Friday, November 09, 2012

Elmer Gantry

Elmer Gantry was the "popular jerk" at his school. He was good at athletics. He had leadership position because he told people they had to vote for him. He didn't have friends. In spite of going to a Baptist school and being raised by a very religious mother, he had little need for religion in his life.

However, the people of the school worked on him, and he discovered that he really liked preaching better than studying law. So, he was "converted" and entered the seminary to begin preaching. Things seemed to be going alright. However, he would occasionally slip in to his old ways with women and drink. He was able to get out of one quandary with an astute plan. However, on a train trip to a preaching gig, he fell in to drinking, and missed the gig entirely, resulting in his expulsion. He did some sales for a while, but eventually found his way back to preaching, got married, and then worked his way up to a high position. Then, his dalliances with a girl nearly led to his downfall. Luckily, he was able to dig up some dirt on her, clear his name, and lead the American moral crusade.

Elmer struggles with his carnal urges throughout his life. In spite of his many character flaws, he can be a power of moral persuasion in the lives of many people. He seemed to grow over the course of the novel. At first he was just doing something that was fun. Later, he found that he had a real strength in preaching. He even set personal goals of cleaning up some of his bad behaviors. That he failed to live up to his own expectations is a sign of his humanity. His upward trajectory showed that he could keep improving.

This book was extremely controversial on its release. The rap was that Lewis was portraying preachers in a negative, hypocritical light. While that may have been his intention, the result is a book that shows that success can happen even in spite of character flaws. Religious leaders may be justly held up to a high standard of morality. However, they remain people with their inherent flaws. Athletes may get back in shape after they gain a few pounds in the off-season. Similarly, preachers can still be great if they succumb to moral temptations. The message of "repentance" applies to themselves as well as others. It is almost a pity that these have to be hidden away rather tan made public as an example for everyone else.

In Elmer Gantry, Sinclair Lewis has created another one of his timeless characters.

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