“So did Martin stumble into respectability.”

The central character (though by now it’s obvious this is more than his story) of Martin Arrowsmith is at last settling down with his wife to be a small town doctor in “Wheatsylvania”, where her disapproving family is willing to put up the necessary cash for him to get an office and a car to make house calls.  He is, indeed, “stumbling” towards respectability—a few more late night poker games and drinking sessions with his buddies may well end that trend, of course—but he seems strangely adrift.  He keeps going to visit doctors in nearby towns, hoping to get some perspective or wisdom from them.  He invariably leaves them feeling angry and sensing their condescension to him.  And I’m having trouble working out why this matters.

I’ve been positive about Sinclair Lewis, and rightly so: there’s a lot to like about him.  But the book is starting to seem like a novel that’s so busy “seeing through” people’s facades that it won’t take the time to see them for what they are.  It’s like a freshman’s literary criticism essay—just knowledgeable enough about criticism to think it should be used to dissect everything in sight, but without the necessary judgment required to sense what’s appropriate.  Lewis attacks small town values, soulless corporate America, academics who are detached from reality, the egotism of the educated elites…I’m not sure what’s left.  And the novel gets so busy tearing things down that I don’t think he’s doing enough to build up my connection to the characters.  Leora Arrowsmith (nee Tozer) is the love of Martin’s life and a very good woman, but I’m beginning to feel as though I like a Leora I’m able to imagine, more than liking a Leora that Lewis has presented me with.  And the “villains” in this piece—Leora’s family, for starters—are not human enough.  I want him to use his powers of description and perception to give Martin antagonists who are well-rounded, and not caricatures.  Perhaps the novel’s intended to leave them thin and undeveloped, as satirical foils rather than as real people.  But if so, I think he aims for less than he was capable of.

And Lewis may be falling into the Tarkington trap of biting off more than he can chew.  There are now at least two plots, as we follow Martin’s disgraced former professor, Dr. Max Gottlieb, through unemployment and the troubles of employment in the big pharmaceutical industries.  Gottlieb’s daughter may also be a character of importance (her brief appearances suggest so), but it’s not entirely clear.

What is clear, though, is that Lewis is a modern writer in the way that Tarkington was not—this won’t be The Magnificent Ambersons all over again for several reasons.  Lewis dares to take on the real prejudices of his contemporaries…much of the Gottlieb plotline is an exploration of anti-Semitism (whether open or veiled).  And Lewis creates a realistic world in which characters can (and do) connect with each other in rational ways.  I’m just worried that, as we’ve exited the confines of university life, Lewis is a bit at a loss regarding where he wants to go with this.  I guess we’ll see.

And lingering in my head is the question of whether Lewis is right about America.  Are we really the incurious, ill-educated people he makes us out to be?  Are the middle class really so anti-scientific, and are the scientists really so anti-middle class?  Is everything about money and influence (which can be used to gain money) in the end?  I don’t know.  I can get in those moods about America, myself, but I wonder if Lewis isn’t overplaying his hand on these criticisms—the country has more to recommend it than vast natural resources and a sense of humor, or at least I’d like to think so.

Poetry Friday: Special Christmas Edition

I’ve been good about sticking to chronological sequence, but it’s Christmas Day, which would seem to present an opportunity to choose something topical (without worrying about which year it was published in).  Also, a few of you asked me if I was sharing my own poetry—seeming to suggest that you’d be interested.  And so when I recalled having written this poem, I decided to post it.  I wrote it more than a decade ago, I think, and I wouldn’t call it a good example of my poetry at its best.  But I think it’s as good a Christmas poem as I’ve written, and hopefully good enough at least to be of interest to you–if it doesn’t work for you, or you think it can be improved, you’re welcome to say so!  But I hope you enjoy at least a line or two—in honor of the holiday, this is “Looking Down From Mt. Nebo”:

The new sun was just climbing the peaks
Of Jordan, looking from where Moses once
Cried for a nation that inherited the promise
He had lost.

It pulled to waking the hearts of a people who
Cried out “come, come” to a God who was
With them unknown, and who cried too
In the morning.

The light ran across the cold fields ahead of
The wise, spilling the news of their coming with
Gold that paved the road to Egypt, the land that
Raised the deliverer.

