Review of “Elmer Gantry,” by Sinclair Lewis

Elmer Gantry, by Sinclair Lewis, was published in 1927. This statement is difficult to grasp, considering how modern it feels. Not a great deal has changed in the way of humanity since its publication. This book, which is nearing a century old (90 years, to be exact), reflects current society so well that it sounds, in every way, as though it could have just been released. In fact, apart from references to technology and mentions of the year, there is nothing to mark its setting. Though it came out in 1927, it takes place a little earlier. The book opens in 1902, the title character is a college student at this point and we follow him throughout his life into his 40s. He is drunk in that opening scene, which is a very fitting start for him. Elmer Gantry is not an honest man. In fact, he is the furthest thing from an honest man that one could be. He uses various forms of Christian ministry to further himself: to gain followers, prestige, and money. His only wish is to have a huge audience hanging on his every word.

Elmer Gantry

What impressed me most about this book, as I have already said, is how modern it feels. By this, I do not mean merely the style of the writing, but rather how it reflects current societal views. The believability of the characters is also noteworthy of mention. Elmer gets involved with many people during his journey, some likeable and others deplorable. Regardless as to the quality of any given character’s merits, they are all believable as real human beings. They all have goals and aspirations, they are all driven by something and have their own emotions. This book is completely immersive in not just culture, but human experience. It is a classic that everyone should read at least once in their life.

Jim Lefferts was my favorite character in the early stages of the novel. He was Elmer’s level-headed college roommate. Jim was an atheist. This fact is very important as they attended a Christian college. Jim was Elmer’s only atheist friend. At that point in his life, Elmer took no interest in religion, so he naturally did not have any other friends.

Frank Shallard was another interesting character. I did not care for him in the beginning of the novel, but as he came back into the story at later points, he became one of my favorite characters! In many ways, I would say that he was the real hero of the story. I will not say how though. This review will be spoiler free to the best of my abilities.

The book takes place in Winnemac state. No, your geography is not that bad, dear reader. Well, it may be, I cannot really say, given the fact that I do not know you. Winnemac state is an entirely fictional location invented by the author and used in many of his novels. It is situated in the Mid-West. I have never been to the Mid-West, so I cannot say that I know of the culture in that area, but I saw many parallels between my personal background and what is portrayed in this novel. There is the same uneducated dialect, backwards ways, and obsession with religion. The religious aspect stuck out most. Many people’s lives revolved around the church. In the case of my upbringing, not everyone went to Church, but everyone was religious in some minor way at the least. This novel represents a perfect commentary on the state of society, especially life in small town, USA. People know one another and they know one another’s business, there is no real privacy. People are flawed, but have a beauty of their own. All of this, all of life as reflected in a fictional state in the 20th century is well and alive in 21st century small towns.

I grew up in the South around the Tennessee and Kentucky state line, moving around a lot as a kid, occasionally from one state to the other. I now live in Florida. While Florida is geographically southern in its placement in the country, it is not culturally what I would call “Southern.” I always lived in small towns as a kid. In my younger years, I lived in the town square and in my later childhood, I usually lived out in the country. When I was 13, my family befriended a travelling missionary. This missionary was nothing like Elmer: he was sincere. He was crazy, but he was sincere in his beliefs! Religion was the entire center of his being. He got my family involved with a small country church, not much unlike Elmer’s first church. It was a peaceful place, but this man was still poisoned with hatred for people of other religions and could not even tolerate opposing opinions. He had his strong points though, he was trustworthy and willing to help others. There was no character in Elmer Gantry that directly paralleled him, but he is a part of what it is like to live in small religious areas.

I really appreciated the debates on issues with the Church and with religion in general. It may be difficult for people not from the Bible belt to really understand the culture, but I am sure that through the undoubted sympathy the characters must inspire toward themselves, readers from all over the world should be able to immerse themselves in the culture and time. For roughly 500 pages, we are all 20th century Mid-Westerners.

 

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A Story of Monks and Temples

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As mentioned in my previous post, I love learning about various languages and cultures. I have not had a lot of opportunities for immersion as of yet, but there are a few very precious times. My first time would have been the trip to the Mexican restaurant that I had with my high school Spanish class. Actually ordering my food in Spanish was a bit of a thrill for the then 18 year old me (this was during my senior year). I have studied Spanish on and off since my high school days.

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That was back in my home town. Since moving out on my own to a new state, Florida, I have developed an on again-off again obsession with my local Buddhist Temple. It’s run by Thai monks, and the temple is built according to traditional Thai architecture. On the outside, it is all white except for the roof, which is red. And there are these gold coloured ornamental decorations. I have never asked what they are called and haven’t done a lot of research on them. But from what little I have done, I gather that the decorative area on the roof is called the “lamyong”, and the gold coloured ornaments are call “bai raka”.

