A cautionary tale about the rise of fascism in the United States first published in 1935. During the presidential election of 1936, Doremus Jessup, a newspaper editor, observes with dismay that many of the people he knows support the candidacy of a fascist, Berzelius Windrip. When Windrip wins the election, he forcibly gains control of Congress and the Supreme Court, and, with the aid of his personal paramilitary storm troopers, turns the United States into a totalitarian state. Jessup opposes him, is captured, and escapes to Canada.
Not exactly a literary masterpiece, but a good read nevertheless. The political and social message outweighs the prose.
In 1935, Sinclair Lewis, first American to win the Nobel Prize for Literature (1930), published a dystopian classic that is little read or remembered today. It should be. It Can't Happen Here, of course, posits that it can happen here, and more easily than we'd like to think.
The bugbears of the tale are Communists (which we didn't get over until 1989) and Liberals, which are still regarded as traitors by those who refuse to accept the legitimacy of any Democrat in the White House. And the populists--with their emphasis on corporate sovereignty, their lip service to Main Street, their obsession with guns, and their demands for the invasion of Mexico--don't seem dated at all. They call themselves the Corpos, but they're really just a tea party.
We follow a small-town everyman, a newspaper editor who loses his paper to the propagandists, his freedom to totalitarian courts, and his self-respect to the bullies of every stripe. It's a dark tale that is leavened with the ironic humor Lewis puts in the mouth of his characters. And it is startlingly prescient: Lewis knew just where Hitler and Mussolini were headed. And where I sometimes feel we're headed today because, of course, it can't happen here.
I had read a couple of Sinclair Lewis’s other novels ([Babbitt] and [Main Street]) but had never even heard of this one until I chanced upon a display of it in my local Waterstone’s and succumbed to an impulse buy. Like his other books, it has a dated feel (well, it is eighty years old) and I found the tone of the opening few pages rather off-putting. Once I got beyond them, though, I was hooked. The great charm of [Babbitt] was its celebration of the humdrum and ordinary, and that permeates this book as well, though here it is counterbalanced by the pellucid insight into the appetite and quest for power. The reader is guided through the startling events leading up to and then proceeding from the election of Buzz Windrip to the Presidency by Doremus Jessop, editor and columnist of the local newspaper in Fort Beulah, Vermont. Jessop is far from perfect, and has in his time subscribed to number of political inclinations, ending up in middle age as a wise, benign and liberal man, concerned at the threat to prevailing social mores while also hoping for a more equitable world.
Buzz Windrip is appalling, but all too plausible, and emerges fully formed into the political scene as America struggles to set the Depression behind her while striving to avoid further entanglement in the political and military crises looming in Europe as fascist dictators spring up seemingly everywhere. Throughout the Presidential campaign numerous commentators compare Windrip with Hitler, Mussolini and Franco, to be met wth the constant refrain of, ‘It can’t happen here’, until, of course, it does.
Lewis writes in a simple, clear style, and excels in his portraits of middle class life in rural America. He captures the divisions that gradually affect the community of Fort Beulah as the campaign nears its conclusion perfectly. Even eighty years on, I felt I knew these people and could see how and why they formulated their opinions. It almost felt like talking to my colleagues now.
What if FDR was defated in his 2nd term and a fascist was elected. That's what this story is about. What makes it so good is that in the thirties there was a very strong fascist movement in this country, and they were very powerful.
The protagonist of the story is Doremus Jessup, a small-town newspaper editor in Vermont. Doremus struggles for a year with the new government’s attempts to censor his paper and ultimately ends up in a concentration camp. When he escapes from the concentration camp, he finds himself part of the resistance movement because that is all there is left for him to do. He blames himself for the failed revolution because he did not take Buzz Windrip more seriously when there was still a chance to stop him.
While Doremus Jessup is a generic character, the identity of Buzz Windrip, the power-hungry senator who makes himself dictator, would be obvious to any American in 1935. Parallels are made in his dictatorial control of his own unnamed state with someone who many critics consider to be a reference to Huey Long, who was preparing to run for president when the novel was being written.
