Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Arrowsmith - Winner, Novel/Fiction, 1926

By: Sinclair Lewis
Harcourt Brace and Company, 1925

Arrowsmith follows the life of Dr. Martin Arrowsmith as he moves from reading Gray's Anatomy in a doctor's office in a small Midwest town to an unhappy doctor and, finally, to one of the world's leading scientist. Arrowsmith move up the ranks as a scientist with the unwavering support of his wife, Leora. He spends most of his life skeptical of most doctors of the time who practiced medicine superficially - convincing people of ailment so that they would have to pay for treatment - and caring very little for finding out exactly why illnesses and diseases occurred.

When I finished this book, I breathed a contented sigh of relief and for a moment felt very happy that Martin Arrowsmith was finally able to find the life he had so desired all of his life. He spent his entire life searching for the thing that would make him happiest and actually found it. But then, after I really thought about it, I realized that he had accomplished this at great cost. He was an incredibly selfish man. Along the way his searching cost the death of his faithful and loyal first wife, whom he often neglected, and the abandonment of his second wife and his only child. He hurt many people along the way. So, my question is, is it truly worth it? Our natural inclination as humans is to search for what will make us happy. Lewis leaves us with the assumption that Arrowsmith died happy, no matter how he hurt others along the way. Is that reality? Is it possible to search for our own happiness and find it if we end up virtually alone?

Lewis's book, like his others, carries heavy overtones of sarcasm - often resulting in comedic scenarios. He was highly critical of American society and capitalism at the turn of the century. The book was a bit long, though, for all of the criticisms it containing. I got his point long before reaching the 440th page. Interestingly, Lewis declined the Pulitzer because he felt that these kinds of prizes caused authors to write for the prize committee and not for excellence. He also felt 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."

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

So Big - Winner, Fiction, 1925

So Big
By: Edna Ferber
Doubleday, Page, & Co., 1924

So Big is the story of Selina Peake DeJong, a city girl who, after being orphaned, moves to the country south of Chicago to be a school teacher. Selina has a high sense of adventure and beauty in the world, and the running joke among the farmers for a good part of the books is how Selina pronounced, upon seeing their produce in the fields, the beauty of their cabbages. Selina teaches until she meets and marries Pervus DeJong and gives birth to their son, Dirk. The title of the book comes from a game that Selina and Dirk played when he was a baby where she would say, "How big is baby?" and he would reply "Soooooooooo Big!" That became his pet name - used only by his mother. Selina becomes fascinated with the process of farming and progress in farming, and, when Pervus dies several years into their marriage, she takes pulls herself up by her bootstraps and takes control of the farm herself. Along the way Selina determines that Dirk will not be stuck on the farm like the other sons of farmers. She pushes him to seek knowledge and beauty. She wants him to know things, but she also wants him to appreciate the beauty in the world. The story continues with Dirk getting an education, moving to the city, and becoming wildly successful, all the while forgetting his mother's encouragement to appreciate the beauty in life.

I loved this book and read through it so quickly. I enjoyed the idea of a woman being stranded on a farm, forced to make her own way, and not sitting around feeling sorry for herself but making success and never losing her sense of adventure and beauty in the world. She is industrious, innovative, and wise. The story is also an interesting study in the way we raise children. How does one impart the ideas that one cherishes and loves into one's children without pushing them away from those exact things? In this Selina seems to fail, but the reader is left wondering if Dirk might have possibly caught on.

Again, we find that the acclaimed writers of fiction in the 1920s seem to all have a fascination with the development of the Midwest in common. It seems like it might become monotonous, but it hasn't yet for me.