Public Schools

Banned Books Week: Some Churchgoers Banned This 1927 Novel About An Amoral Clergyman – And Made It A Bestseller

  Rob Boston

How A Banned Book Became A Bestseller

Editor’s Note: In recognition of Banned Books Week, we’re running a special series of blog posts featuring AU staff members discussing their experiences with banned books. Americans United has opposed religiously based censorship since the organization’s founding in 1947 because religious extremists and their lawmaker allies should not dictate what books other people’s children are allowed to read. Learn more about the #UniteAgainstBookBans campaign, then share on social media (and tag us @americansunited) why you reject efforts to ban books.

 A headline in the April 13, 1927, edition of The New York Times blazed, “Boston Bans Sale of Elmer Gantry. Will Prosecute Any Who Sell Lewis Novel Under Law Against Indecent and Obscene Books.”

William J. Foley, the district attorney, announced that anyone who dared to sell a copy of Sinclair Lewis’ satirical 1927 novel Elmer Gantry in Suffolk County would be prosecuted. Bookstores in the area quickly pulled the title from their shelves. The book was banned in Kansas City, Mo., and Camden, N.J. as well.

Elmer Gantry tells the story of a preacher of loose virtue. The titular character loves money almost as much as he loves to drink, play cards and chase women. What I find fascinating about the book is that even though it was written 95 years ago, it’s at home in our time. Gantry reminds me of the TV preachers who fell from grace in the 1980s and continue stumbling today.

Millions of Americans were offended by the idea that Lewis would dare to portray a man of the cloth as such a lost soul. Lewis biographer Mark Schorer recounts that Lewis was invited to observe a hanging in Virginia – his own. One clergyman, though, was willing to let Lewis off with a lighter sentence and suggested five years in prison. The famous evangelist Billy Sunday got all worked up and called the Minnesota author “Satan’s cohort.”

All this backfired when people rushed out to buy the book to see what the fuss was about. Within a few weeks, more than a quarter of a million copies had been sold (presumably in places other than Boston). Lewis, by then an established writer, had another bestseller on his hands. Sales of the hardback eventually topped 615,000.

A few years ago, I tracked down a first edition of Elmer Gantry. Although it was probably sold to someone in a place like Des Moines, I like to think it was yanked from a bookshop in Boston and hidden away until it was deemed safe to emerge in a more enlightened age.

I return to its pages from time to time, happy in the knowledge that efforts to ban Elmer Gantry failed, and we’re all allowed to read about the antics of this not-so-good reverend.

P.S. You might have seen the 1960 film version of Elmer Gantry featuring Burt Lancaster, Jean Simmons and Shirley Jones. The movie is a great evening’s entertainment, but it’s based on just a sliver of the novel. To enjoy the full story, track down a copy of the book, which, despite the best efforts of the censors, remains in print.

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