Elmer Gantry is satire, not exposé

Handsome, aimless Elmer Gantry is sent by his mother to small Baptist college where he plays football, drinks, and chases women.

By a fluke, he becomes the champion of the campus preacher boys and is sucked into becoming a Baptist preacher.

religious tent meeting
Tent  were frequently used by itinerant ministers for large meetings.

Elmer Gantry by Sinclair Lewis
Harcourt, Brace, 1927; 432 pp. #1 on the 1927 bestseller list; My grade: B.

Elmer escapes a shot-gun wedding at his first church, blows his chance at another church by getting drunk, and ends up as a traveling salesman for a farm equipment company.

On the road, Elmer falls in with a female evangelist, then with a “New Thought” lecturer until he attracts the notice of a Methodist bishop.

Elmer converts to Methodism, and uses his considerable talent for promotion and publicity to good advantage.

There’s money to be made in religion, plenty of applause, and lots of willing women.

Elmer comes close to catastrophe more than once, but he always seems to land on his feet.

The term “Elmer Gantry” has become synonymous with clerical hypocrisy. However, Sinclair Lewis is less concerned with Elmer’s womanizing than with the mercenary religious establishment that shelters him.

The novel is more satire than exposé. Elmer Gantry is too funny for anyone to take Lewis seriously.

I laughed out loud at lines like, “He had learned the poverty is blessed, but that bankers make the best deacons.”

©2017 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Columnist finds Sinclair Lewis’s novel “eerily familiar fiction”

Here’s what the candidate promises: He’s going to “Make America a proud, rich land again.”

Everything’s going to work if he’s elected. Goods will be manufactured here, not overseas. He has certain (unspecified) plans to make everyone prosper. We’ll rely on American sweat and initiative and know-how. America will stop getting involved in foreign affairs, but will enlarge its military. He delivers coded messages regarding other ethnic groups and religions, and women. He hates journalists. He is a tireless showman, seen to “whirl arms, bang tables . . . and in between tricks would jab his crowds with figures and facts — figures and facts that were inescapable even when, as often happened, they were entirely incorrect.”

Read all Wickersham’s post.

My picks of 1936’s bestselling novels

The best reading from 1936 for today’s readers are both about people caught in tempestuous political and cultural shifts: Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind and It Can’t Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis.

Southerners who put on gray uniforms for the old South were fighting to retain a way of life that was familiar and comfortable—was facing extinction.

That life was already nearly gone when the men in gray mounted up.

Rhett says to Scarlett before he leaves her:

I want the outer semblance of the things I used to know, the utter boredom of respectability—other people’s respectability, my pet, not my own—the calm dignity life can have when it’s lived by gentle folks, the genial grace of days that are gone. When I lived those days I didn’t realize the slow charm of them.

And Scarlett runs home to Tara to Mammy, “the last link with the old days.”

It Can’t Happen Here  is not nearly as good a novel as Gone With the Wind, but it has some uncomfortable similarities.

Although Lewis starts out satirically skewering hot-air politicians, he soon gets seriously interested in his topic and begins wondering what would happen if a charismatic, Hitler-like leader began to rally the discontents in America.

After the Rotary Club meeting in Fort Beulah, Vermont in 1936, men are already wishing for someone who can bring things back the way they used to be.

Fort Beulah’s leading businessman gripes: “These are serious times—maybe twenty-eight million on relief, and beginning to get ugly—thinking they’ve got a vested right now to be supported.”

Local newspaper editor Doremus Jessup responds:

Yes, I agree it’s a serious time. With all the discontent there is in the country to wash him into office, Senator Windrip has got an excellent chance to be elected President, next November, and if he is, probably his gang of buzzards will get us into some war, just to grease their insane vanity and show the world that we’re the huskiest nation going. And then I, the Liberal, and you, the Plutocrat, the bogus Tory, will be led out and shot at 3 A.M. Serious? Huh!

That November Sen. Berzelius “Buzz” Windrip is elected president.

Soon Windrip’s “Minute Men” become his private army.

Civil rights are suspended, and dissidents rounded up and taken to concentration camps.

There’s no Tara for Doremus Jessup to flee to.

Unfortunately, the novel’s uneven tone lessens its literary value and makes Lewis’s story less credible.

But what Lewis got right—the unpredictable, totally unthinkable election of a totally unqualified egomaniac as president of the United States—seems real enough in 2016.

Over the summer, read one or both of these classic novels, and think about the “genial grace of days that are gone” in America and what might be ahead.

©2016 Linda Gorton Aragoni

It Can’t Happen Here: Timely and Terrifying

In 1935, Europe was preparing for war against the Jews and Socialists and anybody else who didn’t care to knuckle under to the likes of Hitler and Mussolini.

