Satire holds persons, modes of living, or institutions up to ridicule with the intention of making people laugh so that a change or reform can be brought about. Arrowsmith is full of satire of the various strata of society familiar to Sinclair Lewis. Always a radical, always probing the wound instead of applying the plaster, he holds up to ridicule the social climbing, the dollar chasing, and the dishonest motives behind many so-called success stories of the first half of the twentieth century. Each group of characters is subjected to criticism: the students and faculty of Winnemac; the cross-grained and penny-pinching Tozers; the impossible Pickerbaugh family and Irving Watters; the sham and pretense behind the Hunziker procedures; and the hollowness and jealousy among most of the higher-ups at McGurk. Only a few characters, notably Gottlieb and Leora, escape this scathing scrutiny. Even Martin receives a little of it.
The background comes in for its share of analysis. Wheatsylvania, surrounded by a beautiful landscape, is a sore spot on the map. The West Indies, for all their exotic setting, are the scene of death and destruction, with plague-ridden rats peeking from beneath the cargoes being landed on the dock. Hunziker Pharmaceutical Company carries on illicit moneymaking on the side, though outwardly progressive and humanitarian. So pointed was Lewis’ criticism that, like Dickens, he sometimes attracted public attention to existing evils.
Akin to satire is realism, a term in literary criticism marked by fidelity to actual facts of life, usually the seamy side, with little or no “dressing up” (romanticism). Always a realist, Lewis did not try to “gild refined gold” or to “paint the lily.” His pictures of small, sordid American towns, as well as those of the larger cities, are accurate but unflattering. The Nobel Prize, according to the official citation, was awarded Lewis for his “powerful and vivid art and description and his ability to use wit and humor in the creation of original characters.” Like William Dean Howells, he could take the commonplace in American life and make it literary material. Like Edith Wharton, he is also a novelist of manners. The surface detail of America he observed under a magnifying glass: speech, dwellings, marks of social status, pressures, idiosyncrasies, even the plush interiors of the high-priced automobiles of the era. As Lewis was preceded by Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman, and Mark Twain, all of whom railed against mass culture and fixed ideas, so was he succeeded by John P. Marquand, author of H. M. Pulham, Esq. and other novels satirizing the mores of later decades in America. Of the two novelists, however, Lewis is by far the greater.
S. N. Grebstein prophesied that Lewis would eventually approximate in American literature the position held by Dickens in England. Both authors discredit the imitation and conventionality of other novelists of their own times and reject the theory of “sweetness and light” in literature. Both could seek out the sore spot but left it to others to find a cure. Neither accepted the theory that humanity is in the clutch of circumstances but believed that the individual should be strong enough to overcome odds and fight off pressures. Both criticized manners, morals, and institutions, painting them with all their defects rather than with a glow of unreality, and both could hold the reader spellbound with the leisurely telling of an entertaining story. E. M. Forster likened Lewis to a cameraman, a “photographic realist.” Even so was Dickens in his England of an earlier date.
Arrowsmith is rich in local color, for Sinclair Lewis saw nature as well as human nature with that same photographic eye. He had a flair for detail that accompanied close observation and keen awareness of all going on around him. This acuteness of senses is not unusual in poets and novelists. Wordsworth had it. Edna Ferber, in A Kind of Magic, asserts that she does. Aldous Huxley tried to cultivate it with the use of drugs.
Such minutiae as Lewis includes make the reader almost hear and see the North Dakota farmlands, the lush but infected St. Hubert, and the clang and clamor of the great cities. Not only details of scenery but those of customs, speech, and personal appearance provide a background for the action. The laboratories in which Martin worked are brought close to the reader; so are the interiors of certain rooms, such as the hall where Capitola McGurk entertained with scientific dinners, as well as the interior of the home in which Martin met Joyce Lanyon, that of the Twyfords at St. Swithin in the West Indies. The reader feels that he has actually seen the places and people that Lewis describes. Local color provides details of scenery, customs, appearance, speech, and human relations.