Places: Elmer Gantry

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1927

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Satire

Time of work: 1915-1925

Places DiscussedParis

Paris. Elmer GantryKansas village in which Gantry grows up. With some nine hundred residents, it is smaller than the real town of Sauk Centre, Minnesota, in which Lewis grew up, and the fictional Gopher Prairie, which Lewis satirizes in Main Street (1920). Pretentiously named Paris, Gantry’s hometown is even more culturally impoverished than either Sauk Centre or Gopher Prairie, and appears to have not even a pubic library or a social club. A small Baptist church and its Sunday school are the leading institutions of the village. Except for Fourth of July parades and circus bands, the only music Gantry hears is played during church services. Other than occasional political campaign speeches, weekly sermons provide his only exposure to oratory. Sunday school offers examples of painting and sculpture; Bible stories and the words of hymns provide Gantry’s main experience of literature. Lewis concludes his description of Paris by asserting that the church and Sunday School taught Gantry everything he needed, “except, perhaps, any longing whatever for decency and kindness and reason.” (There is a real town named Paris in north-central Kansas, but Lewis’s Paris probably has no connection with it.)

Winnemac

Winnemac. Fictional midwestern state in which Gantry preaches before being advanced to a large city. Its villages include Schoenheim, Banjo Crossing, and others, all of which Lewis disparages as he does Paris. The narrow cultural climate of midwestern rural villages produces narrow, bigoted people, easily impressed by Gantry and readily manipulated by him.

Clontar

Clontar. Fictional New Jersey coastal resort where Gantry and the itinerant revivalist Sharon Falconer try to start a permanent church. The two revivalists plan to transfer their increasingly mechanical operations to an enormous and deteriorating auditorium, in which an opera company earlier went bankrupt. To the cheaply built knotty-pine building, decorated in red and gold paint, they add a huge revolving cross covered with yellow and ruby electric lights. Freed from having to share the donations their revivals harvest with the community churches that sponsor them as they move from town to town, they hope to reap great personal profits. However, their greed causes them to ignore fire safety, and their flimsy wooden church building goes up in flames, ending Falconer’s life and Gantry’s hope of wealth.

Zenith

Zenith. Largest city in the state of Winnemac and the site of Gantry’s greatest preaching success. He is promoted from a small town pastorate to a church in a rundown neighborhood mostly populated by Italians and other immigrants. However, he discovers that his own Methodist congregation consists primarily of transplanted rustics who grew up in the same cultural milieu as their pastor. One parishioner has become a wealthy manufacturer, yet chooses to remain in the denomination of his childhood, rather than join a more prestigious congregation. Another member, a successful, though not very pious lawyer, values religion’s effectiveness in controlling workers–believing it focuses their thoughts on higher things than instigating strikes and increasing wages.

Gantry uses flamboyant feats of showmanship to censure the people of Zenith. Although he himself indulges in drinking and womanizing, he leads raids into the city’s red light district, excoriating the immoral gambling, bootleg liquor, and prostitution he finds in an area heavily populated by poor immigrants. He inveighs against such vices, blaming the godless materialism of the urban population for being their source. Gantry condemns the city as a cesspool of decadence, an evil Sodom that contrasts sharply with the virtuous countryside where his own boyhood congregation grew up.

Gantry’s theatrics attract favorable media attention and increasing membership for his congregation, turning his rundown church into a financial success, and gaining him invitations to join the Rotary and Tonawanda Country Clubs, where he can mingle with the bankers and industrialists who rule Zenith. When Gantry tours Europe, Lewis savagely satirizes Gantry’s inability to understand its culture, the background from which much of Zenith’s population originally came.

Sources for Further StudyDooley, D. J. The Art of Sinclair Lewis. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1967. A heavily researched critical examination of the social impact of Lewis’s works, giving considerable attention to Lewis’s overlooked novels and his short stories and essays.Geismar, Maxwell. “Sinclair Lewis: The Cosmic Bourjoyce.” In The Last of the Provincials: The American Novel, 1915-1925. New York: Hill and Wang, 1949. Suggests that Lewis has little insight into religious motivation or the commercial exploitation of religion. Criticizes the character of Sharon Falconer as neoprimitive and that of Elmer as archetypal opportunist and false prophet.Grebstein, Sheldon Norman. “The Great Decade.” In Sinclair Lewis. New York: Twayne, 1962. Explores the novel’s background and describes its having been written in “the most hotly charged religious atmosphere in America since the Salem witch burnings.”Hilfer, Anthony Channell. “Elmer Gantry and That Old Time Religion.” In The Revolt from the Village, 1915-1930. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1969. Perceives the novel as an attack on small-town provincialism. Discusses contemporary social changes such as the Scopes Monkey Trial, Prohibition, and the hypocrisy and corruption of some religious extremists.Hutchisson, James M., ed. Sinclair Lewis: New Essays in Criticism. Albany, N.Y.: Whitston, 1997. Fourteen essays reanalyzing Lewis’s works and themes from a variety of contemporary critical perspectives. Includes an annotated bibliography of criticism of Lewis’s works since 1976.Light, Martin. The Quixotic Vision of Sinclair Lewis. West Lafayette, Ind.: Purdue University Press, 1975. A critical look at Lewis’s portrayal of American idealism and conformity and the social dynamics that corrupt ordinary people.Lingeman, Richard. Sinclair Lewis: Rebel from Main Street. New York: Random House, 2002. An engaging and insightful biography that captures the complexity of Lewis and his times. Well researched and highly readable.Schorer, Mark. Sinclair Lewis: An American Life. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1961. The definitive biography of Lewis through the end of his life. Exhaustive in its detail, though imbued with a harshly critical tone.Schorer, Mark, ed. Sinclair Lewis: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1962. Contains earlier criticism of Elmer Gantry, including Rebecca West’s famous attack on the novel as ineffective satire and Joseph Wood Krutch’s praise of the book, as well as Schorer’s classic study, “Sinclair Lewis and the Method of Half-Truths.”
Categories: Places