The Pulitzer Project: Arrowsmith, Sinclair Lewis (1926)

Ah, Sinclair Lewis, the only person to date to have declined the much wanted Pulitzer Prize. Although he declined, the Pulitzer Board still lists him as the 1926 winner, so of course I read it anyway. I was looking forward to finally read something by Lewis after seeing his name appear so many times in the Jury’s decision notes.

A Brief Summary*:  Arrowsmith tells the story of bright and scientifically minded Martin Arrowsmith as he makes his way from a small town in the Midwest to the upper echelons of the scientific community. Along the way he experiences medical school, private practice as the only doctor in a small town, various stints as regional health official, and the lure of high-paying hospital jobs. The book contains considerable social commentary on the state and prospects of medicine in the United States in the 1920s. Dr. Arrowsmith is a progressive, even something of a rebel, and often challenges the existing state of things when he finds it wanting.

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A Map of Winnemac, courtesy of GoodReads

Fun Fact: Martin Arrowsmith is born in Elk Mills, Winnemac, which is Sinclair’s Yoknapatawpha County. (Bonus fact, Aerosmith the band adamantly denies naming their band after this book.)

Setting: The book starts in Lewis’ fictional county of Winnemac, but Arrowsmith moves all over from North Dakota, New York, and even goes for a brief stint in the West Indies. 

Time Period: 1900s – 1920s, with the bulk of the story set in the Prohibition era!

My Thoughts: This book is a little hard to describe, but I would put it some sort of science/social commentary category. It’s the first medical book I’ve read, and it was able to make bacteria and test tubes all seem rather interesting and not too dry. We follow Martin Arrowsmith from his early childhood through mid-life as an idealistic truth-seeker who wrestles with the ideas that were hotly debated by the medical community in the 1920s. There’s the truth-seeking academic side who cares about only the science which is always being rushed or “exploited” by the profit-seeking pharmaceutical companies and research think tanks. (I put “exploited” in quotations because I will leave it up to you to decide which side’s arguments have more merits.) One thing I found striking is that despite being written almost a century ago, a lot of these topics are still relevant in the 21st century as we see moral debates over things like the business practices of Valeant Pharmaceuticals. Arrowsmith experiences much of the debate first hand, and his career path meanders through both sides of the debate so that we get a pretty well-rounded picture of the medical industry.

I may be alone in this view, but I found the medical commentary much more interesting than the social aspects of the book. For one, I found most of the women characters written to be one-dimensional caricatures of wives, girlfriends, and nurses. Dear sweet Leora Arrowsmith is loyal, loving, and eager to learn from her husband – I have seen such a trend in these early Pulitzers of men looking to “educate” their naive, unsophisticated wives. She goes from living under her father and brother’s rules to living under Martin’s rules. She is the most likable character in the entire book, and I wish she had more of a presence beyond caretaker or jealous wife. The book is also a little repetitive at times – the same medical debates are being argued on different platforms again and again, but overall the writing is so smart and witty that I can forgive the repetition.

“I wish people wouldn’t keep showing me how much I don’t know!” said Martin.

Ultimately, I wanted Martin to grow and learn from his mistakes, but instead he packs up and moves to a new job in a new state every time he becomes disillusioned. He grows frustrated when he is unable to find a like-minded community and has to move every time his arguments make him unpopular with employers or colleagues, and yet he is always so sure that the problem is with everyone else and not himself. While I think the characters were a little under-developed and problematic, the ultimate focus of the book is the scientific community, and I was impressed with how well Sinclair Lewis was able to reconstruct this. I’m curious to see how people in the medical profession today would receive this book, so if you’re a doctor, pharmacist or nurse, please let me know your thoughts!

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I would recommend this book to people who are interested in science and social criticism, people who like books set in the roaring 20’s, and people who have and don’t mind listening to that one idealistic friend talk for way too long over a few beers.

Additional Resources:

  • Up next is Early Autumn: The Story of a Lady, by Louis Bromfeld. I must admit I’ve already finished reading this, but just haven’t had a chance to write about it yet!
  • Read along with me by sending me links to your reviews in the comments below, or follow along with our Pulitzer-Project tag.

