I know I’ve been away too long—it turns out that break made less time, not more, for reading and blogging. I hope you all had wonderful holidays: personally my Christmas arrived a little too suddenly, but I had a good time and was relaxed when I headed back into school for a quarter that will be much busier and more time-consuming than last quarter. I’ll strive to keep the blog going at some reasonable speed, though!
So, enough about me—Martin Arrowsmith. The above quotation really is the man he is: he wants to do something bold and great. Of course, Martin’s problems are that he’s never quite dedicated enough, he has a little too much self-confidence, and he’s fighting against the stream of public opinion too often. The more I read this novel, the more I believe Lewis really is tapping into the notion of America. Martin is such a good, complex “type”. The scientist whose passion for science ebbs and flows. The doctor who is too proud to worry about not offending people, and yet is irritated that he doesn’t get more respect from his fellow citizens. He can bear hatred, but not scorn or condescension. More than anything, he’s a man who knows that he wants more out of life, but he’s spent most of his life thus far in a futile quest to figure out what that is (though this has been experienced generally as episodes in which he feels absolute certainty about his future, with crises of faith about every three years). Not a bad image of a middle American, middle class, college-educated man, even now. At least it raises questions for me…questions about what our culture’s expectations and our American narrative about ourselves lead us to believe in, and how they lead us to act.
Martin is not a particularly easy character to be around (for his fellow characters, or for me), but he has the great advantage of self-awareness. When he finally leaves his Podunk small town doctor’s job for a big-city public health position, his boss, Dr. Pickerbaugh, pushes all Martin’s buttons (Pickerbaugh’s a tee-totaling, Sunday School teaching, windbag)—and Martin, chafing at all this, turns to his wife and says “Oh, Leora, am I going to be a sour, cranky, unpopular, rotten failure again?”
There’s a poignancy in that “again”, a recognition that, in a sense, all his life he’s been the one holding himself back. I like that about Martin. It makes me believe in the possibility of his redemption, even if I think that’s unlikely given where the plot seems to be going. I think Martin’s cycle of hubris and failure is much more likely to end in disaster than in triumph—that seems to be the story Sinclair Lewis wants to tell, and I can’t blame him.
I do wonder about Martin’s choice, though. Once he realized what a mess he’d made of his public image in Wheatsylvania (the aforementioned Podunk town), he decides it’s better to leave town and start over. Essentially, he thinks it’s easier to be the man he wants to be by wiping the slate clean, rather than working to win over a town that had lost some of its confidence in him. Do you think that’s a good attitude in real life—that it is generally advisable to bail out of a situation where it may take months/years to rebuild people’s confidence in you? Or is that running away from your problems without ever truly facing them? I’m curious.