Elmer Gantry, by Sinclair Lewis

Chapter 22

1

A year he spent in Rudd Center, three years in Vulcan, and two years in Sparta. As there were 4,100 people in Rudd Center, 47,000 in Vulcan, and 129,000 in Sparta, it may be seen that the Reverend Elmer Gantry was climbing swiftly in Christian influence and character.

In Rudd Center he passed his Mizpah final examinations and received his Bachelor of Divinity degree from the seminary; in Rudd Center he discovered the art of joining, which was later to enable him to meet the more enterprising and solid men of affairs — oculists and editors and manufacturers of bathtubs — and enlist their practical genius in his crusades for spirituality.

He joined the Masons, the Odd Fellows, and the Maccabees. He made the Memorial Day address to the G. A. R., and he made the speech welcoming the local representative home from Congress after having won the poker championship of the Houses.

Vulcan was marked, aside from his labors for perfection, by the birth of his two children — Nat, in 1916, and Bernice, whom they called Bunny, in 1917 — and by his ceasing to educate his wife in his ideals of amour.

It all blew up a month after the birth of Bunny.

Elmer had, that evening, been addressing the Rod and Gun Club dinner. He had pointed out that our Lord must have been in favor of Rods and Guns for, he said, “I want you boys to notice that the Master, when he picked out his first disciples, didn’t select a couple of stoop-shouldered, pigeon-toed mollycoddles but a pair of first-class fishermen!”

He was excited to intoxication by their laughter.

Since Bunny’s birth he had been sleeping in the guest-room, but now, walking airily, he tiptoed into Cleo’s room at eleven, with that look of self-conscious innocence which passionless wives instantly catch and dread.

“Well, you sweet thing, it sure went off great! They all liked my spiel. Why, you poor lonely girl, shame you have to sleep all alone here, poor baby!” he said, stroking her shoulder as she sat propped against the pillows. “Guess I’ll have to come sleep here tonight.”

She breathed hard, tried to look resolute. “Please! Not yet!”

“What do you MEAN?”

“Please! I’m tired tonight. Just kiss me good night, and let me pop off to sleep.”

“Meaning my attentions aren’t welcome to Your Majesty!” He paced the floor. “Young woman, it’s about time for a showdown! I’ve hinted at this before, but I’ve been as charitable and long-suffering as I could, but by God, you’ve gotten away with too much, and then you try to pretend —‘Just kiss me good night!’ Sure! I’m to be a monk! I’m to be one of these milk-and-water husbands that’s perfectly content to hang around the house and not give one little yip if his wife don’t care for his method of hugging! Well, believe me, young woman, you got another guess coming, and if you think that just because I’m a preacher I’m a Willie-boy — You don’t even make the slightest smallest effort to learn some passion, but just act like you had hard work putting up with me! Believe me, there’s other women a lot better and prettier — yes, and more religious! — that haven’t thought I was such a damn’ pest to have around! I’m not going to stand — Never even making the slightest effort —”

“Oh, Elmer, I have! Honestly I have! If you’d only been more tender and patient with me at the very first, I might have learned —”

“Rats! All damned nonsense! Trouble with you is, you always were afraid to face hard facts! Well, I’m sick of it, young woman. You can go to the devil! This is the last time, believe me!”

He banged the door; he had satisfaction in hearing her sob that night; and he kept his vow about staying away from her, for almost a month. Presently he was keeping it altogether; it was a settled thing that they had separate bedrooms.

And all the while he was almost as confused, as wistful, as she was; and whenever he found a woman parishioner who was willing to comfort him, or whenever he was called on important but never explained affairs to Sparta, he had no bold swagger of satisfaction, but a guilt, an uneasiness of sin, which displayed itself in increasingly furious condemnation of the same sin from his pulpit.

“O God, if I could only have gone on with Sharon, I might have been a decent fellow,” he mourned, in his sorrow sympathetic with all the world. But the day after, in the sanctuary, he would be salving that sorrow by raging, “And these dance-hall proprietors, these tempters of lovely innocent girls, whose doors open to the pit of death and horror, they shall have reward — they shall burn in uttermost hell — burn literally — BURN! — and for their suffering we shall have but joy that the Lord’s justice has been resolutely done!”

