Arrowsmith, by Sinclair Lewis

Chapter 1

The driver of the wagon swaying through forest and swamp of the Ohio wilderness was a ragged girl of fourteen. Her mother they had buried near the Monongahela — the girl herself had heaped with torn sods the grave beside the river of the beautiful name. Her father lay shrinking with fever on the floor of the wagon-box, and about him played her brothers and sisters, dirty brats, tattered brats, hilarious brats.

She halted at the fork in the grassy road, and the sick man quavered, “Emmy, ye better turn down towards Cincinnati. If we could find your Uncle Ed, I guess he’d take us in.”

“Nobody ain’t going to take us in,” she said. “We’re going on jus’ long as we can. Going West! They’s a whole lot of new things I aim to be seeing!”

She cooked the supper, she put the children to bed, and sat by the fire, alone.

That was the great-grandmother of Martin Arrowsmith.

ii

Cross-legged in the examining-chair in Doc Vickerson’s office, a boy was reading “Gray’s Anatomy.” His name was Martin Arrowsmith, of Elk Mills, in the state of Winnemac.

There was a suspicion in Elk Mills — now, in 1897, a dowdy red-brick village, smelling of apples — that this brown-leather adjustable seat which Doc Vickerson used for minor operations, for the infrequent pulling of teeth and for highly frequent naps, had begun life as a barber’s chair. There was also a belief that its proprietor must once have been called Doctor Vickerson, but for years he had been only The Doc, and he was scurfier and much less adjustable than the chair.

Martin was the son of J. J. Arrowsmith, who conducted the New York Clothing Bazaar. By sheer brass and obstinacy he had, at fourteen, become the unofficial, also decidedly unpaid, assistant to the Doc, and while the Doc was on a country call he took charge — though what there was to take charge of, no one could ever make out. He was a slender boy, not very tall; his hair and restless eyes were black, his skin unusually white, and the contrast gave him an air of passionate variability. The squareness of his head and a reasonable breadth of shoulders saved him from any appearance of effeminacy or of that querulous timidity which artistic young gentlemen call Sensitiveness. When he lifted his head to listen, his right eyebrow, slightly higher than the left, rose and quivered in his characteristic expression of energy, of independence, and a hint that he could fight, a look of impertinent inquiry which had been known to annoy his teachers and the Sunday School superintendent.

Martin was, like most inhabitants of Elk Mills before the Slavo–Italian immigration, a Typical Pure-bred Anglo–Saxon American, which means that he was a union of German, French, Scotch, Irish, perhaps a little Spanish, conceivably a little of the strains lumped together as “Jewish,” and a great deal of English, which is itself a combination of primitive Briton, Celt, Phoenician, Roman, German, Dane, and Swede.

It is not certain that, in attaching himself to Doc Vickerson, Martin was entirely and edifyingly controlled by a desire to become a Great Healer. He did awe his Gang by bandaging stone-bruises, dissecting squirrels, and explaining the astounding and secret matters to be discovered at the back of the physiology, but he was not completely free from an ambition to command such glory among them as was enjoyed by the son of the Episcopalian minister, who could smoke an entire cigar without becoming sick. Yet this afternoon he read steadily at the section on the lymphatic system, and he muttered the long and perfectly incomprehensible words in a hum which made drowsier the dusty room.

It was the central room of the three occupied by Doc Vickerson, facing on Main Street above the New York Clothing Bazaar. On one side of it was the foul waiting-room, on the other, the Doc’s bedroom. He was an aged widower; for what he called “female fixings” he cared nothing; and the bedroom with its tottering bureau and its cot of frowsy blankets was cleaned only by Martin, in not very frequent attacks of sanitation.

This central room was at once business office, consultation-room, operating-theater, living-room, poker den, and warehouse for guns and fishing tackle. Against a brown plaster wall was a cabinet of zoological collections and medical curiosities, and beside it the most dreadful and fascinating object known to the boy-world of Elk Mills — a skeleton with one gaunt gold tooth. On evenings when the Doc was away, Martin would acquire prestige among the trembling Gang by leading them into the unutterable darkness and scratching a sulfur match on the skeleton’s jaw.

On the wall was a home-stuffed pickerel on a home-varnished board. Beside the rusty stove, a sawdust-box cuspidor rested on a slimy oilcloth worn through to the threads. On the senile table was a pile of memoranda of debts which the Doc was always swearing he would “collect from those dead-beats right now,” and which he would never, by any chance, at any time, collect from any of them. A year or two — a decade or two — a century or two — they were all the same to the plodding doctor in the bee-murmuring town.

The most unsanitary corner was devoted to the cast-iron sink, which was oftener used for washing eggy breakfast plates than for sterilizing instruments. On its ledge were a broken test-tube, a broken fishhook, an unlabeled and forgotten bottle of pills, a nail-bristling heel, a frayed cigar-butt, and a rusty lancet stuck in a potato.

