Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Arrowsmith, 1926 Winner

Sinclair Lewis' Arrowsmith is the tale of one of the easiest characters to dislike that you will read.  This winner of the 1926 Pulitzer Prize for the novel is a great book but most of what I read in blurbs and reviews about the main character being a devoted scientist did not ring true for me.  Rather, Martin Arrowsmith starts out as a child and, 450 pages later, remains so. The story revolves (in his mind so does the universe) around a man who is torn between practicing medicine and investigating the causes of diseases as a research scientist.  The story is somewhat of an homage to Lewis' father and brother and their dedication to the medical profession as well as a satire on the practice of medicine in the late 1800s and early 1900s (I've yet to fully get the "turn of the 20th century" usage straight in my mind).  It is purported to be the first novel that takes up "Science" (that's right, capital "S" Science") and Lewis is masterful.  Along the way, Arrowsmith agonizes over what to study in medical school, he agonizes over which of his fiancees to marry (really), he agonizes over the absence of his wife while she is away at home (but seduces a teenager as a balm for his lonely heart), he agonizes over his practice in rural North Dakota (ok, that's redundant), he agonizes over his research in the big city, he agonizes... you get the picture.  He should become an artist he has so much angst.  He's tiring!

Along the way he is supported unconditionally by his wife Leora.  Leora is considered by those in literature circles ( I assume they gather in circles) as a model of character development.  She is also the focus of feminist critiques, and rightly so.  She is everything Arrowsmith could ask for, given his character, yet he is never satisfied.  He's a child. Does Leora represent his mother, never mentioned in the story, as the taken for granted female figure?  Perhaps, if you want to be kind to Lewis.

Arrowsmith is not a good doctor.  Nor is he really a gifted scientist.  He manages to stumble on discoveries but not due to talent;  He spends time doubting himself than he does thinking and puzzling through scientific problems.  When he chooses to be, he is sedulous.  He perseveres.  That is his sole redeeming quality but one he practices only intermittently.  Or maybe he has Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.  When confronted with his deficiencies as a scientist, he mopes, then quits, then drinks, then mopes again, then returns.  He is a practitioner of what Thomas Kuhn would call "normal science."  Most scientists are.  He is portrayed as much more.  He is not.

One could imagine a discussion of Arrowsmith as representing all of us.  He is a flawed character, no hero, as Lewis writes.  But he is more than flawed.  We are all flawed but we learn from our mistakes, we grow up.  Martin Arrowsmith doesn't learn.  He marries a woman yet devotes none of himself to her once married.  He marries again and does the same.  Why does he continue to want a female companion?  At least his colleagues who marry are honest about their need for a woman to assist them in their professional and social climbing activities.  Abhorrent yes, but honest.  Martin has no such integrity (I know it sounds strange to call the use of women by men in that fashion as integrous but the women are portrayed as opportunist as well. Hmmm, sounds like another topic of a feminist critique--does mutual lack of hypocrisy mitigate otherwise cadish behavior?).  In this regard, the story is much more simplistic. Had Lewis wanted to write about science and medicine, he could have done so without the whiney Arrowsmith as the protagonist.  Had he wanted to write about a whiney man, he could have done so without the gratuitous Latin terms to define bacteria.  Martin Arrowsmith is, as the boys in the film Swingers say about Wayne Gretzky, a whiney bitch. (Great scene of guys playing and old NHL video game.)  Most of us are not.

In the end, most people will enjoy the book because it is written masterfully.  It is a complete book.  A glass of Jim Beam Rye whiskey will aid in the digestion of this book.  Along the way Martin Arrowsmith will join you.

There was a film (awful) of the same name made from the book starring Ronald Coleman and Helen Hayes. It was directed by John Ford--say it an't so!-- but it doesn't resemble the book.  I consider it unremarkable but only because I respect Ford.

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