You probably didn’t notice it, but that old rogue Elmer Gantry turned 80 this year. A surprising thought, perhaps, given what a fixture Sinclair Lewis’s 1927 fictional portrait of a bogus and amoral itinerant Midwestern preacher has become in both our speech and our imaginations. Was there really a time when we didn’t have Elmer to kick around–or to kick others with? It is hard to imagine. No less than the camp meetings on the frontier or the Scopes Trial or the stadium revivals of Billy Graham, the character Elmer Gantry has shaped the world’s impressions of American religion.
A crude, profane, hard-drinking and oversexed football player from Paris, Kan., Gantry, using his histrionic gifts and his “arousing barytone,” latched onto the ministry because of the power it gave him over others. The book related Gantry’s picaresque wanderings from one ministry to another, always looking out for the main chance, always complicating his life with amorous dalliances, always ready to beat a hasty retreat, always emerging from his scrapes with ambitions undimmed.
His creator was a gloomy alcoholic Midwesterner with a personal life just as rootless and messy as Gantry’s. But Lewis (1885-1951) gave us a cultural icon whose name is invoked every time there is a scandal involving sex, money and a preacher.
Not many writers can claim similar success in adding to our storehouse of powerful archetypes–or our cupboard of easy clichÃ©s. But this is the chief consolation for a literary career that has otherwise faded into obscurity. Lewis’s reputation peaked in 1930, when he became the first American to win the Nobel Prize in literature. With this award and the invention of two cultural icons–Gantry and the crass businessman George F. Babbitt–Lewis has a secure place in the history books. But that does not mean that, except as cultural artifacts, his books are much worth reading today.