Sinclair Lewis and the Pulitzer Prize

One last thought on Arrowsmith: I never really commented on the fact that Sinclair Lewis refused to accept the Pulitzer for this book—the only novelist in the history of the award to refuse the honor.  Apparently he was so offended that previous novels of his (particularly Main Street) had been snubbed that he’d planned for years to write a scathing public letter refusing it (for these details I rely, as I have before, on W. J. Stuckey’s The Pulitzer Prize Novels).  He told his publisher that he intended to produce “a polite but firm letter which I shall let the press have, and which ought to make it impossible for anyone ever to accept the novel prize…thereafter without acknowledging themselves as willing to sell out.”  A bold move—he wrote such a letter, and sent it to dozens of publications, and to a list of about a hundred authors he considered sufficiently important (among them Willa Cather, Carl Sandburg, Sherwood Anderson, etc.).  It’s not hard to understand Lewis’s disdain for the taste of the Pulitzer board, though I have to say, to suggest that only sellouts would accept such a prize is a bit egocentric, given that some of his generation’s most celebrated writers (Edith Wharton, Booth Tarkington, Willa Cather) had accepted it graciously.

And, frankly, I’d thought it an admirably honest and principled move when I initially read about it, before I’d read the novel.  But it’s hard not to see it as a bit absurd, in retrospect.  Denouncing a prize over sour grapes for having been denied in the past is a bit too much, especially as his anger stems primarily from the decision in 1921 not to award the prize to Main Street.  Who won instead?  Edith Wharton for The Age of Innocence.  I’ll admit, I haven’t read Main Street.  But to suggest that picking Wharton’s novel is a travesty of such grand proportions that it justifies not just refusing the prize, but refusing it as publicly as possible, with letters sent pointedly to authors (at least one of them a previous recipient of the prize) suggesting they should join in the boycott, is an act of tremendous egotism.

The really ironic thing about all this, of course, is that Lewis proudly rejects the 1926 Pulitzer Prize….which recognizes the best novel published in 1925.  Arrowsmith wasn’t the only novel published that year, of course—another writer also tells a story of a Midwesterner who came to New York following a personal dream, and found something unexpected.  That writer, F. Scott Fitzgerald, may have written the best American novel of the 20th Century, The Great Gatsby.  So Lewis’s proud refusal, in retrospect, feels a bit like Adam Sandler rejecting a Best Actor Oscar as “an award unworthy of his talent” while Laurence Olivier sits in the audience wishing he’d been nominated.  But maybe that’s just me.

1926: Arrowsmith, by Sinclair Lewis

Literary Merit:

It’s hard to know how to assess the book as a whole.  It ends in a strange fashion—the final page, in particular, seems to make it clear that there are only two possible interpretations to the book.  Either Sinclair Lewis intends us to think Martin a heroic figure in comparison with all around him, or else Martin is as deluded and incompetent as everyone else we’ve met.  And Martin’s position, at the end of the novel, is so strange—he has so fully abdicated responsibility, behaved childishly, and gone off chasing the wildest of geese—that it’s hard to muster up much support for the first of those interpretations.

Which leaves me with the belief that the whole of the novel is designed to cut satirically at Americans, particularly scientists (and those who reject science), the upper class (and the rural hicks), overly masculine men (and overly feminine women…and overly feminine men and overly masculine women), the political movers-and-shakers (and the apathetic), and the excessively introverted (not to mention the excessively extroverted).  There are perhaps some passes to hand out: I think, for instance, that Lewis genuinely cares about Leora Tozer Arrowsmith (though he certainly makes a fool of her at times), and possibly one or two of Martin’s scientist heroes (Gustav Sondelius and Max Gottlieb come closest, though both have real failings, especially Gottlieb, that make them ridiculous at times).  It is hard to find yourself at the end of the novel, alone on a great height next to Sinclair Lewis, looking down on the whole of American society.  He’s skillfully laid our foibles open to the world…but without offering hope, or a sense that there is a path forward.  It is a lonely height.

I don’t want to give the sense that Lewis is a Tarkington in satirical clothing.  He writes a more engaging story, he chooses a much more interesting central character, and he finds a good broad theme (modern science) to explore.  There is some good dialogue, and some really vivid writing about setting in short bursts (specifically, the university at the beginning of the book, and the Caribbean island at the end).  The book became a very slow read, but never a painful one.  That’s the main credit and criticism I have to offer: Lewis provides a novel which consistently communicates to the reader his talent.  But he also provides a novel that fails to engage, since there is no real plot—only a series of events that will allow him to reveal the blunders and weaknesses of everyone involved.  He “ends” the novel, but there’s no reason for it to be an end…Martin has made a drastic decision, yes, but no more thoughtfully than any of his other drastic decisions, and there’s no reason to believe his chain-reaction train-wreck of a career will stop at this particular station.  If Lewis wants me to think Martin has “grown” or “changed” in any significant way at the end of the book, I don’t think he’s done enough to convince me of the fact.

