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Should Elmer Gantry be Considered an Icon in American Literature?

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message 1: by Tom (new) - added it

Tom Surprisingly few people have read of Sinclair Lewis's master work, "Elmer Gantry." When I read it I could not put it down. How does one describe Elmer Gantry? Slippery? Huckster? Shyster? I wouldn't say he is evil, but he knows how to find his way out of difficult situations. I think his character should be one of the giants in American literature.


message 2: by Ali (new) - rated it 3 stars

Ali Something that has always troubled me about Sinclair Lewis is that he seems to be absent from his novels. Its not that he has a poor style of writing but rather, he seems to have no style at all. His novels leave a very strong and lasting impression on the reader, one remembers every detail of the story, but the reading itself is a trial. Sinclair Lewis seems to have no personality, nothing that sets him apart as a human being. Indeed, he was never particularity liked by his peers and when I first read up about him, I felt sorry for him. However, I then got the feel of what kind of person he was through writings on and from H.L.Mencken which led me to believe he was disagreeable and full of himself. Without trying to sound too extreme, I would venture to say to read his novels is to read about the hidden sociopaths of our society, and furthermore, the author himself seems to be his own kind of sociopath. One cannot relate to characters who are void of empathy, and a writer who does not have this human trait cannot inspire it in others.
This being said, no one can deny his greatness (no matter they want to... One example being Mencken who didnt like him!). I would agree that there is something diabolical about his success and his stories. It almost seems unfair that Dreiser's books have been labelled turgid due to too much sympathy and feeling.


message 3: by Tom (new) - added it

Tom Hi, Ali!

Thank you for your post! I just finished reading "Cass Timberlane" and I have to agree with you that sometimes his style can be laborious. I put the book down for a while and did not return to it for a week, something I very rarely do. Overall, I liked the book, but it isn't his best, and you are right. His style here drones on, punctuated with acerbic observations with touches of irony and humor that I enjoyed.

I have to read up on him, but I do know he used to be a journalist, so that may play a big part in why in some cases he does not imbue his characters with the depth we are looking for. I think with Elmer Gantry he does a good job of painting a character whose morals are questionable, but whose ingenuity and cleverness resonate with a certain aspect of the American spirit. Much of what Lewis satirizes in "Elmer Gangry" remains very relevant today, sadly. The fate of Frank Shallard was very powerful.

I also enjoy reading Dreiser's books and it is disappointing that they are labeled turgid, in fact he might just be a little better then Lewis in his social realism commentary. However, his reputation as a womanizer may have played a role in how some people view his work. Nevertheless, he is without a doubt one of our better writers.


Nanci Svensson I have just discovered the genius of Anderson, but I was (though naturally impressed by the dead-on characterization of Gentry and his kind) too appalled by this hustler to feel for him: now, George Babbitt, there is a stuffy yet endearing character though.


message 5: by Tom (new) - added it

Tom Nanci, agreed. I do like George Babbitt. Did you see the film version of Elmer Gantry? I don't know why they put George Babbitt in it. Strange!

I see your point about about how Gantry's questionable morals can repel you and others, but I found a cleverness in the way he slithered/wiggled out of situations where he was cornered. I thought for sure he was done at the end, but he found a way out of it.

There are many iconic characters in literature that people either hate or love: Madame Bovary or Huck Finn....it is debatable whether Elmer Gantry should be among them, but he should be part of the conversation.


Hilary West Burt Lancaster was well cast in the film version. But why did Shirley Jones get an award for such a brief appearance? Personally I don't think there are any iconic characters in the book. To me it is a minor book, but clever in its depiction of Elmer, a bit of a twister and a conniver who is a survivor.


message 7: by Tom (new) - added it

Tom Yes, that is a good question. They changed the role of Lulu Baines entirely and I am not sure why.

When I think of Elmer, I think somewhat of Uriah Heep, if nothing else but for his cleverness and deviousness.

It might seem minor, but I think a lot of what Sinclair Lewis is satirizing and critiquing is relevant today, sadly. I don't think self-proclaimed men of God will ever learn.


message 8: by Feliks (last edited Jun 29, 2014 03:17PM) (new) - added it

Feliks No need to sugarcoat it for us Edward. Tell us how you really feel? o_0

Certainly EG is an iconic piece of American literature; however I don't think it is particularly pioneering in its technique. There's been other 'charlatan' novels, plays, and certainly movies. 'The Rainmaker', Meredith Wilson's, 'The Music Man', or Kazan's 'A Face in the Crowd' come to mind. Anyway, EG is strong yes--but it's still just a very competent, well-done story.

Ali's post above, though--was fine, very fine indeed. Sensitive insights which I largely agree with. Good job, Ali. You should join Henry's GR Lit-Fic group.

Next: Lancaster's performance. Everyone knows that Burt Lancaster owned that role. He put his stamp on it and no one's ever dreamed of trying to remove it.

Meanwhile, Shirley Jones got her award for 'playing-against-her-type' (usually 'good girl' roles). Back then--when prostitutes were almost never even featured in movie stories--this alone had the ability to overwhelm audiences.

