Elmer Gantry, by Sinclair Lewis

Chapter 27

1

Elmer, in court, got convictions of sixteen out of the twenty-seven fiends whom he had arrested, with an extra six months for Oscar Hochlauf for resisting arrest and the use of abusive and profane language. The judge praised him; the mayor forgave him; the chief of police shook his hand and invited him to use a police squad at any time; and some of the younger reporters did not cover their mouths with their hands.

Vice was ended in Zenith. It was thirty days before any of the gay ladies were really back at work — though the gentlemanly jailers at the workhouse did let some of them out for an occasional night.

Every Sunday evening now people were turned from the door of Elmer’s church. If they did not always have a sermon about vice, at least they enjoyed the saxophone solos, and singing “There’ll be a Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight.” And once they were entertained by a professional juggler who wore (it was Elmer’s own idea) a placard proclaiming that he stood for “God’s Word” and who showed how easy it was to pick up weights symbolically labeled “Sin” and “Sorrow” and “Ignorance” and “Papistry.”

The trustees were discussing the erection of a new and much larger church, a project for which Elmer himself had begun to prepare a year before, by reminding the trustees how many new apartment-houses were replacing the run-down residences in Old Town.

The trustees raised his salary to five thousand, and they increased the budget for institutional work. Elmer did not institute so many clubs for students of chiropractic and the art of motion-picture acting as did Dr. Otto Hickenlooper of Central Methodist, but there was scarcely an hour from nine in the morning till ten at night when some circle was not trying to do good to somebody . . . and even after ten there were often Elmer and Lulu Bains Naylor, conferring on cooking classes.

Elmer had seen the danger of his crusading publicity and his Lively Sunday Evenings — the danger of being considered a clown instead of a great moral leader.

“I’ve got to figure out some way so’s I keep dignified and yet keep folks interested,” he meditated. “The thing is sort of to have other people do the monkey-business, but me, I got to be up-stage and not smile as much as I’ve been doing. And just when the poor chumps think my Sunday evening is nothing but a vaudeville show, I’ll suddenly soak ’em with a regular old-time hell-fire and damnation sermon, or be poetic and that stuff.”

It worked, reasonably. Though many of his rival preachers in Zenith went on calling him “clown” and “charlatan” and “sensationalist,” no one could fail to appreciate his lofty soul and his weighty scholarship, once they had seen him stand in agonized silent prayer, then level his long forefinger and intone:

“You have laughed now. You have sung. You have been merry. But what came ye forth into the wilderness for to see? Merely laughter? I want you to stop a moment now and think just how long it is since you have realized that any night death may demand your souls, and that then, laughter or no laughter, unless you have found the peace of God, unless you have accepted Christ Jesus as your savior, you may with no chance of last-minute repentance be hurled into horrible and shrieking and appalling eternal torture!”

Elmer had become so distinguished that the Rotary Club elected him to membership with zeal.

The Rotary Club was an assemblage of accountants, tailors, osteopaths, university-presidents, carpet-manufacturers, advertising men, millinery-dealers, ice-dealers, piano salesmen, laundrymen, and like leaders of public thought, who met weekly for the purposes of lunching together, listening to addresses by visiting actors and by lobbyists against the recognition of Russia, beholding vaudeville teams in eccentric dances, and indulging in passionate rhapsodies about Service and Business Ethics. They asserted that their one desire in their several callings was not to make money but only to serve and benefit a thing called the Public. They were as earnest about this as was the Reverend Elmer Gantry about vice.

He was extraordinarily at home among the Rotarians; equally happy in being a good fellow with such good fellows as these and in making short speeches to the effect that “Jesus Christ would be a Rotarian if he lived today — Lincoln would be a Rotarian today — William McKinley would be a Rotarian today. All these men preached the principles of Rotary: one for all and all for one; helpfulness towards one’s community, and respect for God.”

It was a rule of this organization, which was merry and full of greetings in between inspirational addresses, that every one should, at lunch, be called by his first name. They shouted at the Reverend Mr. Gantry as “Elmer” or “Elm,” while he called his haberdasher “Ike” and beamed on his shoe-seller as “Rudy.” A few years before, this intimacy might have led him into indiscretions, into speaking vulgarly, or even desiring a drink. But he had learned his rôle of dignity now, and though he observed, “Dandy day, Shorty!” he was quick to follow it up unhesitatingly with an orotund, “I trust that you have been able to enjoy the beauty of the vernal foliage in the country this week.” So Shorty and his pals went up and down informing the citizenry that Reverend Gantry was a “good scout, a prince of a good fellow, but a mighty deep thinker, and a real honest-to-God orator.”

