I’ve struggled with writing a review after my second reading of It Can’t Happen Here. That’s not in any way due to the inherent difficulty of the material or concepts. It is due to the density of the novel’s writing, how much thought and care and the sheer brutal tidal wave of information and ideas that Lewis packed into his 1935 novel. But it is also a compelling work of political fiction, especially in light of the currents of world events of the late 2010s.
As Lewis wrote, he did so no doubt informed by close experience of fascism and fascistic methods, from someone in his household. Specifically, his second wife, the journalist Dorothy Thompson, had made an implacable enemy of Herr Hitler following the instance when she wrote, calling him among other things a “little man,” in her 1931 book I Saw Hitler. The Nazis were slow to respond, but eventually, she was given 24 hours to leave the country in August, 1934 (and therefore got away with her life, as one of the first journalists expelled from Germany). Lewis’s first biographer, American writer Mark Schorer, states in reference to It Can’t Happen Here that had Lewis not been married to Thompson, the novel would never have been written. Alarmed by similarly populist trends in the United States, Lewis, whose works of the first years of the 1930s had not met with the success and acclaim of his five big problem novels of the previous decade, wrote It Can’t Happen Here swiftly and without any pause, during the summer of 1935. He sent revised proofs off to Doubleday, his publisher, in late August. The novel was published by October, 1935, and was an immediate success.
The result of the speed of composition is a coherent and brisk narrative, which nevertheless sometimes falls prey to errors (largely only detectable on a second reading). It Can’t Happen Here describes how the tools used by aspiring fascists could be applied to elections in America. The result, regardless of your reading and ideological persuasion, is a taut and largely convincing storyline. Although we would now call it “alternate history,” at the time of composition it could have been the equally frightening “possible future.” That Lewis was later dismissive of the book does not really reflect its quality. Schorer, Lewis’s deeply critical first biographer, praised the novel, saying:
“…one is impressed by its qualities as a tour de force. It is an example of the extraordinarily detailed kind of fantasy that Lewis liked to spin orally, and this is why it was possible for him to write it so quickly.” (Schorer, p. 610)
I would venture to add that like many good writers, Sinclair Lewis was not often pleased with the results of his labours. He was also in the ongoing throes of his battle with alcoholism, which cannot have helped his judgment.
It Can’t Happen Here recounts the rise of a populist Democratic Senator, Berzelius “Buzz” Windrip (this is another book of Lewis’s in which you can never quite tell where the obscure Middle Western names end and the ones made up for the author’s amusement begin, or at least, I can’t). Told omnisciently, Lewis focuses overall on the life and experiences of Doremus Jessup, the Editor-in-Chief of the Fort Beulah, Vermont Informer. The narrative occasionally breaks away from Jessup, however, to cover national events, even in the dark heart of Windrip’s cousels, as needed. It is 1935, and a new wave of Populism is sweeping the United States, in part as a response to the continuing Depression, and at the behest of a popular radio preacher, the Bishop Peter Paul Prang.
Prang’s followers, the League of Forgotten Men, are a vocal protest group, demanding better jobs, more pay, and a return to prosperity (or, in the ineptly coined Hardingism of fifteen years prior, “normalcy”). As a journalist, Jessup has a wide network of friends and acquaintances, and he begins to hear disturbing reports of the rise of Senator Windrip on the back of this wave of populism. At the Democratic Party convention, Senator Windrip, backed by his increasingly virulent followers, beats out F.D.R., the sitting President whose programmes are working (but not fast enough), for the nomination. The Republicans put up their respectable candidate, Walt Trowbridge, but there is seemingly no stopping Windrip’s momentum. Jessup attends a rally for the Senator in New York City, and observes the thuggish conduct of the marching club wing of the League, known as the Minute Men, at first hand.
Further, Jessup has read with alarm Windrip’s plans, which are made public before the election with the release of a fifteen point plan, presented as a sort of manifesto of “the League of Forgotten Men.” The manifesto includes clauses which announce the intention to abolish labor unions (Point 2), establish a state religion which penalises atheists, agnostics, and Jews (Point 4), enlarge the military (Point 7), prevent blacks from voting (Point 10), promise a minimum income of $5,000 per year for white men (about $87,000 in today’s money) (Point 11), put women out of work except in “feminine spheres” and getting them back into the home (Point 12), and to negate the Supreme Court and make Congress a purely advisory body, among other institutions (Point 15). Although appalled by this, like most observers, Jessup assumes that it is more talk than promise of action. In that assumption, he is shown to be tragically wrong.
