It’s hard to pin down a signal moment when reality in America, as Philip Roth first claimed, became too unruly a beast—too repellent in its pieties, too cheap in its tastes, too nakedly consumed with its own advancement—for the novelist to try and capture it without the extreme risk of badness. But my vote is for the 1920s, a decade, let’s not forget, that featured Sacco and Vanzetti, the Scopes Monkey Trial, the Ku Klux Klan, and the staged kidnapping of “Sister” Aimee Semple McPherson, the biggest radio evangelist of the day—and that’s just a partial list.
Sinclair Lewis’s howl of outrage at the state of affairs in America’s soul, Elmer Gantry (a No. 1 best seller in 1927), could be the best bad novel we have about the unholy alliance between moralism, media, and political power, and it’s certainly one of the few that invites the whole national spectacle into one revival tent: from college gridiron to tabernacle to Rotary Club to newsroom to statehouse to scandal rag. The novel was so topical that one of its targets, crusading evangelist Billy Sunday, said after publication that if he were God, he would have “soaked Mr. Lewis so hard that there would have been nothing left for the devil to levy on.” Can you name a single contemporary novelist who’s had the stature—or, frankly, the writerly chops—to coax a beloved national figure down from his or her pulpit to deliver such an insult? Or can you imagine a best seller subjecting our sacred rituals to such a barbed sensibility: “Since the last night of the football season, with the glorious bonfire in which the young gentlemen had burned up nine tar barrels, the sign of the Jew tailor, and the president’s tabby-cat, Elmer had been tortured by boredom”? Put aside, if you can, Burt Lancaster’s performance in the 1960 film adaptation, which neuters Lewis’s protagonist with self-awareness and snips the social canvas to fit the screen: Elmer Gantry in the original is a creature of orgiastic appetites as wide as the plains that spawned him and as soothingly familiar as the cover of the Saturday Evening Post. Lewis’s masterstroke, first, was to make Gantry a monster, and then to install him at the pulpit of a mainline church where any of his readers could have worshipped.
Benjamin Anastas is a novelist in Brooklyn.