As I write this column, the newest Nobel Prize winner in literature is being announced. In 1930, that honor went to an American author named Sinclair Lewis. While Lewis accepted that award, he chose not to accept the Pulitzer Prize that was bestowed upon him in 1926 for the novel Arrowsmith.
According to various accounts, Lewis claimed he was against prizes that honored one author over another and that were selected by a committee. Additionally, and perhaps the real reason for his refusal, he had been nominated twice before and lost both times to women — Edith Wharton and Willa Cather. Whatever his reasons for refusing the Pulitzer were, he changed his tune a bit and willingly accepted the Nobel Prize four years later.
While all this is interesting trivia about Sinclair Lewis, it doesn’t mar or change the fact that Arrowsmith is a unique and interesting novel. Arrowsmith is Martin Arrowsmith, a doctor with a penchant for the science of the laboratory.
The story follows Arrowsmith’s life from a youth through his years of study and into marriage and his working life. It took me a few pages to really get into Lewis’s writing style, but once I did, the story flowed well. Like a river, Lewis’s narration takes us into the shallow and visible parts of Arrowsmith’s life as well as into the hidden depths of his psyche.
For example, I found this passage to be both profound and utterly relatable: “In the study of the profession to which he had looked forward all his life he found imitation and vacuity as well as serene wisdom; he saw no one clear path to Truth but a thousand paths to a thousand truths far-off and doubtful.” Who among us hasn’t doubted the path we’re on and wondered if we’d be better off on a different path seeking a different truth in our life?
Arrowsmith is every person who has labored at something while yearning for something else. For him, it’s the purity of science, but often what we most yearn for is either out of our reach or it doesn’t pay the bills.
Arrowsmith is full of satire pointing out the hypocrisy of things as well as the truth people so often choose to ignore. Sometimes I laughed out loud while reading this book. I avoid going to the doctor unless it’s a true emergency because I’ve been horribly misdiagnosed in the past, so this satirical sentence garnered a very loud and derisive guffaw from me: “From him (Martin’s professor) a future physician could learn that most important of all things: the proper drugs to give a patient, particularly when you cannot discover what is the matter with him.” This book was published in 1925, yet much of its satirical commentary rings true today.
The thing I most enjoyed about this novel, though, is the thing I most love about any book written by a great author — Lewis had such a command of the English language that this book is simply chock full of interesting words. Often, I make a list of great words as I read a good book. Here is a small sampling of that list from Arrowsmith: Debauches, vituperation, lacrimal, scurrilous, chimerical, puissant and irascible. Aren’t they lovely?
It’s no wonder Lewis won the Pulitzer for this novel in 1926. It’s too bad he didn’t accept the honor, but at least we’re left with the honor of still being able to read Arrowsmith almost a hundred years later.
Contact Marshall at email@example.com. Next month’s reading selection is The Hunchback of Notre Dame by Victor Hugo.