by Sinclair Lewis. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company. 1925. 12mo. vi+448 pp. $2.00.
A GREATER improvement on Babbitt than Babbitt was on Main Street, Mr. Lewis’s new novel marks an important advance in his development. The immense success of the two previous books might have tempted a lesser man to continue in a manner found so satisfactory by his fellow citizens; he might have decided to capitalize his talents as a hardy perennial prophet of Main Street. Instead he has preferred to attempt something more important and more difficult. And in large measure he has succeeded.
Even those who admired the clear-cut reflection in the somewhat metallic mirror which Mr. Lewis has held up before the American scene were uneasily conscious that he reflected externals only, and but a portion of them. It was a brilliant performance, it was clever, it was photographic in fidelity, — as far as it went, — but it was definitely limited in depth and in spiritual quality. In Arrowsmith Mr. Lewis, like his hero, has graduated from the atmosphere of Main Street and Zenith. More than that, he has shifted from his contemplation of the surface of life, the obvious vulgarities, to a study of the urge in a man’s soul, the force that drives him across obstacles and circumstance. It is essentially a serious book and a noble book. One or two fantastic characters bob up in it — such as ' Clif ' Clawson and ‘Doc’ Pickerbaugh; one even meets for a few pages in Zenith that well-known realtor, Mr. George F. Babbitt, for Mr. Lewis cannot altogether divorce himself from his past or forget the scenes of his triumphs; but the book itself is not fantastic nor the story the life-histories of synthetic Americans derived from advertisements of collars, union suits, tooth paste, shaving-cream, phonograph records, and Mr. Addison Simms of Seattle. It is the story of an incomplete but genuine searcher after truth.
Martin Arrowsmith was born with the itch to know — the insatiable curiosity of the discoverer. In medical school he came under the influence of a great bacteriologist, Max Gottlieb, and learned his gospel of Scientific Truth. To this gospel he was false, for a season. He married the strangely appealing and convincing Leora and deliberately adopted the code of the general practitioner. As a country doctor, as a public-health official in a Western city, as a bacteriologist in a Chicago clinic, he was a misfit and a failure. At last Gottlieb sent for him from New York and inducted him into the scientific heaven of the McGurk
Institute laboratories. Here he did admirable things — only to find that in his great work, the discovery of the ‘X Principle,’ he was anticipated by a few months by a French scientist in the Pasteur Institute.
Plague broke out in St. Hubert in the West Indies and Arrowsmith went there to fight it with the phage or ‘X Principle’ inoculation. His was the opportunity to test in the great laboratory of a plague-ridden island the truths of his theories. It could be done only by giving the phage to part of the population, withholding it from others, and noting the effects. Leora dies of the plague; Sondelius, his comrade, dies; Arrowsmith breaks under the strain and gives the phage to everyone; in so doing he fails as a scientist, but acquires a reputation in the world and much honor and glory. Gottlieb fades away in senile decay; Arrowsmith marries a rich wife and weakens under the subtle temptation of an easy life and a shallow success. From this pit he is rescued by a dogged brother-scientist, Terry Wickett. He leaves his wife and child, deserts the glories of the McGurk Institute, and goes to live and work with Terry Wickett in a homemade laboratory in Vermont, knowing that only thus can he preserve his intimate honor, and realizing — as all genuine scientists realize—that there can be no ‘success’ in life for him, only at most a small contribution to the body of known truths.
This hard outline fails utterly to give a sense of the sure, leisurely progression of the book, the keen comment, the poignant tragedy of Leora, the hot, wild chapters of the plague in the tropic island, the humanity and truth of the whole document, the dignity and seriousness underlying the novel. The bleak scientific philosophy, the callousness, the unconventionality of certain characters will disturb some readers of the book, but few will deny its power or honesty or skill. Mr. Lewis is no longer the composer of superlative jazz. He has shown himself an artist, sincere, powerful, restrained.