Watching Europe fall into the clutches of dictators, Sinclair Lewis pondered how a dictator could come to power in America.

Novel title  "It Can't Happen Here" superimposed on photo of German army officers listening to Adolph Hitler.

It Can’t Happen Here: A Novel by Sinclair Lewis

Sun Dial Press, 1935. 458 p. 1936 bestseller #6 My Grade: B+.

It Can’t Happen Here opens as the Rotary Club in Fort Beulah, Vermont, makes patriotic speeches.

In the audience, newspaper editor Doremus Jessup views both the flag-waving and the potential for dictatorship with skepticism.

Before long, however, America elects Berzilius Windrip president and what couldn’t happen begins to happen.

First the “Minute Men” become Windrip’s private army.

Then civil rights are suspended to fight unspecified threats to national security.

Dissidents lose their jobs, go into concentration camps, are killed.

Jessup is drawn into the opposition.

The personalities are credible, the places recognizable, the situations horrifying.

The nightmarishness of the story is oddly intensified by the flatness of Lewis’s presentation: It’s as if none of the characters dares feel deeply.

Doremus doesn’t turn into a hero.

No one does.

That’s what’s terrifying about this once more timely novel.

© 2016 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Arrowsmith stumbles and bogs down

Sinclair Lewis says Arrowsmith is the biography of a young man who was “in no degree a hero, who regarded himself as a seeker after truth yet who stumbled and slid back all his life and bogged himself in every obvious morass.”

The novel also stumbles and bogs down.

Arrowsmith in laboratory graces 1952 dust jacket of novel

Arrowsmith by Sinclair Lewis

©1925. 1952 ed. Harcourt, Brace & World, includes a biographical sketch of Sinclair Lewis and “How Arrowsmith was written,” both by Barbara Grace Spayd. 464 pp. 1925 bestseller #7. My grade: B.

A drunken doctor lets Martin Arrowsmith read his Gray’s Anatomy and points him toward medical school.

Martin takes a BA, a MD, and a wife. He wants to do research, but is forced into general practice to support Leora.

He’s hopeless as a doctor: He has no people skills.

A lucky discovery leads him into a research job under the great Max Gottlieb.

Martin wants respect among scientists, but he’s willing to throw even that away when his emotions are touched.

An epidemic on a Caribbean Island gives Martin a chance to run a controlled test of a vaccine. Martin promises Gottlieb that  he won’t give in to demands to supply it to all residents.

Lewis makes Martin, Leora, and Gottleib plausible, if not particularly likeable. He sketches minor characters with broad strokes of sarcasm.

The total effect is neither serious enough or funny enough to satisfy today’s reader, but the Pulitzer committee thought the novel worthy of the Nobel Prize in Literature.

©2015 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Cass Timberlane has broken back, funny bits

Cass Timberlane: A Novel of Husbands and Wives is really two books represented respectively by the title and subtitle.

In the main story, Cass Timberland, 41, an intellectually astute and emotionally dense Minnesota judge falls for a young girl with “fine ankles and a clear voice” who testifies in a negligence case.

Cass Timberlane: A Novel of Husbands and Wives
by Sinclair Lewis

Random House, 1945. 390 pages.  1945 bestseller # 5. My Grade: B-.

When Jenny loses her job, Cass persuades her to marry him.

Without a job to go to, Jenny is bored. Cass encourages Jenny to go out with his buddy Bradd, whom he knows to be a womanizer.

What happens is predictable to everyone except Cass.

Cass is a hoot. He can recognize the stupidity of things he does when other people do them. What he doesn’t see is that dumb is dumb no matter who does it.

Sinclair Lewis sketches other characters — especially those in the other marriages —well enough to make them individuals, but not well enough to make them interesting. They add nothing to the main plot.

However, many of Lewis’s individual sentences are delightful. For example, Juliet Zago takes out a library book on “Freud’s translations from the original four-letter words.”

If you can be content with such small pleasures, you may enjoy Cass Timberlane.

As a novel, Cass Timberlane is a dud.


© 2015 Linda Gorton Aragoni


Work of Art Unworthy of Its Name

hotel room, bed empty and unmade

Many novelists have written about what it takes for a writer to become good enough to create art.

In Work of Art, Sinclair Lewis attempts, with minimal success, to turn that familiar plot on end.

Ora Weagle aspires to be a renowned — and rich— Master Artist. He sees himself as too talented to need to learn anything.

Ora ends up pandering to a public that can’t recognize either quality or plagiarism.

As a teen, Ora’s older brother, Myron, seems to have no aspirations at all. He goes to school and does whatever is needed around the rural hotel their parents run.

