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am 28. Februar 2008
Im informellen religionspolitischen Diskurs der Vereinigten Staaten ist "Elmer Gantry" eine Standardmetapher für einen spezifischen Typus des amerikanischen Predigers oder Aktivisten geworden (die meist dann zur Anwendung kommt, wenn Schein und Sein zu weit auseinanderklaffen).

Sie geht zurück auf diesen furiosen Roman von Sinclair Lewis, der die Karriere seines Protagonisten Elmer Gantry schildert, der sich nach eindrücklicher Konversion auf ein baptistisches Priesterseminar begibt, wo er sein Rednertalent schärft und zum begnadeten Erweckungsprediger wird.

Gantry ist Erweckungsprediger einerseits, affärenreicher Zyniker andererseits und trotz allen Eifers und religiöser Bigotterie (Systemzwänge weisen ihn immer wieder zurecht) ein strikter und rücksichtsloser Karrierist.

Das sozialkritische Buch von Lewis hat einen durchweg bissig-aggressiv-satirischen Unterton und spiegelt das Anliegen des Autors, die geschäftsfreudige Frömmelei des amerikanischen Kirchenchristentums zu entlarven und anzuklagen, in aller Deutlichkeit wieder.

Trotz aller Zeitbedingtheit (der Roman erschien 1927, der amerikanische Protestantimus war zu dieser Zeit sehr fundamentalismuslastig) ist die Lektüre auch heute noch lohnenswert und das nicht nur aus historischen Gründen. Er ist erstaunlich aktuell, gerade weil auch der gegenwärtige amerikanische Protestantismus (vor allem evangelikaler Prägung) immer wieder Figuren hervorbringt, deren Wirken/Predigen und konkrete Lebensführung nicht immer von überzeugender Kohärenz sind. Solche Vergleiche sind natürlich immer mutatis mutandis vorzunehmen: Elmer Gantry ist eine exemplarische Schilderung von überwältigender und überzeichnender Drastik, man wünscht sich schon, dass solche Typen nicht die Kanzeln bevölkern.

Der Roman kann aber auch dem individuellen Reflektionsprozess als Christenmensch dienlich sein: Lewis sieht sehr genau hin und artikuliert die volle Bandbreite an Glaubenszweifeln (Gantrys Jugendfreund ist Atheist und hinterfragt die sukzessive Wandlung seines Freundes Elmer sehr ausgiebig - allerdings ohne Erfolg). Die Geißelung der abgebrühten Geschäftspraktiken bei der Durchführung von Massenevangelisationen oder Wunderheilungen hält einer allzu wohlmeinend-naiven Sicht der "guten Absichten" von Predigern den Spiegel vor. Auch wenn das Buch nichts für schwache Nerven oder empfindliche Mägen ist, erfüllt es nebenbei doch auch die hilfreiche Funktion eines "reality checks".

Zu Recht ein Klassiker.
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am 27. Juli 2012
Over the past few weeks, I've enjoyed Sinclair Lewis' novel 'Elmer Gantry' (as an audio book, beautifully read by Anthony Heald) and it took me a while to figure out why. Published in 1926, this is the story of a 'professional good man', a preacher and pastor in those first decades of the 20th century before the Great Depression. In the book, Gantry rises to near-national fame as an evangelist exposing 'vice' while being vicious himself throughout, desperately so. [Spoiler:] Though his hypocrisy comes close to being found out several times, he continues to escape and emerge each time more successful, while his antagonists and others who cross his path wither, vanish or perish altogether.

I wondered why I liked the book so much because Gantry, the protagonist, isn't someone to identify with: he's got very little going for him'he's not even evil. He's really just 'a hog,' as one colleague calls him in the book. He's so forgettable as a character that it seems writerly sin to assemble an entire novel around him. He does not undergo any growth of character, either in the positive or in the negative. Lewis continually repeats Gantry's phrases and thoughts to underline the repetitiveness and banality of the man and his miserable career - miserable not in terms of worldly success but in terms of meaning and merit. After a few pages I knew all there was to be known about Elmer Gantry'and yet, I felt compelled to finish the book, sighing a lot throughout, but fully engaged to the end.

Once again: why?

One reason is the writing itself: it makes you want to listen to Elmer and his shenanigans. Here is a short excerpt from the first third of the book, describing Elmer's first assignment as a baptist pastor. Behold the beautiful rhythm:

«Brother Gantry was shaking hands all around. His sanctifying ordination, or it might have been his summer of bouncing from pulpit to pulpit, had so elevated him that he could greet them as impressively and fraternally as a sewing-machine agent. He shook hands with a good grip, he looked at all the more aged sisters as though he were moved to give them a holy kiss, he said the right things about the weather, and by luck or inspiration it was to the most acidly devout man in Boone County that he quoted a homicidal text from Malachi.»

