Elmer Gantry, by Sinclair Lewis

Chapter 16


Though to the commonplace and unspeculative eye Mrs Evans Riddle was but a female blacksmith, yet Mrs. Riddle and her followers knew, in a bland smirking way, that she was instituting an era in which sickness, poverty, and folly would be ended forever.

She was the proprietor of the Victory Thought-power Headquarters, New York, and not even in Los Angeles was there a more important center of predigested philosophy and pansy-painted ethics. She maintained a magazine filled with such starry thoughts as “All the world’s a road whereon we are but fellow wayfarers.” She held morning and vesper services on Sunday at Euterpean Hall, on Eighty-seventh Street, and between moments of Silent Thought she boxed with the inexplicable. She taught, or farmed out, classes in Concentration, Prosperity, Love, Metaphysics, Oriental Mysticism, and the Fourth Dimension.

She instructed small Select Circles how to keep one’s husband, how to understand Sanskrit philosophy without understanding either Sanskrit or philosophy, and how to become slim without giving up pastry. She healed all the diseases in the medical dictionary, and some which were not; and in personal consultations, at ten dollars the half hour, she explained to unappetizing elderly ladies how they might rouse passion in a football hero.

She had a staff, including a real Hindu swami — anyway, he was a real Hindu — but she was looking for a first assistant.


The Reverend Elmer Gantry had failed as an independent evangelist.

He had been quite as noisy and threatening as the average evangelist; to reasonably large gatherings he had stated that the Judgment Day was rather more than likely to occur before six A.M., and he had told all the chronic anecdotes of the dying drunkard. But there was something wrong. He could not make it go.

Sharon was with him, beckoning him, intolerably summoning him, intolerably rebuking him. Sometimes he worshiped her as the shadow of a dead god; as always he was humanly lonely for her and her tantrums and her electric wrath and her abounding laughter. In pulpits he felt like an impostor, and in hotel bedrooms he ached for her voice.

Worst of all, he was expected everywhere to tell of her “brave death in the cause of the Lord.” He was very sick about it.

Mrs. Evans Riddle invited him to join her.

Elmer had no objection to the malted milk of New Thought. But after Sharon, Mrs. Riddle was too much. She shaved regularly, she smelled of cigar smoke, yet she had a nickering fancy for warm masculine attentions.

Elmer had to earn a living, and he had taken too much of the drug of oratory to be able to go back to the road as a traveling salesman. He shrugged when he had interviewed Mrs. Riddle; he told her that she would be an inspiration to a young man like himself; he held her hand; he went out and washed his hand; and determined that since he was to dwell in the large brownstone house which was both her Thought-power Headquarters and her home, he would keep his door locked.

The preparation for his labors was not too fatiguing. He read through six copies of Mrs. Riddle’s magazine and, just as he had learned the trade-terms of evangelism, so he learned the technologies of New Thought; the Cosmic Law of Vibration; I Affirm the Living Thought. He labored through a chapter of “The Essence of Oriental Mysticism, Occultism, and Esotericism” and accomplished seven pages of the “Bhagavad–Gita”; and thus was prepared to teach disciples how to win love and prosperity.

In actual practise he had much less of treading the Himalayan heights than of pleasing Mrs. Evans Riddle. Once she discovered that he had small fancy for sitting up after midnight with her, she was rather sharp about his bringing in new chelas — as, out of “Kim,” she called paying customers.

Occasionally he took Sunday morning service for Mrs. Riddle at Euterpean Hall, when she was weary of curing rheumatism or when she was suffering from rheumatism; and always he had to be at Euterpean to give spiritual assistance. She liked to have her hairy arm stroked just before she went out to preach and that was not too hard a task — usually he could recover while she was out on the platform. She turned over to him the Personal Consultations with spinsters, and he found it comic to watch their sharp noses quivering, their dry mouths wabbling.

But his greatest interest was given to the Prosperity Classes. To one who had never made more than five thousand a year himself, it was inspiring to explain before dozens of pop-eyed and admiring morons how they could make ten thousand — fifty thousand — a million a year, and all this by the Wonder Power of Suggestion, by Aggressive Personality, by the Divine Rhythm, in fact by merely releasing the Inner Self-shine.

It was fun, it was an orgy of imagination, for him who had never faced any Titan of Success of larger dimensions than the chairman of a local evangelistic committee to instruct a thirty-a-week bookkeeper how to stalk into Morgan’s office, fix him with the penetrating eye of the Initiate, and borrow a hundred thousand on the spot.

But always he longed for Sharon, with a sensation of emptiness real as the faintness of hunger and long tramping. He saw his days with her as adventures, foot-loose, scented with fresh air. He hated himself for having ever glanced over his shoulder, and he determined to be a celibate all his life.

In some ways he preferred New Thought to standard Protestantism. It was safer to play with. He had never been sure but that there might be something to the doctrines he had preached as an evangelist. Perhaps God really had dictated every word of the Bible. Perhaps there really was a hell of burning sulphur. Perhaps the Holy Ghost really was hovering around watching him and reporting. But he knew with serenity that all of his New Thoughts, his theosophical utterances, were pure and uncontaminated bunk. No one could deny his theories because none of his theories meant anything. It did not matter what he said, so long as he kept them listening; and he enjoyed the buoyancy of power as he bespelled his classes with long, involved, fruity sentences rhapsodic as perfume advertisements.

How agreeable on bright winter afternoons in the gilt and velvet elegance of the lecture hall, to look at smart women, and moan, “And, oh, my beloved, can you not see, do you not perceive, have not your earth-bound eyes ingathered, the supremacy of the raja’s quality which each of us, by that inner contemplation which is the all however cloaked by the seeming, can consummate and build loftily to higher aspiring spheres?”