The identity of the main ally of the fictional dictator would be equally obvious, Bishop Peter Paul Prang, the popular radio preacher who endorses Buzz Windrip’s campaign, is based on Father Charles Coughlin, the most popular radio speaker of the thirties who had a weekly program on which he denounced President Roosevelt and the Jews for causing and perpetuating the depression. (In his novel, Lewis foresees that TV would have even greater propaganda potential than the radio – this fictional dictator introduces mass coast-to-coast TV broadcasting in 1937 - something that did not happen in reality until 1948.) In the real world President Roosevelt used the radio in a similar way and exerted censorship via his political control over the FCC which held the major networks in thrall through licensing requirements.
Meanwhile Windrip defeats Roosevelt for the democratic party presidential nomination, and after winning the election, establishes a dictatorship with the help of a small group of cronies and a ruthless paramilitary force. Although the fictional dictator Windrip ran for President as a Democrat, any implied attack on Hitler’s Germany was seen as Democratic party propaganda in 1935, since Jews, Hitler’s enemies, mostly voted Democrat. Any discussion of the politics of It Can’t Happen Here should keep in mind that Sinclair Lewis, the author, was a political liberal who toyed with the left wing for a while in his youth. In his novel, Lewis's satire was a confused and over-the-top mixture buffooning small town conservatism with progressive politics. The populist Windrip was both anti-semitic and anti-Negro among other views that could best be described as an irrational hodge-podge with no apparent ideological foundation.
Doremus Jessup, is a moderate Republican newspaper editor whose motto is: "Blessed are those who don’t think they have to go out and Do Something About It!" But then Jessup, like his creator Sinclair Lewis is plunged into the chaos of the Depression, when American society seemed to be falling apart. When Americans looked for solutions to the Depression, the great majority went no further than the progressive platform of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. But for many, these changes were not effective and they looked for something more drastic. Lewis believed that most of those who wanted more radical solutions would not turn to the small American left wing, but elsewhere.
It Can’t Happen Here is not a revolutionary book. It is speculative fiction that posits the rise of fascism in the United States during the 1930s, an eventuality that many people felt couldn't happen here, and so were not on guard against. Lewis's prose is stuffed with florid description and turgid prose, dating the novel and making it hard to plod through. While some of the statements made by many characters seem prescient in that they could be spoken by any political hack today, many of the novel's assertions strain belief, so that I wasn't entirely convinced that it could "happen here". However, in spite of this I still consider It Can't Happen Here to be a noteworthy example of dystopic alternative history.
As frightening and politically current today as it was then...
So could it happen here? Probably not the way Lewis describes it. A Hitler/Mussolini/Franco/Stalin-style dictatorship with single state political parties, state media control, concentration camps and corrupt thugs using police power to settle scores and arrest anyone who dares criticize Glorious Leader is unlikely, if for no other reason that, unlike people in 1935, we have the aftermath of Hitler, Mussolini, Franco and Stalin as warning posts. On the other hand, does it have to look like Nazi Germany or Stalinist Russia to qualify as Fascism, or a dictatorship?
The author of classics such as Babbitt and Arrowsmith, Lewis has more literary talent than contemporary writers, with a massive vocabulary to match. In this novel, Lewis departs from his usual formula of satire, instead writing a work of caution. Predating World War II by about four years, Lewis prognosticates a brewing war, the desperate politics of the Thirties, and the eventual fall of Fascist governments from within. Windrip rises to power using all the traps that worked for Mussolini and Hitler, and maintains his power in the manner. Lewis manages to write about Fascism with incredible hindsight, as if he could see them from fifty years in the future. And the whole plot is dangerously and horrifically possible. It is a shocking reminder to how close our country could have fallen into despotic oblivion. This novel isn’t just for political scholars and history majors, but for all Americans to read. It Can’t Happen Here is a monument, reminding us that with liberty and freedom comes the vigilance needed to prevent the system from collapsing from within. It rings true in light of the events of September 11th, but in indirect ways. God Bless America!