Elmer's wholesomeness is deceptive and here as in many other parts of the book, he manages to deceive himself as well, by elevation, as it were. The author's sarcasm is erudite, too: the Book of Malachi (I had to look it up, not being at all well-versed in the bible) contains a critique of the lax religious and social behavior of (Israelite) priests, hereby pointing at one of the issues of the plot: how can any full-blooded, able-bodied man take the religion as seriously as a preacher should? Baptised as a Catholic, I've always been equally fascinated by the rigor formally imprinted on the soft soul of god's men as by the creativity, anchored both in their personalities and in their organizations, with which they permit themselves breathing space despite the harsh moralistic scaffold. Harsh and boring, in fact:

'It's all so dull,' Elmer cries more than once, and means the doctrine, the learning and the telling of the doctrine and its endless ramifications. Dull and entrancing at once, because dullness, when it drones on and on, has this muzak-like ability to put us into trance before it puts us to sleep. Elmer spends his whole life in that trance, which excuses many of his misdeeds.

The following section illustrates the trance both on the side of the protagonist, and on the side of the reader'it takes place about half way through the book where Elmer muses upon the sight of Sharon Falconer, his only true love and a professional traveling evangelist, very shortly before Sharon dies tragicomically:

«Elmer, sitting back listening, was moved as in his first adoration for her. He had become so tired of her poetizing that he almost admitted to himself that he was tired. But tonight he felt her strangeness again, and in it he was humble. He saw her straight back, shimmering in white satin, he saw her superb arms as she stretched them out to these thousands, and in hot secret pride he gloated that his beauty, beheld and worshipped of so many, belonged to him alone.»

The sequence also illustrates how Sinclair Lewis manipulates POV: he remains an 'involved' narrator (Ursula Le Guin's term for what is often called 'omniscient') while he at the same time leans deeply into the protagonist. He performs the same trick with other important characters, most notably with the sympathetic, ultimately terribly unlucky, preacher Frank Shallard, a one-time classmate of Gantry's. Lewis uses this technique whenever he wants to reflect without leaving the character, and especially when, as in the previous passage, he wishes to paint the picture of ambivalence, which, in this novel, is as deep as the Nile is long.

There is so much more to be said about this book, which is not without weaknesses. Many reviewers mention that it slackens a little in the middle and that the story loses its grip on the reader while following some of Elmer Gantry's less illuminating adventures in industry before he returns to the job of a preacher for good. This may well be'I appreciated this part as a breather and as necessary buildup of Gantry's character (of which there is so little). The pace in this middle section is distinctly different, but Lewis uses it to establish a network of relationships to secondary characters.

These secondary characters, not the antagonists, of which there are few if any, and all of them good men & women (apart from Hettie Dowler and her spouse) are the third secret of the book for me: there is an army of secondary characters, friends and foes of Gantry, representatives of the entire American nation really, and through their scenes (often without Gantry's presence), the world of the early twentieth century comes to life.

The one real weakness I see in the book is one which it shares with so many books that I wouldn't know where to begin counting, including most of recent literature: the female characters aren't so fully drawn as to really come to life (with the exception of Gantry's female counterpart, Sharon Falconer). For the modern reader, this is dissatisfying. From the modern female reader it may even bring a death sentence'I hope not, because like all great literature, the book as a whole rises above gender stereotypes by, paradoxically, describing stereotype, but oh-so beautifully rendered.

It's delightful to be filled to the brim by a book once again. It makes me feel young again, perhaps because it brings me back to days when I really just lived for and through books. Those days may be gone, but it is comforting to know that despite all that 'stuff' between me and the land of fiction, including my own writing, I can still grow down and let myself be filled. And it's good, too, to step back now, bowing to a master, and analyze his technique and his special effects.

