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Up From Bourgeois is Trickier Than It Looks

Wilfred McClay’s article on the 80th "birthday" of Elmer Gantry is an interesting study, in no small measure because of the critical view he takes of Sinclair Lewis.  That critical view is hard to find; Lewis of course won a Nobel Prize in 1930, was greatly influential in shaping liberal thought about Evangelical Christianity (including very possibly my contemporaneous ancestors,) and continues to do so today.

McClay makes some bold statements, such as this:

But the adult reader is likely to tire quickly of Lewis. His descriptions of even the simplest scenes are permeated with snobbishness and juvenile editorializing; his plots are studded with absurd and implausible twists. And his characters are as simplistic as those in comic books. They sometimes change, but they do not grow or develop. And there is no larger view behind his criticism, no sense of what kind of world Lewis would favor over the gimcrack one that he loathed so much but could not stop writing about.

Evidently other critics had their problems too:

In short, there is plenty of obsession but almost none of the marks of high novelistic craftsmanship in Lewis’s books, particularly "Elmer Gantry." As Rebecca West wrote in a scathing contemporary review of the novel, Lewis’s satire fell short because he did not "possess, at least in the world of the imagination, the quality the lack of which he is deriding in others." In other words, the narrowness he described was as much his own as that of the people he depicted. He lacked vision and generosity of spirit precisely because he was still fighting the intramural battles of his native world.

Evidently Lewis, unlike his Chinese semi-contemporary Mao Dun, was unable to see the "contradictions" in people he disliked.  Seeing those contradictions makes for great literature, if that literature doesn’t push the author’s point of view home as clearly as he or she would like.

But that’s the way it is with "bourgeois" people.  Our economic and political system produced a middle-class culture that is easier to criticise than to escape from, as advocates of same-sex civil marriage are evidence of.  Liberal thought promised freedom from dogmatism, but Sinclair Lewis’ work shows that actually delivering on that promise is trickier than it looks.

Personal note: Wilfred McClay is a Professor of History and the SunTrust Bank Chair of Excellence in Humanities at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, where I taught on an adjunct basis for a while.  After the highly dogmatic war I witnessed on campus regarding evolution and creationism, it’s good to see this kind of analysis coming out of same institution.


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