Saturday, July 18, 2009

ARROWSMITH by Sinclair Lewis

Arrowsmith is a 1925 novel by Sinclair Lewis (with considerable contributions from Dr. Paul de Kruif); it won the 1926 Pulitzer Prize, but Lewis rejected the award because the thought it promoted pandering in writers. The book chronicles the life of Martin Arrowsmith, a young medical student who tries to make it both as a practicing doctor and as a research scientist.

Arrowsmith is always readable but never particularly interesting. It is rather loosely plotted (although for Lewis it’s rather tightly plotted). Martin Arrowsmith is a headstrong, bridge-burning, tantrum-throwing idealist, and Lewis generates most of the novel’s tension and conflict by throwing the most obnoxious, contrary characters Lewis can think up at him, and letting nature take its course. Much has been made about Arrowsmith being a “heroic” character; this is obviously debatable based on how one defines “heroic”. Lewis certainly makes him a hero of medical idealism; but at the same time Arrowsmith is never particularly sympathetic.

The novel is one great commentary on the medical and scientific professions. In fact, any time Lewis shifts the narrative focus away from Arrowsmith to other characters (which seems to happen unnecessarily often), the reader gets nothing but commentary. How applicable are these comments today? Well, that’s nearly impossible for anyone outside the medical field to say.

Today, Arrowsmith is likely to have an extremely limited appeal: those interested in medicine should find it quite engaging, but few others will.