Elmer Gantry

Book Review – Elmer Gantry by Sinclair Lewis

There’s an old maxim declaring, “Napoleon is the limit of a madman”; meaning that no person could reach a level of insanity greater than the Emperor’s. After reading Sinclair Lewis’ 1926 classic, it seems that Elmer Gantry established the limit of human ambition. While earning the nickname “Hell Cat” in his youth, he changed his ways upon reaching adulthood; or so it seemed. Following his ordination as a Baptist minister he attempted a series of careers before finding his true calling. Despite myriad ethical failings, the Reverend Dr. Gantry aspired to be the morality emperor of the world. His quest towards that goal made for one of the finest fictional studies of hypocrisy ever written.

One has to credit Sinclair Lewis. He came up with the greatest opening line in the history of American literature. It’s the one beginning I’ve read that really hooked me. The sentence that followed interested me even further. They read: Elmer Gantry was drunk. He was eloquently drunk, lovingly and pugnaciously drunk. (Location 52) At that point, I knew then that the book would make for one fascinating read.

Sinclair Lewis’ writing style made me enjoy the story much more. The author utilized a writing technique more common to comedy and horror than literary fiction. He expressed many of his ideas by using a set-up and then a twist at the end. Throughout this novel he applied this method to illustrate the protagonist’s insincerity. Some memorable examples included:

His kiss promised it. His heart almost promised it. (Location 4629)

But the diversions—He thought about it so much that he made a hasty trip to Cato, and came back temporarily cured forever of any desire for wickedness. (Location 1325)

He was certain that he would never again want to guzzle, to follow loose women, to blaspheme; he knew the rapture of salvation—yes, and of being the center of interest in the crowd. (Location 1009)

The best line in the book came from another preacher named Frank Shallard. He delivered an intriguing take on his profession. He observed, What a lying, compromising job this being a minister. (Location 7524)

Mr. Lewis used another unorthodox method to liven the narrative. He included a bit of self-deprecating humor. When one of the characters mentioned a series of contemporary authors he expressed the following thoughts on his own author.

Sinclair Lewis (Lord, how that book of Lewis’, Main Street, did bore me, as much of it as I read; it just rambled on forever, and all he could see was that some of the Gopher Prairie hicks didn’t go to literary teas quite as often as he does! – and that was all he could see among those splendid heroic pioneers)! (Location 7560)

In The Art of Fiction Ayn Rand cited another one of Lewis’ works, Arrowsmith, for examples of a story that didn’t seem believable. Elmer Gantry contained several instances of this shortcoming, as well. When he decided to attack vice, Elmer became a de facto police lieutenant who led raids. I found his decision to marry too fast. His subsequent boredom with his new bride occurred much too quickly, as well.

I had to admit that while I didn’t find the story credible I still enjoyed reading it. What it lacked in realism it compensated for with entertainment value.

In the book’s beginning, the author wrote: Elmer assumed he was the center of the universe and that the rest of the system was valuable only as it afforded him help and pleasure. (Loc 167) I’m not sure that “getting religion” dissuaded the Reverend Dr. Gantry from that view. He would’ve disagreed, however. As he eloquently preached:

“–and I want to tell you that the fellow eaten by ambition is putting the glories of this world before the glories of Heaven! Oh, if I could only help you understand that it is humility, that it is simple loving kindness, that it is tender loyalty, which alone make the heart glad! Now, if you’ll let me tell a story: It reminds me of two Irishmen named Mike and Pat—“ (Loc 8135)

 

Book Review – Cass Timberlane by Sinclair Lewis

American literary fiction would’ve been much duller without Sinclair Lewis’s offerings. Because of works such as Babbitt, Elmer Gantry, and It Can’t Happen Here I along with many others decided to try writing novels. I’ve always believed that Sinclair Lewis’ worst far exceeded the best novels I’ve read…until now. It wouldn’t be much of an exaggeration for me to write that reading Cass Timberlane ranked among the biggest disappointments of my adult life. I read this book because Cass and Jinny Timberlane crossed over into the follow-up novel Kingsblood Royal. Lewis would’ve been wiser to save them for that piece.

