Thursday, November 29, 2012

Reading Sinclair Lewis's Arrowsmith

Sinclair Lewis won the Pulitzer Prize for his novel Arrowsmith in 1926. The book is not as funny as, for instance, Babbitt (1922), let alone Elmer Gantry (1927). (I find that the comedy in Lewis's novels, like those of Eric Ambler, is directly proportionate to the protagonist's capacity for blatant stupidity.) Nonetheless, like all his best work, it still rings true nearly a century later.

Where in those two other books Lewis wrote about middle-class life and organized religion, here he took on medicine and science by way of the career of doctor and microbiologist Martin Arrowsmith.

In contrast with fiction's default mode of presenting effortlessly ultracompetent and omnicompetent Mary Sues and Marty Stus living out Edisonade adventures, Lewis writes, compellingly, of the sheer effort Arrowsmith makes, and the gaps in his knowledge he only discovers when properly getting down to work.

When this accomplished medical school graduate finally embarks on a serious career of research he finds himself giving up "three or four hours wholesome sleep each night to grind over matters which everyone is assumed to know, and almost everyone does not know"--like algebra. And when he does get around to undertaking scientific work, it proves time-consuming and grinding and frequently nerve-wracking, any pretension to inhuman, infallible meticulousness absent. The struggle to discern the order within the mess that is nature is apparent, and the results not always cut and dried. On top of that, there are institutional politics to think of--patrons to be placated, clashes between the imperatives of scientific inquiry and careerism--and at the climax in which his protagonist confronts an outbreak of plague on a Caribbean island, between methodological rigor and medical ethics.

The result is perhaps the most convincing and compelling portrait of the actual practice of science I have ever encountered in fiction.

As Arrowsmith makes extensive and effective use of scientific detail (courtesy of the considerable input of microbiologist Paul de Kriuf), and hinges on a fictional discovery rooted in then-contemporary science, this Pulitzer Prize winner can also be read as a work of science fiction which critics have simply not bothered to label as such.

Naturally one wonders why this novel has so often been overlooked by historians of the genre. I suppose it is a reflection of the unfortunate extent to which the novels of Nobel Laureate Lewis have been overlooked in an age which equates Important Literature with Modernist experimentation, and as much as ever, is uneasy with satire of this type, which offers in place of postmodern equivocations audacious social criticism of a sort discomfiting to vested interests and established mores. Jonathan Swift and Voltaire are distant enough to be safely read today (Voltaire's hostiltiy to the Church, perhaps, apart), but Lewis still has bite, George Babbitt and Elmer Gantry and Berzelius Windrip being all too clearly with us almost a century on.

New and Noteworthy (Misconceptions About Science, Penguin-Random House Merger, Mortal Kombat)
11/8/12
On the Eureka Paradigm
1/26/12
Of Mary Sue and Gary Stu
7/9/11

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