Columnist Alice B. Lloyd, writing for The Weekly Standard, recently published an article about the revived popularity of the novel It Can’t Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis. That 1944 book about the fictional election of a President who comes to rule the United States as a dictator has been a best seller since Donald Trump took office.
Instead of praising the importance of that book, in her column Lloyd reveals that she described It Can’t Happen Here as one of the most disappointing efforts of Sinclair Lewis. She admits that the Minnesota author, as well as the first American writer to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, has at least four novels that are more relevant today than It Can’t Happen Here.
His classic about a small town real estate agent in the fictional Minnesota village of Zenith, a novel titled Babbitt after its main character, is the first listed by Lloyd in her column. Next up is Main Street, an early feminist account of the ambitious wife of a small town doctor.
Also included as a novel on Lloyd’s list is Dodsworth, which chronicles the troubled marriage and life adjustment of a retired automobile baron. The final novel centers on the hypocrisy of a traveling evangelist named Elmer Gantry, which was made into a popular motion picture starring Burt Lancaster as the title character.
The list omits an even better examination of religion in the United States, a novel called The God Seeker. This virtually forgotten Sinclair Lewis book is set in pre-Civil War America, but its message is one that is quite relevant for the religious turmoil we are experiencing today.
Aaron Gadd is a teenager when the book opens, working as an apprentice for a carpenter in a small town in New Jersey. After hearing an evangelist at a revival, Aaron is persuaded to join the man’s missionary camp in the unsettled territory that would eventually become the state of Minnesota.
While the missionaries are trying to bring the teachings of Jesus to the members of the Sioux tribes on the plain, Aaron eventually finds himself questioning the many inexplicable aspects at the heart of Christianity. Through his association with those he was supposed to convert, the young missionary learns to appreciate the faith of the Native Americans around him.
A Dakota tribesman called Black Wolf causes Gadd to consider some of the eccentric rituals of Christianity, which he claims are more far-fetched than those involved in the worship of his people.
“Naturally, as we know that our God pervades every inch of space, we do not set off any place as sacred to him,” Black Wolf tells Aaron. “Christians dare not worship together unless they have built a shelter insulated against evil spirits, and this they call a church, a chapel or a temple.”
Aaron has to admit that worship should be done every where, just as the Dakota believe. He is also doubtful, once Black Wolf points it out, of the Christian practice of setting aside Sunday for worshiping.
“Christians have one special day which is sacred to their chief God, while to the Indians every day, hour, minute is filled with duty and gratitude to God,” Black Wolf tells Gadd. “His voice is in every breeze, every flowing water, to be revered upon as much on a Wednesday midnight as on a Sunday noon.”
Black Wolf also makes Aaron question the ritual of Christian marriages compared to those of the Dakota and other tribes, who are outraged by the pomposity of the wedding ceremony.
“The suggestive rites and hideous jesting of public marriage is the most horrible of all,” Black Wolf says of the typical Christian wedding. “Among us Dakota, marriage is a strictly private business between a man and a woman who steal away for a time to consummate their marriage in the sight only of the stars and clouds.”
In The God Seeker Sinclair Lewis has shown Americans that it is okay to question your faith occasionally, and allow themselves to listen to how they may be perceived by other cultures. With the religious and cultural divide among the citizens of the United States today, many of us could benefit from reading a 1949 book that, somewhat sadly, addresses many of the issues we have now.