Sunday, April 06, 2008

Arrowsmith and Disputed Passage

I don't know why I picked up these two books in succession. I listened to Arrowsmith, by Sinclair Lewis, on audio and read Disputed Passage, by Lloyd C. Douglas. Both books are fictional stories about doctors - each with a slightly different point of view. I am reviewing both because of their similarities.

Arrowsmith came first. It is considered a classic now, but back in the day I could see how it would have been shocking. Lewis portrays doctors as rather ordinary people out to make a buck. The public has a certain belief that doctors have received a certain calling to their work and a close relationship to the divine. Perhaps that is true of some doctors, but maybe not for the rest. Lewis attempted to shatter this myth with his story, co-written with the aid of an actual physician.

Dr. Arrowsmith is a conflicted doctor. He is drawn to the science of medicine preferring to spend time in his laboratory than with actual patients. And yet, he attempts to satisfy the demands and meet the needs of patients as a general practitioner. He must deal with local politics, patient psychology, bill collection, etc. His personal life was revealing. He liked to drink, swear, smoke, and even was tempted into adultery. In 1925, the public was not ready for such revelations about their doctors.

The book is full of description and dialog that reflects the time it was published. Some of the medical terminology and descriptions is very dated. Still, the essential story of a doctor torn between science and patient care, real life and a physician's facade is timeless. The story is very long and it is easily discernible when Lewis defers to his physician consultant during his medical descriptives. Some sections are choppy for this very reason. Still, it is an interesting book.

Disputed Passage by Lloyd C. Douglas must have been influenced by Arrowsmith. It was published not much after Arrowsmith in 1938. In fact, Douglas even mentions one of his doctor character's reading Arrowsmith. There are many similarities between the characters in the two books which cannot be ignored. This may make an interesting literary thesis if an graduate student was in need of a paper topic.

Disputed Passage centers around the story of Dr. Beavin. I suppose the disputed passage refers to Dr. Beavins inner conflict between being a doctor and a scientist. There many other points of conflict for Dr. Beavin. Religion vs. science, love vs. science, having a life vs. science. This story has a happier ending than Arrowsmith, but it is a weighty journey. The author takes a lot of time to explain the characters internal thought processes and motivations, which I found tedious and boring. I finally had to skim/skip those sections.

Lloyd C. Douglas was an ordained minister and perhaps he felt the need to be philosophical in his writing. It worked well in his well known novel, The Robe. It didn't work as well with this one. Of the two, I think Arrowsmith had superior writing. Disputed Passage was more hopeful. Both stories were wearing - Arrowsmith was too long and Disputed Passage was slow.

Stories about doctors and medicine fascinate me. Not that I wish to pursue either profession, but I want to understand it better. Doctors are a mystery to me. Their training, thinking, decision making. I will probably pursue more reading on the subject. For now though, time for a break.

1 comment:

Eric said...

Thank you for sharing that concise, balanced, and fair evaluation of two classic texts on doctors.

I just picked up a copy of Disputed Passages today at a yard sale for a quarter. Why? The author's name seemed vaguely familiar and the opening quote from Walt Whitman.

"“Have you learned lessons only of those who admired you, and were tender with you, and stood aside for you? Have you not learned great lessons from those who braced themselves against you, and disputed the passage with you?
Walt Whitman

Your review, however, has convinced me that I can safely donate the book, appreciate the quote, and move on to another forgotten classic.

Thanks for sharing your reading passions, tastes, and insights.