It wrapped in comfort the folds of Bethlehem plain;
Moaning sheep who had no shepherd to keep watch,
Having lost their caregiver to the townsmen below—
The ones who shunned the shepherd

And his wild words of a calling from the sky that
Spoke of promises—promises that had gone too long unthought
For the people to trust, so they ignored him and cried out again,
Not knowing what they lost.

“I’m not making any excuses for myself. I couldn’t help it. I’m engaged to both of you.”

Few of us, I imagine, would conduct our love lives in so cavalier a fashion as to leave ourselves engaged to two people at the same time.  Fewer of us still would decide that such an arrangement was unimportant to remedy over the course of several weeks.  Perhaps almost none of us would adopt the Martin Arrowsmith approach (admittedly, whiskey-inspired and somewhat whiskey-fueled) of inviting both our fiancees to dinner at the Grand Hotel in order to spring the news on them both.  It is a tribute to Sinclair Lewis’s writing that this absolutely absurd turn of events seems entirely realistic, given Martin’s great difficulties in running his own life.  It is a mark of great patience (and perhaps real foolishness) that one of the two young women decides Martin’s worth keeping, as long as he doesn’t get engaged to anyone else—hence, we see Madeline Fox (previously mentioned) exit the stage, and young Leora Tozer, a nursing student and daughter of a very dour North Dakotan farmer, enter the limelight.

Again, Lewis is to be commended for making these decisions seem reasonable.  Leora is sweet, somewhat in awe of the brilliant future doctor, fearless in her devotion, and tireless in her ability to keep pace with Martin as he stumbles about in search of a course for his life to take.  Their relationship feels very real—more real, I think, than those I’ve read in previous Pulitzer novels—in large part because it is so little about “romance” or what the movies would have us think of as “love”, and so much about the quieter emotions and characteristics (like patience, or the ability to anticipate and provide for each others’ needs) that are emblematic of the relationships I’ve seen.

And as Leora takes a larger role in Martin’s life, her influence is seen everywhere.  When she leaves for North Dakota, Martin’s studies suffer—he has a falling-out with his hero, Dr. Gottlieb, and he launches himself out of school by cursing out the Dean of Medicine (again, whiskey-fueled).  He descends into alcoholism, drifting from one town to the next, riding the rails, picking up work where he can.  Until he has a moment of clarity—a moment in which he realizes that all may not be lost—and goes to Leora’s side.  It’s not an easy path from there.  Winning over the Tozer family is nigh impossible (Casanova would have an easier time trying to smooth-talk a village of New England Puritans), but he manages to win back hope.  Hope of married life alongside Leora, and therefore he returns to university, where the kindly Dean is willing to restore his place in the school and guide his future to some better end.

Lewis is normally an acidic satirist, or at least such is his reputation.  What’s he doing in this relatively upbeat story, in which good has a second chance to triumph?  A few thoughts, right now, occur to me.  First of all, Martin is by no means a “virtuous” man: whether we consider his cold casting away of Dr. Gottlieb (even after returning to school, he won’t speak to his former mentor) or his propensity to drown his sorrows in alcohol, the fellow shows the warning signs of someone who can colossally destroy his own life with great aplomb.  Second of all, it’s early yet—perhaps 1/4 of the way through the novel—and I imagine we haven’t yet encountered all the possibilities for this plot.

And underneath it all, I wonder if Martin isn’t a sort of satire on America as a whole.  He’s bright enough, with enough resources at his disposal to be a success, but he can’t focus.  He’s increasingly willing to behave recklessly, and seems to imagine that no confrontation, however awful, can end badly for him (in the two fiancee dinner, he’d expected them to protest their love for him fiercely as a competition to see who would “win” him in the end).  His success, ultimately, is due to his willingness to work hard for material reward—initially, to get Leora by his side (nudge, nudge), and subsequently to make enough cash for them to settle down very comfortably.  He envies the rich (like his old friend Clif) despite the fact that, if he noticed what the narrator does, he’d see Clif spends big and dresses well, but lives in a crummy boarding house and has to borrow money.  He is content to put on the trappings of religion and propriety to win over a woman’s heart, but nothing is more central to him than his work, and the chance to be a “success”, and his own happiness.  There’s seemingly no wrong turn he can make that cannot be rationalized as a much-needed opportunity to “blow off a little steam”.  I would not be at all surprised if Martin’s course through life is relatively fortunate while Lewis, the whole way, uses him to dig quietly at what Americans do to the world.  I might be making too much of this idea, but I’m not sure—here’s Lewis’s description of Martin as he falls in “love” with Madeline, before Leora enters the scene:

“It cannot be said, in this biography of a young man who was in no degree a hero, who regarded himself as a seeker after truth yet who stumbled and slid back all his life and bogged himself in every obvious morass, that Martin’s intentions towards Madeline Fox were what is called ‘honorable’.  He was not a Don Juan, but he was a poor medical student who would have to wait years before he could make a living.  Certainly he did not think of proposing marriage.  He wanted—like most poor and ardent young men in such a case, he wanted all he could get.”

There are many things that Sinclair Lewis might intend by this sort of talk.  But I see America in there, lurking…I wonder if others do too?

I like the book.  It’s uneven at times, but not badly enough to make me worried.  I know I’m not reading Lewis’s best book—there’s a reason this made it past the Pulitzer board while his other novels didn’t…it’s tamer, it’s milder, it is willing not to ruffle as many feathers.  But there’s something edgy in here, and I’m interested to see where it goes.  Martin’s no hero—Lewis is right about that—but like Wharton’s Newland Archer, he’s alive to me, and I wonder what he’s going to do next.

Poetry Friday: 1926 (part 2)

Another of the country’s great poets bursts onto the stage in 1926: with his first published collection, Langston Hughes establishes himself as one of the chief voices of the Harlem Renaissance.  From that c0llection, today I offer you “Mother to Son”:

Well, son, I’ll tell you:
Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.
It’s had tacks in it,
And splinters,
And boards torn up,
And places with no carpet on the floor—
But all the time
I’se been a-climbin’ on,
And reachin’ landin’s,
And turnin’ corners,
And sometimes goin’ in the dark
Where there ain’t been no light.
So, boy, don’t you turn back.
Don’t you set down on the steps.
‘Cause you finds it’s kinder hard.
Don’t you fall now—
For I’se still goin’, honey,
I’se still climbin’,
And life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.

“Martin turned on her with fury, statistics, vituperation, religious zeal, and confused metaphors.”

It sounds like some conversations I’ve had.  Martin, our hero, is here defending his professor, Max Gottlieb, and the study of science against his humanities-loving friend, Madeline Fox (with whom he is falling in…love? he thinks so, at least).  That kind of sentence is exactly why Sinclair Lewis is catching and holding my attention, and that kind of scenario is why this book is intriguing me.  Unlike most of what I’ve read so far, it’s set in a very artificial environment–the college described in my previous post–and it’s dealing with matters I haven’t yet seen explored (most importantly, science in the early 20th Century).  Lewis is a great writer, with a talent for intriguing turns of phrase to rival Wharton.  This book isn’t exactly satire, but it keeps catching me off-guard, alternating between jabbing me with humor and luring me in with the very real and imperfect character of the aspiring scientist, Martin Arrowsmith, whose worship of (and devotion to) Max Gottlieb is not limited to his conversation with Madeline Fox.  I love the interactions between their characters–to give you more of a taste of Lewis’s writing, and to show you what talking to Dr. Gottlieb is really like, here’s a lengthy excerpt from their first conversation:

“Professor Gottlieb, my name is Arrowsmith I’m a medic freshman, Winnemac B. A.  I’d like awfully to take bacteriology this fall instead of next year.  I’ve had a lot of chemistry—”

“No.  It is not time for you.”

“Honest, I know I could do it now.”

“There are two kinds of students that the gods give me.  One kind they dump on me like a bushel of potatoes.  I do not like potatoes, and the potatoes they do not ever seem to have great affection for me, but I take them and I teach them to kill patients.  The other kind—they are very few!—they seem for some reason that is not at all clear to me to wish a liddle bit to become scientists, to work with bugs and make mistakes.  Those, ah, those, I seize them, I denounce them, I teach them right away the ultimate lesson of science, which is to wait and doubt.  Of the potatoes, I demand nothing; of the foolish ones like you, who think I could teach them something, I demand everything.  No.  You are too young.  Come back next year.”