A Literary Cocktail Party inspired by Arrowsmith

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I would call Sinclair Lewis’ Arrowsmith a “pretty serious book”, but one of my favorite things about it is its setting within the Prohibition Era. We see the protaganist, Martin Arrowsmith, going into speakeasies with his friends and sneaking into the back rooms of warehouses alongside the general public warnings on the dangers of drinking and gambling. I think this especially stood out to me as the other Pulitzer winners set in this era have all shied away from any mentions of drinking. Without further adieu, I invite you to The Ice House in the West Indies to join Martin Arrowsmith for his signature “rum swizzler.”

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This is Barrio 47, but I imagine The Ice House is similar to this

The Ice House, that dimmest and most peaceful among saloons, with its cool marble tables, its gilt-touched white walls, had not been closed, though only the oldest topers and the youngest bravos, fresh out from Home and agonizingly lonely… were desperate enough to go there, and of the attendants there remained only one big Jamaica barman. By chance he was among them all the most divine mixer of the planter’s punch, the New Orleans fizz, and the rum swizzle.

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Recipe courtesy of Liquor.com

Bermuda Rum Swizzle Cocktail:

  • 4 oz. Gold Rum
  • 4 oz. Black Rum
  • 8 oz. Pineapple Juice
  • 8 oz. Orange Juice
  • 3/4 oz. Grenadine
  • 6 dashes of Angostura Bitters

Shake vigorously with crushed ice, and then garnish with pineapple, oranges, maraschino cherries, and any other tropical fruit that catch your eye.

Although I’m glad we no longer have this law, it’s a period of time that I don’t know much about and am intrigued by. I suppose finding a book on the Prohibition should be added to my to-do list!

Additional Reading:

  • Font courtesy of Manfred Klein
  • Curious about the difference between gold and black rum? Apparently there are four types of rum.
  • Check out our first Literary Cocktail Party post here, featuring Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman, Lev Grossman’s The Magicians, and Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall.
  • Arrowsmith was the 1926 Pulitzer winner, and Sinclair Lewis was the first (and only) writer to refuse the prize. Read more about it here.
  • Fun fact: 1926 was also the year The Great Gatsby was published. Some people would say that Gatsby deserved the Pulitzer much more than Arrowsmith did.

The Pulitzer Project: A Turning Point (1926)

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Let’s talk about 1926 which marked a turning point for the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. So far, it’s my favorite year in Pulitzer History. Why, you ask? Well, first, Sinclair Lewis finally wins the Pulitzer! I guess the third time really is the charm his books were considered in 1921 and 1923. 1926 is his year, and Arrowsmith finally wins! Did you doubt him? Sinclair doubted himself too. He wrote to his father:

I see that just as Edith Wharton’s Age of Innocence beat Main Street for the Pulitzer prize, so did Cather’s One of Ours beatBabbitt. I’m quite sure I never shall get the Pulitzer

But then, lo and behold, Sinclair Lewis declines the Prize. I’ll let him explain for himself in a letter he wrote to the Pulitzer Committee:

I wish to acknowledge your choice of my novel Arrowsmith for the Pulitzer Prize. That prize I must refuse, and my refusal would be meaningless unless I explained the reasons.

All prizes, like all titles, are dangerous. The seekers for prizes tend to labor not for inherent excellence but for alien rewards: they tend to write this, or timorously to avoid writing that, in order to tickle the prejudices of a haphazard committee. And the Pulitzer Prize for novels is peculiarly objectionable because the terms of it have been constantly and grievously misrepresented.

Those terms are that the prize shall be given “for the American novel published during the year which shall best present the wholesome atmosphere of American life, and the highest standard of American manners and manhood.” This phrase, if it means anything whatever, would appear to mean that the appraisal of the novels shall be made not according to their actual literary merit but in obedience to whatever code of Good Form may chance to be popular at the moment.

You read it correctly, Lewis is peeved with the Advisory Board’s interpretation of Pulitzer’s will. If you recall, in 1917, they decided to substitute the whole atmosphere with the wholesome atmosphere which really changed what was eligible for the Prize. Despite Lewis’ claim that all prizes are dangerous, he accepted the Nobel Prize for literature shortly after, in 1930. This embarrassed the Pulitzer Committee enough that they quietly changed their criteria from wholesome back to whole. Lewis’ letter to the Pulitzer Committee could arguably be seen as the original Taylor Swift letter to Apple, what do you think? Keep this in mind by the time we reach 1930 – I’m interested to find out whether we see a change in subject matter, quality, or any other noticeable difference. To date, I believe Sinclair Lewis is the only author to have declined this prize. But perhaps the Pulitzer Committee gets the last word here, because they refused to remove Lewis from their list of winners.

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Additional Resources: