It Can’t Happen Here
By Sinclair Lewis
While not Lewis’ best what with his sarcastic and sardonic style in highest dudgeon, it does remind readers just how thin the layers of democracy and civilization are, more easily than we care to believe blown away like topsoil during the Great Depression. It rates four stars because of the warning and prescient message it delivers to every generation of Americans since its publication in 1935.
While readers, distant as they are from the 1930s, may think the novel alerts to the dangers of fascism, it’s really more about the rise of populist demagogues who play on the emotions of disgruntled and disenfranchised people, specifically in Lewis’ case, Louisiana governor and senator Huey Long. The message is it can happen here when given a sufficiently dissociated electorate who respond to simplistic messages, such heard numerous times in American history, as well as most recently: “Make America Great Again,” and “What Have You Got to Lose?” To which Lewis, and millions of others, would respond: “Everything.”
The novel divides into three parts. The first covers the furious campaign of one Berzelius Windrip (even the names drip with the sardonic) and his cohorts to win the 1936 Democratic nomination, the winning of it, the organization of a fascist-like corps, and then the rapid conversion to virtual dictatorship. In the second comes the complete destruction of democratic institutions and the use of propaganda and doublespeak to befuddle a nation and whip up enthusiasts, while actively suppressing all kinds of opposition, as well as tossing many into concentration camps and the liberal use of physical abuse and murder. Windrip’s “The Fifteen Points of Victory for the Forgotten Man,” a hodgepodge of socialist and fascist fantastical pledges aimed at those who feel left behind bear a striking resemblance to Long’s eight “Share the Wealth” planks, among them limits on personal wealth, guaranteed income, proper treatment of veterans, and the like. In the third the oppressed organize to conduct their own propaganda campaign to undermine the authoritarian government of Windrip and his successors by palace revolt and assassination, closing on the thought that the effort will be long and relentless.
The focal character here is a sort of intelligent everyman, small town newspaper editor and armchair philosopher Doremus Jessup. As his name implies, Doremus is something of a gatekeeper, here a defender of the American republic way of life, who fails at first to recognize how easily the nation can be swayed by demagoguery into giving up its precious freedoms. However, once aroused, Doremus joins with others, to his own personal peril, in active rebellion. Readers will find it interesting to compare the final words of It Can’t Happen Here with those of Tom Joad in Steinbeck’s 1939 ode to the plight of the oppressed, The Grapes of Wrath. The former concludes with, “And still Doremus goes on in the red sunrise, for a Doremus Jessup can never die.” Tom Joad exits near the end with these words to his mother, “Then I’ll be all aroun’ in the dark. I’ll be ever’where—wherever you look.” (It continues and represents one of the most stirring moments in the novel.)
While not Lewis’ greatest, it is a book with a message, a shouted warning that the lovers of democracy must always be on guard and always ready to rise to its defense, the sooner always being the better. w/c