The word pedestrian best described the overall premise of this book. The tale centered around a middle-aged man infatuated with a much younger woman. Is anyone still reading this review? Really? Okay, I’ll continue. Without the two knowing each other very well, they decided to espouse. I’m serious: does this plot line hook anybody? Could the overall concept be more banal? I hate to write it, but the answer is: yes. Predictably, trouble ensued due to the age difference. Imagine that. As the story wore on Cass suspected his wife of, you’ll never believe this, infidelity! Judge Timberlane tried to do everything he could to please her, yada, yada, yada.

But Cass Timberlane got worse. Sinclair Lewis possessed a genius for crafting sentences. I loved the way he’d begin with a phrase that led the reader to come to one conclusion. He would then throw a twist in the next one to reverse the meaning. Most times he’d do this while satirizing the foibles in American society. I didn’t read many such passages in Cass Timberlane. In the interest of fairness, Mr. Lewis did include several memorable lines. I’ll provide them here.

Fortunately Hudbury did remember him, and fortunately he did not remember that he had hated Congressman Timberlane after a party caucus at which the fellow had suggested that even Republicans ought to know that there was a new invention called labor unions. (Location 2837)

Here’s another sample of vintage Lewis.

The Senator looked confused, but he was used to it. For years and years he had been confused over something or other, and he would continue to be confused until someone in his State discovered that he was their Senator, and had him defeated. (Location 2849)

The best flash of Lewis’ clever expression occurred in the following.

During his first five readings of the masterpiece, he twice decided that she liked him, once that she loved him furiously, once that this was merely a routine answer with all the romantic flavor of payment of a gas-bill, and once that she was bored by him and intended, on his evening of oratory, to go off dancing with some treacherous swine like Elno Roskinen. (Location 1556)

Textual flourishes like the above first interested me in Sinclair Lewis. Cass Timberlane dissatisfied for not including enough of them.

One critique that Lewis received over the years entailed his not qualifying as a “modern writer.” A critic, who’s name escaped me as I wrote this, called his works more similar to those of Anthony Trollope than someone like William Faulkner. Structurally, I thought Lewis tried to make 1945’s Cass Timberlane more contemporary. At the end of several chapters, Lewis inserted a section called “An Assemblage of Husbands and Wives.” In it, he described the travails of married folk in his fictitious setting of Grand Republic. None of these couples had any role in the overall story. It distracted from the narrative flow and did nothing to enhance the overall narrative. Lewis should’ve stayed with the methods he did best.

I can’t believe Sinclair Lewis wrote a boring book. It took me a week of long, ponderous reading to discover this unfortunate fact. There’s no reason for Sinclair Lewis fans to mope. If they want to read Lewis’ take on a troubled marriage: read Dodsworth. If they’d like to read a good example of plot development: read Elmer Gantry. If they read Kingsblood Royal and would like to learn more about Grand Republic or the Timberlanes, read Kingsblood Royal again. While the quality of Lewis’ other novels set my expectations quite high Cass Timberlane fell abysmally short of them.

Book Review – Kingsblood Royal by Sinclair Lewis

Only an author with the caliber of Sinclair Lewis could make 1940’s Minnesota look like the Deep South of the 1860s. In his racially charged, Kingsblood Royal, he did just that. I remember hearing a story that someone invited him to his own lynching following the 1927 publication of Elmer Gantry. I think it fair to say Mr. Lewis didn’t increase his popularity when he wrote this piece twenty years later; certainly not in Minnesota.

            Kingsblood Royal painted a disturbing picture of a racially divided America during the Second World War. Lewis used a number of creative techniques to accomplish this. He set many of his earlier works in the fictitious state of Winnemac. This story took place in Lewis’ home state of Minnesota. It occurred in a fictional town called “Grand Republic”. The fact he selected a northern state not well known for racial strife really added to the emotional resonance of the story. The name of the town clarified the author’s intention the story be applicable to the nation as a whole.  

