It Can't Happen Here (Signet Classics)

by Sinclair Lewis

Paperback, 2014


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Due 9/3/2018

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Signet (2014), Edition: Reprint, 416 pages


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.

Media reviews

“It Can’t Happen Here” is a work of dystopian fantasy, one man’s effort in the 1930s to imagine what it might look like if fascism came to America. At the time, the obvious specter was Adolf Hitler, whose rise to power in Germany provoked fears that men like the Louisiana senator Huey Long or the radio priest Charles Coughlin might accomplish a similar feat in the United States. Today, Lewis’s novel is making a comeback as an analogy for the Age of Trump.

User reviews

LibraryThing member jaygheiser
A disturbing book that recognizes tendencies which are still embedded in the American psyche. Totalitarianism doesn't come from the right or left--it is a response to fear. Politicians, journalists, and individuals who exaggerate risks and encourage fear and divisiveness are the true enemy of democracy.

Not exactly a literary masterpiece, but a good read nevertheless. The political and social message outweighs the prose.… (more)
LibraryThing member john257hopper
Gripping and, in places, quite graphically horrible alternate history where a populist demagogue becomes President in 1936 and turns the USA into a fascist state with concentration camps. I say history, but it was written in 1935 and must have made quite an impression at the time. In this alternate reality, Berzelius Windrip is selected as Democratic candidate over sitting President FDR and goes on to defeat the comparatively liberal Republican candidate. The repression starts quickly as soon as he is inaugurated and the central character Doremus Jessup, a newspaper editor, is forced into ever greater compromises and is eventually sent to a concentration camp. Very chilling and one interesting touch is the naïve enthusiasm of some Europeans for the new regime, echoing the real life naivety of some visiting Stalin's Soviet Union who saw only what they were allowed to or wanted to see. The ending is a little ambiguous - the regime looks about to collapse, but Doremus, now freed and disguised as a member of the Underground, has the authorities on his tail once again.… (more)
LibraryThing member seth_g
We're a decade into the 21st century, and the increasing control of big banks and big corporations over all aspects of daily life, mixed with a political populism that appeals to all that's worst in the citizenry, is the stuff of nightmares. It's not the first time this particular nightmare has troubled the sleep of those who value the social compact that emerged in the past century.

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.
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LibraryThing member Eyejaybee
What an extraordinary act of prescience from Sinclair Lewis. The blurb on the back of the recently re-issued Penguin edition offers this brief synopsis: ‘A vain, outlandish, anti-immigrant demagogue runs for President of the United States … and wins.’ Devastating topicality, all the more astounding when one realises that the book was published in 1935.

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.
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LibraryThing member LydiaHD
I read this book, about a fascist takeover in the US, back in the 70's or 80's and thought: "This is silly. It could never happen." I re-read it in early 2006 and thought, "I'm not so sure." Likewise, 20 or 30 years ago I thought a lot of the characters were cartoonish; now I know people like them.
LibraryThing member usnmm2
Should be required reading in all high schools.
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.
LibraryThing member jwhenderson
Sinclair Lewis, the first American to receive the Nobel Prize For Literature, wrote a form of naturalistic satire that at its best (see Main Street, Babbit, or Arrowsmith) was worthy of the accolades that he received. This satirical political novel was written in 1935 after he had already published fifteen novels. It was a time when the United States and Western Europe had been in a depression for six years and Lewis asked the question – what if some ambitious politician would use the 1936 presidential election to make himself dictator by promising quick, gimmicky solutions to the depression.

