Sinclair Lewis’s 1935 novel ‘It Can’t Happen Here’ envisioned an America in thrall to a homespun facist dictator. Newly reissued, it’s as unsettling a read as ever.
THIS EXCELLENT REVIEW BY JOE KEOHANE IS SHAMELESSLY NICKED FROM “THE BOSTON GLOBE”
December 18, 2005
PICTURE THIS: A folksy, self-consciously plainspoken Southern politician rises to power during a period of profound unrest in America. The nation is facing one of the half-dozen or so of its worst existential crises to date, and the people, once sunny, confident, and striving, are now scared, angry, and disillusioned.
This politician, a “Professional Common Man,” executes his rise by relentlessly attacking the liberal media, fancy-talking intellectuals, shiftless progressives, pinkos, promiscuity, and welfare hangers-on, all the while clamoring for a return to traditional values, to love of country, to the pie-scented days of old when things made sense and Americans were indisputably American. He speaks almost entirely in “noble but slippery abstractions” – Liberty, Freedom, Equality – and people love him, even if they can’t fully articulate why without resorting to abstractions themselves.
Through a combination of factors – his easy bearing chief among them (along with massive cash donations from Big Business; disorganization in the liberal opposition; a stuffy, aloof opponent; and support from religious fanatics who feel they’ve been unfairly marginalized) – he wins the presidential election.
Once in, he appoints his friends and political advisers to high-level positions, stocks the Supreme Court with “surprisingly unknown lawyers who called [him] by his first name,” declaws Congress, allows Big Business to dictate policy, consolidates the media, and fills newspapers with “syndicated gossip from Hollywood.” Carping newspapermen worry that America is moving backward to a time when anti-German politicians renamed sauerkraut “Liberty Cabbage” and “hick legislators…set up shop as scientific experts and made the world laugh itself sick by forbidding the teaching of evolution,” but newspaper readers, wary of excessive negativity, pay no mind.
Given the nature of “powerful and secret enemies” of America-who are “planning their last charge” to take away our freedom – an indefinite state of crisis is declared, and that freedom is stowed away for safekeeping. When the threat passes, we can have it back, but in the meantime, citizens are asked to “bear with” the president.
Sure, some say these methods are extreme, but the plain folks are tired of wishy-washy leaders, and feel the president’s decisiveness is its own excuse. Besides, as one man says, a fascist dictatorship “couldn’t happen here in America…we’re a country of freemen!”
. . .
While more paranoid readers might be tempted to draw parallels between this scenario and sundry predicaments we may or may not be in right now, the story line is actually that of Sinclair Lewis’s 1935 novel It Can’t Happen Here, a hastily written cautionary note about America’s potential descent into fascism, recently reissued by New American Library in a handsome trade edition with a blood-spattered cover design.
The book, though regarded as a departure for Lewis, bears all the trappings of the writer in his prime. Lewis made his name, and his fortune, writing scathing indictments of an America enamored of materialism and mediocrity in the prosperous ’20s; he won America’s first Nobel Prize for Literature for it. From Main Street to Babbitt, Arrowsmith to Elmer Gantry, there was no instance of egregious Rotarianism or middle-class hypocrisy he wouldn’t gleefully assail. Lewis was so successful in these forays that the eponymous protagonist of Babbitt, whom Lewis held up as the embodiment of all that was wrong with middle-class America in the ’20s, saw his name transformed into a widely used pejorative.
At its center, It Can’t Happen Here is no different from these prior efforts. It’s just carried out on a bigger, more hyperbolic scale: Lewis takes that Babbitt mentality – the entrenched incuriosity, the smug certitude, the conformity, the complacency – and combines it with the growing desperation of the times to envision an end of America as we know it.