And now I'm off putting some of these principles to work and upgrading the Wikipedia entry on the novel, which is a little undernourished given the rank of this work by a writer, who said 'bro­kenly many things beau­ti­ful in their common-ness.' (Sin­clair Lewis)

--review from my website: marcusspeh [dot] com
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am 1. August 2000
In my opinion, ELMER GANTRY is Sinclair Lewis' finest novel, and that's saying a lot. I first read it some years ago during the height of the televangelist scandals, and while the vernacular seemed a bit quaint, the story itself was as fresh as the daily headlines--so topical that for a while there I regarded Lewis as something of a prophet. He wasn't of course. His novel is set in the early decades of the 20th century, and the fact that it seems so current today is testimony not to Lewis' prescience, but to the persistence of the religious milieu in which real-life Elmer Gantrys thrive. Lewis had obviously researched his subject extremely well, for he was almost uncannily familiar with the dim-witted but canny types who fill pews and collection plates by telling people what they want to hear.
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am 10. Dezember 2011
Over the past few weeks, I've enjoyed Sinclair Lewis' novel "Elmer Gantry" (as an audio book, beautifully read by Anthony Heald) and it took me a while to figure out why. Published in 1926, this is the story of a "professional good man", a preacher and pastor in those first decades of the 20th century before the Great Depression. In the book, Gantry rises to near-national fame as an evangelist exposing "vice" while being vicious himself throughout, desperately so. [Spoiler:] Though his hypocrisy comes close to being found out several times, he continues to escape and emerge each time more successful, while his antagonists and others who cross his path wither, vanish or perish altogether.

I wondered why I liked the book so much because Gantry, the protagonist, isn't someone to identify with: he's got very little going for him--he's not even evil. He's really just "a hog," as one colleague calls him in the book. He's so forgettable as a character that it seems writerly sin to assemble an entire novel around him. He does not undergo any growth of character, either in the positive or in the negative. Lewis continually repeats Gantry's phrases and thoughts to underline the repetitiveness and banality of the man and his miserable career - miserable not in terms of worldly success but in terms of meaning and merit. After a few pages I knew all there was to be known about Elmer Gantry--and yet, I felt compelled to finish the book, sighing a lot throughout, but fully engaged to the end.

Once again: why?

One reason is the writing itself: it makes you want to listen to Elmer and his shenanigans. Here is a short excerpt from the first third of the book, describing Elmer's first assignment as a baptist pastor. Behold the beautiful rhythm:

«Brother Gantry was shaking hands all around. His sanctifying ordination, or it might have been his summer of bouncing from pulpit to pulpit, had so elevated him that he could greet them as impressively and fraternally as a sewing-machine agent. He shook hands with a good grip, he looked at all the more aged sisters as though he were moved to give them a holy kiss, he said the right things about the weather, and by luck or inspiration it was to the most acidly devout man in Boone County that he quoted a homicidal text from Malachi.»

Elmer's wholesomeness is deceptive and here as in many other parts of the book, he manages to deceive himself as well, by elevation, as it were. The author's sarcasm is erudite, too: the Book of Malachi (I had to look it up, not being at all well-versed in the bible) contains a critique of the lax religious and social behavior of (Israelite) priests, hereby pointing at one of the issues of the plot: how can any full-blooded, able-bodied man take the religion as seriously as a preacher should? Baptised as a Catholic, I've always been equally fascinated by the rigor formally imprinted on the soft soul of god's men as by the creativity, anchored both in their personalities and in their organizations, with which they permit themselves breathing space despite the harsh moralistic scaffold. Harsh and boring, in fact:

"It's all so dull," Elmer cries more than once, and means the doctrine, the learning and the telling of the doctrine and its endless ramifications. Dull and entrancing at once, because dullness, when it drones on and on, has this muzak-like ability to put us into trance before it puts us to sleep. Elmer spends his whole life in that trance, which excuses many of his misdeeds.

The following section illustrates the trance both on the side of the protagonist, and on the side of the reader--it takes place about half way through the book where Elmer muses upon the sight of Sharon Falconer, his only true love and a professional traveling evangelist, very shortly before Sharon dies tragicomically:

«Elmer, sitting back listening, was moved as in his first adoration for her. He had become so tired of her poetizing that he almost admitted to himself that he was tired. But tonight he felt her strangeness again, and in it he was humble. He saw her straight back, shimmering in white satin, he saw her superb arms as she stretched them out to these thousands, and in hot secret pride he gloated that his beauty, beheld and worshipped of so many, belonged to him alone.»

The sequence also illustrates how Sinclair Lewis manipulates POV: he remains an `involved' narrator (Ursula Le Guin's term for what is often called "omniscient") while he at the same time leans deeply into the protagonist. He performs the same trick with other important characters, most notably with the sympathetic, ultimately terribly unlucky, preacher Frank Shallard, a one-time classmate of Gantry's. Lewis uses this technique whenever he wants to reflect without leaving the character, and especially when, as in the previous passage, he wishes to paint the picture of ambivalence, which, in this novel, is as deep as the Nile is long.

