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.