First edition cover
Lewis did research for the novel by observing the work of various preachers in Kansas City in his so-called "Sunday School" meetings on Wednesdays. He first worked with William L. "Big Bill" Stidger (not Burris Jenkins), pastor of the Linwood Boulevard Methodist Episcopal Church in Kansas City, Missouri. Stidger introduced Lewis to many other clergymen, among them the Reverend Leon Milton Birkhead, a Unitarian and an agnostic. Lewis preferred the liberal Birkhead to the conservative Stidger, and on his second visit to Kansas City, Lewis chose Birkhead as his guide. Other KC ministers Lewis interviewed included Burris Jenkins, Earl Blackman, I. M. Hargett, Bert Fiske, and Robert Nelson Horatio Spencer, who was rector of a large Episcopal parish, Grace and Holy Trinity Church, which is now the cathedral of the Episcopal Diocese of West Missouri.
The character of Sharon Falconer was based on elements in the career of Aimee Semple McPherson, a Canadian-born American evangelist who founded the Pentecostal Christian denomination known as the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel in 1927.
The novel tells the story of a young, narcissistic, womanizing college athlete who abandons his early ambition to become a lawyer. The legal profession does not suit the unethical Gantry, who then becomes a notorious and cynical alcoholic. Gantry is mistakenly ordained as a Baptist minister, briefly acts as a "New Thought" evangelist, and eventually becomes a Methodist minister. He acts as manager for Sharon Falconer, an itinerant evangelist. Gantry becomes her lover but loses both her and his position when she is killed in a fire at her new tabernacle.
During his career, Gantry contributes to the downfall, physical injury, and even death of key people around him, including a genuine minister, Frank Shallard. Ultimately Gantry marries well and obtains a large congregation in Lewis's fictional Midwestern city of Zenith.
Mark Schorer, then of the University of California, Berkeley, notes: "The forces of social good and enlightenment as presented in Elmer Gantry are not strong enough to offer any real resistance to the forces of social evil and banality." Schorer also says that, while researching the book, Lewis attended two or three church services every Sunday while in Kansas City, and that: "He took advantage of every possible tangential experience in the religious community." The result is a novel that satirically represents the religious activity of America in evangelistic circles and the attitudes of the 1920s toward it. Elmer Gantry also appears in another, lesser known Lewis novel, Gideon Planish.
On publication in 1927, Elmer Gantry created a public furor. The book was banned in Boston and other cities and denounced from pulpits across the USA. One cleric suggested that Lewis should be imprisoned for five years, and there were also threats of physical violence against the author. The famous evangelist Billy Sunday called Lewis "Satan's cohort". Elmer Gantry ranked as the number one fiction bestseller of 1927, according to "Publisher's Weekly".
Shortly after the publication of Elmer Gantry, H. G. Wells published a widely-syndicated newspaper article called "The New American People", in which he largely based his observations of American culture on Lewis' novels.
There have been five adaptations of the novel.
- A Broadway play by Patrick Kearney opened on 7 August 1928 at the Playhouse Theatre, where it ran for 48 performances. The cast included Edward J. Pawley (later of Big Town fame) as Elmer Gantry and Vera Allen as Sister Sharon Falconer.
- The 1960 film of the same name starred Burt Lancaster as Gantry and Jean Simmons as Sister Sharon Falconer.
- A 1970 Broadway musical adaptation entitled Gantry opened and closed on the same night, February 14, 1970.
- In 1998, Richard Rossi appeared on stage in his own adaptation of Elmer Gantry, in which he wrote, produced, and starred. His stage performance resulted in an offer to Rossi to play the role in a new film version.
- In November 2007, an opera, also titled Elmer Gantry, by Robert Aldridge and Herschel Garfein premiered in the James K. Polk Theater in Nashville.
- "Hallelujah for Hollywood!". LATimes.com. Los Angeles Times. 1999-05-15. Retrieved 2011-09-12.
- "Finding Sister Aimee". East Valley Tribune. 2005-08-27. Retrieved 2011-09-12.
- Armstrong, Chris (2005-01-01). "Aimee Semple McPherson". Christianity Today. Retrieved 2011-09-12.
- Green, Jesse (2008-01-20). "Behold! An Operatic Miracle". NYTimes.com. Retrieved 2011-09-12.
- John Tyler Blake, "Sinclair Lewis's Kansas City Laboratory: The Genesis of Elmer Gantry". Ann Arbor: UMI, 1999.
- Robert Gibson Corder, Ph.D., "Edward J. Pawley: Broadway's Elmer Gantry, Radio's Steve Wilson, and Hollywood's Perennial Bad Guy", Outskirts Press, 2006.
- Nelson Manfred Blake, "How to Learn History from Sinclair Lewis and Other Uncommon Sources", American Character and Culture in a Changing World: Some Twentieth-Century Perspectives, ed. John A. Hague. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1979. 111–23.
- Wheeler Dixon, "Cinematic Adaptations of the Works of Sinclair Lewis", Sinclair Lewis at 100: Papers Presented at a Centennial Conference., ed. Michael Connaughton. St. Cloud, MN: St. Cloud State University, 1985, pp. 191–200.
- Robert J. Higgs. "Religion and Sports: Three Muscular Christians in American Literature", American Sport Culture: The Humanistic Dimensions ed. Wiley Lee Umphlett. Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press, 1985, pp. 226–34.
- James M. Hutchisson, The Rise of Sinclair Lewis, 1920–1930 University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1996.
- George Killough, "Elmer Gantry, Chaucer's Pardoner, and the Limits of Serious Words". Sinclair Lewis: New Essays in Criticism. Ed. James M. Hutchisson. Troy, New York: Whitston, 1997. 162–74.
- Richard R. Lingeman, Sinclair Lewis: Rebel from Main Street, Minnesota Historical Society Press, June 2005, ISBN 978-0-87351-541-2.
- Edward A. Martin, "The Mimic as Artist: Sinclair Lewis". H.L. Mencken and the Debunkers. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1984. 115–38.
- Gary H. Mayer, "Love is More Than the Evening Star: A Semantic Analysis of Elmer Gantry and The Man Who Knew Coolidge", American Bypaths: Essays in Honor of E. Hudson Long. Ed. Robert G. Collmer and Jack W. Herring. Waco: Baylor University Press, 1980. 145–66.
- James Benedict Moore, "The Sources of Elmer Gantry". The New Republic 143 (8 August 1960): 17–18.
- Edward J. Piacentino, "Babbittry Southern Style: T. S. Stribling's Unfinished Cathedral". Markham Review 10 (1981): 36–39.
- Elizabeth S. Prioleau, "The Minister and the Seductress in American Fiction: The Adamic Myth Reduz", Journal of American Culture 16.4 (1993): 1–6.
- Mark Schorer, Sinclair Lewis: An American Life, 1961, McGraw-Hill. OCLC 288825.
- Mark Schorer, "Afterword", Elmer Gantry, Signet Books edition, 1970.
- Edward Shillito, "Elmer Gantry and the Church in America", Nineteenth Century and After 101 (1927): 739–48.