            I really enjoyed the action that spurred the narrative. Dr. Kingsblood asked his son to investigate the family history. As an amateur genealogist, I could relate. The doctor heard an old family tale that the Kinsgsbloods descended from British royalty. He asserted this made them the rightful heirs to the Throne, hence the surname.

Neil’s research uncovered a much different family history. At first he discovered that an ancestor married a Native American woman. While uncomfortable with that finding, he later determined the ancestor in question happened to be African-American. 

            Following this, Neil went on a personal voyage to understand what it was like to be an African-American man living in America. Keep in mind that Neil was only 1/32nd African-American. Under the laws of some states at the time of publication, that would’ve made him 100% African-American. The story centered on his internal debate over whether or not to reveal his discovery to his friends, family and coworkers. Lewis described this series of events with a uniqueness all his own.

            I would caution readers that this book contained a lot of language that a modern audience would consider offensive. I’d suspect it made a good portion of its 1940’s audience uncomfortable as well. The narration clearly exhibited Lewis’ abhorrence for racial bigotry. He chose the best means possible to get that across to his readers.

            It wouldn’t have been a Sinclair Lewis novel without quirky characters and raw satire. Lewis did an exceptional job of fusing the two in this book. I emphasize again that some of this language will make modern readers uncomfortable. I personally find any form of bigotry offensive. In the interest of textual integrity I shall share some of them. Here is his depiction of two men pondering whether or not Neil violated the terms of a restrictive covenant.

No, not yet, but everybody knew that it would, because everybody knew that all Negroes like this fellow (Neil Kingsblood) were unbathed and noisy, and while he, Mr. Stopple, had no prejudices, and neither had he, Mr. Eisenherz, still facts were facts. Weren’t they?

Bertie Eisenherz had been very fond of the mulatto mistress he had had for two years while he was with the legation in Portugal, and he was irritated by all this insular imbecility, but he needed the money, he always needed the money, for the maintenance of his precarious conviction that he was a great gentleman. And though he was devoted to his Renoir and his autographed set of Henry James, he was legitimately the grandson of Simon Eisenherz, the shrewdest and most resolute pilferer of Indian forest-land titles in Northern Minnesota. (Page 308)

Nice guys.

            Lewis’ best satirical portrayal showed shades of Elmer Gantry. This preacher added a dose of white supremacy to his hypocrisy.  

Among these latter-day Barnums of Grand Republic was one Jat Snood, who had not finished high school, but was a Doctor of Divinity. He was the owner and chief ballyhooer of a vast shed down on South Champlain Avenue and East Winchell Street, in the South End, and he had romantically named it “God’s Prophesy Tabernacle: Founded on the Book: Christ for All and All for Christ.”

It is true that the Reverend Doctor had never been able to stay in any one town for more than five years, because he knew only fifty sermons and fifty vaudeville tricks, and even his faded and gnarled and gum-chewing audiences got sick of him. But while it lasted, he did very well financially, because he titillated his crowds with ginger and hell-fire and made Swedish hired girls and German grocery-clerks and Yankee lineman feel that if they could not meet Hiram Sparrock at the Federal Club, they could meet God and His angels and the souls of the elect at God’s Prophesy Tabernacle: contributions voluntary (but frequent). Jat screamed at them, in high-toned polysyllables flavored with jazz and slang, that if they were ill-used by the snobs among old Americans, still they could be snobs themselves, and he invited them to look down, contemptuously, upon all Jews, Negroes, Catholics, and Socialists. (Page 159)

While I expected more proficient syntax from a Yale graduate, Lewis’ acerbic and amusing description allowed me to look past it.

            Kingsblood Royal is an underrated masterpiece in the Sinclair Lewis catalog. Who else could present a story about a Caucasian banker being victimized by Jim Crow Laws in Minnesota? Once again, the author presented a thoroughly troubling, yet entertaining depiction of the American experience’s darker side. While the some of the language will offend modern readers, Lewis used it in a manner that illustrated his personal contempt for the racial bigotry permeating society during the late 1940’s. It personalized the story for me. I could get a true emotional sense of what Neil experienced. Readers ignore the lessons of this tale at their peril.