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Arrowsmith by Sinclair Lewis
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Arrowsmith (1925)

by Sinclair Lewis

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Sinclair Lewis was the only author to ever turn down the Pulitzer Prize. Had he accepted, "Arrowsmith" would have been the winner for 1926. This novel often gets mediocre reviews today due to the long winded descriptions, dry medical content, and what some might refer to as a boring plot. It’s easy to disparage a book written almost 100 years ago, but if you stop and think about it, it was the first novel ever written that went into depth about medical school, diseases, drugs, and the challenge of being a doctor or research scientist.

"Arrowsmith" is the satirical story of Martin Arrowsmith. It begins while Martin is in medical school where he quickly becomes disillusioned when he realizes many of his peers are more interested in making big money than curing illness and disease. He prefers a career in research, but has a new wife to support so he travels to her home town in North Dakota to open his own medical practice. But dealing with the small-town narrow-minded mentality of the local yokels is nearly impossible. He is immediately shunned for drinking, playing poker, being un-religious and un-patriotic. Martin ultimately gets laughed out of town for suggesting vaccines are necessary because there could be a chicken-pox epidemic. In the early 1900s many common people did not even believe germs or bacteria even existed. The first antibiotic was discovered in 1910 but people were leery to trust the new medical technology.

From there things only get worse. He moves from job to job (all medically related) and has to deal with pharmacies that sell fake drugs, people’s refusal to comply with government regulations, small town politics, and doctors who perform unnecessary operations simply for the operating experience and the hefty fee. At a medical clinic in Chicago that he refers to as a “tonsil snatcher clinic”, the motto is, “any portion of the body without which people could conceivably get along should certainly be removed at once.”

Martin finally finds serenity in doing medical research with his old college mentor while his colleagues thrive on getting rich, accepting awards and honors, and boasting of their knowledge on expense-paid lecture tours. One very disturbing and tragic segment involves Martin’s travel to an isolated island to treat victims of the plague.

I know I have given the impression that this story is strictly about the business of medicine but this is not really the case. Martin is a strong, handsome, viral man. At one point he finds himself engaged to two women at the same time. And after marriage, women throw themselves at him... so much that it sometimes interferes with his work and his relationship with his wife.

"Arrowsmith" was enlightening and entertaining. I can only presume that Lewis turned down the Pulitzer because he had the help of Paul de Kruif, a microbiologist, in writing the novel. He suffered guilt over receiving all the public recognition. Other than receiving 25% of the book royalties, de Kruif never enjoyed any official recognition for his participation. ( )
  LadyLo | Jun 20, 2018 |
When I was assigned to teach the Modern Novel, I almost instantly knew that not only did I want to teach Arrowsmith, but that I wanted to teach it first, even if some of the other novels I was teaching preceded it in publication. I'll explain why, but perhaps the long way round. (Arrowsmith does everything the long way round.)

It's often helpful when reading works of fiction to find those metafictional moments where they talk about other works of fiction, because what the fiction says about other fictions should tell you something about what it thinks fiction should be doing, and thus what itself is doing. If a character in a sci-fi story says all those sci-fi stories you've read are unrealistic in that they depict ventilation ducts people can crawl through, you'll know this sci-fi story is depicting itself as more realistic. Arrowsmith does this with a comment about novels about truth-seekers:

[M]ost people who call themselves “truth-seekers” […] did not so much desire to find Truth as to cure their mental itch. In novels, these truth-seekers quested the “secret of life” in laboratories which did not seem to be provided with Bunsen burners or reagents; or they went, at great expense and with much discomfort from hot trains and undesirable snakes, to Himalayan monasteries, to learn from unaseptic sages that the Mind can do all sorts of edifying things if one will but spend thirty or forty years in eating rice and gazing on one’s navel. (271)

So from this I think we can see that Arrowsmith is a novel about people questing after truth, but one that positions itself as taking place in the "real world," not some abstruse fantasy. Martin Arrowsmith is a man seeking truth, but he does so in a world that is provided with Bunsen burners and reagents. I don't know enough about science to know if Lewis actually gets the practicalities right, but it definitely comes across as realistic-- or, perhaps, realist.

