Elmer Gantry, by Sinclair Lewis ★★★★★
Elmer, Elmer, Elmer. You are a bad guy.
This is one of the few books that I’ve read after seeing the movie. I was confused until learning that the movie covered about the middle third of the book. I think that this was a good choice for the movie because the middle third is in itself a self-contained story that lends itself much better to a ninety minute movie. This also means it is well worth reading the book even if you’ve seen the movie, which is a great one. The more important difference between the book and the movie is the ending. In both, Elmer is exposed as a womanizer and hypocrite. In the movie, it is suggested that this reforms Elmer and he grows up, refusing to continue fooling the public. I suppose that’s because people don’t like movies without happy endings. The novel is not nearly so moralistic. In fact, it is amoral. Elmer is actually exposed several times and always manages to find his way back to the ministry. In the final incident, Elmer and his backers outsmart the people who exposed him and Elmer uses the entire incident to double down on his hypocrisy. The fact that Lewis ends the novel this way says a lot about his opinion on the redeem-ability of the evangelical machine in early 20th century America.
If you don’t know the story, Elmer is a hard drinking, fighting, and womanizing college football player in the early 20th century who is essentially tricked and embarrassed into becoming saved. He goes on to become a minister but is discovered on a drunken binge instead of tending his flock and quietly thrown out of bible college. Elmer becomes a travelling salesman until he meets Sharon Falconer, an evangelist. I won’t belabor the details. Elmer rises, falls, rises, falls, and is to my mind is one of the more likeable rogues in literature. He eventually quits drinking but can’t stop womanizing, even (especially) after marrying the daughter of one of the elders in his church. He destroys a number of people who have sinned far less than he, including a young woman he had promised to marry and a fellow student at his bible college, a very moral man with the temerity to question his own faith. Elmer is almost completely amoral and self-centered, but somehow the fact that he doesn’t see any contradiction between his behavior and the Christian moral crusade he leads is believable. Maybe this should give me more tolerance of the modern Elmers parading across the news in our own time, but somehow it doesn’t.
Liking Elmer can’t be justified. He has no redeeming qualities. But I liked him anyway. I suppose that’s a sign of a great writer. Sinclair Lewis won the Nobel Prize, for a large extent due to Elmer Gantry. Writing the novel must have been something of an act of courage in the 1920’s. The truly amazing thing though, is how true Elmer rings in the modern world. I’m constantly impressed by how many people there are who want to tell the rest of us how to behave, while living their own lives as sleazebags of the first order. Whether they are ministers, priests, politicians, businessmen, musicians or actors, it’s clear that hypocrisy didn’t die out with Elmer.
So Elmer Gantry has stood the test of time. That says more for Sinclair Lewis than it does for modern society. When reading about Elmer’s modern equivalents it’s hard to know whether to laugh or cry. Elmer Gantry takes place at a time far enough away that I didn’t cry much. So just think about the past and not the future when you’re reading it and you’ll be fine.
If you have a Kindle you can get a free copy of Elmer Gantry from Amazon. It’s well worth taking the time that is all you need to invest.