2

Something like statewide fame began to cling about the Reverend Elmer Gantry during his two years in Sparta — 1918 to 1920. In the spring of ‘18 he was one of the most courageous defenders of the Midwest against the imminent invasion of the Germans. He was a Four–Minute Man. He said violent things about atrocities, and sold Liberty Bonds hugely. He threatened to leave Sparta to its wickedness while he went out to “take care of our poor boys” as a chaplain, and he might have done so had the war lasted another year.

In Sparta, too, he crept from timidly sensational church advertisements to such blasts as must have shaken the Devil himself. Anyway, they brought six hundred delighted sinners to church every Sunday evening, and after one sermon on the horrors of booze, a saloon-keeper, slightly intoxicated, remarked “Whoop!” and put a fifty-dollar bill in the plate.

Not to this day, with all the advance in intellectual advertising, has there been seen a more arousing effort to sell salvation than Elmer’s prose poem in the Sparta World–Chronicle on a Saturday in December, 1919:

WOULD YOU LIKE YOUR MOTHER TO GO BATHING WITHOUT STOCKINGS?

Do you believe in old-fashioned womanhood, that can love and laugh and still be the symbols of God’s own righteousness, bringing a tear to the eye as one remembers their brooding tenderness? Would you like to see your own dear mammy indulging in mixed bathing or dancing that Hell’s own fool monkeyshine, the one-step?

REVEREND ELMER GANTRY

will answer these questions and others next Sunday morning. Gantry shoots straight from the shoulder.

POPLAR AVENUE METHODIST CHURCH

Follow the crowd to the beautiful times
At the beautiful church with the beautiful chimes.

3

While he was in Sparta, national prohibition arrived, with its high-colored opportunities for pulpit-orators, and in Sparta he was inspired to his greatest political campaign.

The obviously respectable candidate for mayor of Sparta was a Christian Business Man, a Presbyterian who was a manufacturer of rubber overshoes. It is true that he was accused of owning the buildings in which were several of the worst brothels and blind tigers in the city, but it had amply been explained that the unfortunate gentleman had not been able to kick out his tenants, and that he gave practically all his receipts from the property to missionary work in China.

His opponent was a man in every way objectionable to Elmer’s principles: a Jew, a radical who criticized the churches for not paying taxes, a sensational and publicity-seeking lawyer who took the cases of labor unions and negroes without fee. When he consulted them, Elmer’s Official Board agreed that the Presbyterian was the only man to support. They pointed out that the trouble with the radical Jew was that he was not only a radical but a Jew.

Yet Elmer was not satisfied. He had, possibly, less objection to houses of ill fame than one would have judged from his pulpit utterances, and he certainly approved the Presbyterian’s position that “we must not try dangerous experiments in government but adhere courageously to the proven merits and economies of the present administration.” But talking with members of his congregation, Elmer found that the Plain People — and the plain, the very plain, people did make up such a large percentage of his flock — hated the Presbyterian and had a surprised admiration for the Jew.

“He’s awful’ kind to poor folks,” said they.

Elmer had what he called a “hunch.”

“All the swells are going to support this guy McGarry, but darned if I don’t think the Yid’ll win, and anybody that roots for him’ll stand ace-high after the election,” he reasoned.

He came out boisterously for the Jew. The newspapers squealed and the Presbyterians bellowed and the rabbis softly chuckled.

Not only from his pulpit but in scattered halls Elmer campaigned and thundered. He was smeared once with rotten eggs in a hall near the red-light district, and once an illicit booze-dealer tried to punch his nose, and that was a very happy time for Elmer.

The booze-dealer, a bulbous angry man, climbed up on the stage of the hall and swayed toward Elmer, weaving with his fists, rumbling, “You damn’ lying gospel-shark, I’ll show you —”

The forgotten star of the Terwillinger team leaped into life. He was calm as in a scrimmage. He strode over, calculatingly regarded the point of the bootlegger’s jaw, and caught him on it, exact. He saw the man slumping down, but he did not stand looking; he swung back to the reading-stand and went on speaking. The whole audience rose, clamorous with applause, and Elmer Gantry had for a second become the most famous man in town.

The newspapers admitted that he was affecting the campaign, and one of them swung to his support. He was so strong on virtue and the purity of womanhood and the evils of liquor that to oppose him was to admit one’s self a debauchee.

