Friday, October 26, 2012

Arrowsmith by Sinclair Lewis

by Sinclair Lewis
1926 Pulitzer Prize
1 star - could not finish

Well, I suppose it was only a matter of time before my persistent trek through Pulitzer Prize novels landed in my lap a book that I could not bear to finish.

Finding a copy was not easy. Only one wee little Modern Library edition existed in our entire eastern Massachusetts library network. Situated on the shelves of the somewhat obscure Pine Manor College, I have come to believe it hadn't left the library in decades. The back insert still had the old fashioned due date insert with the last date being November 21, 1977. At first I was feeling quite smug "Hah! Poor dusty prize winning book." The feeling didn't last.

Arrowsmith is the story of Martin Arrowsmith. He's a young man living in the fictional Midwestern state of Winnemac in the early twentieth century. Martin decides to become a physician and the book deals with his struggles over private practice v. research and his frustrations over the lack of attention in the medical community and population to the threat of contagious disease.

I wasn't very happy after the first hundred pages or so, but I kept going. As that story unfolded, Martin became more involved in public health. OK. I settled in for an education in the state of public health during a time when most people had no notion of the role good hygiene and lifestyle plays in good health. 

The problem was the writing style. The players come and go and are universally painted in the broad strokes of cartoon characters. I could not get my head around any of them enough to care. 

Sinclair Lewis seems to have sussed out the literary trick of putting a teaser at the front of the story to draw in readers. The first scene is of Martin's great-grandmother driving her father's wagon (with father dying of unknown illness in the back and brothers and sisters crawling about) into the Midwestern prairie. Just a few short paragraphs and then she vanishes, never to be heard from again (at least in the 216 pages I dutifully read). What the heck was that all about?

Online discussions of the book proclaim that it remains quite a popular novel with young medical students who continue to struggle where best to apply their skills; research, private practice, specialization, etc. I admit that the information regarding public health appears well researched The author's acknowledgements are all towards one Dr. Paul H. de Kruif who apparently filled him in on bacteriology and took him on a medical world tour.

I would have been happy for a book with even less character development and more medical science or the other way around, but this one landed tragically somewhere in the middle. 

I confess that I will be relieved when my Pulitzer Prize list moves me far enough along in the twentieth century so that the topic of sex and reproduction is at least suggested. It's getting old to see couples who engage in just a brief kiss or embrace and suddenly a baby comes along. Not to mention the fact that in an era totally lacking in birth control, Martin and his wife somehow manage to get through years after her first unfortunate pregnancy without the Mrs. finding herself once again with child. 

I have to go and cleanse my reading pallet with a dog book.


  1. I hate it when a promising book turns out to totally suck. I can't say I've been a huge fan of Sinclair Lewis, however. Thank you for eliminating another book from my neverending stack of "to reads".

  2. Ditto what Thor's mama said. The older I get, the less patience I have with 'duty' reads - or 'duty' much else, come to that. Last three posts have been interesting, but happily reaffirmed my preference for the latest Susan Wittig Albert book. My rule of thumb used to be to read at least the first 100 pages of any book, but the older I get the more I reduce that number.