1926 Pulitzer Prize Review: Arrowsmith by Sinclair Lewis

Arrowsmith takes place within the same universe as Sinclair Lewis’s other major novels like Babbit, Elmer Gantry, or Dodsworth. In fact, our main protagonist hails from the eerily familiar fictional Midwestern state of Winnemac.


The book follows Dr. Martin Arrowsmith and his rise from a struggling medical student into a successful doctor. His dream is to research and create life-altering medical discoveries that will help propel humanity “forward.” He is a Progressive, an alcoholic (like Sinclair Lewis), and also something of a womanizer. The ever-present tension throughout the story is the conflict between Martin’s desire for altruism (i.e. medical discovery for its own sake), and self-interest (i.e. the need for a doctor to make money like a tradesman). Martin strives for the former in practice, but ultimately sinks to the latter out of necessity. This is the great tragic satire of Lewis’s novel. Martin has a noble dream that requires financial security: at the root of his American dream is an obsession with vulgar money-making.

Sinclair Lewis’s drinking habit is at the root of his writing. Throughout the novel we experience a kind of light-headed pleasantness. We pass with dizzying speed through large transformations in the arc of Martin’s story. There is very little gravitas or heaviness. All of Martin’s life is a blurry binge of Midwestern people and places, followed by cities, universities, and businesses. At the same time, however, the novel also presents a nauseating level of detail: consumerist products, the prices of every-day items, and complex medical terminology. The effect is either amusing or overwhelming,

Martin plays a kind of everyman -relatable, but certainly not heroic. His time in college is satirized, along with his school-chums and fraternity brothers who all seem to pursue lucrative careers. Max Gottlieb, Martin’s German professor, is also playfully satirized. He tinkers away in his lab, all the while being mocked and scorned by his colleagues at the university until he is finally dismissed and forced to work in research for a private company rather than a public school, however his new job carries unanticipated strings attached. The company treats him well but requires the mass market production of his research. Gottlieb, ever the intellectual idealist, yearns for his research to be freely available. Here, again, freedom is never free. Gottlieb represents the tension between the old world (Europe and European universities) in its reliance on aristocratic philanthropy; and the practicably busy new world of America, which relies on corporate business agreements. The old aristocracy is replaced by institutions: the government and corporations now steer the ship of state.

Meanwhile, Martin tries to follow in Gottlieb’s footsteps, but he is too much of a lover of life (though he would surely deny it). He becomes accidentally engaged to two women at the same time and he takes them both out to dinner. One leaves and the other, Leora, stays. So they get married despite her father’s objections. They move to her family’s hometown where Martin starts work as a country doctor in “Wheatsylvania,” before he gets frustrated and they move to the fictional Midwestern city of Nautilus, Iowa. Here, Martin works for the public health department and he embarks on an affair with his new boss’s daughter. This doesn’t last long. Circumstances soon change and Martin is ousted from his position in the midst of controversy so Martin and Leora move to Chicago where Martin, again, works in research for Dr. Gottlieb. He is eventually sent to the Caribbean islands in response to a bubonic plague outbreak. During this time period, his wife, Leora, dies. When Martin returns with his research, he finds Gottlieb has fallen ill, and he begins a courtship with a new lover, Ms. Joyce, a rich socialite. They get married and soon have a child together. Martin is now next in line to take over the research institute from Dr. Gottlieb, but Martin does not want to be a manager or a politician -he simply wants to conduct research. One day, under pressure, he spontaneously leaves for Vermont, to live in the rural wilderness and work the land. In cowardice, he abandons his wife and infant son. At the close of the book, his wife comes to visit him, but they soon depart in a teary goodbye, both knowing that Martin will never again return to life in the city. The book ends as Joyce discusses divorcing Martin, with Dr. Gottlieb lying on his deathbed, and Martin spends a quiet afternoon fishing on a lake in Vermont -an odd and off-putting ending to a quirky and burdensome book.

Perhaps one of the best American themes we may glean from the novel is the restlessness of the main character, Martin Arrowsmith, who is always unsatisfied with every job, every lover, every place, every situation. His life is a parade of different scenes, none too heavy, as he follows his urges wherever they lead. This hedonistic lifestyle leads him to reject society and its politics, so that he may live in the rural woods of Vermont. What began as a promising career in medical research, led him ultimately to forgo the life he built and forget his burdens in life, including his young son.

Arrowsmith pokes fun at a great many things: capitalism, the medical profession, university professors, and so on. Apparently, Sinclair Lewis consulted heavily with Paul de Kruiff, a microbiologist, in the writing of this novel. A film version of the novel was directed by John Ford and released in 1931. Feel free to read my review of the film.

