The Idealization of Science in Sinclair Lewis' Arrowsmith
Sinclair Lewis's 1924 novel Arrowsmith follows a pair of bacteriologists, Martin Arrowsmith and his mentor Max Gottlieb, as they travel through various professions in science and medicine in the early decades of the twentieth century. Through the brilliant researcher Gottlieb and his protégé, Lewis explores the status and role of scientific work at universities, in industry, and at a private research foundation as well as in various medical positions. The picture he presents is one of tension and conflict between the goals and ideals of pure science and the environments in which his protagonists have to operate. Although Gottlieb and Arrowsmith are able to pursue their research in some places, their work is continually obstructed and undermined. The conclusion of the novel seems to suggest that it is essentially impossible to truly practice pure scientific research in early twentieth century America. It is only when Arrowsmith abandons his family and his job, cuts his ties with the world and retreats into a sort of scientific monastery with his compatriot Terry Wickett that he is able to "feel as if [he] were really starting to work."1
Many of the tensions that appear in Arrowsmith reflect actual debates and conflicts in the real world. The debate over whether universities should be dedicated primarily to teaching or to research (and whether that research should be practical or abstract) was important in the development of modern colleges and universities. There was a great deal of argument over the virtues of research laboratories in industry, and over how much control companies should exert over the scientists working in their labs and over the direction of their research. More generally, there was a debate between those who felt that science should be pursued for its own sake and those who accepted and embraced the profit motive and other motivations. Each of these debates is visible in Arrowsmith. However, as one might expect of a novel, Lewis's description of the tensions exaggerates them. Though scientists did face some difficulties in pursuing their research in industry and academia, they were almost universally able to accept compromise and work out satisfactory arrangements. Many even embraced the various ideals and goals that Lewis sets in opposition to pure science. Very few - if any - scientists found it necessary to flee to the woods in order to pursue their research, as Arrowsmith does.
The early chapters of Arrowsmith are set in the first decade of the twentieth century and explore the fictional University of Winnemac, where Arrowsmith is first an undergraduate and then attends the medical school in which Gottlieb works. Overall, the atmosphere at the university is relatively hostile to the scientific research which Gottlieb and Arrowsmith pursue. Gottlieb is generally dismissed as "an old laboratory plug," "a 'crapehanger' who wasted time destroying the theories...