VERDICT: 7 / 10
(written February 2002)
The "hero", if you will, of the story is Doremus Jessup, a newspaperman by profession who follows the political rise of Berzelius Windrip. His rise to the presidency begins with radio broadcasts supporting him from a prominent radio evangelist, along with speeches crated to make Windrip appear as a true man of the people, wanting the same things as the common worker; Doremus and his group of friends listen in astonishment as Windrip's popularity grows. But when Windrip wins the election, his changes are swift, and America finds itself confronted with the same ideals as those that rushed through Germany only a few years before -- though Windrip and his cabinet called them by other names, trying to distance themselves from any correlation to those politics.
With the new era of governmental control of the United States, state borders are redrawn, freedom of speech is censored, a new "army of the common man" comes into being to enforce the new laws and policies (though it's peopled with thugs and criminals and lowlifes). The years slowly move forward, with average people being thrown into concentration camp-like institutions, with the majority of citizens out of work, but Doremus and a few others finally decided to take a stand against Windrip and his dictatorship.
"It Can't Happen Here" is a very dark and sobering novel, and in the political climate of today, I couldn't help but draw comparisons to the way events are shaping up in 2012. I find it amazing how something written almost 100 years ago can hold such relevance today, even though it's fictional. But great fiction always dares to ask the "what if..." questions, which makes this an incredible -- and sometimes scary -- book to read.
The novel focuses on the editor of a small town newspaper in New England who ultimately becomes part of the resistance movement. While the plot is interesting, this is a long, long, long read.
14AUG2016 - Lewis' wife was Dorothy Thompson, was a journalist who accurately reported, to an incredulous American audience, what was going on in Germany during the rise of Nazism. Lewis himself turned away from the popular satires he had been known for to write this alternate history of the US in which Roosevelt loses the election to a fascist. The didactic style and serious message(s) don't make this an easy read; but it's one that makes you think regardless of your political affiliation. Read the Introduction by Michael Meyer afterward (if you are the type to read intros at all) as it's a bit spoilerific; and be prepared to set some time aside when you're done with the whole thing for some self-assessment - especially if you like to engage online over political topics. Highly recommend as being relevant to today's political landscape.
As to the story itself, the writing wasn't as dense and disjointed as Lewis's more famous work - The Jungle. The characters were well developed and multi-faceted. The prose was poetic in places.
A good read.
I really identified with our protagonist, Doremus Jessup, as a "middle-class intellectual" who is rather comfortably in denial that there are enough citizens who can't see through the propaganda and chicanery of Windrip's campaign and seriously believe his promises enough to vote for him, thinking he'll give them a better life. At least Windrip's M.M.'s (private militia; paid better than any enlisted man) are getting a return on their investment. I don't think any citizen making less than a million a year has seen his or her situation improve under The Angry Creamsicle.
This book was chosen by my (white, suburban, middle-aged ladies) book club, and not one of us was able to get all the way through it in the two months we had to read it. It was either too depressing, too dense or had too many references to people and events from the 20's and 30's that we were not familiar with. That was my problem. I kept going to look things up and falling down Wikipedia holes.
I will probably slog my way through the rest of the book, but my heart really went out of it about halfway through when [spoiler] Doremus' son-in-law was unceremoniously and abruptly shot.[/spoiler]. It's disheartening, but the parallels are too prescient and accurate to discount.
After the despot's election, his cabinet is filled with rich cronies. The government sets up work camps and jails newspaper reporters and anyone else deemed a threat to the regime. However, the $5000 never materializes. There is a plot to start a war with Mexico to distract the masses and provide medals for the soldiers supporting the regime.
I was hoping that the author, who was so prescient in predicting the problem, also had a solution. Unfortunately, getting rid of a dictator is not that easy. I'm also afraid that this book could provide handy hints for those seeking to consolidate their power (assuming that they read).
I would have found this book much more amusing if I had read it a few years ago.