George Levine's monograph Dying to Know: Scientific Epistemology and Narrative in Victorian England has been a strong influence on how I understand the realist novel; he examines a range of novels, biographies, and memoirs about how people interact with the world scientifically, but in the middle of it all, he has this great statement about realism:

[T]he practice of realism itself, and critical demands for truthfulness, suggest how central to the Victorian novel was the enterprise of knowledge seeking and truth telling, how often plots turn on the power of protagonists to develop the proper temper and state of mind to allow realistic confrontation with the “object”—what one might see as acquisition the proper “method.” One can only achieve truth through objectivity; one can only be objective by virtue of the moral strength of self-restraint. (149)

This rings true for me-- so many Elizabeth Gaskell novels, for example, are about their protagonists learning to see or communicate what actually happened; this could describe Mary Barton, North and South, and Wives and Daughters. You could argue similar things about George Eliot, I expect. But Levine's idea doesn't only fit the Victorian realist novel; even if modernism was taking off in 1924 (A Portrait of the Artist as Young Man was eight years old; Mrs. Dalloway was one year away), over in America, Sinclair Lewis was still practicing realism.

Arrowsmith really resonates with Levine's statement above. It is a novel about a man trying to find the proper "method": does he have a good way of seeking knowledge and telling truth? The novel might contain a number of experiments, but the novel itself is an experiment in seeing if a particular method works, or if it fails, or what alternatives might exists, or what modifications might need to be made.

This really comes through in one of Martin's conversations with his mentor, Gottlieb. In class, I made my students work through a whole long speech of Gottlieb's where he lays out not just what a scientist should do, but how they should be. I'll be kinder to you lot and just give you a single excerpt:

He
[the scientist] must be heartless. He lives in a cold, clear light. Yes dis is a funny t’ing: really, in private, he is not cold nor heartless—so much less cold than the Professional Optimists. The world has always been ruled by the Philanthropists: by the doctors that want to use therapeutic methods they do not understand, by the soldiers that want something to defend their country against, by the preachers that yearn to make everybody listen to them, by the kind manufacturers that love their workers, by the eloquent statesmen and soft-hearted authors—and see once what a fine mess of hell they haf made of the world! Maybe now it is time for the scientist, who works and searches and never goes around howling how he loves everybody! (279)

As you can see, Gottlieb's conception of science extends beyond the laboratory. If science is a way of thinking and being in the world, you can't just turn it off. Your heartlessness will extend into society itself. Gottlieb sees this as a positive-- the scientist will do a better job than all the other people who claim authority over society.

Earlier, I said the novel itself was an experiment, and this accords with something Levine says about the texts he's working with, where the "method" being tested is the scientific, objective one (much like in Arrowsmith):

All these novels implicitly question, more or less critically, the ideal of self-denial in pursuit of objectivity, as that ideal impinges on the lives of real people living in the material world.
     Each of them is sensitive to the difficulties of truth—its disguises and elusiveness and dangers.
[…] The novels frequently build their plots around the problems caused by the body and the passions in gaining access to the truth, except that, as novels, they can never dismiss the body as trivial or irrelevant. (150-51)

Arrowsmith is very much a novel about "real people living in the material world" (that it is too material a world is clearly Lewis's concern) and the body is not trivial or irrelevant-- the body is actually at the heart of what is my favorite part of Arrowsmith, Martin's in-the-field testing of both science and his scientific ideals. Gottlieb says the scientist must be heartless to guide society, and Martin tries to put that heartlessness into action when he goes to St. Hubert to try to rid it of the plague with his new medical discovery.

This novel is always good, but this is the part where I think it gets really good. As Martin tries to stick to his ideals in the face of the realities of the world, the book gets genuinely moving and tragic. Gottlieb might want Martin to dismiss the body as trivial or irrelevant, might want him to be heartless and so do more for society than all those with "heart," but in the end Martin's ideals collapse and he has to come to grips with the awful tragedy of how the world works.

It's a great example of the realist novel at its best, and that made it a great book to lead my class off with. The whole twentieth-century trajectory of the novel is arguably about rebelling against the kinds of things Arrowsmith does here, but I love it anyway.
1 vote Stevil2001 | Mar 31, 2018 |
A friend told me that, based on my interests in science and scientists in literature, I had to read this book for my Ph.D. exams. Now, a 1925 American novel was more than a little bit outside my scope of British literature of the nineteenth century, but no one on my committee objected, and I put it on the list. (She also told me it takes place in a fictionalized version of my home city, Cincinnati, but Lewis's fictional state of Winnemac is partially carved out of northwest Ohio, which makes Toledo seem more likely.)