It’s an unsettling read, especially in a day and age where wags and politicos on both sides compulsively accuse one another of plotting to destroy America. Other such books, most recently Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America, ask whether a fascist dictatorship can happen here. But whereas Roth manipulates history in order to show what could have happened, imagining an America so blinded by celebrity adulation that it elects an isolationist, anti-Semitic Charles Lindbergh president, Lewis suggests that it already has happened, in little pockets all over America: in bridge club meetings, Rotary luncheons. No invading army will be needed to turn America fascist. Instead, the catalyst will come from within, and when it does it will speak colloquial American, and it will come waving the Stars and Stripes.
. . .
However broad its themes, It Can’t Happen Here echoes its time, sometimes literally. The Depression was dragging on, the New Deal was on the rocks, FDR was vulnerable, and the GOP had foundered. People were desperate for strong leadership, and as a result there was a real threat coming from numerous quasi-populist movements led by fire-breathing demagogues promising deliverance.
Among these groups was the Share Our Wealth movement, spearheaded by Senator Huey Long, a former Louisiana governor best known as the inspiration for Willie Stark in Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men.
Long sought to radically redistribute the nation’s wealth and impose an income gap, which, while socialist on its face, was more a cynical ploy for votes than a fast-held ideology. Equally prominent was sulfurous radio personality Father Charles Coughlin’s Union of Social Justice, a nativist movement that proposed abolishing the Federal Reserve to reverse the Depression. Both groups were as corrupt as they were illogical, and FDR feared they would combine, unseat him, and replace American democracy with a strain of Hitlerism suited to America’s unique temperament.
Driven by his support of Roosevelt and informed by the insights of his second wife, Dorothy Thompson, a pioneering journalist who more than anyone helped bring home the full horrors of Hitler’s rise, Lewis cranked out the book in two months in 1935, in the hope that it would help avert what he felt was a looming catastrophe. In order to do so effectively, though, he would have to mine the collective prejudices and disenchantments inherent in the American character.
Enter Berzelius “Buzz” Windrip, Lewis’s tyrant. He’s a regular guy, personable, plainspoken, “with something of the earthy American sense of humor of a Mark Twain…a Will Rogers.” Guided by his secretary Lee Sarason, he cozies up to the electorate by stoking their disdain for fancy ideas and encouraging them to follow their hearts, not their minds.
Windrip’s economic policies are disastrous, his figures often incorrect, and his platform seems to change depending on who he’s talking to, but none of that matters as long as he keeps expressing himself decisively. “I want to stand up on my hind legs,” he writes in Zero Hour, his widely read pre-campaign book, “and not just admit but frankly holler right out that…we’ve got to change our system a lot, maybe even change the whole Constitution (but change it legally, not by violence)….The Executive has got to have a freer hand and be able to move quick in an emergency, and not be tied down by dumb shyster lawyer congressmen taking months to shoot off their mouths in debates.”
When Windrip is elected, all hell breaks loose. Dissent is crushed, the Bill of Rights is gutted, war is declared (on Mexico), and labor camps are established to help shore up Windrip’s vaunted “New Freedom,” which is more like a freedom from freedom. All that’s really left of the old America are the flags and patriotic ditties, which for many is more than enough. But to Lewis it’s not entirely the fault of those who will gladly abide America’s principles being gutted. The blame also falls on the “it can’t happen here” crowd, those yet to realize that being American doesn’t change your human nature; whatever it is that attracts people to tyranny is in Americans like it’s in anyone else.
When Lewis embarked on It Can’t Happen Here, his wife wondered if a dictatorship could happen in this country, whether complacent Babbitt, as she put it, could be taught to march “quickly enough.” It was a question that Lewis had already answered. There’s a scene in Babbitt where the title character blows up at his wife and admits for the first time in years that he’s not as thrilled with his lot as he lets on. His wife soothes him and sends him off to bed, where, “For many minutes, for many hours, for a bleak eternity, he lay awake, shivering, reduced to primitive terror, comprehending that he had won freedom, and wondering what he could do with anything so unknown and so embarrassing as freedom.”
In other words, the marching is just pageantry. Windrip’s most formidable task, convincing Americans to renounce bedrock democratic principles, was already accomplished well before he took power. It was just waiting for its moment.
Joe Keohane is the editor of Boston’s Weekly Dig.