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.