Published in 1925, "Arrowsmith" is a novel about a young scientist and medical student, Martin Arrowsmith. It's also the novel that won Lewis the Pulitzer Prize, which he refused to accept.
In the beginning Lewis writes that Arrowsmith "appeared curiously determined, curiously content." Unfortunately, idealism and determination weren't enough to protect him from the realities of the medical profession. While "quacks... chewing-gum salesmen" and others live in large houses, attended by servants, and travel in limousines, men like Arrowsmith are run out of town. His hero and mentor, Max Gottlieb, lived "in a cramped cottage," with paint peeling around him, and he "rode to his laboratory on an ancient and squeaky bicycle."
Arrowsmith is beset by a myriad of possibilities, and he must decide what his place will be in medicine, whether he will pursue pure research, money, or some other more noble aim. In the end, he says, "I feel as if I were really beginning to work now... We'll plug along on it for two or three years, and maybe we'll get something permanent--and probably we'll fail."
While "Arrowsmith" leaves us with a realization of some of the quandaries in the medical profession, "Elmer Gantry" (1927) draws us into the controversial arena of fanatically religiosity and hypocrisy. The novel is an unabashed, unashamed, and unforgiving look at a man whose actions contradict everything he says. The book was banned in Boston, and other cities, for its depiction of the morally corrupt evangelist, Elmer Gantry. Several years later, it was even banned in Ireland. The opening and closing lines of the novel say it all: "Elmer Gantry was drunk... And we shall yet make these United States a moral nation."
Of course, Lewis enjoyed controversy and publicity: He added to the controversy when he defied God from the pulpit, giving God 15 minutes to strike him dead. And, he probably would have immensely enjoyed some of the controversy that has surrounded Elmer Gantry-type ministers ever since. Evangelists like Billy Graham have had to contend with being likened to Elmer Gantry--using evangelism for the wrong reasons. The name has gone beyond "Trivial Pursuit" to become part of our language.
Sinclair Lewis published "Dodsworth" several years after "Elmer Gantry," in 1929, which was the year before he received the Nobel Prize. This novel was a product of his long stay in Europe. Here, Sam Dodsworth tours Europe with his wife, Fran, as we watch their marriage fall apart. He says, "Oh, I've been the boiled mutton-head! ... I never discovered till today that we do all this hustling, all this jamming in subways, all this elbowing into elevators, to keep us occupied and keep from getting anything done!"
In this novel, Dodsworth is a retired manufacturer of automobiles, an interesting profession for a man whose marriage is a wreck. Then, when he is finally by himself at the end, "he found a youthfulness." He was, "so confidently happy that he completely forgot Fran and he did not again yearn for her, for almost two days." Lewis writes that "perhaps that's all we can hope for in this life... just a few days of being happy, or forgetting other things, anything that might put a damper on that happiness."
Sinclair Lewis had hope and a belief in the future of American literature. In our coming-of age, he said that we are coming out of "the stuffiness of safe, sane, and incredibly dull provincialism." This collection is a tribute to Sinclair Lewis, as we recognize the controversies that have surrounded his greatest works.
Sinclair Lewis may not be as well-known as he once was, and his works may not be as widely read, but this collection is an important step. It's a salute to Sinclair Lewis as he once offered his salute to all the upcoming, young American writers: "I salute them, with a joy in being not yet too far removed from their determination to give to the America that has mountains and endless prairies, enormous cities and lost far cabins, billions of money and tons of faith, to an America that is as strange as Russia and as complex as China, a literature worthy of her vastness."