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.

“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.

“Martin turned on her with fury, statistics, vituperation, religious zeal, and confused metaphors.”

It sounds like some conversations I’ve had.  Martin, our hero, is here defending his professor, Max Gottlieb, and the study of science against his humanities-loving friend, Madeline Fox (with whom he is falling in…love? he thinks so, at least).  That kind of sentence is exactly why Sinclair Lewis is catching and holding my attention, and that kind of scenario is why this book is intriguing me.  Unlike most of what I’ve read so far, it’s set in a very artificial environment–the college described in my previous post–and it’s dealing with matters I haven’t yet seen explored (most importantly, science in the early 20th Century).  Lewis is a great writer, with a talent for intriguing turns of phrase to rival Wharton.  This book isn’t exactly satire, but it keeps catching me off-guard, alternating between jabbing me with humor and luring me in with the very real and imperfect character of the aspiring scientist, Martin Arrowsmith, whose worship of (and devotion to) Max Gottlieb is not limited to his conversation with Madeline Fox.  I love the interactions between their characters–to give you more of a taste of Lewis’s writing, and to show you what talking to Dr. Gottlieb is really like, here’s a lengthy excerpt from their first conversation:

“Professor Gottlieb, my name is Arrowsmith I’m a medic freshman, Winnemac B. A.  I’d like awfully to take bacteriology this fall instead of next year.  I’ve had a lot of chemistry—“

“No.  It is not time for you.”

“Honest, I know I could do it now.”

“There are two kinds of students that the gods give me.  One kind they dump on me like a bushel of potatoes.  I do not like potatoes, and the potatoes they do not ever seem to have great affection for me, but I take them and I teach them to kill patients.  The other kind—they are very few!—they seem for some reason that is not at all clear to me to wish a liddle bit to become scientists, to work with bugs and make mistakes.  Those, ah, those, I seize them, I denounce them, I teach them right away the ultimate lesson of science, which is to wait and doubt.  Of the potatoes, I demand nothing; of the foolish ones like you, who think I could teach them something, I demand everything.  No.  You are too young.  Come back next year.”

This is Gottlieb in, frankly, a relatively good mood.  But the relationship that Lewis sets up here is fantastic—adversarial, slightly respectful, but valuing “the work” above all else.  Arrowsmith will earn Gottlieb’s trust, but slowly: by the time it’s clear he has that trust, it really feels genuine.  I like that Lewis enjoys these characters enough to make them eccentric yet real, and to give them time enough to interact with each other.  And I’m intrigued at an exploration of what it means to study science (which Gottlieb says is un-American—that Americans do not value it….and I have to say there’s some truth in that) in the context of the early 20th Century, a time when humans were convincing themselves that no bacterium could stop them, and that science would soon understand all things.  This book has my attention: I hope it takes me somewhere worthwhile (and I suspect it will).

A side note–picking out the right quotation for the “headline” of these posts is an interesting challenge.  I want it to be relatively brief, and either to grab your attention or to communicate in some way where I think the author’s headed.  Lewis is full of these little moments, though–the challenge isn’t finding a headline, but picking one out of dozens of possibilities.  I want to quote half the sentences I’ve read so far to you—this is a book I’d really like someone (more than one of you, ideally) to read too, since I think you’ll enjoy it, and we’ll have things to talk about—but I can’t do that.  I will, though, give you the two sentences I wanted badly to use as headlines, yet ultimately rejected.  I’m hoping one of them makes you want to read the book.  Here they are:

“Professor Max Gottlieb was about to assassinate a guinea pig with anthrax germs, and the bacteriology class were nervous.”

and, even better, I think:

“The real excitement during Freshman year was the incident of Cliff Clawson and the pancreas.”

It may not be his most famous book, but I think Sinclair Lewis is pulling out the stops to make this a novel to remember (and to quote from liberally), so I hope you’ll consider ending the year alongside me, as we see where the ride takes us.

“The driver of the wagon swaying through forest and swamp of the Ohio wilderness was a ragged girl of fourteen.”

Thus begins the novel selected for the 1926 Pulitzer Prize: Arrowsmith, by Sinclair Lewis.  And it’s a beginning that threatens to make me feel weary…I know it’s America’s heartland, but after Willa Cather’s prairie life (interesting, if stifling), Margaret Wilson’s prairie life (soul-crushingly awful, at its best), and the farms of Edna Ferber (sketched a bit hastily, and less isolated), I don’t think I can take a novel that begins with the ragged teenage girl guiding her wagon to her homestead.  Luckily, though, she’s around for all of two paragraphs when the narrator flies forward almost a century, noting off-hand that the girl is the great-grandmother of our real protagonist, Martin Arrowsmith.

Martin’s a doctor (or at least a doctor-in-training) in a small town called Elk Mills in the fictitious state of Winnemac, which apparently is intended to stand in for the “civilized Midwest” (small town Ohio/Indiana/Wisconsin/etc.).  I’m not far in, and already I can tell that Sinclair Lewis earns his reputation for biting wit and sarcasm…this is the man whose novel Main Street was edgy enough that, even though the Pulitzer jury recommended it for the prize in 1921, the board refused to issue the award to him, preferring instead The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton (I haven’t read Main Street, but given how much I loved Wharton’s book, I’m not sure the board didn’t get it right, in spite of themselves).  I’ve heard of Babbitt and Elmer Gantry for a long time, but I’ve never read any Sinclair Lewis until now.  For a taste of his keen jabs at middle America and its values, here’s his description of the University of Winnemac (a big state school):

The University has a baseball field under glass; its buildings are measured by the mile; it hires hundreds of young Doctors of Philosophy to give rapid instruction in Sanskrit, navigation, accountancy, spectacle-fitting, sanitary engineering, Provencal poetry, tariff schedules, rutabaga-growing, motor-car designing, the history of Voronezh, the style of Matthew Arnold, the diagnosis of myohypertrophia kymoparalytica, and department-store advertising.  Its president is the best money-raiser and the best after-dinner speaker in the United States; and Winnemac was the first school in the world to conduct its extension courses by radio.

It is not a snobbish rich-man’s college, devoted to leisurely nonsense.  It is the property of the people of the state, and what they want—or what they are told they want—is a mill to turn out men and women who will lead moral lives, play bridge, drive good cars, be enterprising in business, and occasionally mention books, though they are not expected to have time to read them.  It is a Ford Motor Factory, and if its products rattle a little, they are beautifully standardized, with perfectly interchangeable parts.  Hourly the University of Winnemac grows in numbers and influence, and by 1950 one may expect it to have created an entirely new world-civilization, a civilization larger and brisker and purer.

Remember, this is 1926…we’re still a long ways from Malvina Reynolds writing “Little Boxes” and Tom Lehrer belting out “Fight Fiercely, Harvard”.  There certainly was a counterculture in the 1920s, but it’s still impressive to realize it was this mainstream.  I do want to note, though, that Sinclair Lewis refused to accept the Pulitzer for this novel.  I don’t know exactly why (principled opposition to the concept of the prize? a sour reaction to their having snubbed Main Street?), but I’ll find out and share it with you soon enough.  In the meantime, it’s an interesting book, and I’m curious to see where Martin Arrowsmith goes, and what he does.