Joyce Lagow's Reviews > Arrowsmith

Arrowsmith by Sinclair Lewis
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Apr 20, 2010

bookshelves: literature

Arrowsmith[return]Sinclair Lewis[return][return]Pulitzer Prize winner for fiction for 1926.[return][return]Martin Arrowsmith is an idealistic young man born around the turn of the century in the US Midwest who studies medicine but finds that his real love is research, especially into bacteriology. He struggles against the mores and complacency, the veniality of society of his day.[return][return]Unlike the Pulitzer winners of previous years, Arrowsmith is one of the most pretentious, stuffy, humorless and overwrought books I have ever read. The characters are at best stereotypes and most often are merely stick figures so that Lewis can write over-the-top speeches glorifying becoming rich through medicine or business, the shallowness of almost all scientists, tub-thumping promotion of medicine and research fro either self-or institutional aggrandizement, or to expose the frivolity and shallowness of the societal elite of the day. It s been done before and since and it s been done much, much better.[return][return]The tone of the book is shrill harping, with pages of inane speeches or dialogue that is supposed to illustrate the crassness of whatever caricature Lewis is ranting about at the time, whether it be medical students who want nothing more than rich private practices, clownish public health figures who are nothing more than local boosters and who wind up in Congress, stuffy heads of research institutes--you name it, Lewis has the inane dialogue for such a figure--and for pages and pages and pages.[return][return]From time to time--far too infrequently--there are flashes of humor such as the conversations that take place at dinner in the home of Arrowsmith s in-laws. They are incredibly funny, but as with all the other stereotypes, Lewis has either contempt or outright hatred for these figures. The humor is achieved through mockery.[return][return]When he isn t hammering on his figure of his scorn of the moment, he switches to the opposite end of the spectrum to rhapsodize about those terribly Few Pure Men of Science who give up everything for the solitary joys of pure research, absolutely disinterested in any sort of worldly reward. The prototype of the three characters in the book is Gotliebb, a stereotype of a turn-of-the century German Jewish intellectual who cares for nothing or no one but pure research. Gottlieb is a widower who enthralled by his research, never even noticed his wife was dying until she did and then more or less because there was no one to take care of him except his spinster daughter Miriam. He lives in a garret, cares nothing for food or other human beings except for a few European scientists who meet his lofty criteria of Pure Scientific Research.[return][return]Such people never existed--not then and not now. The closest to this impossible stereotype would e the naturalists of the 19th century, who were not research scientists but world travelers in the quest for describing the natural world, aka Wallace and Bates; Darwin had a job.[return][return]The elevation of Science to religion is not a new phenomenon but Lewis is an example of the worst of the breed. His heroes are totally unrealistic. Towards the end, Arrowsmith and his great friend Terry go off into the wilderness--literally--and set up a research lab in a forest near a lake, roughing it, making sera that they sell only to physicians with the purest of motives in oder to survive. It is absolutely unbelievable.[return][return]The only decent section of the book is the description, towards the end, of the outbreak and propagation of a bubonic plague epidemic on a fictional West Indies island. Even then, Lewis gets into Good Guys--a few selfless physicians--Bad Guys--99.999% of the official world, but fortunately that doesn t detract too much from the quite interesting account--until Arrowsmith gets into the act. This section is the only reason I found to rate the book with even a half-star.[return][return]Supposedly Lewis was trying for some spiritual ideal, but if that is the case, like so many others of that type, he descends into what is practically venomous diatribes against the culture he so clearly despises, losing in the process his position of moral superiority (if indeed he ever occupied such a position).[return][return]This shrill, pretentious, preachy and ultimately boring book is one of the worst of any era I have ever read.

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