“Camila had intended to be perfunctory and if possible impudent, but now she was struck for the first time with the dignity of the old woman.”

There is a remarkable beauty to the scene that begins with the above quote.  The situation is this.  The Marquesa, an increasingly confused old woman (in part because of alcoholism she uses to blunt the pain she feels at the cruelty of her daughter), attended a theatrical performance in which the greatest performer in Peru acted and sang.  The Marquesa was so taken at the beauty of the actress, the quality of her voice, and the pathos of the play, she was oblivious to the fact that the actress, Camila, had added songs between scenes of a satirical nature.  These satirical songs took many verbal jabs at the Marquesa, mocking her age, her looks, etc., to the great amusement of the audience, until finally the Marquesa’s serving-girl convinced her to leave (with the Marquesa remaining blissfully oblivious that she was the target of the laughter).  The Viceroy, a powerful man who wants to stay on the good side of the Marquesa’s son-in-law, decides he cannot allow a middle-class actress to take such liberties with the noblewoman, and orders her to go to the Marquesa, dressed in black, to apologize.

This is where Wilder creates a scene that is almost philosophical.  Camila, the actress, is indignant—she cannot believe that she must humble herself to go apologize to this strange, ugly old woman who is a joke to virtually everyone in town.  But when she comes to the Marquesa, she finds a woman strangely serene—serene, of course, because the Marquesa is still unaware that Camila had been mocking her from the stage.  In fact, the Marquesa is extraordinarily kind to Camila, praising her talent, assuring her of how much she enjoys her performances.  This behavior fills Camila with shame, with real humility, at the graciousness of this elderly woman who will not so much as allude to the offensive way she had been treated.  And so as the scene unfolds, Camila expresses her repentance with the sweetest sincerity and the most genuine regret to a woman who does not understand it, while the Marquesa offers a benevolent forgiveness without even knowing it.  This ought to be humorous, as I describe it, and yet it isn’t—it feels like deep truth.  There is something real and honest about the idea that we often forgive more than we know; that we regret offenses that have offended no one.  I found the scene very moving in a way I’m struggling to articulate here.

And the whole of the Marquesa’s story affects me in this way.  I don’t have time to dig into this whole section of the book, but the relationship of the Marquesa to her serving-girl (a novice from a convent who is being trained by an Abbess who is wise to the world’s ways), and their respective relationships to the women they care about (the Marquesa’s daughter and the Abbess, respectively) as expressed through letters, are really wonderful to read.  And even though I’ve known from the first sentence of the novel that the bridge falls, the end of this section, with its simple conclusion that “while crossing the bridge of San Luis Rey the accident which we know befell them,” hit me with a sadness I’ve only felt once or twice in the Pulitzer journey thus far.  The only problem with Wilder’s approach, of course, is that all of the characters I’ve grown attached to are now either dead or irrelevant, as we move on to the next victims of the bridge’s collapse—I’m not sure he can sustain my emotional connection to the novel.  But if he can, this is shaping up to be a very solid reading experience and a book worth recommending to others.

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.

Rating:

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.’

“So did Martin stumble into respectability.”

The central character (though by now it’s obvious this is more than his story) of Martin Arrowsmith is at last settling down with his wife to be a small town doctor in “Wheatsylvania”, where her disapproving family is willing to put up the necessary cash for him to get an office and a car to make house calls.  He is, indeed, “stumbling” towards respectability—a few more late night poker games and drinking sessions with his buddies may well end that trend, of course—but he seems strangely adrift.  He keeps going to visit doctors in nearby towns, hoping to get some perspective or wisdom from them.  He invariably leaves them feeling angry and sensing their condescension to him.  And I’m having trouble working out why this matters.

I’ve been positive about Sinclair Lewis, and rightly so: there’s a lot to like about him.  But the book is starting to seem like a novel that’s so busy “seeing through” people’s facades that it won’t take the time to see them for what they are.  It’s like a freshman’s literary criticism essay—just knowledgeable enough about criticism to think it should be used to dissect everything in sight, but without the necessary judgment required to sense what’s appropriate.  Lewis attacks small town values, soulless corporate America, academics who are detached from reality, the egotism of the educated elites…I’m not sure what’s left.  And the novel gets so busy tearing things down that I don’t think he’s doing enough to build up my connection to the characters.  Leora Arrowsmith (nee Tozer) is the love of Martin’s life and a very good woman, but I’m beginning to feel as though I like a Leora I’m able to imagine, more than liking a Leora that Lewis has presented me with.  And the “villains” in this piece—Leora’s family, for starters—are not human enough.  I want him to use his powers of description and perception to give Martin antagonists who are well-rounded, and not caricatures.  Perhaps the novel’s intended to leave them thin and undeveloped, as satirical foils rather than as real people.  But if so, I think he aims for less than he was capable of.

