In significant ways, Arrowsmith is a groundbreaking work both as an American novel and as a Sinclair Lewis novel. Never before had an American novel celebrated the work of a scientific researcher—novels that had treated the medical field had focused on doctors and nurses, both heroic and villainous. Indeed, medical research largely had been seen as dull work, its pioneering figures methodical eggheads or misanthropic cranks whose dense and theoretical work was inaccessible to the larger culture.
With Arrowsmith, Lewis portrays a young idealistic researcher torn between the pragmatic realities of the practice of medicine and his own irrepressible curiosity about all things medical and his own unwavering commitment to curing disease through lonely hours of tedious experimentation. Martin Arrowsmith speaks passionately of science as a religion. The followers of science are modern revolutionaries unwilling to accept anything but truth, surrounded by the temptation of easier occupations and simpler views of the universe; they are harried by the superstitious, the conservative, and the ignorant. A medical researcher, even one as selfless as Martin, was a most improbable hero of an American novel—his position so unique that a generation of prominent medical researchers, many of them eventual Nobel laureates, would later claim that reading Lewis’s novel had inspired them to follow the profession.
Far more important, perhaps, is how Arrowsmith appears to so clearly break with the kind of novel that, by 1926, the American reading public had expected from Lewis. Because Lewis’s novels do not translate easily into a contemporary idiom (his characters can seem two-dimensional, his dialogue stilted, his passages of description overwhelming) and because contemporary readers often find Lewis’s textured novels unapproachable and even tedious, it is difficult to appreciate his position in American culture at the time of Arrowsmith’s publication. His previous novels—notably Main Street: The Story of Carol Kennicott (1920) and Babbitt, published two years later—had made him the most prominent (and controversial) public figure in American letters. His novels were immense sellers, and he was himself widely quoted, frequently photographed, and both praised and vilified for his unblinking (and often meanspirited) satires of the narrow and pretentious lives of small-town America, including the fictional town Elk Mills, in the fictional state of Winnemac.
Arrowsmith is different. Martin is hardly held up to the withering Swiftian satire of Lewis’s earlier central characters. Arrowsmith is a conscientious and gifted researcher, a quixotic character who dreams only of helping humanity, whose compassionate heart finds expression in his relentless pursuit of medical research. He distances himself along the way from a gallery of contemptible figures who see in medical research only paths to easy...
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