(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

In the 1920’s, Lewis was the leading American social critic, satirizing small-town provincialism in Main Street, right-wing anti-intellectualism in Babbitt, and religious fundamentalism in Elmer Gantry. In Arrowsmith, he challenged the medical establishment for being more concerned with prestige and profits than with combating disease. Arrowsmith is a fictional counterpart to Microbe Hunters, whose author, Paul de Kruif, helped Lewis with research.

Martin Arrowsmith studies medicine under Professor Max Gottlieb, specializing in bacteriology. After getting his M.D. and marrying Leora Tozer, a young nurse, he spends some years as a country doctor. For a while he works for the Department of Public Health under Dr. Pickerbaugh, a medical Rotarian. But his real interest is in medical research, and after publishing papers on his own modest research, he gets a position in New York at the McGurk Institute of Biology, where he works on epidemiology.

When bubonic plague breaks out in the West Indies, Martin and the eminent Dr. Sondelius go there. Martin wants to conduct a controlled experiment with a serum that might be the antidote, giving it to only half the residents. Sondelius refuses to inject himself until Martin provides the serum for everyone. When Gottlieb and Leora both die of the plague, Martin damns his experiment and gives the serum universally. After Leora’s death he marries...

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Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)


Winnemac. Imaginary midwestern state—bordered by Michigan, Ohio, Illinois, and Indiana—in which many of Lewis’s novels are set. Martin spends his boyhood in the small Winnemac town of Elk Mills, where he is introduced to medical science and treatment by Doc Vickerson, whose practice is above his father’s New York Clothing Bazaar. He attends the University of Winnemac at Mohalia on the Chaloosa River, fifteen miles from the state capital Zenith; it is a progressive institution, the first in America to offer extension courses via radio, which Lewis likens to a Ford Motor factory of the intellect. There Martin finds a spiritual home in Max Gottlieb’s bacteriology laboratory, imagining a future life spent amid labyrinths of glass tubing and Bunsen burners. His first visit to Zenith General Hospital brings him into contact with Leora; after his graduation Martin becomes an intern there. An excursion to the Dodsworth Theatre and Martin’s brief meeting with George F. Babbitt, the real estate king, embed the novel firmly within the Lewis canon.


Wheatsylvania. Leora’s North Dakota hometown, located in Crynssen County in the Pony River valley, twenty-four miles from Leopolis. Martin marries Leora there after traveling across the country on a whim to see her; after his internship they return so that he may set up his medical practice, for which he initially rents a one-story shack a half block from Main Street. Martin never fits in there, however, as he is always regarded with suspicion in spite and because of his...

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(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Bucco, Martin, ed. Critical Essays on Sinclair Lewis. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1986. Begins with early interviews and goes on to contemporary critics. Articles include discussion of Arrowsmith; one article shows how the book developed from Lewis’ unfinished novel about labor.

Dooley, D. J. The Art of Sinclair Lewis. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1967. Chapter 4 discusses the genesis, development, strengths, weaknesses, and reputation of Arrow-smith. Investigates the novel’s central theme and characters.

Grebstein, Sheldon Norman. Sinclair Lewis. Boston: Twayne, 1962. Excellent chapter on the heroic Arrowsmith in the context of American society. Sees the novel as more artistic and inspired than its predecessors.

Griffin, Robert J., ed. Twentieth Century Interpretations of “Arrowsmith.” Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1968. Only book-length study of Arrowsmith. Includes early reviews and important essays by leading Lewis scholars.

Schorer, Mark. Sinclair Lewis: An American Life. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1961. Indispensable. Includes an examination of Arrowsmith from its beginnings to its critical reception. Also includes discussion of the men and women who were the prototypes for the character in Arrowsmith.