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  • The Immunity of Empire: Tropical Medicine, Medical Nativism, and Biopolitics in Sinclair Lewis’s Arrowsmith
  • Yeonsik Jung (bio)

In January 1923, Sinclair Lewis set out on a two-month trip to the West Indies, accompanied by his scientific collaborator the bacteriologist Paul de Kruif, to research his novel Arrowsmith, particularly its climactic episode about a plague outbreak on a tropical island. During the trip, he chose “Barbarian” as the working title for this new novel about a young research scientist.1 As Sheldon Grebstein suggests, “Barbarian,” along with the other potential title “The Stumbler,” implies one phase in the development of the hero, Martin Arrowsmith, who is at times tactless, stubborn, and selfish in his personal relationships.2 It connotes both Arrowsmith’s headlong quest for scientific truth and also the impediments and beguilements that curb his passion, as shown in Lewis’s portrait of the young bacteriologist as “the barbarian, the ascetic, the contemptuous acolyte of science.”3 From his early days in medical school at the University of Winnemac, a fictional American state, Arrowsmith indeed considers “barbarian” a watchword for life’s journey as a laboratory scientist unhampered by commercialism, pseudoscience, and fame-chasing (32). Charles E. Rosenberg thus argues that Arrowsmith aims to describe “the essence of heroism, the measure of a man’s stature [that] lay in the extent to which he was able to disengage himself from the confining pressures of American society,” and specifically that Arrowsmith is unlike the typical American scientist who abandons his scientific pursuits for the sake of the national interest.4

The tentative title “Barbarian,” however, also alludes to the indigenous people of the tropical colony. Lewis’s publisher, Alfred Harcourt, disapproved of the title because it overemphasized a certain aspect of the story and might remind readers of a Tarzan novel.5 Other titles [End Page 185] Lewis offered Harcourt, such as “The Savage” and “Strange Islands,” resonate with the epidemic that wreaks havoc on the “savages” of the “strange island” in the novel and foreshadow its theme of colonialism.6 Participating in a medical campaign to fight the bubonic plague in the Caribbean, Arrowsmith insists on using the native people as a “control” who will die as guinea pigs for the identification of pathogenic bacteria and bacteriophage and, as a consequence, for others’ acquisition of immunity to an infectious lethal disease. Though managing to disengage himself from commercialism in modern medicine, Arrowsmith nonetheless plays a constitutive role in framing the plague in racialized, and racist, terms.

This essay reads Lewis’s Arrowsmith as a colonial text, considering Arrowsmith’s expedition to the Caribbean less as a random episode than as a culmination of the American imperial project hinging on the pathologization of the bodies of the colonized. Combining a fear of foreigners as carriers of disease and filth with a spatial anxiety generated by the closure of the frontier and furthered by a sense of belatedness in terms of imperial expansion, institutionalized tropical medicine functioned to mark constitutive biological and cultural difference between colonizers and colonized. Tropical medicine looked upon American vulnerability to tropical disease paradoxically as proof of racial superiority, disingenuously painting the tropical native as a potential invader, a threat not only to the public health but also to national security. In Arrowsmith, tropical medicine disguises itself as a philanthropic, idealistic, and scientific endeavor that transcends the ugly politics of racism and imperialism, all the while reproducing a pseudo-scientific discourse of racism that consolidates the alleged biological superiority of white colonizers.

Arrowsmith’s plague expedition enacts early twentieth-century American imperial biological warfare in the tropical colonies. An American colonial doctor-scientist serves as an emissary of empire in this warfare, seeking to secure immunity from an attack of communicable disease (equated variously with pernicious immigrants or colonial natives). It is no doubt true that an economic motive drove turn-of-the-century American imperial expansion as well as the establishment of tropical medicine. But tropical medicine, though founded in colonial peripheries as derivatives of the colonization project, also laid the groundwork for biopolitical control of twentieth-century American populations. Eugenics played a crucial role in the politicization of body and disease in this period...


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pp. 185-206
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