So, Sinclair Lewis is a writer with talent.  He has all of the tools he ought to have, but he lacks creative purpose.  Oh, there’s a destructive purpose at work here, no doubt—clearly he wanted to “have a go” at a lot of people, and he gets his way.  But there is nothing about the book that provides a window to climb out of…a path that would have led us back out of the pit.  Even his most admirable characters, Leora most notably, have no real advice to offer—they are as content with the wretched state of affairs as anyone else is, and almost as responsible for it.  And I suppose this is the limit of his talent…he is not good enough to read for the beauty of his writing.  I suppose the comments I’ve made above could all apply to his contemporary, F. Scott Fitzgerald, in his famous novel, The Great Gatsby.  And yet Fitzgerald’s art redeems itself by being beautiful…and more importantly, because Nick (the narrator) shows us truth in spite of himself, in spite of his own desperate faults.  But no one in Arrowsmith is clear-sighted enough to do this for us…there is no larger world to explore, but only a never-ending sequence of petty bureaucrats and petty society folk and petty homesteading farmers, locked in a death spiral of selfishness that does not even descend rapidly enough to dazzle us.

Historical Insight:

I’ll certainly give Lewis credit for digging into his subject.  I’d never thought much about life in the medical sciences at the moment that things like antibiotics were being discovered and tested—it’s a neat setting, and to the extent that Lewis describes it, it’s pretty interesting.  Lewis shows a lot of the “corporatizing” of science, too, and that’s worthwhile.  I think he gives the War and Prohibition too glancing a look, but no novel can encompass everything.  And it’s certainly a good novel for getting into the head of these Roaring 20’s intellectuals who think they can look down on their entire society…Lewis isn’t Jay Gatsby, but it’s not impossible to see him at the edge of one of those parties, looking down his nose at everyone, sneering along with Owl Eyes at Gatsby’s remarkable commitment to being an authentic phony.  I can get some worthwhile insight into the 1920s from this novel—not as much as I’d want, but enough to make it a strength of the book.


I give Arrowsmith the rating “Maybe, for those already interested”.  If the basic description of the book—a satirical novel by Sinclair Lewis about a young doctor and scientist in the 1910s and 1920s—is interesting to you on the face of it, because you already have enjoyed one of Lewis’s novels, or because the setting is intriguing, I don’t think you’ll regret reading the book.  It may struggle to hold your interest a bit, but then again, maybe not.  But the book doesn’t transcend that brief description at all…unlike a novel such as Pride and Prejudice, whose charms powerfully reach many people who wouldn’t have thought they were interested in the romantic troubles of a family of girls in Regency England (count me among this crowd).  And let’s emphasize that “maybe”, since I’d have told you I was interested in Arrowsmith based on that description, and in all honesty, I’m not sure I’m glad I read it.  I got some good things out of this novel, but somehow it never felt like quite enough.

The Last Word:

As is customary, I allow Sinclair Lewis and his characters the parting shot—this moment at the end of the book involves a particularly intense conversation between Martin Arrowsmith and his wife.  Martin’s thinking of going off to work in a laboratory his friend, Wickett, has built out in the woods, away from civilization.  And his wife objects:

‘Look here, Mart.  You feel so virtuous about wanting to go off and wear a flannel shirt, and be peculiar and very pure.  Suppose everybody argued that way.  Suppose every father deserted his children whenever his nice little soul ached?  Just what would become of the world?  Suppose I were poor, and you left me, and I had to support John by taking in washing–‘

‘It’d probably be fine for you but fierce on the washing!  No!  I beg your pardon.  That was an obvious answer.  But— I imagine it’s just that argument that’s kept almost everybody, all these centuries, from being anything but a machine for digestion and propagation and obedience.  The answer is that very few ever do, under any condition, willingly leave a soft bed for a shanty bunk in order to be pure, as you very properly call it, and those of us that are pioneers— Oh, this debate could go on forever!  We could prove that I’m a hero or a fool or a deserter or anything you like, but the fact is that I’ve suddenly seen I must go!  I want my freedom to work, and I herewith quit whining about it and grab it.  You’ve been generous to me.  I’m grateful.  But you’ve never been mine.  Good-by.’