When Elmer informed T. J. Rigg of the joys of Rotary, the lawyer scratched his chin and suggested, “Fine. But look here, Brother Elmer. There’s one thing you’re neglecting: the really big boys with the long pockets. Got to know ’em. Not many of ’em Methodists — they go out for Episcopalianism or Presbyterianism or Congregationalism or Christian Science, or stay out of the church altogether. But that’s no reason why we can’t turn their MONEY Methodist. You wouldn’t find but mighty few of these Rotarians in the Tonawanda Country Club — into which I bought my way by blackmailing, you might say, a wheat speculator.”

“But — but — why, T. J., those Rotarians — why there’s fellows in there like Ira Runyon, the managing editor of the Advocate, and Win Grant, the realtor —”

“Yeh, but the owner of the Advocate, and the banker that’s letting Win Grant run on till he bankrupts, and the corporation counsel that keeps ’em all out of jail, you don’t find THOSE malefactors going to no lunch club and yipping about Service! You find ’em sitting at small tables at the old Union Club, and laughing themselves sick about Service. And for golf, they go to Tonawanda. I couldn’t get you into the Union Club. They wouldn’t have any preacher that talks about vice — the kind of preacher that belongs to the Union talks about the new model Cadillac and how hard it is to get genuwine Eyetalian vermouth. But the Tonawanda — They might let you in. For respectability. To prove that they couldn’t have the gin they’ve got in their lockers in their lockers.”

It was done, though it took six months and a deal of secret politics conducted by T. J. Rigg.

Wellspring Church, including the pastor of Wellspring, bloomed with pride that Elmer had been so elevated socially as to be allowed to play golf with bankers.

Only he couldn’t play golf.

From April to July, while he never appeared on the links with other players, Elmer took lessons from the Tonawanda professional, three mornings a week, driving out in the smart new Buick which he had bought and almost paid for.

The professional was a traditionally small and gnarled and sandy Scotchman, from Indiana, and he was so traditionally rude that Elmer put on meekness.

“Put back your divots! D’you think this is a church?” snapped the professional.

“Damn it, I always forget, Scotty,” whined Elmer. “Guess it must be hard on you to have to train these preachers.”

“Preachers is nothing to me, and millionaires is nothing to me, but gawf grounds is a lot,” grunted Scotty. (He was a zealous Presbyterian and to be picturesquely rude to Christian customers was as hard for him as it was to keep up the Scotch accent which he had learned from a real Liverpool Irishman.)

Elmer was strong, he was placid when he was out-of-doors, and his eye was quick. When he first appeared publicly at Tonawanda, in a foursome with T. J. Rigg and two most respectable doctors, he and his game were watched and commended. When he dressed in the locker-room and did not appear to note the square bottle in use ten feet away, he was accepted as a man of the world.

William Dollinger Styles, member of the Tonawanda house committee, president of the fabulous W. D. Styles Wholesale Hardware Company — the man who had introduced the Bite Edge Ax through all the land from Louisville to Detroit, and introduced white knickers to the Tonawanda Club — this baron, this bishop, of business actually introduced himself to Elmer and made him welcome.

“Glad to see you here, dominie. Played much golf?”

“No, I’ve only taken it up recently, but you bet I’m going to be a real fan from now on.”

“That’s fine. Tell you how I feel about it, Reverend. We fellows that have to stick to our desks and make decisions that guide the common people, you religiously and me commercially, it’s a good thing for us, and through us for them, to go out and get next to Nature, and put ourselves in shape to tackle our complicated problems (as I said recently in an after-dinner speech at the Chamber of Commerce banquet) and keep a good sane outlook so’s we won’t be swept away by every breeze of fickle and changing public opinion and so inevitably —”

In fact, said Mr. William Dollinger Styles, he liked golf.

Elmer tenderly agreed with “Yes, that’s certainly a fact; certainly is a fact. Be a good thing for a whole lot of preachers if they got out and exercised more instead of always reading.”

“Yes, I wish you’d tell my dominie that — not that I go to church such a whole lot, but I’m church treasurer and take kind of an interest — Dorchester Congregational — Reverend Shallard.”

“Oh! Frank Shallard! Why, I knew him in theological seminary! Fine, straight, intelligent fellow, Frank.”

“Well, yes, but I don’t like the way he’s always carrying on and almost coming right out and defending a lot of these crooked labor unions. That’s why I don’t hardly ever hear his sermons, but I can’t get the deacons to see it. And as I say, be better for him if he got outdoors more. Well, glad to met you, Reverend. You must join one of our foursomes some day — if you can stand a little cussing, maybe!”

“Well, I’ll try to, sir! Been mighty fine to have met you!”