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On the inside, there is a kitchen area where food is prepared for the monks (the monks themselves do not do any cooking). And there’s the actual Temple which divides the kitchen area from the living quarters of the monks. The inside of the Temple is equally as impressive, if not, then more so! If you look up at the ceiling, there are similar ornaments attached. I don’t know very much about architecture, I find it fascinating, but I tend to immerse myself in culture and language far more, so I cannot very aptly describe the whole style and visual experience of the temple. But I may say, it is a very humbling experience for a lone westerner such as myself, almost like stepping into Thailand!

There is a big statue of the Buddha situated opposite the doors leading outside. Facing the Buddha, to the right is the kitchen, and to the left is the living quarters of the monks. During chanting and meditation services, they sit upon an elevated seat that is along that wall (on the left). I have participated in the chanting and meditation several times. The chanting is in the ancient Pali language (which is a language very similar to Sanskrit, and that originally developed in northern India). The first few times I went, I got lost in the text very easily and could bearly pronounce any of it. Now, I am much better with that, even though, admittedly, I still do not understand very much of it.

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Another Buddha statue that sits just outside the Temple in the parking lot.

The chanting is the most beautiful and peaceful thing I have every experienced. It is all done in unison (of course), and the pronunciation, the way the words flow together, the great musical unison of voices, voices chanting in an ancient language – the whole experience brings about an intense feeling of peacefulness. It goes on for about half an hour, and then the lights are dimmed, and we all sink into silent meditation for another half hour. All worries from the secular world are left behind, all there is is this body, this breath, and this moment. All of reality merges into a single moment. The need of clinging is gone, for a short time at least. The time directly proceeding the meditation, I must say, has been my happiest of moments. The intense peace is still there. It’s almost like waking from a sleep that has completely rejuvenated us.

The monks and everyone there are always very nice and they very patiently have guided me in their customs and rituals, training me to observe their culture. One must always sit lower than a monk, one must always bow before departing from the presence of a monk, and one must always bow when giving something to a monk or receiving something. Upon my first ever visit, after the morning chanting and meditation, I was allowed to participate in the ritual offering of food to the monks. One of the other laymen said to me, “I will train you”. And he commenced showing me to proper traditional ritual to offer the food unto the monks. I did as he did: got down on my knees with the tray of food, and moved up to the monks (who were upon an elevated seat, of course) and offered each item to them. And then, as instructed I did a bow, and then moved away and stood up again.

An elderly monk said to me, “Sung-ga-lee, sung-ga-lee!” He kept repeating the word as I stood before him on my knees. I didn’t know what was going on! Had I done something wrong? “I’m sorry”, I said, “I don’t understand…” One of the women (a nun) explained to me the meaning of the word and that he did not speak much English. It is a Pali word, and it denotes one who is training to be a monk. So, it was rather a compliment! “First, you serve them, then you can become one of them. It is a monk-to-be.”

(Note: I’ve tried on a few occasions to find some textual reference to this word, but I have not been successful as of yet. So, as a result, I am not aware of its proper spelling. So, for the purpose of this blog, I have spelled it phonetically, separating each syllable. If anyone finds any error in what is writ herein, please feel free to correct me, I would be most appreciative).

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I had read about Buddhism for a few years before ever coming to the Temple, but actually going to the temple and immersing myself in the culture is miles away from merely reading about it! The people I’ve met there are amongst the most accepting and loving that I have ever met. An elderly nun, who bearly speaks any English, once said to me, “I no speak much English… But I love you!” I have no interest in becoming a monk myself, but these are experiences that I shall cherish for a life time!

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I haven’t been there in a while now, but I’m sure I will be returning very soon, I can never stay away for very long at a time. And I’m sure that I will be sharing other experiences from there in future entries on here. Until next time,

Sawadee (Thai word used for both greeting and parting),

– Thome

A Further Introductory Note

So, on with the introduction! I am Thome, and I am an aspiring poet and a language/culture enthusiast. I greatly enjoy learning about other languages and cultures. But no, I am not fluent in any others. There are many cultures that I’ve developed obsessions with over the years and I am very apt to develop new obsessions all the time! So much so that sometimes, I think I would make an excellent anthropologist.

I love all things far Eastern and mystical. I love beat poetry, verbose writers like T. S. Eliot and William Shakespeare, the vulgar imagery of Allen Ginsberg, the assault of the mind with multilayered word-images, and the quiet contemplative haiku of Jack Kerouac: nothing delights me more than words, reading and writing!

I have come here to start a new journey in my writing: sharing my delight with life and everything that fascinates me. I look forward to trying my hand at some narrative prose on here, and sharing some of my favourite poetry that I have written, and will write.

Cheers,

– Thome