Elmer Gantry (Anglais) Poche – 4 décembre 2007
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Elmer's character can be summed up by once incident. After getting a doubt-ridden professor fired, someone leaves 30 dimes wrapped in a religious tract in Elmer's dorm room. He delightedly mines the tract for sermon ideas, and uses the 30 dimes to buy naughty postcards.
Besides following the rise, fall, and rise of hard working, talented, and utterly unprincipled Elmer, Sinclair Lewis's novel shows us the state of evangelical religion in the first decades of the 20th Century. We see back-country Baptist churches, traveling revival shows, "New Age" cults, and middle-of-the road Methodist congregations at work.
It's funny, and hair-raising, stuff. There's also a nice twist ending that puts it in the category of an Awful Warning novel.
The chief woman character of the book, tent evangelist Sharon Falconer, is also portrayed as a power-hungry opportunist, half hypocrite and half delusional madwoman. That portrayal won Lewis no friends, particularly since most readers were certain that Falconer was a thinly disguised representation of Aimee Semple McPherson, one of the founders of modern millenialism, whose personal improprieties are well documented. Likewise, numerous critics supposed that the character of Gantry himself was at least partly a portrait of evangelist Billy Sunday.
We Minnesotans are proud of our Nobel Prize author, though we show our pride mostly by not reading him. Honestly, this is not an easy book to enjoy. The language is stiff and corny at times, the characters are too cartoon-like, and the first half of the book would be better if it were edited in half. Even so, it has intellectual integrity and profound historical relevance, and its unrelenting portrayal of moral shallowness builds enough momentum to make it a worthwhile classic.
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.
What's so disheartening about this book, for me, is, as noted in the afterword by Mark Schorer, "The forces of social good and enlightenment as presented in "Elmer Gantry" are not strong enough to offer any real resistance to the forces of social evil and banality." This is a book where all the good guys go down.
Maybe you have to have been raised in the South or Midwest of the USA, and to have been brought up Baptist or Methodist, to really, truly get all the layers of this magnificent book, all the hidden humor, all the razor-sharp and, at times, incredibly subtle, criticism and commentary. If you've never been to a church supper where a person proudly claims to have traced their lineage all the way back to Adam and Eve, if you have never had your school board or local city council hear arguments about why certain books should be banned from school or local libraries, if a significant number of your family wouldn't boycott your wedding if you chose to serve alcohol, if you have never heard Catholics called "Papists" from a pulpit, if school friends haven't told you, in all sincerity, that they are going to pray for you because of your questions and intellect, if you haven't heard "Christians" rationalize about their actions that are in direct contrast to what the Bible says, if you haven't noticed the onslaught of efforts to get science out of our schools, I'm not sure you can really, truly "get" this book. Part of me is ashamed to have only finally read Sinclair Lewis when I'm already 40 -- and part of me wonders if I could ever have understood this book on the level I feel that I do had I not been this age.
Still a landmark in American literature, still a biting, chilling commentary on our country.