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.
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LibraryThing member rampaginglibrarian
" Sinclair Lewis, the first American to receive the Nobel Prize For Literature, wrote this satirical political novel in 1935, a time when the United States and Western Europe had been in a depression for six years. In this novel, Sinclair Lewis asks the question – what if some ambitious politician would use the 1936 presidential election to make himself dictator by promising quick, easy solutions to the depression - just as Hitler had done in Germany in 1933."
As frightening and politically current today as it was then...
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LibraryThing member defrog
His 1935 novel that imagines what it would take to establish a Fascist dictatorship in the USA. It’s horrifying and thought-provoking, and should be required reading in any political science class. It’s also admittedly a bit hard to swallow, since it’s hard to imagine that Americans would stand for the violence dealt out by the paramilitary Minute Men (Lewis’ American equivalent of the Brown Shirts) against people who criticize the President. On the other hand, we were more violent and corrupt and racist then. We volunteered for wars back in those days. And mass media was a lot easier to control in 1935.

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?
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LibraryThing member wrichard
Fascism in America- no just a strong president called Buzz!
LibraryThing member CapitalHackels
In 1936, FDR is defeated in the election by Berzelius Windrip, a demagogue Senator that swoops into office on a flying carpet of grandiose promises. However, Windrip dismantles the democratic engine of the USA, and proclaims himself dictator, setting up a American Fascist state similar to Italy and Germany. By 1937, has ended poverty, crime, unemployment, homelessness, and has bolstered American defenses, but at a high cost. His storm troopers march the streets, government sponsored hoodlums crack down on dissenters, secret police spy on the common man, and the Feds control everything from tax collection to the manufacture of printing presses. In his efforts to “preserve good old American Values”, Windrip revokes nearly every freedom America had known. Don’t worry, there is a happy ending, I think.
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)
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LibraryThing member GTTexas
Excellent! Some things never seem to change, including people and politics.
LibraryThing member ocgreg34
With the debates being at the forefront of the news, though, I decided to finally read my copy of Sinclair Lewis' "It Can't Happen Here", his glimpse into what life in 1930s America might be like should a political figure the likes of Hitler somehow be voted into the highest office in the United States.

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.
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LibraryThing member dickmanikowski
While I read several of Sinclair Lewis's novels years ago, I had never even heard of this one until it was mentioned in one of the dozens of stories I've read about Trumpmania. IT CAN'T HAPPEN HERE is the story of a really folksy populist politician who manages to secure the 1932 Democratic nomination (besting "Frank" Roosevelt) and then handily winning the presidential race. Upon taking office, the new president (Buzz Windrip) starts implementing the 15 plank platform that so endeared him with his supporters. With the assistance of his top-level confederates and the militia he had created during his campaign, he quickly establishes an increasingly fascistic dictatorship.
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.
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LibraryThing member AyeshaF
it's witty and interesting, as well as intelligently written but just doesn't seem to hold my interest so maybe another time but for now i'd like to read something that i am not slogging though.
LibraryThing member beyerkat
Terrifying given today's political climate.
LibraryThing member tloeffler
A precursor to Philip Roth's "Plot Against America," Lewis wrote this book in 1935 to show the dangers of Fascism coming to the United States. The story takes place between 1936 and 1939. Berzelius Windrip, presidential candidate, is hOhio. Windrip's candidacy is based on his 15 Points, one of which is that every family will receive $5000 a year (or so it seems). This blinds the populace to the remaining 14 points, which include taking the vote away from women and Negroes, and constitutional amendments to give all power to the President, with Congress and the Supreme Court working only in advisory capacities. Windrip is elected, and things immediately change. Jessup and a few of his friends try to stem the tide, but it's too little, too late, and what happens next is just not as far-fetched as one might think. Parts of the book still ring true for our current times (see reactions to 9/11). A very interesting book, and just a little bit scary...… (more)
LibraryThing member Devil_llama
Lewis's depression era classic is, like many of his other works, lengthy and somewhat turgid prose, filled with a veritable stable of stock characters and broad stereotypes; the main character, however, is much more nuanced and richly drawn, and one suspects he is writing a reflective character here. Although it is filled with a great deal of unnecessary verbiage and more description than is required to get the piece across, the work still has a great deal of merit as a slice of Americana and a look at what could happen (still could). In fact, one begins to suspect the Tea Party read this, and misinterpreted it as an instruction manual. A very important book, especially for anyone who claims to believe such things can't happen here. The only problem is that the broad nature of his characters, the fact that they are basic stereotypes, probably prevented, andn would still prevent, many individuals from recognizing themselves, allowing them to shrug and say, "yes, but it can't happen here".… (more)
LibraryThing member quaintlittlehead
This book first came to my attention when a newspaper article compared character Buzz Windrip to Donald Trump in the 2016 election cycle. Indeed, much of my confusion about how such a person came to be the major candidate for his party is echoed in the beginning of Lewis' book. This is a fine exploration of what might happen when Americans dismiss a political candidate's more disturbing statements as mere rhetoric and elect him anyway. Surprisingly but wisely, much of the story focusses on the impact of the new fascist regime on a particular family, rather than recounting events as a historian would. This underscores the idea that politics is not only personal in terms of the impact it has on individual lives, but that each citizen is responsible for how his government operates. However, as much as modern readers might like to see the novel merely as a cautionary tale for America (or as much as some may look to it as prophecy), the book can not be separated from the context in which it was originally written. Punctuated with journalistic reports from foreign visitors to America about how everything in the country appears to be going wonderfully, Lewis' novel is a scathing rebuke to an America that turned a blind eye to Hitler's atrocities throughout the 1930s. This, too, is sadly a message that America still needs. We wish to believe not only that it can't happen here, but that it isn't happening anywhere. Lewis reminds us soberly that neither is true.… (more)
LibraryThing member Tanya-dogearedcopy
07AUG2016 - Written in 1937, this is a novel of alternate history in which the American populace elects Buzz Windrup into office, and ushers in an era of fascism. Every thing in the story has a reason for being there, i.e. it's all to illustrate a point. The didactic style doesn't make it the easiest of reads; but the story itself is compelling as it follows a newspaper editor who, while not voting for Windrup, was guilty of being rather complacent in thinking that whatever was happening in Germany and Italy couldn't possibly happen here in the USA.