“H’m!” reflected Elmer. “So Frank, the belly-aching highbrow, has got as rich a man as Styles in his fold, and Styles doesn’t like him. Wonder if Styles could turn Methodist — wonder if he could be pinched off Frank? I’ll ask Rigg.”

But the charm of the place, the day, the implied social position, was such that Elmer turned from these purely religious breedings to more esthetic thoughts.

Rigg had driven home. Elmer sat by himself on the huge porch of the Tonawanda Club, a long gray countryhouse on a hill sloping to the Appleseed River, with tawny fields of barley among orchards on the bank beyond. The golf-course was scattered with men in Harris tweeds, girls in short skirts which fluttered about their legs. A man in white flannels drove up in a Rolls–Royce roadster — the only one in Zenith as yet — and Elmer felt ennobled by belonging to the same club with a Rolls–Royce. On the lawn before the porch, men with English-officer mustaches and pretty women in pale frocks were taking tea at tables under striped garden-umbrellas.

Elmer knew none of them actually, but a few by sight.

“Golly, I’ll be right in with all these swells some day! Must work it careful, and be snooty, and not try to pick ’em up too quick.”

A group of weighty-looking men of fifty, near him, were conversing on the arts and public policy. As he listened, Elmer decided, “Yep, Rigg was right. Those are fine fellows at the Rotary Club; fine, high-class, educated gentlemen, and certainly raking in the money; mighty cute in business but upholding the highest ideals. But they haven’t got the class of these really Big Boys.”

Entranced, he gave heed to the magnates — a bond broker, a mine-owner, a lawyer, a millionaire lumberman:

“Yes, sir, what the country at large doesn’t understand is that the stabilization of sterling has a good effect on our trade with Britain —”

“I told them that far from refusing to recognize the rights of labor, I had myself come up from the ranks, to some extent, and I was doing all in my power to benefit them, but I certainly did refuse to listen to the caterwauling of a lot of hired agitators from the so-called unions, and that if they didn’t like the way I did things —”

“Yes, it opened at 73 1/2, but knowing what had happened to Saracen Common —”

“Yes, sir, you can depend on a Pierce–Arrow, you certainly can —”

Elmer drew a youthful, passionate, shuddering breath at being so nearly in communion with the powers that governed Zenith and thought for Zenith, that governed America and thought for it. He longed to stay, but he had the task, unworthy of his powers of social decoration, of preparing a short clever talk on missions among the Digger Indians.

As he drove home he rejoiced, “Some day, I’ll be able to put it over with the best of ’em socially. When I get to be a bishop, believe me I’m not going to hang around jawing about Sunday School methods! I’ll be entertaining the bon ton, senators and everybody. . . . Cleo would look fine at a big dinner, with the right dress. . . . If she wasn’t so darn’ priggish. Oh, maybe she’ll die before then. . . . I think I’ll marry an Episcopalian. . . . I wonder if I could get an Episcopal bishopric if I switched to that nightshirt crowd? More class. No; Methodist bigger church; and don’t guess the Episcopalopians would stand any good red-blooded sermons on vice and all that.”

2

The Gilfeather Chautauqua Corporation, which conducts week-long Chautauquas in small towns, had not been interested when Elmer had hinted, three years ago, that he had a Message to the Youth of America, one worth at least a hundred a week, and that he would be glad to go right out to the Youth and deliver it. But when Elmer’s demolition of all vice in Zenith had made him celebrated, and even gained him a paragraph or two as the Crusading Parson, in New York and Chicago, the Gilfeather Corporation had a new appreciation. They came to him, besieged him, offered him two hundred a week and headlines in the posters, for a three-months tour.

But Elmer did not want to ask the trustees for a three-months leave. He had a notion of a summer in Europe a year or two from now. That extended study of European culture, first hand, would be just the finishing polish to enable him to hold any pulpit in the country.

He did, however, fill in during late August and early September as substitute for a Gilfeather headliner — the renowned J. Thurston Wallett, M. D., D. O., D. N., who had delighted thousands with his witty and instructive lecture, “Diet or Die, Nature or Nix,” until he had unfortunately been taken ill at Powassie, Iowa, from eating too many green cantaloupes.

Elmer had planned to spend August with his family in Northern Michigan — planned it most uncomfortably, for while it was conceivable to endure Cleo in the city, with his work, his clubs, and Lulu, a month with no relief from her solemn drooping face and cry-baby voice would be trying even to a Professional Good Man.

He explained to her that duty called, and departed with speed, stopping only long enough to get several books of inspirational essays from the public library for aid in preparing his Chautauqua lecture.

He was delighted with his coming adventure — money, fame in new quarters, crowds for whom he would not have to think up fresh personal experiences. And he might find a woman friend who would understand him and give to his own solid genius that lighter touch of the feminine. He was, he admitted, almost as tired of Lulu as of Cleo. He pictured a Chautauqua lady pianist or soprano or ventriloquist or soloist on the musical saw — he pictured a surprised, thrilled meeting in the amber light under the canvas roof — recognition between kindred fine and lonely souls —

And he found it of course.

