Saturday, August 8, 2009

Pulitzer Project: Arrowsmith

My trek up the Pulitzer Prize fiction winners list continues with Arrowsmith, the 1926 winner written by Sinclair Lewis. Lewis must have been a bit of an odd duck, because he refused to accept the prize, although he wasn't as shy about accepting a Nobel for literature a few years later.

But then Arrowsmith is an odd book. In terms of readability, how well it's stood the test of time, and other criteria, it falls in the middle of the pack of the early prize winners (1918-1926) I've read so far. It's not nearly as good as the Willa Cather work, but for sure it's head and shoulders above Ernest Poole's His Family. Still, it felt a bit incoherent, like Lewis wasn't really sure just what it was he was shooting for when he wrote it.

Its main character, Martin Arrowsmith, is, to say the least, exasperating, one of those guys who kind of bumbles along cluelessly, full of insecurities, fearing he'll be viewed as a hick or a rube but at the same totally convinced of his own superiority, and in the end baffled as to why nothing he does turns out quite the way he thought it would. As I was reading it, I kept thinking, this poor sap is an Aspie! As written, Martin is classic Asperger's syndrome: highly intelligent, tightly focused on the one thing that fascinates him, and absolutely lost when it comes to social interactions and having some insight into what other people might be thinking or feeling.

Brief plot synopsis: Martin Arrowsmith is a fellow from a small town in a fictionalized Minnesota. I'm not sure why the author makes up a state rather than coming right out and saying Minnesota when the one he does make up is clearly geographically and politically improbable (bounded by Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, and Michigan), but he does. Martin's hero as a boy is the town doctor, an aging bachelor alcoholic who in his sober moments extols the glories of science to Martin and inspires him to go to college and medical school.

Martin's parents both conveniently die just before he leaves for college, a state university, so he has a small inheritance to help support him through school, but not much. He lives on a pretty tight budget. He spends his summers working (one year he's on a crew putting in a telegraph line across Montana, another he spends as a waiter at a resort hotel), and the school year engrossed in his classes and engaged in awkward interactions with fellow students. When he enters medical school, he pledges the medical fraternity and moves into the frat house even though he doesn't have much use for any of his fraternity brothers. He has a roommate that annoys him by being noisy, rude, and generally inconsiderate, but instead of moving out or asserting himself at all, he suffers in martyred silence because when it comes to personal relationships he's too insecure to speak up.

And so it goes. We're shown Martin's life from Martin's perspective, and the combination of total naivete and smug superiority tends to be a little off-putting. I had a hard time getting through the first half of the book. It wasn't easy getting interested in a character who was as completely self-centered as Martin Arrowsmith. He's so totally convinced that he's right (after all, science is on his side) that he's incapable of understanding why other people don't Get It. His faith in scientific evidence is absolute while his people skills apparently are close to nonexistent, so it's no surprise he's a failure as a small town GP in North Dakota, despite being the son-in-law of the town banker. He does a little better when he gets a position as an assistant public health officer in a large city in Iowa, but blows that position by once again being so narrowly focused on the science he neglects the people who count.

Eventually, through the sheer dumb luck of having one of his former college professors in a position to help him, he ends up in a research position at a private scientific institute in New York. One assumes the fictional institution is loosely based on the Rockefeller Foundation. Martin is finally in a place where he can devote his energies 100% to basic research, and he does. He makes a remarkable discovery -- he finds phages, viruses that kill bacteria such as staphylococcus aureus -- and is pushed to publish quickly. Naturally, he decides to be stubborn and not submit a paper until he's absolutely sure there are no questions left, demonstrating that he could be as naive about science (there are always more questions) (every published paper concludes with a variation on "additional research is needed") as he is about people. Just as naturally, another scientist makes a similar discovery, getting the credit and, in the process, annoying the institute's directors so Martin's hopes of a promotion (more money, bigger lab, more assistants) vaporize.

