Thursday, April 17, 2014

"Arrowsmith"

Well, it took me three weeks longer than planned, but I read Sinclair Lewis' novel Arrowsmith (1925) for my Classics Club Spin, as planned.

It was an odd coincidence, because I first read this novel 30 years ago, when I was in high school.  I read a lot of Sinclair Lewis in high school, and always really liked his work.  So I was glad to discover that I still enjoyed Arrowsmith as much as I had the first time around.

I had actually remembered it as one of my favorites by Lewis, which is why it was on my Classics Club list to begin with.

Arrowsmith is the story of Martin Arrowsmith, a man who longs to devote himself to science.  He studies medicine and becomes a doctor and, along the way, encounters the forces that Lewis is known for critiquing all of of his novels: American consumerism, American narrow-mindedness and provincialism, and American salesmanship.

Arrowsmith struggles against these forces, drawn by the lure of money and fame and a desire for success.  He struggles to define himself in a world in which what he loves--in Lewis' words, "the thrill of uncharted discoveries, the quest below the surface and beyond the moment"--possesses little or no value for those around him.

Looking back, I'm not surprised I liked this novel as a teenager--or that I continue to like it today.  Arrowsmith is an idealist who seeks knowledge for its own sake.  Given the chance to shine in the public spotlight, he opts instead to work and to think.  He isn't always true to his own sense of self--in fact, much of the novel describes his struggle to find the time when and the place where he can work, in his own way.

In many ways, the novel is a bildungsroman--that is, a novel that details the protagonist's growth and development--and I think Lewis was particularly drawn to the idea of depicting the development of an idealist who must live and work in a country that was, in many ways, known for its anti-intellectualism.

Arrowsmith questions the role of scientific knowledge and discovery in a nation organized around salesmanship: it examines the value of process in an economy of products.

Like most of Lewis' novels, it isn't about working towards a happy ending.  Rather, it's about thinking about what exactly it means to work and to be in a world in which our lives are often shaped by social forces we endorse without questioning.

As he learns what it means to be both a doctor and a scientist, Martin Arrowsmith also learns what it means to be a man and to be human.  Lewis' depiction of this process--and of the ways in which the emerging American nation constrain and hinder that proess--is as insightful and thought-provoking today as it was when the novel waas first published, nearly 90 years ago.

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