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Power, Prose, and PurseLaw, Literature, and Economic Transformations$
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Alison LaCroix, Saul Levmore, and Martha C. Nussbaum

Print publication date: 2019

Print ISBN-13: 9780190873455

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: May 2019

DOI: 10.1093/oso/9780190873455.001.0001

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PRINTED FROM OXFORD SCHOLARSHIP ONLINE (oxford.universitypressscholarship.com). (c) Copyright Oxford University Press, 2020. All Rights Reserved. An individual user may print out a PDF of a single chapter of a monograph in OSO for personal use. date: 27 October 2020

The Morning and the Evening Star

The Morning and the Evening Star

Religion, Money, and Love in Sinclair Lewis’s Babbitt and Elmer Gantry

(p.95) 4 The Morning and the Evening Star
Power, Prose, and Purse

Martha C. Nussbaum

Oxford University Press

Freud said that Americans are immature because they channel their libido into moneymaking. In Babbitt (1922), Sinclair Lewis seems to agree. It is generally thought that his 1927 novel, Elmer Gantry, continues the critique, exposing American religiosity as itself fundamentally commercial. I argue that Lewis’s project is deeper and more complicated than the standard reading admits and that it derives ultimately from Dante’s idea of the aspirations and errors of love. (Dante is a favorite author of Lewis’s and figures in Babbitt as the one notable from the past who is conjured up in the Babbitts’ séance.) Novels that shock are often read crudely at first, and Lewis’s novels are no exception. I argue that Lewis ultimately agrees with Elmer’s sermon: love is indeed “the morning and the evening star.” As in Dante, so in Lewis: love can aspire, but it can also be deflected and stunted in many ways. Moneymaking is one form of stunting; excessive interest in sex is another (and a better one in Dante’s view, because it is closer to what really matters). And perhaps worst of all, it can be blinded by intellectual pride, a vice from which the agnostic novelist and former ministerial student was in no way free. The novel does criticize George Babbitt the avaricious, it does criticize Elmer Gantry the libidinous, but it reserves its deepest and saddest condemnation for the Lewis surrogate, Frank Shallard, who cannot find anything worthy of his love.

Keywords:   Sinclair Lewis, Babbitt, Elmer Gantry, American religion, money, love

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