“He perceived the horror of the shrieking bawdy thing called Success, with its demand that he give up quiet work and parade forth to be pawed by every blind devotee and mud-splattered by every blind enemy.”
When Sinclair Lewis published Arrowsmith in 1925, he had already achieved significant notoriety as an American writer with his previous novels Main Street and Babbit. Forgoing his typical satirical approach, Lewis took a more realistic tack with his story of Dr. Martin Arrowsmith, “a young man who was in no degree a hero, who regarded himself as a seeker after truth yet who stumbled and slid back all his life and bogged himself in every obvious morass…”
The novel is a remarkable meditation on the meaning of success and achievement in one’s chosen profession. Lewis offers no easy answers, instead bringing us along to witness the many twists and turns of Arrowsmith’s fledgling medical career. Unlike Howard Roark, the paradigm of perfection who rails against mediocrity and compromise in Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, Martin Arrowsmith is more akin to Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha, whose goals and world view are shaped by the many experiences, mistakes, opportunities, and advice encountered throughout life’s long journey.
From a young age, Martin knows he wants to be a doctor. But he wrestles with what type of practitioner he should be: country doctor, research specialist, public health official, renowned scientist. As he tries on each role to see which one is the best fit for him, he is driven by a self-proclaimed focus on discovering scientific truth, “to try to find… the Why that made everything so.” A noble pursuit, to be sure. The challenge, as in most things, is in the execution.
Because what Martin Arrowsmith struggles to find, before he can discover some ultimate scientific truth, is self-awareness and what it is about “finding truth” that motivates him. He is tempted and distracted by various opportunities that may provide money, notoriety, or influence, but do not necessarily move him closer in his search. At one point he begs, “God give me unclouded eyes and freedom from haste. God give me a quiet and restless anger from all pretense and all pretentious work and all work left slack and unfinished,” which is the closest thing to a personal mission statement as he ever formulates, even if he is never able to fully put it into practice.
Martin might have eased his self-discovery had he listened more to his wife. Lenora is the only one who truly understands him and his desire to seek truth. She holds him to it -at the expense of a comfortable lifestyle for both of them- reminding him time and again to stay true to himself. She humors his restlessness regarding career decisions, as “almost every evening he ‘reached a decision’ which was undecided again by morning.” Although Martin is astute enough to recognize that her affection is “the one reality in a world of chattering ghosts,” he nonetheless he takes her for granted and neglects her in his quest of discovery.
Whether the goal is Truth or something a bit more modest, how should a successful career be measured? Our typical societal benchmarks are income, job title, authority, notoriety, and awards. And often these are the things that accrue to talented people. However, one must be careful not to confuse such achievement as an end in itself, instead of as the by-product of sustained effort and performance. Arrowsmith eventually recognizes the ephemeral nature of success: “Damn these old men, damn these Men of Measured Merriment, these Important Men that come and offer you honors. Money. Decorations. Titles. Want to make you windy with authority. Honors! If you get ’em, you become pompous, and then when you lose ’em you feel foolish.”
Yet it is easy in isolation to proclaim that labor is its own reward, much more difficult (especially in this age of Facebook and LinkedIn) when confronted with the perceived success of others. While meeting an old friend from medical school for dinner, it dawns on Martin that “of his own poverty he rarely thought, but now in contrast to Clif’s rich ease, his own shabby clothes and his pinched room seemed shameful.” Anyone who has attended a college reunion is familiar with this experience.
This tendency to readily compare himself to others becomes a self-induced hindrance in Martin’s journey. It manifests itself in obvious ways, such as envy at other’s achievements. But Martin also contrasts his own pursuit of truth with what he views as the lesser preoccupations of the supervisors in his life who must deal with the mundane activities of fundraising, budgeting, and publicity that are nonetheless the lifeblood of any research organization. He disdains them for being devoid of vision, while simultaneously recognizing that he lacks their practical accumen. Sinclair aptly describes, from Martin’s perspective, one such practitioner: “You knew immediately that he was careful and that he was afraid of nothing, however much he might lack in imagination.”
Eventually, Arrowsmith learns that it takes all kinds: truth-seekers and idealists; pragmatists and realists; intellectuals who ask “why?” and managers who ask “how?” His role model, the aloof and uncompromising Dr. Gottlieb, is promoted to director of their research institute, and Martin is shocked when he fails. He laments that “the pretentiousness and fussy un-imaginativeness which he had detested in Tubbs should have made him a good manager, while the genius of Gottlieb should have made him a feeble tyrant.”
Martin Arrowsmith is ultimately a flawed protagonist, yet inspiring nonetheless. His shortcomings are what make the novel instructive and worth reading. In the words of Sinclair biographer Mark Schorer, he is “a young medical man who was average in his share of human limitations, but remarkable in his dedication, in spite of all impediments and beguilements…” Though his pursuits are noble and his work-ethic unflagging, his motivations are often self-involved and come at the expense of his personal relationships. Of course, that can be said of many of us. If we are honest with ourselves, those of us lucky enough to have a job for which we are passionate keep at our chosen profession because it fulfills and challenges us, and not because of any larger and intangible sense of duty.
Ironically, Sinclair Lewis had his own complicated relationship with success. Arrowsmith was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1926, but Lewis declined to accept. “All prizes, like all titles, are dangerous, ” he wrote to the committee. “The seekers for prizes tend to labor not for inherent excellence but for alien rewards.” Evidence suggests that he may have actually declined because Main Street did not previously earn a Pulitzer. His supposed aversion to awards did not prevent him from accepting the Nobel Prize in 1930.
Along his journey, Martin proclaims “that truth is not a colored bird to be chased among the rocks and grabbed by the tail, but a skeptical attitude toward life.” Likewise, success is not an end state, but the steady and constant pursuit of perfection for its own sake. Despite being written almost a century ago, Arrowsmith delivers a great deal of relevance for the modern reader.