The wild raggedness of the room was the soul and symbol of Doc Vickerson; it was more exciting than the flat-faced stack of shoe-boxes in the New York Bazaar: it was the lure to questioning and adventure for Martin Arrowsmith.

iii

The boy raised his head, cocked his inquisitive brow. On the stairway was the cumbersome step of Doc Vickerson. The Doc was sober! Martin would not have to help him into bed.

But it was a bad sign that the Doc should first go down the hall to his bedroom. The boy listened sharply. He heard the Doc open the lower part of the washstand, where he kept his bottle of Jamaica rum. After a long gurgle the invisible Doc put away the bottle and decisively kicked the doors shut. Still good. Only one drink. If he came into the consultation-room at once, he would be safe. But he was still standing in the bedroom. Martin sighed as the washstand doors were hastily opened again, as he heard another gurgle and a third.

The Doc’s step was much livelier when he loomed into the office, a gray mass of a man with a gray mass of mustache, a form vast and unreal and undefined, like a cloud taking for the moment a likeness of humanity. With the brisk attack of one who wishes to escape the discussion of his guilt, the Doc rumbled while he waddled toward his desk-chair:

“What you doing here, young fella? What you doing here? I knew the cat would drag in something if I left the door unlocked.” He gulped slightly; he smiled to show that he was being humorous — people had been known to misconstrue the Doc’s humor.

He spoke more seriously, occasionally forgetting what he was talking about:

“Reading old Gray? That’s right. Physician’s library just three books: ‘Gray’s Anatomy’ and Bible and Shakespeare. Study. You may become great doctor. Locate in Zenith and make five thousand dollars year — much as United States Senator! Set a high goal. Don’t let things slide. Get training. Go college before go medical school. Study. Chemistry. Latin. Knowledge! I’m plug doc — got chick nor child — nobody — old drunk. But you — leadin’ physician. Make five thousand dollars year.

“Murray woman’s got endocarditis. Not thing I can do for her. Wants somebody hold her hand. Road’s damn’ disgrace. Culvert’s out, beyond the grove. ‘Sgrace.

“Endocarditis and —

“Training, that’s what you got t’ get. Fundamentals. Know chemistry. Biology. I nev’ did. Mrs. Reverend Jones thinks she’s got gastric ulcer. Wants to go city for operation. Ulcer, hell! She and the Reverend both eat too much.

“Why they don’t repair that culvert — And don’t be a booze-hoister like me, either. And get your basic science. I’ll splain.”

The boy, normal village youngster though he was, given to stoning cats and to playing pom-pom-pullaway, gained something of the intoxication of treasure-hunting as the Doc struggled to convey his vision of the pride of learning, the universality of biology, the triumphant exactness of chemistry. A fat old man and dirty and unvirtuous was the Doc; his grammar was doubtful, his vocabulary alarming, and his references to his rival, good Dr. Needham, were scandalous; yet he invoked in Martin a vision of making chemicals explode with much noise and stink and of seeing animalcules that no boy in Elk Mills had ever beheld.

The Doc’s voice was thickening; he was sunk in his chair, blurry of eye and lax of mouth. Martin begged him to go to bed, but the Doc insisted:

“Don’t need nap. No. Now you lissen. You don’t appreciate but — Old man now. Giving you all I’ve learned. Show you collection. Only museum in whole county. Scientif’ pioneer.”

A hundred times had Martin obediently looked at the specimens in the brown, crackly-varnished bookcase: the beetles and chunks of mica; the embryo of a two-headed calf, the gallstones removed from a respectable lady whom the Doc enthusiastically named to all visitors. The Doc stood before the case, waving an enormous but shaky forefinger.

“Looka that butterfly. Name is porthesia chrysorrhoea. Doc Needham couldn’t tell you that! He don’t know what butterflies are called! He don’t care if you get trained. Remember that name now?” He turned on Martin. “You payin’ attention? You interested? HUH? Oh, the devil! Nobody wants to know about my museum — not a person. Only one in county but — I’m an old failure.”

Martin asserted, “Honest, it’s slick!”

“Look here! Look here! See that? In the bottle? It’s an appendix. First one ever took out ‘round here. I did it! Old Doc Vickerson, he did the first ‘pendectomy in THIS neck of the woods, you bet! And first museum. It ain’t — so big — but it’s start. I haven’t put away money like Doc Needham, but I started first c’lection — I started it!”

He collapsed in a chair, groaning, “You’re right. Got to sleep. All in.” But as Martin helped him to his feet he broke away, scrabbled about on his desk, and looked back doubtfully. “Want to give you something — start your training. And remember the old man. Will anybody remember the old man?”

He was holding out the beloved magnifying glass which for years he had used in botanizing. He watched Martin slip the lens into his pocket, he sighed, he struggled for something else to say, and silently he lumbered into his bedroom.

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:38