Here is another swell book from pre-World War II, and more specifically 1920s America, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for 1926. For some reason I never realized that the Pulitzer Prizes for a given year were awarded for works that were published or produced the previous year.1925 of course was one of the great years of American literary history, with at least The Great Gatsby and An American Tragedy coming out in addition to Arrowsmith. While I probably like both of those other books a little more, Arrowsmith is a worthy competitor to them. Its literary style is not as charming as Gatsby's, but it is in certain ways a more serious and mature and interesting book. In our time Lewis has faded, among people who are influential in these matters anyway, as a significant writer, his books largely dead and unread apart from some odd hobbyists and nostalgists such as myself. When he is mentioned by these influential people, they usually don't have anything very complimentary or gracious to say about him, though the primary targets of this disdain seem to be Babbitt and Main Street, which I have not really read (though both are on the IWE list!). I did read Main Street in high school, but I don't count anything I read in either high school or college as far as making a critical assessment of it relevant to my life now, though developing the habit and being exposed to the general thought and conversational patterns of people possessed of literary intelligence even without much in the way of understanding was of greater value to my subsequent life, such as it is, than the slightly more informed readings I am doing now. Arrowsmith at least I found to be a lively, interesting book about a perfectly ordinary and obvious subject, the career of a doctor and researcher, that even talented novelists do not usually handle so skillfully. The general mindsets of its more serious characters do not strike me as far different from those in similar positions today, and the parts that are more dated are mostly so in a good way, in that they recall the flavor of this lost America, which a lot of people I guess wish would get even more lost than it already is, but I love it.
Whether or not Lewis's decline in stature is due to his being so American in the particular Midwestern way that he was, that cannot help him. Ironically, his career was substantially built on critiquing and trying to distance himself from the type of people that society was producing. However when you grow up on the prairie in the 1890s and 1900s, a long way from anywhere, with the type of education that that entails, it is probably impossible that cosmopolitanism of either the breezy or deeply intellectual variety can ever become second nature to you; and Lewis clearly struggled with this in his writing, not, in my opinion, without some substantial success.
As has been my wont lately, I didn't make any notes for this review until I was at about page 190 (after which point I made a lot), and my first one was surprisingly critical, though not wholly inaccurate--"He telegraphs his distance and betrays his distance/sense of superiority to his characters a little too insistently"--adding then--"But the story is good and the evocation of this old America, Midwest, etc, is priceless."
For example the part where Arrowsmith leaves Wheatsylvania (the godforsaken town in North Dakota where his wife was from and where they lived for a while at the beginning of his career) and everyone who has been antagonizing him the whole time he's been there is upset that he's going is great.
Description (p.204): "She must have been a veritable girl of the late eighties and the early nineties (1880s an 90s, obviously--ed.), the naïve and idyllic age of Howells, when young men were pure, when they played croquet and sang Swanee River; a girl who sat on a front porch enchanted by the sweetness of lilacs, and hoped that when Almus and she were married they would have a nickel-plated baseburner stove and a son who would become a missionary or a millionaire."
The introduction of Orchid, the highly appealing nineteen year old daughter of Arrowsmith's boss in Iowa (the aforementioned Almus), who was fond of languishing around his office in the afternoons and distracting his thoughts from both his career and his marriage, is great too. Nothing but trouble, I guess, yet I'm sure almost any man who doesn't have, or never has had, an Orchid in his life longs for one.
1910s and 20s era civic boosterism--the idea that the members of a town's professional class had an obligation to be cheerleaders for their city--is one of those things I'd always vaguely heard about, but did not have a good picture of what it was before this book. It's hilarious. I especially love the flying of pennants bearing the town's name from one's car in jaunts across the county and further afield (which Arrowsmith pointedly resists doing).
p. 233 On anxiety caused by Orchid: "'I've won her,' he gloated...Probably never has gloating been so shakily and badly done."
p 234-5 More on this subject that is so fascinating to me: "'I can go as far as I like with her to-night...But she's a brainless man-chaser...All the better. I'm tired of being a punk philosopher...I wonder if these other lucky lovers that you read about in all this fiction and poetry feel as glum as I do?...I will not be middle-aged and cautious and monogamic and moral! It's against my religion. I demand the right to be free--" He doesn't end up going too far with Orchid though he "masterfully seized her wrists, and kissed her as she deserved to be kissed." Unfortunately he then "immediately ceased to be masterful." (And no, I don't think kissed here is a euphemism for anything more explicit).