There is so much more to be said about this book, which is not without weaknesses. Many reviewers mention that it slackens a little in the middle and that the story loses its grip on the reader while following some of Elmer Gantry's less illuminating adventures in industry before he returns to the job of a preacher for good. This may well be--I appreciated this part as a breather and as necessary buildup of Gantry's character (of which there is so little). The pace in this middle section is distinctly different, but Lewis uses it to establish a network of relationships to secondary characters.

These secondary characters, not the antagonists, of which there are few if any, and all of them good men & women (apart from Hettie Dowler and her spouse) are the third secret of the book for me: there is an army of secondary characters, friends and foes of Gantry, representatives of the entire American nation really, and through their scenes (often without Gantry's presence), the world of the early twentieth century comes to life.

The one real weakness I see in the book is one which it shares with so many books that I wouldn't know where to begin counting, including most of recent literature: the female characters aren't so fully drawn as to really come to life (with the exception of Gantry's female counterpart, Sharon Falconer). For the modern reader, this is dissatisfying. From the modern female reader it may even bring a death sentence--I hope not, because like all great literature, the book as a whole rises above gender stereotypes by, paradoxically, describing stereotype, but oh-so beautifully rendered.

It's delightful to be filled to the brim by a book once again. It makes me feel young again, perhaps because it brings me back to days when I really just lived for and through books. Those days may be gone, but it is comforting to know that despite all that "stuff" between me and the land of fiction, including my own writing, I can still grow down and let myself be filled. And it's good, too, to step back now, bowing to a master, and analyze his technique and his special effects.

And now I'm off putting some of these principles to work and upgrading the Wikipedia entry on the novel, which is a little undernourished given the rank of this work by a writer, who said "bro­kenly many things beau­ti­ful in their common-ness." (Sin­clair Lewis)

