Elmer Gantry

Front Cover
New American Library, 1980 - Fiction - 430 pages
Today universally recognized as a landmark in American literature, Elmer Gantry scandalized readers when it was first published, causing Sinclair Lewis to be "invited" to a jail cell in New Hampshire and to his own lynching in Virginia. His portrait of a golden-tongued evangelist who rises to power within his church-a saver of souls who lives a life of hypocrisy, sensuality, and ruthless self-indulgence-is also the record of a period, a reign of grotesque vulgarity, which but for Lewis would have left no record of itself. Elmer Gantry has been called the greatest, most vital, and most penetrating study of hypocrisy that has been written since Voltaire.

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This novel was Lewis’ first satire of protestant fundamentalism. Elmer Gantry is a self-absorbed college student who was originally supposed to go to law school, but his unethical attitude did not suit the law school world. He instead becomes a minister. Lewis believed the hypocritical world of religion needed to be brought forward, and he did so in a harsh way. Appropriate for high school students during units focusing on societal pressures and values in the mid 1900's.  

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I am sure that when Lewis wrote this novel in the 1920s he could never have dreamed religious fundamentalism would have such a grip on some parts of our world in the 21st century. This is a good story that is also a very cautionary tale about how charismatic religious figures can so easily abuse their position. No doubt some people may interpret this book as an assault on religion. I would suggest that is unfair. Rather this is a useful novel to remind us how easily charismatic individuals can manipulate others for their own selfish purposes. A valuable novel for teachers and pupils to read. 

About the author (1980)

Harry Sinclair Lewis (1885-1951) was born in Sauk Centre, Minnesota, the son of a country doctor. After graduating from Yale in 1907, he went to New York, tried freelance work for a time, and then worked in a variety of editorial positions from the East Coast to California. Main Street (1920) was his first successful novel. In the decade that followed, Lewis published four other acclaimed novels of social criticism--Babbitt (1922), Arrowsmith (1925), Elmer Gantry (1927), and Dodsworth (1929). In 1930 he became the first American to win the Nobel Prize for literature. He continued to write both novels and plays for another two decades, publishing his last work, World So Wide (1951), shortly before his death in Rome.

Sally E. Parry is Associate Dean, College of Arts and Sciences, and Director of General Education at Illinois State University. She is currently the Executive Director of the Sinclair Lewis Society and editor of the Sinclair Lewis Society Newsletter. She has edited two collections of short stories by Sinclair Lewis, Go East, Young Man: Sinclair Lewis on Class in America (2005) and The Minnesota Stories of Sinclair Lewis (2005), and with Robert L. McLaughlin, written We'll Always Have the Movies: American Cinema During World War II (2006).

E. L. Doctorow is one of America's preeminent men of letters. His novels include The Waterworks, Ragtime, The Book of Daniel, Loon Lake, World's Fair, Lives of the Poets, Billy Bathgate, and Welcome to Hard Times. His work has garnered the National Book Critics Circle Award twice, the National Book Award, the PEN/Faulkner Award, the Edith Wharton Citation for Fiction, and the William Dean Howells medal of the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

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