Every man is a king so long as he has someone to look down on.
Sinclair Lewis’ It Can’t Happen Here is the best-known of his works after he won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1930 (making him the first American author so honored, although they resumed their habit of giving the award to western Europeans the following year). It’s a protest novel, less purely literary than his classic novels of the 1920s (led by Arrowsmith, Babbitt, and Main Street), while angrier and livelier and a faster read.
It Can’t Happen Here melds two protests into one. Lewis depicts a United States leading up to and in the first few years after the 1936 election, where the nation seems to wilfully ignore the tyranny and pending genocide happening in Europe, and is also ripe for the rise of a demagogue of its own, a role filled by Berzelius “Buzz” Wintrip. Wintrip, a blowhard right-wing senator who spouts populist nonsense aimed at propelling himself to the White House, is backed up by Lee Sarason, the brains of the operation to elect Wintrip and a man who similarly desires power but does so for different ends. Wintrip’s ascension to President and establishment of his own dictatorship comes despite the claims of several characters early in the book that what happened in Germany and Italy “can’t happen here.”
Doremus Jessup, a liberal newspaper editor in a small town in Vermont, stands as one of the few voices of reason before Wintrip’s election, stating quite clearly that it can. He is the book’s great moral center despite a lack of moralizing; his goals are fundamental and based not on orthodoxy or theology, but on simple concepts of basic human rights and dignity. He also knows a charlatan when he sees one, and fears Wintrip’s rise because he recognizes that human nature will push him into office and then will allow the same people who voted for him to be ruled by his iron fist.
Jessup’s observations and Lewis’ simultaneous use of broad and fine strokes to define his setting give the book such tremendous staying power, so that even seventy-five years after its publication, Jessup’s observations (these before the election) still seem so familiar today:
“Remember our war hysteria, when we called sauerkraut ‘Liberty cabbage‘ and somebody actually proposed calling German measles ‘Liberty measles?’ And wartime censorship of honest papers? Bad as Russia! Remember our kissing the – well, the feet of Billy Sunday, the million-dollar evangelist, and of Aimee McPherson, who swam from the Pacific Ocean clear into the Arizona desert and got away with it? Remember Voliva and Mother Eddy? … Remember our Red scares and our Catholic scares, when all well-informed people knew that the O.G.P.U. were hiding out in Oskaloosa, and the Republicans campaigning against Al Smith told the Carolina moutnaineers that if Al won the Pope would illegitimatize their Children? Remember Tom Heflin and Tom Dixon? Remember when the hick legislators in certain states, in obedience to William Jennings Bryan, who learned his biology from his pious old grandma, set up shop as scientific experts and made the whole world laugh itself sick by forbidding the teaching of evolution? … Remember the Kentucky night-riders? Remember how trainloads of people have gone to enjoy lynchings? (…) Why, where in all history has there ever been a people so ripe for dictatorship as ours!”
I don’t remember those incidents, and a few of the names were completely unfamiliar to me, but I remember Freedom fries, and I remember the Kansas evolution hearings, and I remember a whisper campaign about the religion of a major party Presidential candidate, and I remember hearing a crowd cheer the governor who mentioned the 234 executions during his tenure, and I don’t really think anything is all that different today from the nation Sinclair described 75 years ago. We have more money and better toys and the tremendous degree of freedom afforded by the Internet, but we are still the same people subject to the same forces of persuasion.
The downside of Lewis’ anger is that he spends so much time setting up his alternate history and having the narrator and/or Jessup verbally knock it down that the personal part of the plot comes in fits and starts. Wintrip is elected and within hours declares martial law and begins a Khmer Rouge-like process of rolling back the clock on progress while rounding up enemies, real and potential, a process that accelerates as time passes and leads to the introduction of concentration camps. Jessup joins the opposition, supported by a government-in-exile based out of Canada, as do several members of his family and his circle of friends and business associates (with a few turncoat exceptions, including his son), with largely predictable results. There’s some narrative greed from the macro storyline as unrest begins to build locally and nationally, and more from the government’s reactions to Jessup’s treason, but the two storylines aren’t well-blended. When I was fifteen, I would have been riveted by things like descriptions of how Wintrip abolished the states and established new subdivisions to the country, but now I find them boring.
The other problem with It Can’t Happen Here is inherent to the genre of protest/dystopian novels – you know where they’re going. The individual rebels, ends up arrested, some people close to him will suffer or be killed, he’ll get out of prison, and so on. 1984, written thirteen years later, follows a similar structure but spends far less time on the political storyline and far more on Winston Smith himself. The timeless nature of Lewis’ observations on human nature and American culture balance out these flaws, but you have to be ready for a little preaching, as in these (very reasonable) lines from Jessup:
“I am convinced that everything that is worth while in the world has been accomplished by the free, inquiring, critical spirit, and that the preservation of this spirit is more important than any social system whatsoever. But the men of ritual and the men of barbarism are capable of shutting up the men of science and of silencing them forever.”
That could refer to battles today over stem cell research or vaccination, or to the murder of Hypatia sixteen centuries ago. I’d give Lewis a 50 for storyline, but a 60 for his incisive take on the baser side of our nature.
Next up: A change of pace to some non-fiction – Donal O’Shea’s The Poincare Conjecture: In Search of the Shape of the Universe, the story of the history and solution to another one of mathematics’ most famous problems, which lay unsolved for a hundred years (despite many attempts) until an eccentric Russian came up with a proof, only to decline the accolades that came with it. It’s a “bargain book” right now on Amazon at $6.38 new.