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.