This is Gottlieb in, frankly, a relatively good mood.  But the relationship that Lewis sets up here is fantastic—adversarial, slightly respectful, but valuing “the work” above all else.  Arrowsmith will earn Gottlieb’s trust, but slowly: by the time it’s clear he has that trust, it really feels genuine.  I like that Lewis enjoys these characters enough to make them eccentric yet real, and to give them time enough to interact with each other.  And I’m intrigued at an exploration of what it means to study science (which Gottlieb says is un-American—that Americans do not value it….and I have to say there’s some truth in that) in the context of the early 20th Century, a time when humans were convincing themselves that no bacterium could stop them, and that science would soon understand all things.  This book has my attention: I hope it takes me somewhere worthwhile (and I suspect it will).

A side note–picking out the right quotation for the “headline” of these posts is an interesting challenge.  I want it to be relatively brief, and either to grab your attention or to communicate in some way where I think the author’s headed.  Lewis is full of these little moments, though–the challenge isn’t finding a headline, but picking one out of dozens of possibilities.  I want to quote half the sentences I’ve read so far to you—this is a book I’d really like someone (more than one of you, ideally) to read too, since I think you’ll enjoy it, and we’ll have things to talk about—but I can’t do that.  I will, though, give you the two sentences I wanted badly to use as headlines, yet ultimately rejected.  I’m hoping one of them makes you want to read the book.  Here they are:

“Professor Max Gottlieb was about to assassinate a guinea pig with anthrax germs, and the bacteriology class were nervous.”

and, even better, I think:

“The real excitement during Freshman year was the incident of Cliff Clawson and the pancreas.”

It may not be his most famous book, but I think Sinclair Lewis is pulling out the stops to make this a novel to remember (and to quote from liberally), so I hope you’ll consider ending the year alongside me, as we see where the ride takes us.

Poetry Friday: 1926

It’s a busy day, as the due dates for final assignments loom large, but I couldn’t leave you without a poem (all three of you who look for poems faithfully every Friday).  In 1926, e. e. cummings published a collection entitled is 5. It’s allegedly influenced by his experiences as an ambulance driver in the Great War.  I’m not sure.  So read the following with me, and offer your opinion in the comments of what it is he’s trying to say.  Like almost all of cummings’ poetry, it has no title, and is referred to simply by its first line:

since feeling is first
who pays any attention
to the syntax of things
will never wholly kiss you;
wholly to be a fool
while Spring is in the world

my blood approves,
and kisses are a better fate
than wisdom
lady i swear by all flowers. Don’t cry
—the best gesture of my brain is less than
your eyelids’ flutter which says

we are for each other: then
laugh, leaning back in my arms
for life’s not a paragraph

And death i think is no parenthesis

Another aside—this time, about William Faulkner

As I was reading about the Nobel award ceremony, I followed a link supplied by a blogger (James Fallows of the Atlantic Monthly…I read several of the Atlantic’s bloggers, Fallows less often than I should) to what he claimed was the only memorable speech in Nobel laureate history.

He may be right, though it wasn’t famous enough for me to recognize it—it’s William Faulkner’s speech from 1949, and it’s extraordinary.  It’s incredibly brief, but that’s no bad thing: it has the pacing and rhetorical style to make it very memorable, a sort of “Gettysburg Address” about the power of literature.  If you’ve never read it, I’d encourage you to; the Nobel committee makes the text (and an audio file) available to you here.

The speech begins with the following sentence:

“I feel that this award was not made to me as a man, but to my work – a life’s work in the agony and sweat of the human spirit, not for glory and least of all for profit, but to create out of the materials of the human spirit something which did not exist before.”

If that doesn’t make you want to read the whole speech, I don’t know what could.  I’ve never in my life wanted to read Faulkner, based on everything I ever heard about him (he always sounded like a pretentious snob who wrote intentionally obscure novels to bedevil literature majors into thinking themselves erudite for studying them….you know, someone like James Joyce).  And now I can’t wait to read whatever Faulkner novel won the Pulitzer….and might just cheat and read something else by him before I get to his Pulitzer novel.  “To create out of the materials of the human spirit something which did not exist before.”  Not bad words to live by; maybe suitable words to die in service to.  My thanks to James Fallows, and to William Faulkner, for that shot of inspiration today.