Chapter 59: “Arrowsmith” by Sinclair Lewis (1926)

“It is one of the major tragedies that nothing is more discomforting than the hearty affection of the Old Friends who never were friends.”

Arrowsmith-dj-front-panel-webOne thing I’ve discovered about this Pulitzer Project is that it starts and stops in waves—constantly tiding and ebbing. I can go a couple of months without even looking at my bookshelf, take a whole month to finish what should be a quick read, then plow through another two or three books before giving up the ghost for another couple of months.

This, of course, is what has led to this Project being extended from a year to (now) going on almost three years.

It’s an utterly atrocious pace but, let’s be honest, it was to be expected. I originally conceived this Project merely as a means to 1) fill my time during my stint(s) of unemployment and 2) maintain a long distance friendship with my English major brother in arms, Joshua Riley.

And the face of this Project has shifted considerably since its inception. I’ve moved at least six times in the past two years (I’ve actually lost count—six seems like a conservative estimate), I’ve gotten engaged, Joshua has moved on to seminary, and has gathered up new friends that (for all intents and purposes) replaced me. We very rarely speak and see each other even less often—this is just what happens in life. There’s no avoiding it.

People evolve; their places in life progress/regress; they move in other directions. It’s very rare for people to stay in one place, gathering moss, becoming stagnant.

This is a theme that runs through many of these Pulitzers—the restless spirits of entrepreneurs, the steadfastness of cowboys driving cattle from Texas to Montana, the progressiveness of the pioneers, and the constant itch for something “pure” that defines the main character in the Pulitzer I just wrapped up, Sinclair Lewis’ Arrowsmith (1926).

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I liked this book. It was like the surprise of really enjoying some random book you’ve never heard of on an English teacher’s summer reading list—had it not been for this Project, I never would have even considered picking it up if I saw it on a library shelf.

That said, I must also say that the Pulitzer committee’s decision to award this novel the Prize—it has me scratching my head. Sinclair Lewis himself, upon receiving the Prize in 1926, wrote a letter to the committee saying:

I wish to acknowledge your choice of my novel Arrowsmith for the Pulitzer Prize. That prize I must refuse, and my refusal would be meaningless unless I explained the reasons.

All prizes, like all titles, are dangerous. The seekers for prizes tend to labor not for inherent excellence but for alien rewards; they tend to write this, or timorously to avoid writing that, in order to tickle the prejudices of a haphazard committee. And the Pulitzer Prize for Novels is peculiarly objectionable because the terms of it have been constantly and grievously misrepresented.

 

Those terms are that the prize shall be given “for the American novel published during the year which shall best present the wholesome atmosphere of American life, and the highest standard of American manners and manhood.” This phrase, if it means anything whatsoever, would appear to mean that the appraisal of the novels shall be made not according to their actual literary merit but in obedience to whatever code of Good Form may chance to be popular at the moment.

Underneath Lewis’s assertion that the Pulitzer Prize guidelines are flawed seems to be the question “Why this book?”.

Nearly everything about this book flies in the face of “the wholesome atmosphere of American life, and the highest standard of American manners and manhood.” Arrowsmith is a character plagued by alcoholism, an inability to commit, a polyamorous lifestyle, hellbent on doing things his way in the name of scientific progress. He fancies himself a sort of savior of mankind for his successful work in fighting bacteriophages on the one hand, and a devout disciple of modern science on the other.

In the end, though, Lewis proves Arrowsmith to be the discple of science, and science his savior.

It is this discipleship that borders on near religious fanatacism that I find particularly exhausting and, at the same time, enchanting. Arrowsmith is a man that his completely and utterly devoted to his craft—so much so that he sacrifices everything for it. His career, his wife, his child, his home, his wealth, his everything; all for a cabin in backwoods Vermont where he and his partner can research in a laboratory setting without any interruption for the rest of their lives.

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It brought to mind that verse in the Bible, when Jesus tells his disciples that anybody who puts their hand to the plow and looks back isn’t fit for the Kingdom of God; anybody who isn’t willing to part with their family isn’t for the Kingdom of God; anybody who isn’t willing to leave their entire lives behind for a life endlessly pursuing pure holiness isn’t for the Kingdom of God.

Christianity considers this the highest form of piety and righteousness, the secular world considers it the epitome of foolishness—both Christian and secularist can look upon the life of Arrowsmith and denounce it.

There’s a mix of both: Arrowsmith chooses the role of a deadbeat dad, a reclusive hermit, and a cuckold in the name of science; or is he a martyr forced to give up everything for his savior?, a disciple worthy of sainthood? He is, after all, a better man for his choice, in the long run. He kicks the bottle, finds happiness, removes himself from the rat race and the incredibly competitive world of scientific research, and he devotes his life to the bettering of life through medicine.

As for my verdict—the jury is still out. I envy his willingness to count all as loss as much as I loathe him for it.

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One thought on “Chapter 59: “Arrowsmith” by Sinclair Lewis (1926)

  1. Wow, quite interesting. I’m a fan of Sinclair. I didn’t know his feelings about this book and the prize it garnered. However, understandable. I’m not sure how noteworthy it is for a man to leave a family he’s created to pursuit his profession. I believe that there’s also a scripture that says, he as in the man that doesn’t take care of his household is worse than a man without faith. Balance is always the key, and so hard to achieve at times when it comes to personal pursuits and that of others. I’m bookmarking this book to read now, I’m hooked. Thanks!

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