“Get de box, June, and play me a tune. I rather dance by myself out here in de yard.”

I wish I could say I was getting into this novel, for Scarlet Sister Mary’s sake.  She is a sad figure in many respects, caught between worlds.  After her wedding to the rakish July (the boy’s name might as well be Trouble, given how boldly the author makes it clear that this is not a man to marry), July convinces her to go to a dance.  Being a “good Christian”, though, like her Maum Hannah wants her to be, she can’t dance.  July, though, is unencumbered by faith (or decency, or compassion, or…) and proceeds to dance wildly and a bit sensually with a girl named “Cinder” who’s long had her eye on him.  This is on his wedding night, mind you—not that it’s any better three days later, but it gives you a sense of the man’s awareness of the feelings of others.  So Mary, out of anger and desperation that she’s losing her man, gets his twin brother June to play a song, and she dances by herself outside with such fury and passion that she’s the talk of the dance, and July loses interest in Cinder (for the moment).  And the next day she’s thrown out of the church.

And their marriage proceeds much as you’d imagine it would.  The child is born, early enough to be a scandal—July names him “Unexpected”, a word Mary needs to have defined for her.  They agree to call the little boy by the nickname “Unex”.  And then everything runs downhill…Cinder returns to town and puts on her best wiles, July hears the call of the wild, and wedding vows seem to be of little importance.  There’s a longing in Mary for something more—a longing she feels for July at times, but also for the sound of singing at Christmas, or when she is picking cotton in the fields.  But that longing isn’t well expressed, either by the character or her narrator, so it’s hard to tell what we’re supposed to glean from all this.

We’re back to my standard complaint about these Pulitzer novels.  I’m done with 1/3 of the book, and I’m still trapped in a painful paint-by-numbers plot I saw coming a mile down the track.  There’s no real depth to Mary as a character (her limited intellect diminishes the author’s ability to do much more with her), and July and Cinder are even more one-dimensional.  The deep, interesting possibilities I saw in Maum Hannah and her son are totally unexplored…the characters are almost forgotten.  (Even so, the best moment in this section is Hannah’s—her willingness to forgive Mary’s “sin” is heartwarming, and her statement that she forgives Mary, but God might not be so forgiving, is intriguing.  Who does Hannah think God is, that she’s more merciful than him?  What does faith really mean in this community?  Ah well….Peterkin’s not going there.)  Even June, who may be of some importance to Mary’s future escape from this marriage (at least, I anticipate an upcoming escape), isn’t doing anything—I know as much about him now as I did one paragraph after seeing him first described.

I get the feeling that, in the 1920s, just having a bit of a potboiler for a plot, combined with some scandal (unmarried sex! infidelity! stories about black people for a white audience!) and some local color (in this case, dialect and the plantation setting) was pretty startling.  Somehow it was impressing the Pulitzer board, at least.  But color me bored.  I’m hoping this book gets moving soon, since 200 more pages of drawn-out marital tension followed by Mary’s inevitable escape into the faithful arms of June is going to be a Harlequin romance without the sexuality, and I don’t know anybody who reads Harlequins for the dialogue and character development.   More on this soon, I hope.

“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.

“Do you mean to tell me you’d marry a man simply because he happened to have a lot of money!”

The answer to such questions, of course, is almost invariably “Yes,” whether or not the person answering the question can be honest enough to say so.  (I’m not saying people are always willing to marry for money—just that if you’re getting asked that question, I’m inclined to think there’s a reason you are.)  Certainly it’s “yes” for Paula Arnold, the young woman being questioned by young Dirk DeJong.  She’s a family friend (daughter of Selina’s best friend from her childhood) and has been raised in fabulous wealth thanks to the success of her successful “pork baron” grandfather, August Hempel: she says frankly (and unashamedly) to Dirk that it would take a millionaire to keep her happy, and even though Dirk’s attractive and bright, he simply couldn’t provide for her at the level she’s accustomed to.

