Sinclair Lewis’ The God Seeker Is Even More Relevant Today Than His It Can’t Happen Here

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.

A Digital Brave New World That Needs a Dose of Romeo and Juliet

Aldous Huxley wrote a treatise in 1958 that explicated how his dystopian vision in Brave New World was coming true. If Huxley felt like that then, imagine what he would say about the world now. The hyper-mediation of computer technology has led to a digitized existence; iPads and iPhones have taken over communication, resulting in much less face-to-face interaction. In most cases, digital media is a huge blessing, as exemplified by educational websites like Shmoop, but there are dangers of where it could lead. While the digital revolution has not lead to the extreme mechanization of society that Huxley envisioned, it certainly raises fears of artificial intelligence and impersonal interaction. Huxley’s fictional world in which human beings are genetically manufactured and soma users, a drug that transports them to a trippy universe removed from reality, could easily be compared to post-millennium existence, in which cyborgs and virtual reality have infiltrated society (think of the more and more real possibility of The Matrix).

In Huxley’s world and perhaps in our own, the antidote is Shakespeare. Looking to classic literature that explores the depths of human nature certainly counteracts technology overload. So next time you want to turn on an episode of Bachelor Pad, try picking up Romeo and Juliet. While both don’t exactly depict reality, since neither scheming singles in a far-from-reality TV show, nor star-crossed lovers who fall in love at first sight are exactly viable scenarios, at least the latter poetically explores the essence of human nature.

That is precisely what is missing in the imagined dystopia in Brave New World. Genetic engineering and the mechanization of mass production have eliminated individuality and emotion. Naming his dystopian society the World State, Huxley intuitively prophesized globalization, which has been rapidly amplified by the World Wide Web. The World State is maintained by the application of science and math to social control. In other words, don’t underestimate the importance of AP Calculus. Applied Calculus is the basis of mechanics. For example, the Physics equation Force = Mass x Acceleration is rooted in Calculus. In addition, it is used in computer technology: digital imagery is composed of discrete values, usually integers, which are stored as a bitmap (pixel grids), making the image directly subject to computational manipulation. Images are no longer just captured, but also controlled. The next time that you think Calculus has no application to the real world, think again. A group of mad scientists, as demonstrated in Brave New World, could certainly use it to take over the world. Huxley is not necessarily condemning the advancement of science and technology, but warning against its negative power when used towards extinguishing humanity in the name of efficiency and control.

Much like Tobey Maguire convinces the citizens of Pleasantville in the film of the same name that real emotions are worth the pain, John, an outsider from the Reservation, introduces Shakespeare to the mind-controlled citizens in the World State. Helmholtz, a citizen who desires to regain his individuality, is particularly mesmerized by the beautiful lyricism of the plays, yet since he has been under the mind control of the World State his whole life, has difficulty understand their meaning. When John introduces him to Romeo and Juliet, he can’t wrap his head around why Juliet would not just tell her family outright about her affair with Romeo. In a society with complete sexual freedom and no emotions, Helmholtz guffaws at the complexity of family rivalry and forbidden love. In the world he knows, intense passions such as these do not exist. Unfortunately John’s passion is too intense for the apathetic “brave new world,” and just as Juliet, he meets a mortal end. However, he would rather be dead than a much worse fate: to live a flatlining existence.

If you happen to be in a dark room all day playing too much World of Warcraft, and look a little pale and feel slightly dead inside, it would be helpful to review Romeo and Juliet quotes to renew your vitality. Juliet eloquently asserts, “Conceit, more rich in matter than in words, brags of his substance, not of ornament: they are but beggars that can count their worth; But my true love is grown to such excess I cannot sum up sum of half my wealth” (2.6.2). In other words, love and ornament, aka passion and art, are much more valuable than conceit and wealth. In relation to Brave New World, just as the World State is obsessed with the output and consumption of products, meaning that the individual is subservient to the conceit of the state, Juliet is victim of her family’s conceit. The Montagues and Capulets are so obsessed with the reputations of their families, that they too have forgotten about what really matters: love, family, and community. Maybe Juliet’s passionate words will inspire you to approach your crush at school. Wealth, reputation, nor virtual reality can substitute for the spine tingling, heart stopping ecstasy of love.

The Primordial Struggle Of The Good Against The Evil: Part I

Since times immemorial, human consciousness has been deeply influenced and troubled by the primordial battle of the good against the evil. The human mind has resorted to varied genres and forms to narrate, symbolize and pass on the battle of the forces of the good and the evil. It is understood that almost every extinct or existent culture and civilization has its stories of creation in the backdrop of which are waged the battles of the light against the darkness. Literature being a salient form of human expression has always been concerned with this engrossing theme. The writers in English literature have resorted to varied methods to symbolize the fundamental concerns of the human intellect and its pivotal realities.

In that context, Beowulf, which stands out in the world of literature as one of the earliest Old English works of verse, explores the protagonist’s virtue and heroism from two different dimensions and tends to be a symbolic presentation of the struggle of the good against the evil, in which the poet successfully uses a range of literary and thematic devices to turn out the work into a piece that is amazingly illustrative, extremely engrossing and occasionally intimidating at one and the same time. In the first part of the story, the Beowulf that the reader sees is a man of unfettered spirit and in the second part, he matures into a man of wisdom and valour. In fact, the emphasis of the story [Line 25: “Behaviour that’s admired is the path to power among people everywhere.”] is more on virtue than on valour and that adds a human touch to it without which Beowulf would still be a hero – but just an ordinary hero.

For a work of literature to be able to present the battles fought between the good and the evil effectively, it is imperative to have a hero who is not only goodness incarnate, but also a larger-than-life character, having the requisite strength, character and worth to be able to stand up for the forces of the good. It is even more so in the Germanic tradition of story telling and in that sense, Beowulf is an exemplification of a perfect hero in every sense of the word. Though Beowulf is presented, in his encounters with Grendel, Grendel’s mother and the dragon, to the readers essentially as a formidable fighter, he is also endowed with immense character and virtue apart from his tremendous skill as an astute warrior, to keep crusading for the cause of the people to whom he owes his allegiance. The story is replete with instances and incidents that glorify Beowulf’s courage and ferocity typical of a great warrior.

Repeatedly, Beowulf is shown to challenge sea monsters, the embodiments of evil and filth and come out victorious against them. The other noticeable trait attributed to the character of Beowulf is that he is a staunch believer in the principle of fair fight and never resorts to guile or deceit to overpower the enemy. It is not just winning that matters but winning without losing grace that really matters [“Let whoever can win glory before death” (Lines 1387-88)]. The real value of the plot of Beowulf lies in the moral implications it has for the reader and not in the adventurous fights that seem to constitute it as exemplified in Hrothgar’s exhortation. He points to the danger of being carried away by success, which makes the success unsustainable [O flower of warriors, beware of that trap” (Line 1758)].

Another trait essential for a super hero to be as well as seem to be viable is to be endowed with abundant raw strength that is capable of subduing the evil. Beowulf dexterously fits into this ancient mould of combining strength and valour, which continues to be a timeless parameter of heroism in literature.