“I wish people wouldn’t keep showing me how much I don’t know!”

This is a difficult book to reach a settled opinion about.  (And yes, I know I ended that with a preposition.  First of all, that’s not really a rule of English grammar.  And second of all, “This is a difficult book about which to reach a settled opinion” sounded pretty pompous to me.  Although maybe I tend to be pompous, regardless.  But I digress…)

Lewis, in one sense, finally gets a hold of the book he wanted to write.  Martin’s ability to recognize the bigness and unknowability of the world (as evidenced by the quotation above) is commendable, given how difficult that has been for him to accept, previously.  The story takes an enormous turn as Martin’s work on phages (the work he failed to publish in time to become famous) becomes practically important.  We zoom suddenly away from the U.S. to the Carribbean island of St. Hubert, where the plague has broken out, and Martin is needed.  Lewis bursts into life—the exotic setting forces him to write some really beautiful stuff to help us imagine it.  The politics on the island are somewhat complicated, and he creates some characters with at least a bit of depth.  Martin’s position is complicated by the twin needs of salvation from plague and rigorous experimental design.  And his position is further complicated by medical professionals on both sides of the issue, as well as Leora, who has accompanied him to St. Hubert for no very good reason, and who is forgotten by the plot too often, but who still plays a memorable role.  There’s a nifty little story here—the tensions between human needs and scientific methods, the passing of an old order and the arising of a new one.  It makes me wish Sinclair hadn’t drudged through a 350 page prologue to the short story he really wanted to write, since almost none of the background really matters to the story told on St. Hubert, and what little does play a role feels a bit forced.  I can’t deny it’s been fun to read this book again, but it throws in somewhat sharp relief the dullness of much of what has transpired previously.

I don’t want to give away too much, since the end of the book is nearing.  Suffice it to say that more than one character of some personal importance to Martin dies in this experience, and Martin rightly or wrongly feels a personal responsibility.  I like the depth this forces out of him–his depression at his own failures is intense but totally consistent with the situation.  It has, however, almost nothing to do with who he has been, and what he has done.  I feel I can see a few threads tying the novel together, but as a whole it feels like a failure of purpose and vision.  Lewis had the character of Martin Arrowsmith but not the sense of why his story needed to be told.  He had some images of the life his character lived, but not a way to make the experience urgent and real.  I have a little to finish here, and I hope it finishes strong.  But the review I post (which will be my next post on the novel) will almost inevitably be an exploration of why a good novelist, with a good central character and a decent idea for a setting/theme, can somehow still fail to deliver a successful and rewarding reading experience.  We’ll see.

“He was so absorbed in staphylolysin and in calculus that he did not realize the world was about to be made safe for democracy.”

I just can’t figure Sinclair Lewis out.  Skill with dialogue?  Yes, I think so.  Ability to write a convincing and engaging character?  We have one example: Martin Arrowsmith.  Edgy ability to see the culture and society in interesting ways?  Absolutely…look at my early posts on this novel for more on this.  An interesting setting?  A great one, really—the changing world for scientists and medical professionals over a fairly critical decade in which huge amounts of progress are realized.  So why is this novel becoming an absolute chore?

I think it’s that he has no idea where to go with it.  The most recent section sees Martin break the cycle (finally!) he’s been going through since he was a teenager.  Just when he gets a bit irritated and is about to rebel against his job as a research scientist (as he has many times before), the stars align.  Gottlieb and Wickett take him under their wing, and teach him the mathematical tools he needs to do some “real” science.  The war arrives, giving him a fancy uniform and a certain amount of responsibility (though also a drudge of a task mass-producing certain things in the lab for the war effort).  And he has a delightful accidental discovery—something that invigorates his interest in science.  He experiments and believes it may not be a fluke.  Gradually he takes more and more people into his confidence—his boss is thrilled at the possibility that a real leap forward will occur.  He’s promised a position of importance, a huge salary increase, fame and fortune.  But Martin gets a bit too worried that he’ll publish something incomplete and look foolish.  So he delays, doing more and more experimentation to make sure he’s covered all his bases.  And because of this, a Frenchman publishes the same discovery first.  Martin’s work is instantly unimportant.  His bosses simply abandon all their plans for him, relegating him to the shadows again, a simple “lab grunt” doing repetitive and unchallenging work.