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.
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LibraryThing member sturlington
This classic novel speculates on 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. A populist U.S. senator defeats FDR for the presidential nomination, and after winning the election, establishes a dictatorship with the help of a ruthless paramilitary force. Many critics consider the senator character to be a reference to Huey Long, who was preparing to run for president when the novel was published. Lewis's prose is stuffed with florid description and turgid prose, dating the novel and making it hard to plod through (in fact, I didn't get all the way through before giving up). While some of the statements made by many characters seem prescient in that they could be spoken by any Tea Partier today, some of the novel's assertions strain belief, so that I wasn't entirely convinced that it could happen here. This is still a noteworthy early dystopia/alternate history. Didn't finish (2013).… (more)
LibraryThing member benuathanasia
Well...this is familiar. It was eerie how easily the dictatorship fell into place and I could see this (reasonably easily) happen today.
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.
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LibraryThing member lilibrarian
In an alternate United States history, set in the 1930's, an unqualified man with dictatorial intentions wins the presidency and institutes martial law, imprisoning all who disagree with him. A small-town newspaper editor and his friends set up a small local underground cell to try and fight for the lives and freedoms they miss.… (more)
LibraryThing member EmScape
An important novel that shows no matter how unique and novel we think our current political situation is, a lot of it was feared and conceived of prior by this author. Many interesting parallels can be drawn between Berzelius Windrip and our current cheeto-hued toddler of a president. A chilling reminder that "it" absolutely can happen here and we the people must remain vigilant that it does not.
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.
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LibraryThing member fhudnell
Written and set in the 1930s, this was brilliant satire, terrifying in its accuracy. A dictator is elected by gullible people based on promises of upholding good old American values, liberty, strength, protecting US interests and giving everyone (excluding negroes of course) $5000. During his campaign he would "...coldly and almost contemptuously jab his audience with figures and facts, figures and facts that were inescapable even when, as often happened, they were entirely incorrect."

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.
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416 p.; 4.25 inches


0451465644 / 9780451465641


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