It’s become Dirk’s story now—I have to admit, I think Ferber may have tried too much with this novel.  Dirk’s a very different person than his mother, and having invested half the novel in Selina (who’s almost absent for much of the latter half), it’s hard not to feel that the whole Dirk storyline is a distraction to the reader.  I see some opportunities for drawing those plots together (which will come in at the end of this post), but it’s too often a bit disengaging, like two reasonably solid novellas that have been hastily stitched together.

I do have to emphasize that solidity–the novel isn’t shifting into a weaker story by following Selina’s son.  Dirk is interesting to watch, especially in the light of the novels I’ve already read on this journey.  He seems to want to be Georgie Minafer (the unredeemed version) or Newland Archer.  Despite his interest in, and talent for, architecture (thanks to training at Cornell), he’s not moving up fast enough, so he connects himself to the easy life of investments and the stock/bond trade.  It’s the early 1920s, after all, and that spiral seems to lead upwards forever.  Paula, who’s married a much older man for money (and unhappily, it should be noted), is constantly pushing him into this world, using her rich husband and rich family to make connections for Dirk and raise him into one of the brightest young stars in the city.  She’s in love with him, and he with her, it seems—it’s only a matter of time before their relationship is the scandal of Chicago.  (Sidenote: This aspect of the novel is in some ways strangely reminiscent of the story of Frank Lloyd Wright, which I read in a novel, Loving Frank, that was good enough to be almost worth recommending to you.)

There’s an obvious and depressing trend to these young Chicago men.  The old rich men, at least, had the virtue of industry and passion for what they did.  August Hempel may be a rich old tyrant, but there’s something vital about him, and the rest of these imperial barons who built the town up from the mud.  Their children and grandchildren, by contrast, seem to value riches without effort, style without substance.  And Dirk wants to live that way, as well.  But isn’t this the way every generation sees its children?  Ferber’s implicit criticisms of young bond-traders are surely not much different than the criticisms levied against the young businessmen of the 1950s or the young guns on Wall Street in the 1980s.  Is this the real Chicago of the 1920s, or just the narrative that we hand down in every generation—that the Golden Age is dead, that “the great men are gone and we shall not see their like again”?

All this setup, though, leads to a truly wonderful scene.  Selina learns from Paula’s mother that there’s talk all over town about Dirk and Paula, and the affair everyone expects will manifest.  The next time Dirk comes home, she asks him to come sit in her room that evening, and she confronts him about the course his whole life is taking.  Their conversation is masterfully done—Ferber allows both characters to speak as frankly and sincerely as two people would in such a situation.  When they’re melodramatic, it’s because people in such situations overplay their hands.  When they leave things unsaid, we hear them all the more loudly.  Selina is appalled that her son would abandon real and important work—the making of beautiful buildings—for something as common and base as the pursuit of wealth through the buying and selling of little pieces of paper.  And Dirk cannot fathom why his mother thinks so little of him, or fails to see the importance of changing to adapt to the new world.  At one point, she asks him (as she often did, long ago) how big he is, now.  He says “So big,” and holds his thumb and forefinger mere millimeters apart.  And in his heart he thinks himself very “big” indeed.  In context, it’s a very powerful moment.

And though Selina is angry with Dirk (and I understand that anger), I think she’s unfair to him.  She wants him to pursue his dreams.  She thinks he would have done better to work on her farm than go off to the financial markets.  But Selina’s journey from seeking the “hard and thrilling” life to the “hard but honest” life wasn’t exactly a bed of roses.  She could never be the comfortable farmer she is today if a land-owning farmer (Pervus DeJong) hadn’t married her, and if a rich man (family friend August Hempel) hadn’t offered her an interest-free loan after her husband’s death.  I’m not saying anything against Selina, who’s worked her fingers to the bone for that farm.  But without two successful men (well, one who was well off enough to have a decent farm, and one who was truly and epically wealthy) she’d never have gotten where she has.  Is it so hard to see that Dirk would look at the course of such a life, and decide that it would be better to be August Hempel than to be Selina DeJong?  And because he doesn’t understand either of them, really, he chooses a line of work that offers the path of seemingly least resistance.  It’s the American way.  And in a few years, it will utterly destroy the American economy…if he only knew.  I’m almost at the end, now: a review will almost certainly be my next post.