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 drunk and carouses with women; he is discovered and is dismissed from the seminary.
After two years as a traveling salesman, Gantry attends a revival meeting and is immediately bewitched by the evangelist Sharon Falconer. He is soon invited to preach at one of her meetings. He confesses his love for her and they begin an affair, peppering their lovemaking with religious imagery . Gantry introduces savvy business practices to Sharon’s ministry and manipulative psychology to the services themselves, and Sharon becomes wealthy as a result. When she overhears Gantry seducing their pianist, she fires them,...
(The entire section is 2,276 words.)