--review from my website: [...]
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am 30. Juni 2000
In my opinion, ELMER GANTRY is Sinclair Lewis' finest novel, and that's saying a lot. I first read it some years ago during the height of the televangelist scandals, and while the turn-of-the-century vernacular seemed a bit quaint, the story itself was as fresh as the daily headlines--so topical that for a while there I regarded Lewis as something of a prophet. He wasn't, of course. His novel is set in the early decades of the 20th century, and the fact that it seems so current today is testimony not to Lewis' prescience, but to the persistence of the religious milieu in which real-life Elmer Gantrys thrive.
In the Hollywood parody, Elmer is turned into a square-jawed ladies' man; in fact, Lewis' protagonist could have been better portrayed by a peevish, scheming Jonathan Winters; for even though the book's title character is a philandering Baptist (later, Methodist) minister, womanizing is not its central theme. The story is really about how a dim-witted bully with little knowledge of theology and a complete lack of morals can make it to the top in the religion game. I have long suspected that the novel, while seldom read by anyone else, is on the required-reading list in many seminaries. If Lewis knew that his expose had been turned into a practical, step-by-step guide for advancement in the ministerial field, he would likely turn over in his grave.
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am 21. November 1999
A lot of Sinclair Lewis can be read as social history in our days at the turn of the 21st century. Social mores and the whole tenor of society have changed dramatically since the days of his major works. But ELMER GANTRY still reads like a story of our times. Though it covers a period roughly stretching from 1902 to 1926, and America has been transformed since then, the basic idea of the novel---how a man, selfish, ignorant, bullying, and posing as a 'regular guy', can fool most of the people most of the time---is still very much relevant to us. Business was the heart of America in Lewis' day, and it still is. But a career model drawn from that sphere could be used in many other walks of life. ELMER GANTRY is about a man who uses religion and a Protestant church to rise socially, to get and abuse power for his own ends. From Elmer's evangelical college days with his drinking, womanizing, total lack of ability or interest in studies, and his lying and maneuvering to get what he wants, to the stunning but realistic conclusion to the book, Lewis paints a vibrant portrait of an unprincipled climber ; a man who will change any opinion, betray anybody, and do anything to get ahead. If we consider the sagas of TV evangelists in our days, the difference between their revealed hypocrisies and those written by Lewis is startlingly small. The sole difference was that in the 1920s, there was no television for Elmer Gantry to exploit.
Certain sections of the book read better than others--it is not of uniform quality---and sometimes you wonder why Lewis inserted a chapter here or there. I think particularly of the two chapters on the fate of Frank Shallard, Gantry's alter-ego. They seemed to be an afterthought, and the point was brutally taken, but for what purpose other than shock ? On the other hand, Lewis' use of the colloquial language of the times and inclusion of thousands of minor details of life in that era reveal a whole world which might, in the absence of ELMER GANTRY, have disappeared from our consciousness. On the whole, this is a powerful novel about an unscrupulous, offensive scoundrel which still resonates well in our day. The Gantrys of this world are endless. Unfortunately.
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am 30. Dezember 1998
I read this novel just after completing another Lewis book, Babbitt. Both novels lack a carefully constructed plot. Also, both books are superficial in their treatment of early twentieth-century America. Babbitt serves to criticize American middle-class culture for its hypocrisy and for its suffocating narrow-mindedness. Elmer Gantry's point is to mock the gullibility of Americans, who value always appearance over substance. I wanted both novels to analyze more, the causes of these social conditions. As Mark Schorer (if memory serves) explains, Lewis diagnoses social ills, but he practically never suggests a cure. Maybe it's unfair to expect a satirist to do more than mock. And, after all, who wants every book to be didactic? Nonetheless, I wanted something more in both novels, mainly because I see the same sort of narrow-mindedness and gullibility in my own time, and I want to know better how to confront it.
If I had to choose one of the two books to read again, I would read Babbitt, because of the careful attention Lewis pays to the language of middle-class businessmen. Elmer Gantry's sermons are never as funny as Babbitt's attempts at public speaking.
Also, Babbitt's plot seems more logical than Elmer Gantry's. H.L. Mencken said the last 30,000 words of Elmer Gantry must have been written while Lewis was drunk. In my opinion, the last one-third of the plot was the most interesting, as Elmer transformed himself into a nationally-famous Methodist preacher. (Maybe I just like drunken fiction better than the sober variety.) I found Gantry's plot unfocused because of the amount of time Lewis spends developing the Sharon Falconer sub-plot. Falconer is a much more interesting character than Gantry, but Lewis leaves her behind in the last third of the novel.
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am 5. Juni 1999
Sinclair Lewis wrote Elmer Gantry as a response to actual ministers he had met while performing research. Lewis, though admittedly a drunk, was a man who held the simple truths of the New Testament in great respect. In Elmer Gantry, he took every evil or unethical practice he observed in his investigations, and placed it in the person of Elmer, so the reader could better understand the results of such improper practices. He certainly found some timeless truths about religious charlatans along the way, as many of the scandals of the past few years are eerily similar to the pictures Lewis paints. In an age where mega-churches are popping up all over, I thought that Rev. Andrew Pengilly, a saintly man laboring in relative obscurity, provided an object lesson: true Christianity isn't found in the places that are the most popular. Even in Zenith, it's clear that most of the churches were based on anything but the spiritual interests of the members and the community as a whole. Many of Lewis' works are dated now, and are snapshots of a past age. But not Elmer Gantry. it's a relevant today as ever. If there's one book by Lewis that I consider a must read, it's this one. Readers beware: There may be an Elmer in your city.
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am 28. September 1998
Somebody must have played a joke on me. It says that this book was written in 1927...but obviously it must have been written just last year.
Either Sinclair Lewis has amazing powers of premonition, or what he has written on religion and hypocrisy has always been and will always be relevant.
The story of a preacher who pursues an agressive campaign of saving souls, by any means neccessary, all the while breaking every spiritual law that he preaches, could have been called 'The Jimmy Swaggart' story, or could have been told about any number of hi-tech preachers of today.
The only thing missing from this story was a cable television network devoted to the preacher's mission...EGTV. This is a book that will enlighten you to the hypocrisy of the religious...or which will inspire you to take up your own ministry and follow in Elmer's footsteps.
This book is probably on Pat Robertson's bookshelf.
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am 25. Mai 2000
In Babbit, Sinclair Lewis turns business into a religion. Whereas, in Elmer Gantry, Lewis turns religion into a business. Elmer Gantry is a very real portrayal of a man who is ecstatic about his religion, but it is all an outward show for profit. We might be tempted to think that the corruption evident in modern televangelists is a new occurence. Lewis proves us wrong. Lewis shows the entire spectrum of christian belief in this novel from hypocrisy, to agnosticism, to an abiding spiritual life. Despite the fact that Lewis is one of my favorite authors and this is a superior novel, there was one disappointment. Near the end of the book, Gantry is confronted by the book's one genuine believer. There was a lot of emotional tension in the scene, and I felt Lewis just let it slip away. It was an unsatisfying resolution after the build up. Beyond that one moment, It's one of the best works of fiction I have ever read.
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