At the business meeting of his church there was a stirring squabble over his activities. When the leading trustee, a friend of the Presbyterian candidate, declared that he was going to resign unless Elmer stopped, an aged janitor shrieked, “And all the rest of us will resign unless the Reverend keeps it up!” There was gleeful and unseemly applause, and Elmer beamed.

The campaign grew so bellicose that reporters came up from the Zenith newspapers; one of them the renowned Bill Kingdom of the Zenith Advocate–Times. Elmer loved reporters. They quoted him on everything from the Bible in the schools to the Armenian mandate. He was careful not to call them “boys” but “gentlemen,” not to slap them too often on the back; he kept excellent cigars for them; and he always said, “I’m afraid I can’t talk to you as a preacher. I get too much of that on Sunday. I’m just speaking as an ordinary citizen who longs to have a clean city in which to bring up his kiddies.”

Bill Kingdom almost liked him, and the story about “the crusading parson” which he sent up to the Zenith Advocate–Times — the Thunderer of the whole state of Winnemac — was run on the third page, with a photograph of Elmer thrusting out his fist as if to crush all the sensualists and malefactors in the world.

Sparta papers reprinted the story and spoke of it with reverence.

The Jew won the campaign.

And immediately after this — six months before the Annual Conference of 1920 — Bishop Toomis sent for Elmer.

4

“At first I was afraid,” said the bishop, “you were making a great mistake in soiling yourself in this Sparta campaign. After all, it’s our mission to preach the pure gospel and the saving blood of Jesus, and not to monkey with politics. But you’ve been so successful that I can forgive you, and the time has come — At the next Conference I shall be able to offer you at last a church here in Zenith, and a very large one, but with problems that call for heroic energy. It’s the old Wellspring Church, down here on Stanley Avenue, corner of Dodsworth, in what we call ‘Old Town.’ It used to be the most fashionable and useful Methodist church in town, but the section has run down, and the membership has declined from something like fourteen hundred to about eight hundred, and under the present pastor — you know him — old Seriere, fine noble Christian gentleman, great soul, but a pretty rotten speaker — I don’t guess they have more than a hundred or so at morning service. Shame, Elmer, wicked shame to see this great institution, meant for the quickening of such vast multitudes of souls, declining and, by thunder, not hardly giving a cent for missions! I wonder if you could revive it? Go look it over, and the neighborhood, and let me know what you think. Or whether you’d rather stay on in Sparta. You’ll get less salary at Wellspring than you’re getting in Sparta — four thousand, isn’t it? — but if you build up the church, guess the Official Board will properly remunerate your labors.”

A church in Zenith! Elmer would — almost — have taken it with no salary whatever. He could see his Doctor of Divinity degree at hand, his bishopric or college presidency or fabulous pulpit in New York.

He found the Wellspring M. E. Church a hideous graystone hulk with gravy-colored windows, and a tall spire ornamented with tin gargoyles and alternate layers of tiles in distressing red and green. The neighborhood had been smart, but the brick mansions, once leisurely among lawns and gardens, were scabrous and slovenly, turned into boarding-houses with delicatessen shops in the basements.

“Gosh, this section never will come back. Too many of the doggone hoi polloi. Bunch of Wops. Nobody for ten blocks that would put more’n ten cents in the collection. Nothing doing! I’m not going to run a soup-kitchen and tell a bunch of dirty bums to come to Jesus. Not on your life!”

But he saw, a block from the church, a new apartment-house, and near it an excavation.

“Hm. Might come back, in apartments, at that. Mustn’t jump too quick. Besides, these folks need the gospel just as much as the swell-headed plutes out on Royal Ridge,” reflected the Reverend Mr. Gantry.

Through his old acquaintance, Gil O’Hearn of the O’Hearn House, Elmer met a responsible contractor and inquired into the fruitfulness of the Wellspring vineyard.

“Yes, they’re dead certain to build a bunch of apartment-houses, and pretty good ones, in that neighborhood these next few years. Be a big residential boom in Old Town. It’s near enough in to be handy to the business section, and far enough from the Union Station so’s they haven’t got any warehouses or wholesalers. Good buy, Reverend.”

“Oh, I’m not buying — I’m just selling — selling the gospel!” said the Reverend, and he went to inform Bishop Toomis that after prayer and meditation he had been led to accept the pastorate of the Wellspring Church.

So, at thirty-nine, Cæsar came to Rome, and Rome heard about it immediately.

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:38