Unsure what he wants to do with this life, Myron asks a traveling salesman if hotels are a good business. J. Hector Warlock paints a vivid picture of the importance of hotels and the vast learning hotel-keeping requires.

Myron is inspired.

He will work to become a Master Hotel Keeper.

Unfortunately, Lewis doesn’t make Myron’s story inspirational. Heaping sarcasm on the rubes who fail to appreciate the quality of Myron’s meals, beds, and service doesn’t make readers value the man more.

Myron appears to readers as he appears to Ora: hardworking but boring.

Lewis fails to to prove that any job done superbly is a work of art.

Work of Art
By Sinclair Lewis
Doubleday, Doran, 1935
452 pages
1934 Bestseller #6
My grade: B-
Photo credit: Going, Going, Gone by kmg

Sentimentality Sinks Ann Vickers 

Ann Vickers is Sinclair Lewis’s  fictional exposé of the  American prison system of the 1920s, a system riddled with corruption, brutality, and stupidity.

Ann Vickers is a bright, bossy child who grows up to be a bright, bossy woman. After college she stuffs envelopes for the women’s suffrage movement. An unfortunate mistake lands her in jail and sets her on a career in prison administration and penal reform.

While Ann’s professional career prospers, her personal life stagnates. She can’t find a man that meets her standards. Her first love affair ends in the abortion of a child whose loss she mourns the rest of her life.

Recoiling from the desertion of a male friend she would gladly have married, Ann marries a fellow social worker only to discover he has all the male flaws she despises. She turns from him to a sexy judge, standing by him even when he’s found guilty of corruption and sentenced to five years in prison.

Lewis skips lightly over Ann’s idiotic behavior, reserving his barbs for the world that birthed people who would make his heroine unhappy. That sloppy sentimentality keeps Ann Vickers from being a great novel or great social criticism.

Ann Vickers
By Sinclair Lewis
Doubleday, Doran, 1933
562 pages
My grade B-

© 2013 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Babbitt Sales Contradict Satire

Craftsman-style home, 1917
Craftsman-style homes like this were popular in George Babbitt’s day.

George F. Babbitt, 46 has vague yearning for something other than being making money, but he’s not sure what it is. In college, he had dreams of being a lawyer and doing battle for truth and justice. He settled for “selling houses for more than people could afford to pay.”

He is bored with his wife and baffled by his children. Immersed in business deals, civic clubs and community boosterism, he usually manages to insulate himself from feeling or thinking.

When his pal Paul Riesling shoots his wife and lands in jail, Babbitt falls apart. Paul was Babbitt’s only link to his youthful ideals. Babbitt takes a mistress, drinks too much, offends his fellow businessmen.

His wife’s need for emergency surgery brings Babbitt back to himself.

Sinclair Lewis skewers Babbitt’s materialism, his ignorance, his self-delusion. Sadly, every character in the novel is the mental and moral equivalent of Babbitt. Babbitt’s son may wish to do great things, but nothing in the novel suggests anyone ever lives up to their ideals.

Lewis is funny in small doses but after by the half-way point his satire becomes depressing. If America in 1920 had been as bad as Lewis suggests nobody would have purchased this novel, let alone made it a best seller.

by Sinclair Lewis
Harcourt, Brace & World, 1922
401 pages
Project Gutenberg ebook #1156
1922 Bestseller #10 (shared honor)
My grade B-

Photo: Where my favorite dog lives by Linda Aragoni

© 2012 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Main Street is all problem, no solution

Main Street, Sinclair Lewis’ 1921 bestseller, is a scathing indictment of small town life circa 1920 as revealed through a fictitious Minnesota town.

After college, Carol Milford becomes a librarian. Library work suits her and Minneapolis offers culture and intellectual stimulation.

At a party she meets Dr. Will Kennicott. She likes him, though she finds his preoccupation with making money distasteful. She decides she loves him when he shows her photos of Gopher Prairie: it needs someone with her taste and refinement.

Gopher Prairie, however, does not feel the need to be improved by Doc Kennicott’s bride. Carol finds, “the people are savorless and proud of it.”

Carol is devoid of emotional intelligence and not nearly as intelligent in other ways as she believes herself to be. With little to occupy her time, Carol is frustrated and unhappy. She would have an affair but the available men are unsatisfactory.

Lewis is superb at excoriating dull people. The book’s fatal flaw is that he can provide no reason for the pervasive intellectual dulness. Without an identified cause, there’s no hope for a solution.

After a 425-page collection of nasty barbs, Lewis shuts down the novel with an unpredictable and implausible ending.

Main Street
By Sinclair Lewis
Harcourt, Brace & World, 1920
1921 #1
451 pages
My grade B-