by Sinclair Lewis
The titular main character, Martin Arrowsmith, attends medical school and becomes a doctor, then struggles to plot the correct course for his career: dedication to slow pure scientific research in the name of progress, or the quest for the money and rewards that hasty mock trials and early publication bring? The life of the dedicated scientist, or the society man? Arrowsmith’s heroes are Gottlieb, a scientist who disdains the “Men of Measured Merriment,” as he calls those who pursue knowledge for practical purposes, and Sondelius, a hygienist who travels the globe fighting plague. But after he marries, Martin is torn between providing the life he wants for his steadfast, loving wife and burying himself in crucial but unglamorous research.
Winner of the Pulitzer Prize (though Lewis declined it due to the wording of the prize, which states it goes to the novel which “shall best present the wholesome atmosphere of American life,” which he said meant nothing whatsoever), this is an exciting and readable novel. Populated with characters who represent the various directions a med student can go: the joker turned dropout, the supercilious ascetic surgeon, the patronizing missionary, the pharmaceutical agent, the dedicated pathologist, the PR-perfect Head of the Department who understands nothing of the nature of the work does in his department, and so on. Though they do seem to represent distinct types, they are fully drawn characters who help shape Martin’s own fate as he moves from small-town neophyte to cog in a hospital machine to something of a celebrity. In addition, Lewis lampoons high and low society of the time, from Martin’s close-minded in-laws to the clueless Smart Set he later finds himself allied with. Through the drama of Martin’s growth as a free man and a doctor, Lewis provides plenty of satire and wit, with sharp phrases such as “he had learned plenty of new things about which to be dull” and “fatly, behind cigars, they accepted their kinghood.” It’s a witty, compelling story of a man gaining the strength to find himself among all the external pressures of the world.