On this day in 1859 the local paper where I live was established. As The Courier turns 150 today I want to look at its most famous reporter, Sinclair Lewis. Yes, the novelist, playwright, short story writer Sinclair Lewis worked for a brief time in Waterloo, Iowa before going on to publish over 20 books and in 1930 becoming the first American to win the Nobel Prize in Literature.
Lewis was born in Sauk Centre, Minnesota. He attended Yale but did not graduate and traveled around doing various job and along the way lived in a writers colony in California and a Utopia community New Jersey. He had his first book published in 1912 and found his first big success with the 1920 publication of Main Street. The book would eventually sell millions of copies and made Lewis a wealthy man.
He followed his success writing Babbitt, Arrowsmith and Elmer Gantry among others. More than two dozen of his novels and stories were made into movies and TV shows including Elmer Gantry which starred Burt Lancaster as a phony preacher. The movie won three Oscar awards. And it was also controversial subject matter for the day especially in light of the Hays Code being in effect which said what content was morally acceptable for films.
One of the restrictions was “The ridicule of religion was forbidden, and ministers of religion were not to be represented as comic characters or villains.” My guess is Elmer Gantry got around this by being a phony preacher or maybe the code wasn’t enforced in its later years. Regardless, Lewis was not one to shy away from expressing his views of the hypocrisy he saw.
The seeds of Elmer Gantry may have come from right here from Waterloo, Iowa where he wrote an editorial about a fraudulent evangelist. Then again since his book came out history has shown that that subject matter has proven to be rather ubiquitous even to the point of cliche.
Every year the headlines tell of not just fraudulent evangelists but of fallen ministers, priests, pastors and ministers who have often been respected leaders. Steve Brown, an author, radio host and ordained pastor may touch on part of the problem; “The church is the only place that gives a pastor a microphone, a spotlight, and puts him in front of thousands of people and tells him to be humble.”
But that’s not our quote of the day. It comes from the Lewis who never seemed to eager to back down from using his words to make a point.; “Every compulsion is put upon writers to become safe, polite, obedient, and sterile.”
May you be bold in your writing.
And while you’re at it, beware of the cult of personality.