“He believed that because he was always sincere, his opinions must always be correct.”

The “he” in this instance is Dr. Pickerbaugh, the windbag public health official for whom Martin Arrowsmith now serves as assistant.  Pickerbaugh never misses a chance to write a shockingly bad poem about tuberculosis for the paper, or to demand that the city fathers sponsor “Take Cold Showers Week” to spread the good news of his public health ideas (which seem mostly to amount to old wives’ tales with a thin layer of science spread atop).  He is so thoroughly lampooned that it should seem obvious that Sinclair Lewis wants to draw contrasts for us—the pompous phonyism of Pickerbaugh with the cold medical realism of Arrowsmith; the unnecessarily restrictive morality and excessively judgmental behavior of Pickerbaugh with the sunny openness and air of freedom that surrounds Arrowsmith.  But Martin once again proves able to elude any chance that I might form a high opinion of him.

You see, Pickerbaugh has eight daughters (all named after flowers, even the five year old twins, Arbuta and Gladiola), and the eldest, Orchid, is a charming little flirt, all of nineteen years old, with an eye for a dashing older man (married or not).  And Martin proves as helpless at the wheel of his love life as he did in his college days (where, you may remember, he found himself engaged to two women at once…and decided the best thing to do was to tell them both at the same time over lunch).

It’s not that Martin proves increasingly unfaithful to Leora (without ever actually doing anything) that is really sickening.  It’s that, even when he pulls back from his impulse to “make love” to Orchid (it should be noted that “making love” meant something rather different in the 1920s…more akin to “wooing” or “hitting on”, depending on one’s approach), he does so for thoroughly self-centered reasons.  It’s not that he thinks it would be wrong to treat Leora in such cavalier fashion.  It’s not even that he worries about how she’ll treat him if she finds out.  He just thinks it would be degrading for a man like him to behave this way—essentially, it would damage his fine opinion of himself.  And yes, at times, he thinks of how good and sweet Leora is, and it causes him to pull back from Orchid’s advances….but again, it’s motivated by selfishness.  He thinks maybe he would rather have that first toy, after all, and not this bright new shiny thing.  Martin is appallingly believable as the man who does all the things that make a person feel guilty, and who experiences none of the joys that ought to accompany such guilty actions—this is how Lewis puts it, and it’s fair.  I’m not advocating (Heaven knows!) marital infidelity, but somehow it would be better for his character if he truly loved Orchid—if their furtive conversations and one illicit embrace were a sincere expression of love.  His disloyalty to Leora would then at least march under the flag of passion, an emotion that turns somewhere outside himself.  But Martin seems trapped in the gravity well of his massive (yet strangely fragile) ego.

I don’t know what to make of all this, other than that Lewis seems to want to bring down every aspect of the Midwestern society he describes, like Samson in the temple of the Philistines.  He thinks the men who make up “high society” are ignorant fools, and the men who make up the professional classes are educated fools, and the rest are too vulgar to bother with.  The religious are either frauds or fenced in by their own piety; the irreligious are soulless libertines or else aimless wanderers.  The landscape grows excessively bleak, frankly–it’s being well-written and well realized, I think, but it’s harder and harder to enjoy.  It’s hard to want a bad ending for Martin (who deserves one) but there isn’t much to Martin, if we’re going to have a “redemption” storyline.  And the role of science in all this seems to serve less as a theme and more as a setting—certainly it’s not clear to me how the new science is affecting events, for good or ill, and that’s a shame, since an examination of science in the 1920s would be really intriguing to me.  I’m trying not to blame the book for failing to be what I want out of it…but the book seems disinterested in being much of anything other than a chronicle of human frailty and childishness, and it’s hard not to blame such a book for failing to offer something more, whether an explanation, a justification (however weak), or a cure.

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6 comments on ““He believed that because he was always sincere, his opinions must always be correct.”

  1. graham says:

    It does sound like Lewis is skilled with drawing characters– both men sound unflattered, but believable, from your descriptions.

    • jwrosenzweig says:

      He really is talented. I’ve always meant to read something by him—Babbitt and Elmer Gantry maybe most of all, though Main Street gets good reviews too—and I think I should read more, even if this book continues to depress me a bit. I will note, though (as I did earlier) that his characterizations of minor characters in this novel feel pretty one-dimensional. There’s not a lot of depth to Arrowsmith’s in-laws, and even his wife (a fairly central character) is left a bit basic. I’m not sure he has skill in writing women characters, but I hesitate to draw too many conclusions from half a novel. 🙂

  2. Daniel Castro says:

    Is passion really not a selfish thing? It is the complete disinhibition of ones character, no longer holding yourself to your own rules, taking what you want, when you want it. It just so happens that in this case, it is a person that he wants. People can have passions many things, not just people, hence why I would not be satisfied with saying that passion is not an acceptable representation of non-selfish activity.

    I find your interpretation of his reasoning for NOT having an affair quite striking.
    “He just thinks it would be degrading for a man like him to behave this way—essentially, it would damage his fine opinion of himself.”

    I think that is a really astute observation, and quite compelling.

    • jwrosenzweig says:

      Daniel, I hear you: I may use “passion” a bit too technically. What I mean to say is that passion is, by its nature, an implicit acceptance that you are an incomplete being. In being passionate, you surrender your will to something external to you, because without it life will be somehow emptier. To me, passion can be misguided, wrong-headed….even selfish, yes. But not as self-centered as the man who never lets his emotions out because he is too proud to admit such a grand person could ever want something that badly. But maybe I’m wrong?

      I agree that Lewis is an astute observer of people. It’s why I’m not abandoning hope for this novel that is only intermittently compelling as a plot. I’ve seen people behave like this before (in real life and in literature), but Lewis is doing, I think, an exceptionally good job of showing the character I described. I wonder what it all means, though. 🙂

  3. Diablevert says:

    “I agree that Lewis is an astute observer of people.”

    I concur. But he doesn’t like them much. And one thing he shares with Martin is a fine opinion of himself…one had the feeling that to know Lewis must have been to find him insufferable…

    • jwrosenzweig says:

      Well put. Yes, he does seem increasingly difficult to me—kind of puts his refusal of the Pulitzer Prize into a different light. I’d thought of it as a sort of noble attempt to save art from vulgar taste (given my feelings about the Pulitzer committee’s talents), but it seems increasingly like an arrogant move to me–if it was good enough for Edith Wharton and Willa Cathe, who is Sinclair Lewis to claim it’s beneath him?

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