This is a 1927 novel by the first American to win the Nobel Prize, Sinclair Lewis, whose name is distressing because it’s somehow both two first names and two last names.
I had only seen the movie of this and mostly remember the feeling of watching it rather than a lot of the details. The novel though is much more memorable and quite interesting, especially given where our country is today, and the fact that this novel is almost 100 years old. Elmer Gantry begins as a drunk college student at a small Baptist college in the midwest. He’s a football player who is very girl crazy and in the midst of deciding what his next steps are, he has a kind of spiritual reckoning and decides to become a minister. In reality, he’s mostly just a vociferous conman who has a clear religiosity about him, but a questionable amount of faith.
The rest of the novel moves him through the world of preaching, working revival tents, small town congregations, and in the final moments into the world of large time religious life moving into politics.
It shouldn’t be a surprise that this book has lots of echoes today. For one, Sinclair Lewis clearly knows about the venality of small people who play at being large. He also knows from con men. So while it’s en vogue to compare famous con men to current famous con men, there’s just a pattern to it.
What’s more interesting is the way in which earnest religious conversations of doctrine that did happen throughout the 20th century — I think a lot of Marilynne Robinson here — is played for economic opportunity and political expediency, as is done through all the various cynical evangelicanism that pervades American society today.