p.352 The dynamic Swedish doctor and Martin's whilom mentor Sondelius during preparations for a journey to the West Indies island on St Hubert (which does not appear to be the name of an actual West Indian island?) where they are headed during a bubonic plague outbreak to combat the disease and hopefully do some substantive research on the phage injections they are using in this cause: "You shall not inject me till you will inject all my negro friends down there too." Wow, somebody in a novel at this time who is not completely and obliviously racist in all situations. (There was to be a control group among the local black population that did not receive the injections so that the effectiveness of the phage could be demonstrated and established, bringing scientific glory and prestige to Arrowsmith and the Institute where he worked).
p.381 Sondelius kept his word and did not take the phage as, initially, the experiment went forward. I found his deathbed wishes to be worth noting: "...yoost once more I would like to see Stockholm and Fifth Avenue on the day the first snow falls, and Holy Week at Sevilla. And one good last drunk!"
p. 384-5 "It's that renovated old part of Brooklyn where writers and economists and all those people, some of them almost as good as the very best, consort with people who are almost as smart as the very smartest." Some things are, if not eternal, at least recurrent.
p. 369 "Like most white Americans, Martin had talked a great deal about the inferiority of negroes and had learned nothing whatever about them." More progressivism. Martin was taken aback momentarily upon meeting a black doctor (M.D. from Howard) on the island, but he recovered pretty quickly.
p. 402 Despite the eventual failure of the mission from the research/science point of view (nothing could be decisively proved due to the chaos/breakdown of scientific discipline that overwhelmed the project, the Institute was able to spin the relative humanitarian success of it in containing the outbreak and saving more lives than otherwise would have been the case. "...the papers were able to announce that America, which was always rescuing the world from something or other, had gone and done it again."
p. 414 "Aware only of Madeline Fox and Orchid Pickerbaugh, who were Nice American Girls...and of Leora...Martin knew nothing whatever about Women." Needless to say, I am very partial to Nice American Girls. I wish there were many more of them. Are they still even considered to be a distinct species?
Dust jacket of the Modern Library Edition, which was not the edition I read, actually, though I do like this cover a lot. I used the Nobel Prize Edition, which has a striking blue cover with an embossed imprint of the Nobel Prize medal on the front beneath which Lewis's signature is imprinted in gold lettering. I bought this book at a library sale in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania in 1986 for 35 cents, at which time I bought cheap used copies of many of the books on the IWE list that I have been toting around for thirty years and am finally getting around to reading now. This Nobel Prize set must have sold well, as there are numerous copies available at Amazon and elsewhere, starting at $4 without shipping and handling.
The 1931 film directed by John Ford and starring Ronald Colman and Helen Hayes is still held in pretty high regard today though it requires a little effort and/or expense to track down a copy of it. I've got it on my list of things to see when I get the chance.
A combination of medical terminology and place and character names specific to this book constituting such a large portion of the magic words has resulted in a considerably reduced field.
1. Anthony Marra--A Constellation of Vital Phenomena......................... .........1.040
2. Roland Merullo--Breakfast With Buddha..........................................................813
3. L'Auberge Espagnole (movie)...........................................................................160
4. How Learning Works: 7 Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching.........95
5. Arrowsmith (movie)........................................................................................... 26
6. William Carlos Williams--Doctor Stories..........................................................23
7. Christopher Golden, ed.--Seize the Night...........................................................18
8. Elliott & Nelson--The Curious Mr Catesby.........................................................6
9. Abby H. P. Werlock--Companion to the American Novel, Vol. 1.......................0
#8 Elliott and Nelson over #9 Werlock
Both books actually are available in a New Hampshire library, though not one of the ones at which I have privileges.
The young Myrna Loy was also in the 1931 movie, as Arrowsmith's aristocratic second wife.
#1 Marra over #8 Elliott & Nelson
I had never heard of this Murra book (2013) but it is apparently very popular, and all the libraries have it.
#2 Merullo over #7 Golden
Same for the Merullo (2007). We could be headed for a 1 vs 2 final.
#6 Williams over #3 L'Auberge Espagnole
#5 Arrowsmith over #4 How Learning Works, etc
I'm sort of breaking a rule by having a movie beat a book, but I really don't want to read that book.
#1 Marra over #6 Williams
Williams normally would have triumphed here, but Marra was primed for an upset. He's only 32 or 33, a native of Washington, D.C., product of the Landon School, USC(!) and the U Iowa writer's program.
#2 Merullo over #5 Arrowsmith
#1 Marra over #2 Merullo
In the dream matchup, the books are fairly evenly matched in time (6 years) and length (50 pages) Merullo (born 1953 in Boston; Phillips Exeter, Brown, Suffolk Law School) has the catchier title for his spiritual novel, and he has had a pretty distinguished career, though I had never heard of him. However, I have decided to go with the Marra, which is a product of the very different genius of the younger generation and is probably farther from where I ever conceived of literature going, which as it was the closest thing to a consuming adult interest I ever had, is something I should look into.
The face of a successful modern author