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THE SPRING LESSON:-Let us suppose a case. Suppose George F. Babbitt, having heard that Sinclair Lewis's "Elmer Gantry" (Harcourt, Brace) is a "preacher novel" and "hot stuff," has decided to read the book. Babbitt is himself not much of a hand to go to church, though he does not mind if his wife goes, and he sends his children to Sunday-school, where they will get good moral teaching an hour a week and will be kept, for that long and maybe longer, out of mischief. For some reason or other, he has always been a little uncomfortable with preachers. They cramp his style. He knows that there are good fellows among them, but, after all, they are preachers, set vaguely apart from the world, and not quite the same as the men that Babbitt sees every day down-town. Moreover, they hold their services on Sunday, which is Babbitt's day of rest. If he went to the morning sermon, he would have to get up earlier than he likes to do for anything except golf. By evening, of course, his day of rest has tired him out. And yet he has never managed to get over the feeling that maybe he ought to go to church more regularly. Every Sunday his conscience whispers to him, from time to time, that he is playing hooky from reli
gion, which is a good thing for everybody.
Without, of course, being aware of his desire, he wishes he had a better excuse for playing hooky than he has ever found. In "Elmer Gantry" he finds it. So this is the way preachers behave! Babbitt has heard cynics wondering whether half the preachers, if the truth were known about them, do not keep a bottle hidden behind a row of Bibles; wondering if, when preachers call on the women of their congregations, with the men-folks away, they spend the whole time talking about spiritual problems. This book makes it look as if the cynics were right in their suspicions. Elmer Gantry can tip the bottle with any man, and he has a way with the women. Babbitt cannot help licking his lips as he reads. Imagine seeing this all written down in black and white! There is no doubt about it, he says, preachers are the same as ordinary people, except that they have advantages which the average man never has. Traveling all over the country, for instance, with a lady evangelist, like Sharon Falconer. Getting in with the big guns in every town. Having a chance-Babbitt does not put it quite so neatly-to have all the publicity of a saint and
On second thought, indeed, Babbitt will probably, like most of his friends, change his mind. Come to think about it, he knows preachers who are certainly not like Elmer Gantry. Anyway, a few preachers like that make no great difference in the long run. The church is a big institution, which ought to be supported by all who have the best interests of the community at heart. Religion is a good thing for everybody. Why, even the lowest savages have some sort of religion. The United States would be badly off without it. Still, Babbitt will be less troubled the next time he drops his wife at the church and himself goes on to the golf course.
No one can ever be quite sure, when the dust of the present scuffle has blown away, whether Sinclair Lewis had his ear closer to the ground than any one else, or whether he himself created the row. It ought to be plain, however, that he has chosen the most spectacular method of attack. The medieval satirists employed it. In an age of faith, they did not examine the faith itself, to see whether it was sound and realistic enough to satisfy the intelligent. They clamored that priests were drunken and sensual, Elmer Gantrys surpliced and tonsured. The common man, who would have grown impatient under the strain of a theological debate and who would have murdered the heretics who might
have said his religion was partly superstition, caught up the clamor. The clamor has lasted from that time to this. But in the United States, thanks to the absence of an established church and the presence of many tolerated sects, there has been, since the seventeenth century, no great pressure put upon the easygoing layman by any ecclesiastical organization. Of late this happy condition appears to be undergoing a change. Certain of the more powerful sects, joining their zealous forces, have set out to say what science shall be taught in the schools and how Sunday shall be observed and whether men shall go to church or not. Skeptics have for some time been disturbed by such a development, but, since skepticism calls for a considerable boldness of thought, there are seldom many skeptics in a country. The work of throwing off ecclesiastical tyranny has in the main to be done by persons who are merely emotional and instinctive in their behavior. These are the persons whom "Elmer Gantry" reaches. It tells them, in a familiar idiom, that clergymen are drunken and sensual. The Babbitts must do the rest.
CATO FROM CONNECTICUT:-Sinclair Lewis may have invented Elmer Gantry, but Heywood Broun and Margaret Leech had only to interpret the hero of "Anthony Comstock: Roundsman of the Lord" (A. & C. Boni). Incredible as the man may seem to the eye of reason, he is perfectly real to the eye of history. The man existed. A solemn, priggish rustic from Connecticut, he came to New York, was shocked by certain
things he saw, and set out to make the city look like his native village. What he specifically directed his attention to was pornography, as found in the books and pictures sneakingly circulated for the satisfaction of immature curiosity. But he could not confine himself to the work for which he was employed by various other persons of a similar zeal. He came in time to hold that nude sculptures and paintings, no matter how dignified in aim or execution, belonged in his sniveling category; and to hold that literature and the stage should refrain from any treatment of sex topics except the most uncomplicated. Whatever virtue he may have had in his earlier functions turned to the vice of intemperate and illiterate fury, and he made himself one of the national nuisances. The American art, and particularly the American literature, of the new age had to make its way over his kicking, howling body.
Miss Leech and Mr. Broun, in their well documented and well bred biography of the fanatic, do not attempt finally to explain the original mystery of his character. They hint only that he was a person of immature curiosity and frustrate impulses, and that he sought to keep from others the temptations which he obscurely recognized in himself. Pathology may in time determine his precise form of aberration, if he had one. The general observer, however, will perceive in Comstock the powerful instinct which everywhere leads the primitive moralist to want to bring all human beings into a single type of behavior, because such a moralist regards as sin what to more civilized judges may
seem a mere difference of opinion. But Comstock was more than primitive; he was also acutely dogmatic. The range of differences of opinion which he was willing to tolerate was extravagantly small. Nor was he alone in this. He found backers who gave him money and a position from which to fight. He was consequently not a lone crusader, not a prurient missionary at war with the natural man, but a symbol of his generation. In him there came to a head the prudishness of late American Victorianism, battling terrifically to stop what seemed to it the tide of impropriety rolling in from the wicked world. He was a trivial Cato, bound to keep the morals of his country still somehow provincial and republican. Now that he in his own person is no longer a menace, however much comstockery may yet survive in other forms, he has the interest of dinosaurs and pterodactyls-extinct but somehow magnificent for sheer horrendous bulk. Comstock is an unforgettable fossil in the American menagerie.
