Sunday, March 31, 2013

C_Club #5 - "Arrowsmith" by Sinclair Lewis (Classics Spin)

The medical profession can have but one desire: to destroy the medical profession.
/p. 180/
I got to read "Arrowsmith" as a result of the Classics Spin event. The magical number 14 out of 20. It doesn't seem to be that widely read classics, so I hadn't seen any reviews, nor did I know much about Sinclair Lewis. And that was a good thing, as expectations can be a really, really bad thing more often than not.
From the back of the book:
Arrowsmith, the most widely read of Sinclair Lewis's novels, is the incisive portrait of a man passionately devoted to science. As a bright, curious boy in a small Midwestern town, Martin Arrowsmith spends his free time in old Doc Vickerson's office avidly devouring medical texts. Destined to become a physician and a researcher, he discovers that societal forces of ignorance, greed, and corruption can be as life-threatening as the plague.
Part satire, part morality tale, Lewis's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel illuminates the mystery and power of science while giving enduring life to a singular American hero's struggle for integrity and intellectual freedom in a small-minded world.
Boy, does Lewis have a sharp tongue pencil! There is a lot he dislikes, and he makes sure to put it out there. I was expecting some kind of a mad scientist tale, but it was not that. Martin is, to an extent, selfish, but he doesn't destroy lives. Quite the contrary. Sure, he is a very flawed character, but that only makes the story feel more realistic. And there is no "perfect" character in the book; all of them get slapped by Lewis more or less.
At first I did not like Martin Arrowsmith. He seemed to have no backspine. There were parts in the beginning where he seemed to be unable to make any decision when it came to choosing between two girls, so he ended up with an absolutely hilarious solution, summoning both girls to the lunch with him, admitting having been seeing them both and then decides to stay with the one who doesn't slap him or doesn't leave the table. It was a highly entertaining scene.
This story is timeless in the sense that the problems and dilemmas described in 1925 are pretty much the same in nowadays' world. When it comes to science - do you keep pursuing the Ultimate Medical Truth through the form of research, or do you sell out and work for people who want fast results, money and fame? Is acting like an everyday physician in a small settlement, curing people's pneumonias, broken legs and hypochondriac cases, really something that leads to new discoveries that mean something to humankind? Sure, we need doctors,  but if you have the talent and drive to spend sleepless nights and make a really big discovery that could change medicine for centuries to come, then such people maybe should focus on research instead.
The character that Lewis mocks the most is a doctor called Pickerbaugh. He is a man with political ambitions, and his daily work in the town consists mostly of mingling with the citizens, promoting health and sanitation through his VERY BAD verses, organising themed weeks such as a Write to Mother Week, an Eat More Corn Week, a Go to Church Week, Three Cigars a Day Week (?), Better the Babies Week, Banish the Booze Week, et cetera. Needless to say, Dr Pickerbaugh is highly popular among the townsfolk. Hilarious character but I'm not sure I'd want him to be my doctor.
One of the more tragic characters is Martin's wife Leora. We don't get to know much of her inside because although Martin needs her, he doesn't spend that much time at home or thinking about her and so the image the reader gets is that Leora has no life of her own, all she does is look after Martin's needs, sit with him hours and hours of nights in laboratories while he works, and never complains. She is an interesting character, although obviously criticised by Lewis for not having her own will and ways.
There are plenty more amusing and kind of over-the-top characters in the novel - I really enjoyed Lewis's take on the whole armada of different doctors, researchers, directors and families.
Lewis himself seemed to be an eccentric type as well. I already wrote here how he refused to accept the Pulitzer Prize, and that grew my respect for him; however, from the introduction of my "Arrowsmith" edition (written by Sally E. Parry) I read the following lines Lewis sent to his publisher Alfred Harcourt:
I hope they do award me the Pulitzer prize on Arrowsmith - but you know, don't you, that ever since the Main Street burglary, I have planned that if they ever did award it to me, I would refuse it, with a polite but firm letter which I shall let the press have, and which ought to make it impossible for any one ever to accept the novel prize (not the play or history prize) thereafter without acknowledging themselves as willing to sell out.
Arrogant much? :D Yea, that artsy folk sure can be eccentric.
I am totally happy I read this novel, I am pretty sure I will also read some of his other works like "Main Street" and "Babbit".


  1. I've never read Sinclair Lewis, but I think I'll have to check him out! I like authors with a sharp tongue :)

  2. I have a mixed reaction to satire books, but this one does sound very good.


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