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Monday, December 19, 2011

Sinclair Lewis - Arrowsmith

I know that it has been awhile since my last post here. Drew and I started a new blog on WordPress I believe, but I do not remember the login information there so I am just going to record my blog here and transfer it over there so I start my next book. Right now I have my Winter Break from seminary courses at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL. My wife and I moved from Bradley, IL in September, quit our jobs and got rid of a lot of our stuff to pursue this thing, and now that I am done with my first quarter of school work, I am finally able to get back to reading fiction which is a welcome relief from theological reading and writing. The one thing that I must really train myself to do is when school gets back into session, that I am not pining after reading more pulitzers. This project has been something that I have been able to put down and let it stay down for awhile, but when I pick it up again, it consumes all my waking attention.

Sinclair's Lewis' book I started reading quite some time ago, I believe I started reading it while I was a substitute teacher at St. Anne High School. I had a prep period one period there and I forgot to bring a book, or maybe actually I finished the book the period before, I don't remember, and I look through the English teacher I was subbing for's little library. This little library was for students to take books from to do book reports if they forgot to go to the library or bring one from home. I found Arrowsmith the same edition I had and nearly the same shape, tattered and marked. So I began to read it, but shortly after that Drew and I must have come up with a challenge because I put it down and didn't come back to it for a couple of months. I eventually, because I had bought copy I had used and it was in terrible shape, I went and bought a reading copy at Barnes & Noble. So I finally pick it up and discovered that I only had 250 pages left to read, so I decided it would be an easy finish for me at the beginning of my break to sort of get me back in the spirit of the project.

Sinclair Lewis' Arrowsmith is a convoluted book that seems like it saying one thing when it is definitely saying another. I enjoyed reading it, but as has been the case with some of the Pulitzer's so far, I wondered what it meant and why it won the award. I don't think fiction has to mean something, but more specifically I wondered what it meant to him, what it meant to the Pulitzer committee, and what it is supposed to mean to me. I really like the turn of the century Christian influence that Arrowsmith buts up again through out the plot who are mostly ambivalent characters if not a little annoying. My favorite quote is one from one of these zealous Christians, Ira Hinkley, addressing Arrowsmith very early on in the plot, "You think you have some of these fancy modern doubts, but I tell you simply got indigestion." Then he tries to convince him to go to a YMCA and exercise and study the Bible. I just thought Lewis' recollection of these characters to be funny and mostly amiable. Lewis really really investigates the scientific aspect of this novel, and if any one out there is a Scientist and is looking for a novel to read this holiday season - this is the book for you. There are large portions of this book that I had to read somewhat slower to track why this experiment going wrong would effect the plot, but at points he gets pretty technical with early 20th century scientific jargon. It is fun to read things of that time period and see how entrenched in the time that it is, but also how timeless these pursuits are.

Lewis paints a picture of a altruistic scientist, Martin Arrowsmith, who is constantly finding himself impeded by the influence of others on his time and research capabilities. All that Arrowsmith would like to do in the world is sit in a laboratory and experiment for the rest of his life. The first hiccup to any of that is experience in Medical School at Winnemac where people are constantly intruding on his time like the above quoted Ira Hinkley, Cliff Clawson, and eventually Leora, his soon to be wife. Then Leora and Martin go and live with her folks for awhile while Martin practices medicine in Wheatsylvania, North Dakota where Leora is from. Here, Martin is impeded by Leora and her family who not only don't understand scientific research but don't understand fully the practice of medicine. Martin's reputation is tarnished here and they moved to Nautilus, Iowa where he meets another loud-mouth Christian with political aspirations Pickerbaugh. Pickerbaugh saps all of Arrowsmith's time with grand standing and general phoniness. From here Martin joins a practice of his follow Winnemac student Angus Duer in Chicago, this from here he goes out to be with his professor and life-long hero Gottlieb. Here is where the book actually starts to be a book, all the rest of the book really seeks only to affirm the relationship between Martin and Leora in a quasi sincere way. I believe the characters and their relationship, but I am not sure I take it all the way Lewis wants me to. So the ending isn't as powerful to me. But the novel begins when Martin lands in New York. The characters are there for awhile and it really develops the atmosphere perfectly, then Martin meets up with a previous character, Sondelius, and finds himself in St. Hubert of the Caribbean fighting plague. This scene is a great protracted scene with some bitterness in it. Then Martin returns to New York and lives out his days in general lackluster writing. This book has over a hundred times where it could have stopped and didn't, and it is mostly the question of this reader where things should have ended and why they didn't. Nevertheless, I don't think it was a complete waste of my time having read this book and would recommend it as a very decent read to anyone who has the time.

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