I was long ago convinced awards are often granted not so much for the particular book or song or performance cited but rather for the body of an individual's work as a whole. The Pulitzer Prize awarded to Sinclair Lewis for his novel Arrowsmith is a good case in point. Yes, it is a good send-up of the kinds of chicanery and self-indulgence that can be found in almost every human endeavor, from ditch-digging to aerospace; and yes, Lewis once again displays his uncanny ability to bring his characters "to life" right there on the page; but this portrayal of the ills to be found circa the mid-1920s in the medical profession seems to fall short of the mark to this reader. Lewis' protagonist, Martin Arrowsmith, is used to good effect in terms of covering a wide spectrum in the field as we follow him from a youth in awe of the small-town general practitioner through his education and development and then through a series of positions each both more promising and more disappointing for those promises. Through Martin's eyes we are able to see all that is wrong and destructive in 'corporate clinics', research laboratories, public health services and the like; but the journey Lewis sets this young man upon has also the effect of bringing one to question whether Arrowsmith himself doesn't have a screw loose somewhere. How can one presumably intelligent individual be so taken in so often, one wonders? Unless, that is, one chooses to cast Martin Arrowsmith as Nietzsche's 'noble man', who "...regards himself as a determiner of values; he does not require to be approved of; he passes the judgment..." (Beyond Good and Evil). That may be a little more lofty than Lewis aspired to but still, the tale is one worthy of the printed page, and if the novel itself falls short of the mark surely the whole of his social criticism...from Main Street through Babbitt and the two which followed this one, Elmer Gantry, and Dodsworth...is prize-worthy. Bottom line...don't expect to see a gem that outshines them all in this work, but don't pass it up.
Don Le Couteur
21 April 2012