The 1926 Pulitzer Controversy
As is the case with other early Pulitzer Prize-winners (like Willa Cather) the award for Sinclair Lewis did not honor the author’s best work. Sinclair Lewis was memorably snubbed for the Pulitzer when he wrote both Main Street, and Babbit. When he finally won the Pulitzer for Arrowsmith, in a fury, he refused to accept the Pulitzer Prize, decrying all awards like Pulitzer as hollow, though just a few years later he would accept the Nobel Prize -which he found preferable for honoring an author’s entire body of work rather than one particular novel. Also the Nobel Prize came with a significantly larger cash award of approximately $46,000. After being notified by the Secretary of Columbia University of his Pulitzer Prize, Lewis immediately rejected the award because of the “Main Street burglary.” Nevertheless, the Pulitzer committee decided to maintain the award, even if the author refused to accept the $1,000 prize. The national press coverage of the controversy was significant.

The 1921 Novel Jury for the Pulitzer recommended Main Street for the prize, but the Columbia University trustees decided the book failed the “wholesome” requirement in the Pulitzer Plan of Awards and gave the prize to The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton (recall the controversial rewording of Josef Pulitzer’s estate from capturing the “whole” American experience to the “wholesome” American experience. Needless to say, Lewis as a satirist of American culture did not meet the “wholesome” requirement). Lewis’s next novel, Babbitt (in 1922) lampooned the rampant materialism of the American middle-class. It became a bestseller. The Pulitzer Novel jury knew better than to select an unwholesome Sinclair Lewis novel. Writing that it understood the trustees wanted a prize awarded each year, the jurors recommended, “without enthusiasm,” One of Ours by Willa Cather. The book won. After twice being snubbed by the Pulitzer committee, Lewis was furious. We might consider his Pulitzer win with Arrowsmith a reconciliation on behalf of the Pulitzer committee. The 1926 Novel Jury was composed of: Richard Burton (Chair), Edwin Lefevre, and Robert M. Lovett.

A copy of his refusal letter in 1926 to the Pulitzer committee is detailed below:

Sirs: –
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.

That there is such a limitation of the award is little understood. Because of the condensed manner in which the announcement is usually reported, and because certain publishers have trumpeted that any novel which has received the Pulitzer Prize has thus been established without qualification as the best novel, the public has come to believe that the prize is the highest honor which an American novelist can receive.

The Pulitzer Prize for Novels signifies, already, much more than a convenient thousand dollars to be accepted even by such writers as smile secretly at the actual wording of the terms. It is tending to become a sanctified tradition. There is a general belief that the administrators of the prize are a pontifical body with the discernment and power to grant the prize as the ultimate proof of merit. It is believed that they are always guided by a committee of responsible critics, though in the case both of this and other Pulitzer Prizes, the administrators can, and sometimes do, quite arbitrarily reject the recommendations of their supposed advisers.

If already the Pulitzer Prize is so important, it is not absurd to suggest that in another generation it may, with the actual terms of the award ignored, become the one thing for which any ambitious novelist will strive; and the administrators of the prize may become a supreme court, a college of cardinals, so rooted and so sacred that to challenge them will be to commit blasphemy. Such is the French Academy, and we have had the spectacle of even an Anatole France intriguing for election.

Only by regularly refusing the Pulitzer Prize can novelists keep such a power from being permanently set up over them.

Between the Pulitzer Prizes, the American Academy of Arts and Letters and its training-school, the National Institute of Arts and Letters, amateur boards of censorship, and the inquisition of earnest literary ladies, every compulsion is put upon writers to become safe, polite, obedient, and sterile. In protest, I declined election to the National Institute of Arts and Letters some years ago, and now I must decline the Pulitzer Prize.

I invite other writers to consider the fact that by accepting the prizes and approval of these vague institutions we are admitting their authority, publicly confirming them as the final judges of literary excellence, and I inquire whether any prize is worth that subservience.

I am, sirs,

Yours sincerely,

Sinclair Lewis


Who Is Sinclair Lewis?
Sinclair Lewis (1885-1951) was born in 1885 in Minnesota. His early childhood has been described as “extremely unhappy.” His father was a country doctor, perhaps echoes of him can be found in Arrowsmith. He attended Yale, though curiously he left for a spell to work in Upton Sinclair’s socialist colony in New Jersey. He later returned and finished his degree. After college he spent several years as a newspaper reporter and editor. He published four unsuccessful novels before achieving wide recognition for his fifth book, Main Street. This 1920 work was about a gifted young girl married to a dull village doctor. She tries to bring culture and imagination to her dreary small town. His next great novel, Babbit, was also snubbed by the Pulitzer committee in 1922. It was a satire of the materialism of the American middle class. Suffice it to say Sinclair Lewis was not a “glorifier” or “glamorizer” of all things American.