Jessup himself is a flawed figure, practically an anti-hero. Although he has been married to his unexciting but reliable wife Emma for many years, he indulges in an extra-marital dalliance with the exciting local radical, Lorrinda Pike. Of his children, his youngest daughter Cecilia (“Sissy”) is a bit of a young, modern libertine, while her older sister Mary is respectably married, and his son Philip is a lawyer practicing in Worcester. Jessup is a man with many good friends, which comes of having lived nearly all of his life in a familiar town of some ten thousand inhabitants. He also enjoys the solitude of his attic study, with his books and tobacco and shabby furniture. His greatest trouble in life (before Windrip) is with his hired hand, Oscar “Shad” Ledue, who is resentful and lazy and strongly dislikes Jessup. This relationship in particular will prove to be problematic for the newspaperman as events unfold.
Almost immediately upon his inauguration, President Windrip begins to carry through with his threats… er, promises. Prang meets with him and disappears shortly thereafter, much of Congress is put into “protective custody,” and the courts are dissolved. Windrip, with his arch-henchmen Lee Sarason (ghost-writer of Windrip’s putative autobiography, Zero Hour), and Dr. Hector Macgoblin, the Goebbels of the outfit, with a host of other nasties, set to work reorganising and subduing the United States in the manner in which they see fit. As in Germany, many people are unsafe (in America, it is Jews and African-Americans who are seen as the biggest threats to order) just by virtue of ethnicity or religion. Academics, Socialists, Communists, and agitators of all stripes are also unsafe. All of this is watched with growing, gnawing concern by Doremus Jessup.
Some further actions taken by Windrip are intended to appear either to follow through on campaign promises, or to take on the mantle of what we would now call being “tough on crime.” For instance, this passage:
“On a day in late October, suddenly striking in every city and village and back-hill hide-out, the Corpos ended all crime in American forever, so titanic a feat that it was mentioned in the London Times. Seventy thousand selected Minute Men, working in combination with town and state police officers, all under the chiefs of the government secret service, arrested every known or faintly suspected criminal in the country. They were tried under court-martial procedure; one in ten was shot immediately, four in ten were given prison sentences, three in ten released as innocent… and two in ten taken in the M.M.’s as inspectors.
“There were protests that at least six in ten had been innocent, but this was adequately answered by Windrip’s courageous statement: “The way to stop crime is to stop it!”” (p. 206-207)
But as the Corpo forces are emboldened by their successes, they strike again, at a long list of journalists (Lewis lists many of the best-known names of the day as being opposed to Sarason and MacGoblin) (p.219). Then, the book-burnings begin. First, a modern Index Librorum Prohibitorum is devised, which “barred from all sale or possession the books of Thoreau, Emerson, Whittier, Whitman, Mark Twain, Howells, and The New Freedom, by Woodrow Wilson…” and “…denounced all such atheistic foreigners, dead or alive, as Wells, Marx, Shaw, the Mann brothers, Tolstoy, and P.G. Wodehouse with his unscrupulous propaganda against the aristocratic tradition.” Even “that cynical volume, The Collected Sayings of Will Rogers,” is not safe. Jessup conceals “every publication that any sane Corpo could consider radical: his Das Kapital and Veblen and all the Russian novels and even Sumner’s Folkways and Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents…” But when the book-burners come, they settle on Jessup’s prized illustrated complete set of Dickens when they can find nothing more radical on his shelves. He must watch his Martin Chuzzlewit and others consigned to the flames (p. 220-223).
It is after this episode, having already survived one arrest and the murder of someone in his immediate circle, that Jessup elects to flee to Canada with his family. But the attempt is thwarted despite an arduous journey, and Jessups lands back where he started, with the attention of the authorities drawn to him. A local prison cum concentration camp opens, with brass band and paper flowers, in celebration of Windrip’s benevolence. Jessup, who has been forced to hand over the Informer to a M.M. toady, and teach him how to run it, is at a loss. However, when he is contacted by a member of Walt Trowbridge’s New Underground resistance movement, Jessup moves swiftly into publishing a secret newspaper, critical of the Corpo State. But how long will he evade the forces arrayed against him? And will he survive the ministrations of the benevolent Minute Men?
It Can’t Happen Here is unlike any other book that Sinclair Lewis wrote, at least, of the dozen or so I have read of his complete works. Yet it is also a quintessential Sinclair Lewis book. If you enjoyed Babbitt for its quirky Americanism, or Elmer Gantry for its savaging of the charlatans, or Dodsworth for its observation, you will find that and more in It Can’t Happen Here. It is a densely-packed indictment of something which, twenty years later, Aldous Huxley would also address in Brave New World Revisited, specifically, the manner by which authoritarian figures seize control of societies, using the very freedoms which make the society what it is against the people, all to the advantage of the few who have put themselves in power. It Can’t Happen Here, though, is also full of characters that only Lewis would have written. Sometimes that makes them flawed, but the flaws only serve to make them more human and real.
