With the unbelievable warm weather we’ve been enjoying this February, I’ve heard a lot of patrons say they’ve had a hard time staying inside and reading. That is not an issue I’ve ever found myself facing due to my reading addiction. At times, in fact, I’ve thought about starting a self-help group for bookaholics, but I’m pretty sure it would cut into my reading time.

This month I was excited to get to re-read a favorite book because of the year of classics my book club is reading. “Elmer Gantry” by Sinclair Lewis was February’s selection. I’ve read this novel multiple times, and each time discover something new about it.

Published in 1927, “Elmer Gantry” is a satire that explores the religious fervor that swept across America in the 1920s. It looks at the attitude held both by preachers and the everyday man about hypocrisy and fanatical belief.

The main character, Elmer Gantry, is a big and brash character who is fond of liquor, women and an easy life. A chance encounter results in him going to Bible college and becoming a Baptist preacher. His sins soon result in the loss of his church. Elmer then becomes involved with a female evangelist, but that ends dramatically as well. The Methodist Church quickly gains Elmer due to its liberal beliefs and chances for advancement. While he manages to set aside his addiction to nicotine and alcohol, he never loses his penchant for inappropriate liaisons with the fairer sex. The book is divided into three sections basically, with each one ending with his life path altered because of his encounters with a woman.

Sinclair Lewis’ book is solidly written, with a flair for description that brings alive not only the characters but their very surroundings. I find myself comparing his writing to a steak dinner: filling and hearty without being too sweet or overdone. Each character, regardless of being present for one page or 100, is completely developed, with a sense of a complete backstory ready to go.

When “Elmer Gantry” was published, it created a sensation by its derogatory attitude towards organized religion and the fact that its ne’er-do-well main character never received his comeuppance. It was banned at one point in Kansas City, Mo, and Boston, Mass. alike. The book was also denounced from pulpits across the nation, which I’m sure lead to an increase in sales, as it was the best-selling fiction book at one point.

Sinclair Lewis spent months researching religion in America before writing “Elmer Gantry”. He attended two to three services every Sunday for months and met with a group of ministers, rabbis and preachers weekly in what he called his “Sunday School” meetings. After the book was published, the author found himself threatened with violence, and he was even called “Satan’s cohort” by Billy Sunday, a leading religious leader of the time.

All in all, Elmer Gantry is a character you love to hate and “Elmer Gantry” by Sinclair Lewis is a book you should hate to miss out on. Pick up your copy today at the Joplin Public Library.

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