3

Elmer’s metaphysical lecture, entitled “Whoa Up, Youth!” with its counsel about abstinence, chastity, industry, and honesty, its heaven-vaulting poetic passage about Love (the only bow on life’s dark cloud, the morning and the evening star), and its anecdote of his fight to save a college-mate named Jim from drink and atheism, became one of the classics among Chautauqua masterpieces.

And Elmer better than any one else among the Talent (except perhaps the gentleman who played national anthems on water glasses, a Lettish gentleman innocent of English) side-stepped on the question of the K. K. K.

The new Ku Klux Klan, an organization of the fathers, younger brothers, and employees of the men who had succeeded and became Rotarians, had just become a political difficulty. Many of the most worthy Methodist and Baptist clergymen supported it and were supported by it; and personally Elmer admired its principle — to keep all foreigners, Jews, Catholics, and negroes in their place, which was no place at all, and let the country be led by native Protestants, like Elmer Gantry.

But he perceived that in the cities there were prominent people, nice people, rich people, even among the Methodists and Baptists, who felt that a man could be a Jew and still an American citizen. It seemed to him more truly American, also a lot safer, to avoid the problem. So everywhere he took a message of reconciliation to the effect:

“Regarding religious, political, and social organizations, I defend the right of every man in our free America to organize with his fellows when and as he pleases, for any purpose he pleases, but I also defend the right of any other free American citizen to demand that such an organization shall not dictate his mode of thought or, so long as it be moral, his mode of conduct.”

That pleased both the K. K. K. and the opponents of the K. K. K., and everybody admired Elmer’s powers of thought.

He came with a boom and a flash to the town of Blackfoot Creek, Indiana, and there the local committee permitted the Methodist minister, one Andrew Pengilly, to entertain his renowned brother priest.

4

Always a little lonely, lost in the ceaseless unfolding of his mysticism, old Andrew Pengilly had been the lonelier since Frank Shallard had left him.

When he heard that the Reverend Elmer Gantry was coming, Mr. Pengilly murmured to the local committee that it would be a pleasure to put up Mr. Gantry and save him from the scurfy village hotel.

He had read of Mr. Gantry as an impressive orator, a courageous fighter against Sin. Mr. Pengilly sighed. Himself, somehow, he had never been able to find so very much Sin about. His fault. A silly old dreamer. He rejoiced that he, the mousy village curé, was about to have here, glorifying his cottage, a St. Michael in dazzling armor.

5

After the evening Chautauqua Elmer sat in Mr. Pengilly’s hovel, and he was graciously condescending.

“You say, Brother Pengilly, that you’ve heard of our work at Wellspring? But do we get so near the hearts of the weak and unfortunate as you here? Oh, no; sometimes I think that my first pastorate, in a town smaller than this, was in many ways more blessed than our tremendous to-do in the great city. And what IS accomplished there is no credit to me. I have such splendid, such touchingly loyal assistants — Mr. Webster, the assistant pastor — such a consecrated worker, and yet right on the job — and Mr. Wink, and Miss Weezeger, the deaconess, and DEAR Miss Bundle, the secretary — SUCH a faithful soul, SO industrious. Oh, yes, I am singularly blessed! But, uh, but — Given these people, who really do the work, we’ve been able to put over some pretty good things — with God’s leading. Why, say, we’ve started the only class in show-window dressing in any church in the United States — and I should suppose England and France! We’ve already seen the most wonderful results, not only in raising the salary of several of the fine young men in our church, but in increasing business throughout the city and improving the appearance of show-windows, and you know how much that adds to the beauty of the down-town streets! And the crowds do seem to be increasing steadily. We had over eleven hundred present on my last Sunday evening in Zenith, and that in summer! And during the season we often have nearly eighteen hundred, in an auditorium that’s only supposed to seat sixteen hundred! And with all modesty — it’s not my doing but the methods we’re working up — I think I may say that every man, woman, and child goes away happy and yet with a message to sustain ’em through the week. You see — oh, of course I give ’em the straight old-time gospel in my sermon — I’m not the least bit afraid of talking right up to ’em and reminding them of the awful consequences of sin and ignorance and spiritual sloth. Yes, sir! No blinking the horrors of the old-time proven Hell, not in any church I’M running! But also we make ’em get together, and their pastor is just one of their own chums, and we sing cheerful, comforting songs, and do they like it? Say! It shows up in the collections!”

“Mr. Gantry,” said Andrew Pengilly, “why don’t you believe in God?”

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