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.