January-February 1989

Can Somebody Shout Amen!.  By Patsy Sims. St. Martin’s. 234 pages. $15.95.

Ever since H.L. Mencken demonstrated how to do it, smartassed journalists have been descending upon the South to milk colorful copy out of the fevered religiosity of the region’s “gaping primates” (to borrow Mencken’s term). Sneering and guffawing at the outlandish antics of the locals is a surefire way to evoke gleeful chortles from readers back home in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, or wherev­er. Spotting a good thing waiting to be exploited, Patsy Sims mounted her own expedition in­to the benighted land of gibber­ing Holy Rollers, delirious snake-handlers, and clerical con artists. One prepares to yawn with bore­dom over her report: it’s already been done to death, Miss Sims.

Sims has some surprises in store for the jaded and cultured despisers, for if she came to mock, she remained, if not exactly to admire, at least to respect. In 1981, eager to snoop into the drolleries of “off-brand” religion, Sims armed herself with note­book and tape recorder and plunged down the sawdust trail of Pentecostal tent-revivalism. Over the course of her perambu­lations, she endured half a hun­dred protracted revivals, inter­viewed 15 evangelists, and chat­ted with countless devotees of euphoric religion.

In the resulting book, Sims mainly lets the people themselves do the talking, without the au­thorial obtrusiveness that has be­come a banality of “human-inter­est” reporting. Not only does she refrain from mocking her sub­jects, but she avoids the equally loathsome practice of drenching them in sentimentality and con­descending sympathy. She ap­pears to like most of the revival­ists she met, and her refusal to stoop to cheap ridicule extends even to the Rev. Ernest Angley, the only superstar to appear in her pages, and a character who is eminently ridiculous.

Sims apprehends what the revivals mean to the folks who frequent them. Not just color and excitement to add spice to drab lives, not just a respite from the grinding routines of dailiness, but most importantly, transcen­dent meaning. “Their lives were not compartmentalized,” Sims observes. “Rather, everything had religious meaning.” By the standards of educated, affluent, and politely Christian America, these people are ignorant, coarse, emotionally unhinged, culturally and materially deprived. Yet re­peatedly, Sims marvels at their happiness, their joy in basking in the refulgent glory of their Sav­ior’s love. Spare these folks your pity; save it for those who really need it: say, for example, the faculty of Harvard University, or the members of the U.S. Congress, or the tastefully and quietly de­spairing brokers on Wall Street. Patsy Sims’s people — shouting “Amen!” and praising God — are doing just fine, thank you.

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Confessions of a Twentieth-Cen­tury Pilgrim.  By Malcolm Muggeridge. Harper & Row. 151 pages. $14.95.

In November 1982 Malcolm Muggeridge, approaching the age of 80, entered the Catholic Church. Confessions of a Twenti­eth-Century Pilgrim explains how he arrived at that decision and why it took him so long to do so. Muggeridge recounts his spiritual journey through a series of war­ring dualities: lust and love, pow­er and meekness, egoism and self­lessness, flesh and spirit, appear­ance and reality, ephemerality and permanence, time and eter­nity. The first half of each duality wrestles with the second part; the natural man seeks dominance over the transfigured soul. Over the entire book hovers a longing for eternity and a readiness for death. Sadness over the sin and wreckage of a lifetime compete with joy in having “found a rest­ing place in the Catholic Church.” Muggeridge evinces little triumph or satisfaction over the fruits of his long years; rather, he express­es relief that the journey’s end is nigh. “I am…an octogenarian who has done much that he ought not to have done and left undone much that he ought to have done.” But death is the beginning, not the end. The book’s conclud­ing chapter is entitled “The Pros­pect of Death”; its final words: “Christ lives!”

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Socialism in the Heartland: The Midwestern Experience, 1900-1925.  Edited by Donald T. Critchlow. University of Notre Dame Press. 221 pages. $9.95.

The wonder is not that it did not last, but that it existed at all: socialism thrived on a small scale in the early 20th century in parts of Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, and Minneso­ta. In the essays collected by Donald Critchlow, seven scholars examine the hows and whys of socialism as it flourished in such places as Flint, Dayton, Marion (Ind.), Milwaukee, Minneapolis, and the coal fields of southern Il­linois. The Socialist Party found the bedrock of its support among workers of German, English, and Welsh extraction who belonged to labor unions and who were, Critchlow observes, “threatened by new technology of the era and by the economic fluctuations of the period.” These workers were too few to elect Socialists to office. So the party broadened its appeal by promising (and de­livering) clean government, bet­ter education, and expanded and modernized municipal services. It worked — at least for a time: dozens of Midwestern cities elect­ed Socialist mayors, council members, and other officials.

Once in office, these men usually proved to be “flexible, pragmatic, reformist,” as David Paul Nord characterizes the So­cialist mayor of Minneapolis. Radicals derided them as “sewer socialists,” but that, as Errol Stev­ens points out in his article on Marion, Indiana, is a cheap shot. Working-class neighborhoods needed sewers, paved streets, clean water, and the other ameni­ties already enjoyed by better-heeled urban dwellers. The Pro­gressive reform movement in the Midwest was largely by and for the middle classes; the Socialist Party extended the benefits of reform to blue-collar workers. Midwestern socialism lacked glamor and romance, and was in­sufficiently radical to titillate most intellectuals (then and now), but in many cases, it got the job done that no one else would undertake.

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