Billy Sunday is doing one of three things right now: 1) wrestling with the devil in a death match; 2) sipping some ginger ale while Jesus drinks wine and the two cheer for the Cubs; 3) rolling over in his Chicago grave because Jean Bethke Elshtain recently compared him with “Eli Sunday” (or “Eli Watkins” as he is called in Upton Sinclair’s Oil!) in that wonderful journal Books and Culture. I’m guessing that Billy Sunday – the baseball-playing, fighting with demons, stomping, shouting, tough guy revivalist of the early twentieth century would not appreciate being likened to the sniveling, effeminate Eli Sunday of There Will Be Blood. And I’m also guessing that Upton Sinclair, whose character in Oil! was named “Eli Watkins” and who, according to Matthew A. Sutton, modeled this character after Aimee Semple McPherson (or at least one of her followers), might be irritated by the misunderstanding.
Mistaking Billy Sunday for Aimee Semple McPherson – whether on the part of the filmmakers or on the part of Jean Bethke Elshtain – may not seem like a big deal (on a side note, Jean Bethke Elshtain writes that Eli Sunday was “Upton Sinclair’s representation of the famous evangelist Billy Sunday in his novel Oil, on which the film is very loosely based”; to be truthful, there is no character in Oil named “Eli Sunday”). Weren’t they both powerful and inspirational revivalists? Didn’t they both help fashion a new form of Protestantism in the early twentieth century? Sure, but if we care about gender and if we care about geographical space (let alone historical accuracy), then it certainly matters.
Take a look at Sutton’s analysis of Oil! in his Aimee Semple McPherson and he Resurrection of Christian America (it begins on page 143). For instance, Sinclair wrote of Eli that his preaching “had thus become one of the major features of Southern California life.” Or then again, the Watkins family believed in the “Old Time Religion … the Four Square Gospel.” Then later, reports broke that Eli had drowned at a local beach. Doesn’t this sound exactly like Billy Sunday? Who was it that initiated the Four Square Gospel and put a stamp on southern California and was supposedly lost at sea? (the answer is not Billy Sunday).
If Sutton is right and Jean Bethke Elshtain is wrong, then we must ask Sinclair would cast the McPherson figure as a man. It’s an important question, but also one that leads to why McPherson has so often been left out in discussions of the rise of the moral majority. Why must a female presence be banished either from formative stages of southern California or from the moral majority’s long history? And now with name choice in There Will Be Blood and Jean Bethke Elshtain’s review, it is more than the tale of an effeminate fictional character representing a genuine woman; it is now a real Midwestern minister of a masculine gospel represented by a feminized southern Californian.
I’m not sure how these types of “mistakes” (if it is a mistake, which I might be mistaken about) can be corrected. I have no idea how reviewers can be reviewed. To be perfectly honest, I wish that I could take back most reviews that I wrote before my first book was published. It was not until then that I realized that the first task of a reviewer was to admire and appreciate, and then to critique and challenge. Before my first monograph, I first wanted to prove my mettle and then perhaps celebrate the hard work of an author. In the next month, a forum review of my religious biography of Du Bois will come out with the Journal of Southern Religion. One of the reviewers thinks that I am wrong to call Du Bois a prophetic figure (as did a previous review by Curtis Evans), yet does so with no evidence or even theory to contradict my portrayal of Du Bois. Almost every page of my work either has Du Bois using prophetic language and tropes or has his contemporaries referring to him as a prophet, as one who “reveals” hidden realities to them, or as one who speaks with religious insight against the powers that be.