“Arrowsmith” brings us the life and times of Martin Arrowsmith: from boyhood to College and Medical School, then marriage, and various attempts at finding a good position and making a career. Which makes this a long book. Too long for me. There are so many chapters in Martin’s life and each one is written in lavish detail. There are a lot of good things, satirical views of the medical profession in general as well as snarky comments about the necessity to choose between becoming a physician who sees patients, a medical professional at the health department, or research scientist with an eye on the next big discovery that will save the life of millions – and garner fame and fortune. And all the while poor Arrowsmith would love nothing better than be left alone in his laboratory.
I grew tired of all the twists and turns in the story because ultimately I did not get a feeling for Martin at all. He seemed like a pawn that got pushed from one square to the next. There are a huge number of supporting characters and all of them feel like cardboard cutouts. There seemed to be a lot of similarities to “Babbitt,” another famous book by Sinclair Lewis, which I could not finish because I loathed the shallowness of the main character. Sometimes authors can overdo getting their point across.
Things turned around to an extent when Arrowsmith and his wife travel to a tropical island that is ravaged by the plague, in the hopes of applying Martin’s research to saving the population from disease and death. Things all of a sudden “get real”, as they say. The tension mounts and tragedy strikes. This experience allowed the character of Martin Arrowsmith to mature in my eyes. He tries one more time to work within the medical research establishment before giving up on that life and moving into a smalltime lab where he is finally able to concentrate on what he loves best – research.
Note: This book was supposed to get a Pulitzer Prize but Sinclair Lewis declined it. Lewis has been quoted as not being convinced that the Pulitzer criteria were valid:
All prizes, like all titles, are dangerous. The seekers for prizes tend to labor not for inherent excellence but for alien rewards: they tend to write this, or timorously to avoid writing that, in order to tickle the prejudices of a haphazard committee. And the Pulitzer Prize for novels is peculiarly objectionable because the terms of it have been constantly and grievously misrepresented.
Those terms are that the prize shall be given “for the American novel published during the year which shall best present the wholesome atmosphere of American life, and the highest standard of American manners and manhood.” This phrase, if it means anything whatever, would appear to mean that the appraisal of the novels shall be made not according to their actual literary merit but in obedience to whatever code of Good Form may chance to be popular at the moment. (taken from: http://english.illinoisstate.edu/sinclairlewis/sinclair_lewis/faq/faq2.shtml)
I find this quote interesting because I have not been able to find much information about the judging criteria elsewhere. Admittedly, whenever I hear the term “wholesome” I also hear “staid and boring,” so I can relate to this explanation. On the other hand, Lewis’ attitude towards the Pulitzer might have been skewed because he already had been nominated twice for “Main Street” and “Babbitt” but lost out to “The Age of Innocence” and “One of Ours”. Maybe he was just bitter at that point. In the end, he gladly received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1930.