Arrowsmith | Study Guide

Sinclair Lewis

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Arrowsmith | Context


Part Satire, Part Bildungsroman

Sinclair Lewis is famous for his biting social criticism and pointed use of satire to drive home his points. Satire uses literary techniques such as hyperbole, an extreme form of exaggeration; irony, or a difference between what is expected and what actually happens; and caricature, exaggerating specific traits of a person to draw attention to them and point out the faults in human institutions and attitudes. In Arrowsmith Lewis creates characters with exaggerated characteristics, or caricatures, to point out the faults in their ways of thinking. One example in the novel is Dr. Almus Pickerbaugh, the public health reformer turned politician, who doesn't care much for facts. Lewis uses Pickerbaugh to show the perils of combining salesmanship with medicine and to suggest the importance of facts as the basis of decision making in many aspects of life.

However, although Arrowsmith has heavily satirical sections, it is also an example of a Bildungsroman, or a "novel of formation." A Bildungsroman traces a protagonist's psychological and spiritual development. In Arrowsmith protagonist Martin Arrowsmith begins as a young teen, fascinated by an old doctor's strange collection of medical specimens and equipment. He becomes a know-it-all medical student, then an arrogant intern, then a physician, and then a researcher. Through each stage in his professional career he is plagued with difficulties and moral dilemmas. He endures setbacks and disillusionment. Psychologically, he must synthesize an identity that is his alone, apart from that of his mentor, Dr. Max Gottlieb, and resistant to the temptations of fame and fortune. It is not an easy task. A young, intelligent doctor can easily devote himself to making money and becoming successful. The influences of a strong mentor can make individuality difficult. Spiritually, Martin Arrowsmith goes from being an arrogant agnostic to a devotee of the "religion of science." He moves from feeling superior to the rest of humanity to being humbled in the face of its challenges and needs.

Paul de Kruif

Paul de Kruif (1890–1971) was an American bacteriologist who became the inspiration for Martin Arrowsmith, the protagonist of Arrowsmith. De Kruif received his education at the University of Michigan. He served in World War I (1914–18) where he studied gas gangrene, an infection common to those who fought in the trenches. He returned to the United States to do laboratory research, publishing a scientific paper on streptococci (bacteria that resemble strings of beads). He was recruited by the New York Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research in 1920 but only worked there for a few years. He was let go because of the publication of Civilization in the United States: An Inquiry by Thirty Americans (1922), edited by Harold E. Stearns (1891–1943). De Kruif's chapter criticized "medical Ga Ga-ism," which he said was a combination of "religious ritual ... folk-lore, and commercial cunning." But De Kruif went on to pursue a literary career, and his path crossed that of Sinclair Lewis in 1922. Lewis found in De Kruif a kindred spirit who was a scientist with "the imagination of a fiction writer," according to Lewis.

The two collaborated on Arrowsmith, though Lewis gets the credit. Many of the characters in the novel are believed to be drawn from De Kruif's life. These include Max Gottlieb, based partly on American microbiologist Dr. Frederick Novy (1864–1957), De Kruif's first boss; Martin's wife Leora, based on Rhea Barbarin (1897–1957), De Kruif's second wife; and the novel's protagonist, Martin Arrowsmith, based in part on De Kruif himself. In addition, the McGurk Institute is believed to be based on the Rockefeller Institute.

Developments in Medicine in the Late 1800s and Early 1900s

The early 20th century was a time of drastic change in America and around the world. America had become one of the most powerful countries in the world. The great westward expansion of settlers had stretched the country "from sea to shining sea." Railroads stretched out across the continent, and manufacturing brought more and more people into urban centers. The cultural and economic distinctions between small towns, small cities, and large cities were growing. Among the most significant developments of this era were the advances in medicine.

In the late 1800s the understanding of bacteria and viruses, and their role in infectious disease, grew rapidly. The anthrax bacterium, which causes a disease common in grazing animals and humans who handle or eat infected animals, was discovered in 1876. It figures in Arrowsmith as the disease with which Max Gottlieb injects guinea pigs. A few years later a vaccine, or serum intended to cause immunity, was created. In 1896 the first vaccine for typhoid, a bacterial disease caused by ingesting infected food or water, was developed. Diabetes, an endocrine system disorder, was first treated with the blood sugar-regulating hormone insulin in 1922. The vaccine for diphtheria, a bacterial disease characterized by a respiratory lesion and a toxin that spreads throughout the body, was created in 1923. Arrowsmith was published in 1925, and the vaccines for the bacterial respiratory disease whooping cough, the bacterial lung disease tuberculosis, and the bacterial muscle disease tetanus were released in the next few years. Penicillin, an antibiotic agent, was discovered in 1928. Thus, immunology and bacteriology were an important part of medical research at the time Lewis was writing, even if an array of antibiotics were still a few years away.

The Plague

The plague, which claimed about 60 percent of Europe's population in the 1300s, resurfaced in the 1860s and spread to ports worldwide by the first decades of the 1900s. During this "modern plague" scientists discovered that a bacterium caused the disease, which was spread by fleas carried by infected rats. In Arrowsmith Lewis introduces the plague as a way of giving the young doctor a chance to make a major scientific breakthrough, which gains him fame and recognition.

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