The real drama in the book comes toward the end -- Martin has been tasked with investigating plague and attempting to find a cure. Plague was still a major health issue in the early part of the 20th century, despite the cause being well known, and Martin's assignment is to find a cure or a preventative -- or both. In the 1920s antimicrobials like penicillin were unheard of; the focus in infectious disease prevention was on vaccines and type-specific sero therapy (i.e., using antibodies obtained from a survivor of a disease to cure patients ill with that disease; sera were developed by passing the disease through animals [lab rats, monkeys])*. The bacterium responsible for plague, yersinia pestis, has been known since 1894, along with its vectors (fleas carried by rodents). Martin thinks he's close to a break-through, he has a serum that seems to work, and then he's pushed to use it before he's sure it's ready.

Plague hits an island in the Caribbean. The institute sends Martin and a colleague to the island with instructions to do whatever they can to stop the devastation. Martin wants to administer the serum as a controlled experiment, i.e., just give it to half the plague victims so he can compare survival rates; his colleague says their duty is to give it to everyone. In the end the colleague dies, followed not long after by Martin's wife (a woman who Lewis should have described as wearing a halo along with her cotton dresses, because it doesn't matter what Martin does, she supports it), and Martin Arrowsmith goes slightly mad -- and injects everyone he can. Whether or not the serum actually made a difference becomes impossible to tell, because plague tends to run its course naturally. The outbreak could have been at its peak when they arrived, and the serum may not have made any difference at all.

Still, the institute takes the credit for getting the outbreak under control, Martin gets handed a promotion (bigger lab, more underlings) when he gets back to New York, and he bumbles along awhile longer. He even acquires a very wealthy wife, a woman who initially loves him because of his devotion to science but ends up alienated by the amount of time he spends in the lab.
The book ends with Martin more or less happy -- he's in the lab where he's always wanted to be -- but basically alone. I'm not sure just what point Sinclair Lewis was trying to make. Good scientists aren't motivated by money? It's not possible to do science and deal with people, too? Most people are idiots with tunnel vision? Rich people are essentially shallow?

Sinclair Lewis is one of those authors I've been hearing about for years, a major figure on the American literary scene whose books fall into the "of course you're read. . . " category when the reality is that unless they're assigned in a college class almost no one picks up a copy of Babbit, Elmer Gantry, or Arrowsmith. We know the titles; most of us have never read and never will read the actual books. Will I read the others now that I have read Arrowsmith? I don't know. Arrowsmith was readable, more or less, but when I find myself reacting to a book by thinking "I've read worse," that isn't exactly high praise.

Arrowsmith was made into a movie in 1931 starring Ronald Colman and Helen Hayes. In typical cinematic fashion, the movie apparently compresses the time line for Martin's life considerably. An on-line synopsis describes it as "one of the most prestigious films of its time," which is generally code for "doesn't stand up well." I'm not sure I have any interest in ever seeing it, at least not going by the cheesy poster photo of Helen Hayes dying in Ronald Colman's arms. It definitely hints at lots of melodramatic over the top ham acting -- and it does fall into that time period when actors were still making the transition from the exaggerations necessary in silent films to being able to be more subtle in talkies.

Next up on the list: 1927 and Louis Bromfeld's Early Autumn, another book I'd never heard of before looking at the Pulitzer winners list. It's going to be another Interlibrary Loan Request because DeKalb does not have it in its catalog.
[*This is a technique that's still used today, especially with novel or rare pathogens. Doctors will transfuse plasma from recovered survivors of a disease to current victims. If it's done early enough, it can work.]

1 comment:

  1. I read "Babbit" maybe 30 years ago and enjoyed it; then, some 17 years ago, just before I moved to the Upper Midwest, I had a go at "Main Street." Liked it much less; Lewis was no better at telling a story through the eyes of a female protagonist than Heinlein was with Podkayne.

    Started "Arrowsmith" on a plane about a year ago, and found the same problems with the main character that you did. Once the plane landed, I put the book away half-read, and that's how it remains.

    Now, "It Can't Happen Here"...


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