Lewis moved from the Midwest, got married, and settled in Washington DC where he devoted himself fully to writing. His marriage fell apart after his success came but he eventually married again, this time to a newspaper writer. He was a lifelong alcoholic who was repeatedly hospitalized for his problem, a disease which eventually killed him in 1951, alone, in Rome at the age of 65. He lived a frantic life, traveling and even staging debates around around the country for a period. He was an early ardent defender of fellow writer, Theodore Dreiser, but he later accused Dreiser of plagiarism and the two got into a famous public fight in which Dreiser repeatedly slapped Lewis. Sinclair Lewis returned to the Midwest to be a creative writing teacher in Wisconsin, but he abruptly left after a few months claiming he had taught the students everything he knew. He later lived in Hollywood, and Vermont, and he also developed a little farm for himself in rural Massachusetts. 

He became the first writer from the United States to win a Nobel Prize (1930), though his works have often been overshadowed by other great American writers, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Faulkner and so on. H.L. Mencken once called Lewis a “red-haired tornado from the Minnesota wilds” (in fact, Lewis dedicated Elmer Gantry to Mencken). Lewis had two wives (he divorced both) and two children in his lifetime, one son died in combat during World War II and the other died an alcoholic in later life.

Sinclair Lewis’s great works include: Main Street (1920), Babbit (1922), Arrowsmith (1925), Elmer Gantry (1927), Dodsworth (1929), and It Can’t Happen Here (1935).

Here are some quotations from Arrowsmith that I found amusing or interesting while reading:

“In the study of the profession to which he had looked forward all his life he found irritation and vacuity as well as serene wisdom; he saw no one clear path to Truth but a thousand paths to a thousand truths far-off and doubtful” (20).

“For all his fancied superiority to the class, Martin was illumatably ignorant of literature, or painting, of music” (25).

“It cannot be said in this biography of 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 obnoxious morass, that Martin’s intentions toward Madeline Fox were what is called ‘honorable'” (47).

“Few women can for long periods keep from trying to Improve their men, and To Improve means to change a person from what he is, whatever that may be, into something else. Girls like Madeline Fox, artistic young women who do not work at it, cannot be restrained from Improving for more than a day at a time. The moment the urgent Martin showed that he was stirred by her graces, she went at his clothes – his corduroys and soft collars and eccentric old grey felt hat – at his vocabulary and his taste in fiction, with new and more patronizing vigor” (49).

“For all his devotion to Max Gottlieb’s pessimistic view of the human intellect, Martin had believed that there was such a thing as progress, that events meant something, that people could learn something…” (52).

“Like all ardent agnostics, Martin was a religious man” (178).

“…and he demanded of Martin only the belief that a rapid and noisy moving from place to place is the means (and possibly the end) of Progress” (220 -regarding Martin’s expectations from Dr. Pickerbaugh at his new job).

“Now Martin’s labor sympathies were small. Like most laboratory men, he believed that the reason why workmen found less joy in sewing vests or in pulling a lever than he did in a long research was because they were an inferior race, born lazy and wicked. The complaint of the unions was the one thing to convince him that at last he had found perfection” (249).

“…and he [Martin] prayed then the prayer of the scientist: ‘God give me unclouded eyes and freedom from haste. God give me a quiet and relentless anger against all pretense and all pretentioius work and all work left slack and unfinished. God give me a restlessness whereby I may neither sleep nor accept praise till my observed results equal my calculated results or in pious glee I discover and assault my error. God give me strength not to trust God!'” (294).

“There may have been in the shadowy heart of Max Gottlieb a diabolic insensibility to divine pity, to suffering humankind; there may have been mere resentment of the doctors who considered his science of value only as it was handy to advertising their business of healing; there may have been the obscure and passionate and unscrupulous demand of genius for privacy. Certainly he who had lived to study the methods of immunizing mankind against disease had little interest in actually using those methods. He was like a fabulous painter, so contemptuous of popular taste that after a lifetime of creation he should destroy everything he had done, lest it be marred and mocked by the dull eyes of the crowd” (365).

Lewis, Sinclair. Arrowsmith. New York, Literary Classics of the United States: Distributed by Penguin Books, 2002.

Click here to return to my survey of the Pulitzer Prize Winners.

3 thoughts on “1926 Pulitzer Prize Review: Arrowsmith by Sinclair Lewis

  1. Pingback: The Age of Innocence on Trial | Great Books Guy

  2. Pingback: The Un-Wholesome Character of Main Street – Great Books Guy

  3. Pingback: Babbitt: A Satire of Middle Class Complacency – Great Books Guy

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