Or else, she got it because (as often happened) there was some kind of 'grudge' vs another actress that year. I can't recall.


message 9: by Ali (new) - rated it 3 stars

Ali Hahaha! Thanks for that Felik, I think Edward must have had a rough day. ^^
And thank you for your comment about my post ^^ Always nice to feel appreciated. What is Henry's GR Lit-Fic group?


message 10: by Feliks (new) - added it

Feliks You're quite welcome. My pleasure. Henry's group: I have sent you the link! Its about the only place on GR where any kind of meaty discussions are taking place..


message 11: by Tom (new) - added it

Tom Thanks for the comments. I have to disagree with you about Burt Lancaster. I don't think he owned the role, but rather played to the vision that director had for the book...something different from what Sinclair Lewis had in mind. That being said, who do you think could play Elmer Gantry, or at least approximate the attributes that make him so endearing yet appalling.


message 12: by Jeri (last edited Jun 29, 2014 06:21PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Jeri Massi I was a Fundamentalist; graduated from Bob Jones University, etc., etc. EG blew me away because if you simply changed trains to planes in the novel and kept everything else the same, you'd have modern Fundamentalism. I did know there have always been hucksters. I did not realize that the Baptist brand of them has been operating the exact same way since the days of Sinclair Lewis. Even the hymns are the same.

For some people, EG is a classic book, a cornerstone of their literary experience because they recognize the culture from personal experience. But my guess is that as religion has become less traditional and more cosmopolitan in the US, EG has become less relevant. The religious communities on which it offered commentary have gotten a lot smaller in size. EG is representative of a certain time period in American history. I believe that Lewis even visited J Frank Norris' church and followed Billy Sunday around a bit to complete his research.

I agree with Feliks: EG is a strong, competently written story. I would call it a minor American classic.


message 13: by Feliks (last edited Jun 29, 2014 09:08PM) (new) - added it

Feliks Tom wrote: "Thanks for the comments. I have to disagree with you about Burt Lancaster. I don't think he owned the role, but rather played to the vision that director had for the book...something different from..."

When I say 'everyone knows' I'm not making it up. It's a direct quote from Robert Wagner circa 1970s, and he would know if anyone would. There was no chatter going on back then, which Wagner didn't hear about. Accept it as Hollywood's consensus if you're going to accept anything.

Who else would I think could take on the role? Today, no one. Absolutely no-BODY.

Circa the date of the original movie production? Of course there were a lot of stellar actors at the time: Holden, March, Kirk Douglas, Robert Ryan...tons more...which really makes Wagner's comment all the more sterling. When he says Lancaster owned Gantry, he's speaking with force and conviction. That was an actor's era; and in that era Lancaster was one of the very top dogs.

Bearing in mind Ali's comments on how 'dry' the book actually is, and then recognizing what Lancaster did with it..let's give appropriate credit. He brought that character to life; Lancaster was ball lightning in those days; and he got fired up for certain roles like this. No mere director's tool he. A director usually didn't have to do too much steering with that talent; more like hanging on for dear life. The man was a colossus.

It's like asking who else but Henry Fonda could have played Tom Joad.


message 14: by [deleted user] (new)

Feliks wrote: "Tom wrote: "Thanks for the comments. I have to disagree with you about Burt Lancaster. I don't think he owned the role, but rather played to the vision that director had for the book...something di..."

I read all Sinclair Lewis books in Czehc translations. I liked his style. So maybe it was a good translation. Did any of you like Kingsblood Royal? I did


message 15: by Tony (new) - rated it 4 stars

Tony Blauvelt 4 years late, but I completely agree that Gantry ought to be a staple of American anti-heroes, if only in the least a 20th century one. And that's a perfect question to lead in to my own: why no love for Lewis? I read Babbitt on a whim and thought it was a more poignantly relevant satire of our modern times than than the ones actually written in our times. It Can't Hapoen Here and Kingsblood Royal were both WAY ahead of their time. So why is his name absent from American Lit discussions? I've become a big fan and I'll in the least push his stuff on my friends. Nice thread, everyone!


message 16: by Ali (new) - rated it 3 stars

Ali Is he absent from American lit discussions? It's hard to know when you arent in America.


message 17: by Tom (new) - added it

Tom Hello, all! I am really pleased that this thread is still alive! Unfortunately, Elmer Gantry is not a staple of American Literature. But should be. Gantry displays many of the traits that Americans define themselves by and we often see this in American politics.

Sinclair Lewis does not receive the recognition he deserves. His attacks on aspects of American hypocrisy were spot on (Cass Timberlane is not one of his better know books, but rang very true for me in is searing look at banking industry, etc.). I think by now almost everyone has read “It Can’t Happen Here”). He was prescient in many ways.

The challenge for Sinclair Lewis is to remain relevant agile the landscape of American Literature changes. We now see more African—American, queer, feminist, etc., literature become required reading. This is not a bad thing of course, but a side-effect is that it makes works like those of Sinclair Lewis dispensable. How sad.


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