WRECKER OF ENGINES: The name by which Colonel T. E. Lawrence was known among the Arabs whom he assisted in their revolt against the Turkish Empire was ordinarily "Wrecker of Engines," in reference to his technical task of destroying the railroad from Damascus to Medina. Seen on a still larger scale, he still should have the title, for what he did to the railroad with his small crew he did to the route between Europe and India with his horde of desert tribes. He used the whole revolt to block the
road by which the Germans and Turks might have got to the Allied, particularly the British, possessions in Asia. Colonel Lawrence's exploit was thus above all an act of British patriotism, creating a kingdom of Arabs to save the British Empire.
It is plain that no mere love of the Arabs and of their nationalistic hopes led this quiet scholar into action. His "Revolt in the Desert" (Doran) makes it clear that he now and then realized the paradox of his position, that of an alien urging nationality upon a people, and that he did not always like the Arabs, much as he admired them. But for the time he was a man of action, not of philosophic contemplation, and he was utterly taken by his grandiose idea. While he had not himself originated it, he had the primary responsibility for carrying it out, and he carried it out with a courage, audacity, and competence hardly to be matched in the achievement of any other single man engaged in the entire war.
Besides destroying the railroad, he had the greater burden of acting as unofficial ambassador from the English to the Arabs, assuring the wary Bedouins that England would support them in their undertaking, and persuading the English to do this. He had, too, the still greater burden of composing the differences among the separate tribes which which had hitherto made a national union impossible. Without a certain superb abandon, a kind of dervish energy, he could never have done what he did. With this intense concentration upon his aim, however, went also a marvelous awareness of what he was doing, a clairvoyant insight into the
minds and prejudices of his Arab associates, an enormous knowledge of all the local politics which hampered him more than the Turkish army and the hardships of the campaign. He was, it is true, a man of action; he was, in an equal degree, a conscious artist.
It is this combination of qualities which makes his book one of the most thrilling of all books about the war. Colonel Lawrence could act and yet know precisely how and why he was acting. As a writer he has combined the same, or similar, qualities. He has been able to recount his adventures with the dramatic simplicity of a soldier and at the same time to interpret them with the depth and subtlety of a thinker.
PRIMITIVE PHILOSOPHERS:-Whoever wants to go on thinking that primitive men have no philosophy to speak of should not read Knud Rasmussen's "Across Arctic America" (Putnam), with its fascinating reports of the beliefs of the Eskimo. Here, for example, is an explanation of the taboo, as told by an arctic patriarch and priest who had been pointing out to his visitor the many inexplicable cruelties of human life:
"You see,' observed Aua, 'even you cannot answer when we ask you why life is as it is. And so it must be. Our customs all come from life and are directed towards life; we cannot explain, we do not believe in this or that; but the answer lies in what[ have just shown you. "We fear!
"We fear the elements with which we have to fight in their fury to wrest out food from land and sea.
"We fear cold and famine in our snow huts.
"We fear the sickness that is daily to be seen amongst us. Not death, but the suffering.
that. They live among these stone walls; on a great plain of stones made with hands. Stone and stone and stone-there is no game to be seen anywhere, and yet they manage to
"We fear the souls of the dead, of live and find their daily food. Have human and animal alike.
"We fear the spirits of earth and
they then learned of the animals, since they can dig down under the earth like marmots, hang in the air like spiders, fly like the birds and dive under water like the fishes; seemingly masters of all that we struggled against ourselves?
"I see things more than my mind can grasp; and the only way to save oneself from madness is to suppose that we have all died suddenly before we knew, and that this is part of another life.””
"And therefore our fathers, fathers, taught by their fathers before them, guarded themselves about with all these old rules and customs, which are built upon the experience and knowledge of generations. We know not how nor why, but we obey them that we may be suffered to live in peace. And for all our angakoqs [priests] and their knowledge of hidden things, we yet know so little that we fear everything else. We fear the things we see about us, and the things we know from the stories and myths of our forefathers. Therefore we hold by our customs and observe all the rules of tabu.""
Here is the reflection as, quoted by Knud Rasmussen, of the Eskimo woman Anarulunguaq, whom he brought to New York with him and took to the top of a high building:
"Ah,' sighed Anarulunguaq, ‘and we used to think Nature was the greatest and most wonderful of all! Yet here we are among mountains and great gulfs and precipices, all made by the work of human hands. Nature is great; Sila, as we call it at home; nature, the world, the universe, all that is Sila; which our wise men declared they could hold in poise. And I could never believe it; but I see it now. Nature is great; Nature is great; but are not men greater? Those tiny beings we can see down there far below, hurrying this way and
Here is a piece of worldly wisdom from a man in whom there were the beginnings of a scientist:
"Dried whale meat and blubber was served, the meat was a trifle mildewed, and when this was commented on apologetically, I answered with a Greenland catchword to the effect that mildew was good for the system. Ularpat's retort stuck in my mind. 'Yes,' he said with a laugh, 'we say the same thing in our country; probably to save the trouble of washing the meat clean. Laziness often makes things "good for you" in that way.'
And here is a stroke of literary criticism from a man whom the explorer had asked what a certain story meant:
"H'm, well,' answered Netsit, 'we don't really trouble ourselves so much about the meaning of a story, as long as it is amusing. It is only the white men who must always have reasons and meanings in everything.""