ.
During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, there were many evangelists, like Elmer and Sharon Falconer in the novel, who traveled around the country conducting revival campaigns...
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Elmer Gantry is a picaresque novel. A typical picaresque narrative chronicles the exploits of a rogue, an immoral but not criminal character who lives by his wits. There is no character development, and so Elmer, after his character is first established, does not change during the course of the novel. The main purpose of the picaresque novel (a modern example of which is Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March), is satire. Satire ridicules its subject, with the intention of arousing contempt or scorn in the reader. A satire can be aimed at an individual or a group. In Elmer Gantry, the object of Lewis’s satire is not only Elmer himself—who after the tabernacle fire “. . . rescued at least thirty people who had already rescued themselves. . . .”—but the entire clerical profession and the fundamentalist Protestant dogmas they represent. For example, the division between Northern and Southern Baptists is explained in this way: “. . . [B]efore the Civil War the Northern Baptists proved by the Bible, unanswerably, that slavery was wrong; and the Southern Baptists proved by the Bible, irrefutably, that slavery was the will of God.” Later in the novel, Frank Shallard realizes how threatened conservative clergymen are by scientific knowledge and how inadequate they are to preside over educational institutions. According to such people:
A proper school should teach nothing but...
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Compare and Contrast
1920s: From 1920 to 1933, the sale of alcohol is prohibited in the United States. The aim is to reduce crime and other social problems and improve health. However, although alcohol consumption does decrease, crime and corruption around alcohol increase. Public officials are bribed by gangsters to overlook illegal brewing and selling of alcohol.
Today: Advocates for the legalization of marijuana use arguments drawn from the experience of Prohibition. They claim that banning marijuana leads to drug trafficking which benefits organized crime; that the illegal sale of marijuana is linked to violence and terrorism; and that it presents huge costs to the taxpayer for law enforcement.
1920s: In Tennessee in 1925, a law known as the Butler Law is passed banning the teaching of the theory of evolution in public schools. In the so-called Scopes Monkey Trial in 1925, the state, aided by fundamentalist and Bible expert William Jennings Bryan, wins the case brought against J. T. Scopes, a biology teacher. Scopes is defended by well-known lawyer Clarence Darrow.
Today: Many fundamentalist Christians still favor the teaching of creationism (the biblical account of creation) alongside, or in place of, the teaching of evolution in public schools.
1920s: The growth of the automobile industry marks the emergence of the consumer society. In 1929, there are more than 27 million cars in America, which...
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Topics for Further Study
Discuss the issue of creationism and evolution. Should creationism be taught in public schools? Is there really a conflict between science and religion, between reason and faith, or can the two live in harmony?
Watch the 1960 film version of Elmer Gantry. Is Elmer the same in the movie as he is in the novel, or have the filmmakers altered his character? What are the major differences between the film and the novel?
Write a brief character sketch of Frank Shallard and describe his role in the novel. Why does Lewis include him in the book?
Consider the character of Jim Lefferts, as revealed in the first three chapters. What sort of a man is Jim? What are his leading characteristics? Then read chapter 30, section 5, where Jim reappears. How would you describe his demeanor? Is he successful? Which man seems to have the more vitality? This short scene is written from Elmer’s point of view. Rewrite it from Jim’s point of view. Think about how Jim would view Elmer, and how he might react to what Elmer says.
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What Do I Read Next?
Lewis’s Arrowsmith (1925) is one of his most admired novels. It portrays the career of Martin Arrowsmith, a dedicated, idealistic physician and truth-seeker who is severely tested by the cynicism he encounters in the medical profession.
The Damnation of Theron Ware (1896), by Harold Frederic, has many similarities to Elmer Gantry. The Reverend Theron Ware is a young, ambitious Methodist minister whose encounter with the new intellectual ideas of “higher criticism” and Darwinism destroys his simple faith in Methodism and ruins his career.
Thornton Wilder’s novel Heaven Is My Destination (1934), which is both comic and sad, follows the adventures of George Brush, a traveling salesman who unlike Elmer Gantry is a sincere convert to religious faith. He travels across America during the Depression, determined to live a good life, but he is frequently misunderstood by people he encounters.
Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America’s Continuing Debate over Science and Religion (1997), by Edward J. Larson, is an account of the 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial in Tennessee. Larson provides an excellent cultural history of an issue—the teaching of religion and science in public schools—that remains relevant today.
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Ferguson, Charles W., Review of Elmer Gantry, in Critical Essays on Sinclair Lewis, edited by Martin Bucco, G. K. Hall, 1986, pp. 47–48; originally published in the Bookman, March 1927.
Grebstein, Sheldon Norman, Sinclair Lewis, Twayne United States Authors Series, No. 14, Twayne, 1962, pp. 99–107.
Lundquist, James, Sinclair Lewis, Frederick Ungar Publishing, 1973, pp. 49–53.
Schorer, Mark, “Introduction,” in Sinclair Lewis: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Mark Schorer, Prentice-Hall, 1962, p. 4.
———, Sinclair Lewis: An American Life, McGraw Hill, 1961, pp. 737–38.
West, Rebecca, Review of Elmer Gantry, in Sinclair Lewis: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Mark Schorer, Prentice-Hall, 1962, pp. 39–45; originally published in New York Herald Tribune Books, March 13, 1927.
Dooley, D. J., The Art of Sinclair Lewis, University of Nebraska Press, 1967, pp. 126–30.
Dooley argues that the novel fails because it is not a realistic portrayal of religion, and it lacks sufficient wit and humor to compensate for its unfairness.
Light, Martin, The Quixotic Vision of Sinclair Lewis, Purdue University Press, 1975, pp. 99–107.
Light examines what he sees as quixotic elements...
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Bibliography (Censorship (Ready Reference series))
Dooley, D. J. “Aspiration and Enslavement.” In The Art of Sinclair Lewis. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1967. Examines Elmer’s picaresque journey through American religion in the early twentieth century. Charges that the novel fails as satire because it is neither realistic nor witty.
Geismar, Maxwell. “Sinclair Lewis: The Cosmic Bourjoyce.” In The Last of the Provincials: The American Novel, 1915-1925. New York: Hill and Wang, 1949. Suggests that Lewis has little insight into religious motivation or the commercial exploitation of religion. Criticizes the character of Sharon Falconer as neoprimitive and that of Elmer as archetypal opportunist and false prophet.
Grebstein, Sheldon Norman. “The Great Decade.” In Sinclair Lewis. New York: Twayne, 1962. Explores the novel’s background and describes its having been written in “the most hotly charged religious atmosphere in America since the Salem witch burnings.”
Hilfer, Anthony Channell. “Elmer Gantry and That Old Time Religion.” In The Revolt from the Village, 1915-1930. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1969. Perceives the novel as an attack on small-town provincialism. Discusses contemporary social changes such as the Scopes Monkey Trial, Prohibition, and the hypocrisy and corruption of some religious extremists.
Schorer, Mark, ed. Sinclair Lewis: A Collection of Critical Essays....
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