Almost any Hindu word was useful. It seems that the Hindus have Hidden Powers which enable them to do whatever they want to, except possibly to get rid of the Mohammedans, the plague, and the cobra. “Soul-breathing” was also a good thing to talk about whenever he had nothing to say; and you could always keep an audience of satin-bosomed ladies through the last quarter-hour of lecturing by coming down hard on “Concentration.”

But with all these agreeable features, he hated Mrs. Riddle, and he suspected that she was, as he put it, “holding out the coin on him.” He was to have a percentage of the profits, besides his thin salary of twenty-five hundred a year. There never were any profits and when he hinted that he would like to see her books — entirely out of admiration for the beauties of accountancy — she put him off.

So he took reasonable measures of reprisal. He moved from her house; he began to take for himself the patients who came for Personal Consultations, and to meet them in the parlor of his new boarding-house in Harlem. And when she was not present at his Euterpean Hall meetings, he brought back to Victory Thought-power Headquarters only so much of the collection as, after prayer and meditation and figuring on an envelope, seemed suitable.

That did it.

Mrs. Evans Riddle had a regrettable suspiciousness. She caused a marked twenty-dollar bill to be placed in the collection at vespers, a year after Elmer had gone to work for the higher powers, and when he brought her the collection-money minus the twenty dollars, she observed loudly, with her grinning swami looking heathenish and sultry across the room:

“Gantry, you’re a thief! You’re fired! You have a contract, but you can sue and be damned. Jackson!” A large negro houseman appeared. “Throw this crook out, will you?”


He felt dazed and homeless and poor, but he started out with Prosperity Classes of his own.

He did very well at Prosperity, except that he couldn’t make a living out of it.

He spent from a month to four months in each city. He hired the ballroom of the second-best hotel for lectures three evenings a week, and advertised himself in the newspapers as though he were a cigarette or a brand of soap:

       $                                                 $
       $            WHY DON'T YOU COLLECT IT?            $
       $                                                 $
       $  What brought millions to Rockefeller, Morgan,  $
       $ Carnegie?  WILL POWER!  It's within you.  Learn $
       $  to develop it.  YOU CAN!  The world-mastering  $
       $   secrets of the Rosicrucians and Hindu Sages   $
       $   revealed in twelve lessons by the renowned    $
       $                   Psychologist                  $
       $                                                 $
       $          ELMER GANTRY, PH.D., D.D., PS.D.       $
       $                                                 $
       $  Write or phone for FREE personal consultation  $
       $                                                 $
       $                 THE BOWERS HOTEL                $
       $                 MAIN & SYCAMORE                 $
       $                                                 $

His students were school-teachers who wanted to own tearooms, clerks who wanted to be newspapermen, newspapermen who wanted to be real estate dealers, real estate dealers who wanted to be bishops, and widows who wanted to earn money without loss of elegance. He lectured to them in the most beautiful language, all out of Mrs. Riddle’s magazine.

He had a number of phrases — all stolen — and he made his disciples repeat them in chorus, in the manner of all religions. Among the more powerful incantations were:

I can be whatever I will to be; I turn my opened eyes on my Self and possess whatever I desire.

I am God’s child, God created all good things including wealth, and I will to inherit it.

I am resolute — I am utterly resolute — I fear no man, whether in offices or elsewhere.

Power is in me, encompassing you to my demands.

Hold fast, O Subconscious, the thought of Prosperity.

In the divine book of achievements my name is written in Gold. I am thus of the world’s nobility and now, this moment, I take possession of my kingdom.

I am part of Universal Mind and thus I summon to me my rightful Universal Power.

Daily my Subconscious shall tell me to not be content and go on working for somebody else.

They were all of them ready for a million a year except their teacher, who was ready for bankruptcy.

He got pupils enough, but the overhead was huge and his pupils were poor. He had to hire the ballroom, pay for advertising; he had to appear gaudy, with a suite in the hotel, fresh linen, and newly pressed morning coat. He sat in twenty-dollar-a-day red plush suites wondering where he would get breakfast. He was so dismayed that he began to study himself.

He determined, with the resoluteness of terror, to be loyal to any loves or associates he might have hereafter, to say in his prayers and sermons practically nothing except what he believed. He yearned to go back to Mizpah Seminary, to get Dean Trosper’s forgiveness, take a degree, and return to the Baptist pulpit in however barren a village. But first he must earn enough money to pay for a year in the seminary.

He had been in correspondence with the manager of the O’Hearn House in Zenith — a city of four hundred thousand in the state of Winnemac, a hundred miles from Mizpah. This was in 1913, before the Hotel Thornleigh was built and Gil O’Hearn, with his new yellow brick tavern, was trying to take the fashionable business of Zenith away from the famous but decayed Grand Hotel. Intellectual ballroom lectures add to the smartness of a hotel almost as much as a great cocktail-mixer, and Mr. O’Hearn had been moved by the prospectus of the learned and magnetic Dr Elmer Gantry.

Elmer could take the O’Hearn offer on a guarantee and be sure of a living, but he needed money for a week or two before the fees should come in.

From whom could he borrow?

Didn’t he remember reading in a Mizpah alumni bulletin that Frank Shallard, who had served with him in the rustic church at Schoenheim, now had a church near Zenith?

He dug out the bulletin and discovered that Frank was in Eureka, an industrial town of forty thousand. Elmer had enough money to take him to Eureka. All the way there he warmed up the affection with which a borrower recalls an old acquaintance who is generous and a bit soft.


Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:57