And Lewis may be falling into the Tarkington trap of biting off more than he can chew.  There are now at least two plots, as we follow Martin’s disgraced former professor, Dr. Max Gottlieb, through unemployment and the troubles of employment in the big pharmaceutical industries.  Gottlieb’s daughter may also be a character of importance (her brief appearances suggest so), but it’s not entirely clear.

What is clear, though, is that Lewis is a modern writer in the way that Tarkington was not—this won’t be The Magnificent Ambersons all over again for several reasons.  Lewis dares to take on the real prejudices of his contemporaries…much of the Gottlieb plotline is an exploration of anti-Semitism (whether open or veiled).  And Lewis creates a realistic world in which characters can (and do) connect with each other in rational ways.  I’m just worried that, as we’ve exited the confines of university life, Lewis is a bit at a loss regarding where he wants to go with this.  I guess we’ll see.

And lingering in my head is the question of whether Lewis is right about America.  Are we really the incurious, ill-educated people he makes us out to be?  Are the middle class really so anti-scientific, and are the scientists really so anti-middle class?  Is everything about money and influence (which can be used to gain money) in the end?  I don’t know.  I can get in those moods about America, myself, but I wonder if Lewis isn’t overplaying his hand on these criticisms—the country has more to recommend it than vast natural resources and a sense of humor, or at least I’d like to think so.

“On a January evening of the early seventies, Christine Nilsson was singing in Faust at the Academy of Music in New York. …”

Regular visitors, accustomed by now to my habits, may have already guessed that the above sentence is the first line of the novel The Age of Innocence, by Edith Wharton, which won the Pulitzer Prize for the Novel in 1921. (But wait, you say, we were just on 1919?  Apparently in 1920 the Pulitzer board didn’t find a novel deserving of the prize, which speaks badly for either the year’s novels or the taste of the Pulitzer board.  I’ll investigate 1920 later, when I feel a little more aware of what it is the board looks for.)

This new novel, though, is a delight so far—Wharton is a skilled stylist, and her interests are clearly to take New York high society and very carefully, very slyly, show it for what it really is.  I don’t know whether to call this “satire” since I feel as though satires are generally a lot more broad and overstated.  Here, Wharton’s very subtle in her digs at these folks, but so many sentences make me smile that I want to sit here and quote them.  Her opening scene (detailing simply what happens at the opera, which has more to do with people watching other people in the audience rather than anything on stage) kept me intrigued.  The brief reference to “Mrs. Manson Mingott, whose monstrous obesity had long since made it impossible for her to attend the Opera” has me, I have to admit, very interested in meeting this ponderous lady.  And Wharton tosses off so many little observations of people, attitudes, and institutions that it’s hard to keep up—at one point she notes “an unalterable and unquestioned law of the musical world … that the German text of French operas sung by Swedish artists should be translated into Italian for the clearer understanding of English-speaking audiences.” And before I know it (and while I’m still playing out the complicated dig there–the fake “culture” of this opera audience that would rather hear something incomprehensible than admit themselves to be less cosmopolitan than they are), she’s on to describing an old gentleman who is very discreet about the secrets of many people in attendance, partly because of his deep sense of honor which forbids him to reveal such things…but also because “he was fully aware that his reputation for discretion increased his opportunities of finding out what he wanted to know.”

I know all this sounds very tame, but in context (for me, at least) it’s clear that she’s using this stylized but honest narration to be very harsh about this little world of “Old Money” New York.  Strangely, the last two novels (each of which have disappointed on at least some level, one much more than the other) seem to be fusing in this one–a book that captures the spirit of New York, with its eye fixed very much on the very rich.  But in this case, I have no doubt that, if Newland Archer turns out to be the arrogant fop that Georgie Amberson Minafer was, Wharton and I can be on the same side, at least, in cutting Newland down to size.  I have no idea if that’s where this is going, but I’m having fun–if you haven’t picked up one of these novels yet to read, this one’s pretty readily available (Wharton’s still considered “classic” enough to be on bookstore and library shelves), and I’m thinking it’s going to be a good read.  We’ll see.