“The driver of the wagon swaying through forest and swamp of the Ohio wilderness was a ragged girl of fourteen.”

Thus begins the novel selected for the 1926 Pulitzer Prize: Arrowsmith, by Sinclair Lewis.  And it’s a beginning that threatens to make me feel weary…I know it’s America’s heartland, but after Willa Cather’s prairie life (interesting, if stifling), Margaret Wilson’s prairie life (soul-crushingly awful, at its best), and the farms of Edna Ferber (sketched a bit hastily, and less isolated), I don’t think I can take a novel that begins with the ragged teenage girl guiding her wagon to her homestead.  Luckily, though, she’s around for all of two paragraphs when the narrator flies forward almost a century, noting off-hand that the girl is the great-grandmother of our real protagonist, Martin Arrowsmith.

Martin’s a doctor (or at least a doctor-in-training) in a small town called Elk Mills in the fictitious state of Winnemac, which apparently is intended to stand in for the “civilized Midwest” (small town Ohio/Indiana/Wisconsin/etc.).  I’m not far in, and already I can tell that Sinclair Lewis earns his reputation for biting wit and sarcasm…this is the man whose novel Main Street was edgy enough that, even though the Pulitzer jury recommended it for the prize in 1921, the board refused to issue the award to him, preferring instead The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton (I haven’t read Main Street, but given how much I loved Wharton’s book, I’m not sure the board didn’t get it right, in spite of themselves).  I’ve heard of Babbitt and Elmer Gantry for a long time, but I’ve never read any Sinclair Lewis until now.  For a taste of his keen jabs at middle America and its values, here’s his description of the University of Winnemac (a big state school):

The University has a baseball field under glass; its buildings are measured by the mile; it hires hundreds of young Doctors of Philosophy to give rapid instruction in Sanskrit, navigation, accountancy, spectacle-fitting, sanitary engineering, Provencal poetry, tariff schedules, rutabaga-growing, motor-car designing, the history of Voronezh, the style of Matthew Arnold, the diagnosis of myohypertrophia kymoparalytica, and department-store advertising.  Its president is the best money-raiser and the best after-dinner speaker in the United States; and Winnemac was the first school in the world to conduct its extension courses by radio.

It is not a snobbish rich-man’s college, devoted to leisurely nonsense.  It is the property of the people of the state, and what they want—or what they are told they want—is a mill to turn out men and women who will lead moral lives, play bridge, drive good cars, be enterprising in business, and occasionally mention books, though they are not expected to have time to read them.  It is a Ford Motor Factory, and if its products rattle a little, they are beautifully standardized, with perfectly interchangeable parts.  Hourly the University of Winnemac grows in numbers and influence, and by 1950 one may expect it to have created an entirely new world-civilization, a civilization larger and brisker and purer.

Remember, this is 1926…we’re still a long ways from Malvina Reynolds writing “Little Boxes” and Tom Lehrer belting out “Fight Fiercely, Harvard”.  There certainly was a counterculture in the 1920s, but it’s still impressive to realize it was this mainstream.  I do want to note, though, that Sinclair Lewis refused to accept the Pulitzer for this novel.  I don’t know exactly why (principled opposition to the concept of the prize? a sour reaction to their having snubbed Main Street?), but I’ll find out and share it with you soon enough.  In the meantime, it’s an interesting book, and I’m curious to see where Martin Arrowsmith goes, and what he does.


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