Well, I will tell you that I am glad I did, because the things that interest me about science and literature are all over Arrowsmith, with the added wrinkle of the differences wrought by the increased professionalization of science that happened between the 1890s and the 1920s. Martin Arrowsmith is torn between pure scientific aspiration and the commercial and financial necessities of everyday life in early twentieth century America. Martin sees being in the laboratory of his mentor Gottlieb as a form of prayer (27); Gottlieb is said to obey "mysterious and unreasoning compulsions of his science" (123); Gottlieb says that a scientific calling is "a tangle of very obscure emotions, like mysticism, or wanting to write poetry" (266); and Martin has the "one characteristic without which there can be no science: a wide-ranging, sniffing, snuffling, undignified, unself-dramatizing curiosity" (279). But these scientific values come into conflict with those of his peers, his superiors, his employers, his wife, basically everybody. I actually found Martin's continuing attempts to integrate his personal values with society's values quite moving by the end of the novel, because it's a struggle we all go through in our own way.

His problem is not that he wants one thing and society wants another, but that actually he wants two contradictory things. At one point Martin is on track for an incredible discovery, and he dreams of the personal benefit this will bring him:

He had visions of his name in journals and textbooks; of scientific meetings cheering him. He had been an unknown among the experts of the Institute, and now he pitied all of them. But when he was back at his bench the grandiose aspirations faded and he was the sniffing, snuffling beagle, the impersonal worker. Before him, supreme joy of the investigator, new mountain-passes of work opened, and in him was new power.
(299)

Right in that short passage, you see him go from material aspirations to scientific ones. He wants the material benefits of successful inquiry, but he also just want to do the work, to feel like he's accessing prayer or something mystical like his mentor Gottlieb. The two desires are linked, of course, but not the same, and do not always align, and that is the tragedy of Martin Arrowsmith. I myself am not a scientist, of course, but the professionalization of curiosity may yet be my tragedy, and the tragedy of all of us.
  Stevil2001 | Mar 19, 2018 |
We know more about appropriate research than was known in 1924, but arguments about the motives behind science and the fallibility of science and scientists remain. This discussion is perhaps the strongest aspect of this book.

It is good that Arrowsmith and Wickett were able to devote themselves to science but sad that so much had to be personally sacrificed to do so. In the end it still doesn't feel as though Arrowsmith is happy- he lives in extremes and experiences satisfaction from time to time but not happiness. Even so, it is easier to sympathize with him than with the social climbers and some other types that are also present in this book. It is interesting that Arrowsmith is able to realize that he's kind of a jerk to his wife, but he can't seem to help himself. Another interesting topic was the effect of gossip and the attempt so show examples against racism, classism, and jumping on the bandwagon.

Overall this was a mixed reading experience. It was generally worthwhile but not exactly satisfying. ( )
  karmiel | Aug 20, 2015 |
An innovative doctor reaps the rewards of a discovery, but suffers along the way and returns to the life he actually had all along. A wonderful read. One of my favorite authors. ( )
1 vote JVioland | Jul 14, 2014 |
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Sinclair Lewisprimary authorall editionscalculated
Spayd, Barbara GraceIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Stahl, Ben F.Illustratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0451526910, Mass Market Paperback)

As the son and grandson of physicians, Sinclair Lewis had a store of experiences and imparted knowledge to draw upon for Arrowsmith.Published in 1925, after three years of anticipation, the book follows the life of Martin Arrowsmith, a rather ordinary fellow who gets his first taste of medicine at 14 as an assistant to the drunken physician in his home town. It is Leora Tozer who makes Martin's life extraordinary. With vitality and love, she urges him beyond the confines of the mundane to risk answering his true calling as a scientist and researcher. Not even her tragic death can extinguish her spirit or her impact on Martin's life.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:19:34 -0400)

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The Pulitzer Prize-winning novel recounts the story of a Midwestern physician who is forced to give up his profession due to the ignorance, corruption, and greed of society.

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