Of course, today it is not 1935, and the world about which Lewis wrote is only distantly related to our own. While it’s important to understand the issues of the middle-1930s while reading this book, what is more revealing is the frighteningly plausible application of practices first used in Nazi Germany to American institutions. It is shocking to read It Can’t Happen Here, even eighty years later, because the events are told in a voice which will be familiar to American readers.
For example, so much of this book echoes familiarly to anyone who followed the 2016 American election with any attention. Of course, a close reading of Huxley’s political theory, given in Brave New World Revisited, would tell us why. Take for a random example this snatch of song lyric, set to the tune of “Yankee Doodle,” sung by followers of Windrip:
“The snakes disloyal to our Buzz
We’re riding on a rail,
They’ll wish to God they never was,
When we get them in[to] jail!
Buzz and buzz and keep it up
To victory he’s floated.
You were a most ungrateful pup
Unless for Buzz you voted.
“Every M.M. gets a whip
To use upon some traitor,
And every Antibuzz we skip
Today, we’ll tend to later.”
Be honest: it’s not a million miles from a bunch of louts chanting, and words like “build the wall” and “if you hit them, I’ll pay your legal fees” and “lock her up,” is it? The martial tone, the hostility, the physical brutality of Windrip’s supporters were also mirrored by supporters of one of the two main nominees, and I’ll leave you to guess which (hint: they had no love of pantsuits). The only difference is that Lewis made the forces of darkness more articulate and clever than the current reality; in that, he was relying more on the Nazi version of events, in which thundering, bombastic, meaningless rhetoric and fervent songs exercised almost hypnotic power over the body of German people.
Another telling incident described in the book combines two recent features of the new American administration: specifically, threats against Mexico, and the invention of an incident (the so-called but non-existent “Bowling Green Massacre”) as a pretext for an action which the administration wants to take. In It Can’t Happen Here, both are combined:
“…Sarason demanded that, in order to bring and hold all elements in the country together by the useful Patriotism which always appears upon threat of an outside attack, the government immediately arrange to be insulted and menaced in a well-planned series of deplorable “incidents” on the Mexican border, and declare war on Mexico as soon as America showed that it was getting hot and patriotic enough.”
However, one of the strangest (and perhaps most juvenile) comparisons that I notice between It Can’t Happen Here and the current American dilemma is in names… Windrip, of course, is a comparatively polite slang expression for flatulence. Similarly, in many parts of the United Kingdom, is the word “trump.” The former name, I think, shows Lewis’s contempt for the figures he has created who would destroy the good that there is in America for their own power and profit. It is absolutely typical of Lewis’s sense of humor. And the latter? I have to confess that I am still at a loss to adequately explain how the election went the way that it did (at least, without resorting to character assassination and excessive foul language), to myself or others, even bearing in mind the collusion and manipulation of an assumedly hostile state, and that of duplicitous figures within the government. But to be fair, I’m also unable to understand, or explain, people who believe the garbage on Faux News, people who don’t read, who don’t understand how science works, and people who can’t tell when they are being conned, lied to, and manipulated by cynical politicos. The Orange Caligula famously said “I love the poorly educated!” in one of his crowing, self-flattering rants. That in those few words he gave away not only his strategy, but the entirety of the Neo-Republican modus vivendi, could not to my mind have been more obvious.
And as a result, I’ve never encountered a better plea for good and decent humanistic education.
Most people who had a decent humanistic education will remember their Classical mythology, specifically the story of Pandora’s Box, a receptacle in which all the evils of the world were stored, along with one other thing: hope. And while in the Pandora’s box of It Can’t Happen Here there are frightening parallels to the world of 2017, there are also lessons, guideposts, and, most of all, there is also hope. Knowing this book helps to arm us against what may come, and, in a flawed man called Doremus Jessup, it gives us hints at what we may yet be able to do to bring this nightmare to an end, our liberties and our values intact. Anyone interested in not only the issues of the past but those of the present should give it a read.
Huxley, Aldous. Brave New World Revisited. Harper & Row, 1958.
Lewis, Sinclair. It Can’t Happen Here. Signet Classics, 2005.
Schorer, Mark. Sinclair Lewis: An American Life. McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1961.
Shirer, William L. The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany. Simon & Schuster, 1960.