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.