Elmer Gantry's nickname in college is "Hell-cat", and it suits him perfectly.
Elmer thoroughly enjoys smoking, drinking, and hanging out with his best friend and roommate, Jim Lefferts. And every now and then, getting into a good fight.
He also likes girls. A lot.
The story of Elmer Gantry by Sinclair Lewis, published in 1927, begins in November of 1902.
Elmer is in his senior year at Terwillinger College, but probably would not have made it that far had it not been for Jim constantly after him to study.
Elmer is bored with school. He is football captain and popular, but Jim is his only real friend. Elmer thinks he will become a lawyer, though he still has doubts that it is what he really wants to do.
Elmer also knows he isn't fond of manual labor, and finds it easier to stay in school, even though it doesn't really interest him. His mother wants him to be a college graduate. That, and Jim's pushing him to his books, keeps him going.
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In his Public Speaking class, he learns that he is a good orator and has a knack for holding a crowd, and he finds it intoxicating, but refuses to join the debate team, as he sees the work required for it quite distasteful.
On the night the story begins, Elmer and Jim are in a bar. Elmer is drunk and in a fighting mood. When they leave the bar, they come upon Eddie Fislinger, preaching on a street corner.
Though he detests Eddie, Elmer is ripe for a fight, and Eddie is being heckled. Elmer defends Eddie, and fights the hecklers. This begins Eddie's relentless tactics to convert Elmer to Christianity.
A few months later, when Annual Prayer Week is held, Elmer's mother comes to town to attend - and to drag him along with her. Elmer suspects (rightly) that Eddie had something to do with Mrs. Gantry making the trip from forty miles away.
A week's worth of meetings, much hell-fire and damnation preaching, prayers and pleadings, (most of all his mother's), finally wear him down. Elmer goes to the alter.
This is the story of Elmer Gantry's life as a minister, his troubles and triumphs. He loves being a preacher, loves what he is able to do with a crowd and the respect that comes with his title.
But he misses his old life, and can never quite totally break from it.
And he misses Jim, the best friend he ever had, who will have nothing to do with Elmer in his new life.
This book was condemned from pulpits all across the United States. One clergyman said Sinclair Lewis should go to jail for five years. There were also threats of violence against the author.
The negative view of American Evangelical Christianity got it banned in Boston and several other cities.
The Elmer Gantry character is hypocrisy personified. He is a master at manipulation, and is certainly not above using this particular talent - along with his position as a minister - to his benefit.
I enjoyed the book. It's familiar territory. I've known (and known of) real people much like Elmer. I think most of us have.
This book shows us that just because something looks and sounds good, doesn't necessarily mean that it is.
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