Why go through all this?  Are some scientists over-cautious?  Yes, I suppose so, but Martin hasn’t shown much sign of it before.  In many ways, all of these actions are Martin bucking his personal trends—choosing to respect the expertise of his “elders” rather than turn proudly away from it, choosing to be patient and see what can come of his dedication, choosing not to run away from hardships but to work through them.  And the net result is nothing different than what he’s achieved the other way.  So what is this?  A nihilist fable?  Lewis isn’t writing that—he’s not Kafka, he’s not Sartre or Camus.  He doesn’t have their eye for situation, or their interest in laying the human condition bare.  And he’s not writing a delicate little novel that isn’t interested in plot: as I’ve mentioned before, most of the characters are left a bit thin (in part by Martin’s itinerant lifestyle), most of the settings aren’t carefully evoked (again, Martin’s wanderings mean most of these towns never come to life as places, even cities like Chicago that ought to leap off the page).  None of that would matter in a novel where the critically important thing was Martin and his personal struggle against…against something.  But that’s the very thing he makes ridiculous by his toying with Martin and his dreams.

I think one of my real struggles is that I do tend to be a reader who likes novels with a character I identify with and like.  I do tend to like novels that send a positive message, whether overt or subliminal.  These are not the only kind of novels to read, or write, for that matter.  But I know I’ve branched out also—that I’ve enjoyed novels that aren’t “traditional” in this way.  And I think even the novels I don’t enjoy, I can at least understand how they work.  I don’t think this is one of those.  But it’s not a novel that’s fun to bash (like those wretched Mclaughlins), or one that’s easy to pick apart (like those unenjoyable Ambersons).  I can’t imagine where it’s ending—we’ll see if these last 100 pages (a long, difficult road to walk lies in front of me) help rehabilitate the book.

“Doesn’t anybody ever learn anything? Must I watch myself and still be a fool, all my life? Doesn’t any story ever end?”

I think there’s always a danger in putting a phrase like “Doesn’t any story ever end” in a story.  The possibility that a reader will shout “I’ve been wondering that, myself” is just a little too great.  That’s certainly where I was, at the point that Martin Arrowsmith voiced these concerns.  Lewis doesn’t seem to know how to pick up speed—the narrative has, at this point (about 2/3 of the way through the book) run through no less than 5 occasions in which Martin believes he’s found his true passion, throws himself into the work, finds himself not quite up to the task intellectually and not quite comfortable socially, grows irritated at the people who hired him in the first place, and precipitates some kind of dramatic “break” because he suddenly has life all figured out.  I think Lewis needed to find a way to portray a character stuck in a rut that did not necessitate the reader’s being stuck in the rut with him.  By the fifth time this occurs, Leora’s ‘well, I guess it’s time to pack’ feels comic, almost farcical—but the rest of the novel doesn’t really support that idea, so I don’t think Lewis intends me to be laughing uproariously at the misadventures of sadsack Martin Arrowsmith.  I just think he feels Martin’s a bit more interesting than he really is.

Granted, things seem finally to be clearing up a bit—he’s back with Gottlieb, so at least if he wants to have a disastrous break with his superior this time, we’ll have to tread some new emotional ground.  We’ve gradually crawled up from Wheatsylvania through Nautilus to Chicago (which was, frankly, dealt with so breezily and with such little detail that Lewis seemed pretty lazy in that chapter), and now, at last, New York.  Nowhere “up” to go to now, really—Arrowsmith either has to make this work, or accept that he’s not the man he wants to be, settle for what he can actually handle, and grow old and mediocre.

The difficulty in all this is that Lewis is hurting himself by writing in this way.  He’s a convincing writer, but not a poetic one—he will never turn a phrase like Fitzgerald or Wharton (I’ve seen no evidence of it, at least), which means he really needs to deliver on realistic characters and plot to hold my interest.  But he’s thrown himself into a plot that strains my ability to pay attention, and the episodic wanderings of the Arrowsmiths (combined with his stubborn refusal to do anything to develop Leora Arrowsmith’s character) mean that even well-crafted characters are left in the dust, rushing me constantly into new situations filled with “stock” types that are not carefully described.  The fact that Martin is a well-depicted character in whom I feel an emotional investment is what’s carrying the story right now, and that on its own keeps the novel readable, but my opinion of it has come down a ways.  It may well reverse itself, but Lewis is going to have to decide on some worthwhile topic and then deliver, rather than continue a travelogue whose sole purpose seems to be that it lets him satirize each subculture in American society until he runs out of stereotypes to lampoon.

“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.

“That’s what I want to do! Not just tinker at a lot of worn-out bodies, but make a new world!”

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.