Tale of the future past
Updated: Jan 8
Sinclair Lewis’ 1935 novel foresees a fascist takeover of the US spearheaded by a shallow-minded, self-absorbed bigmouth with a capacity to charm and entertain
BOOK REVIEW: 'It Can’t Happen Here' | By Sinclair Lewis | 1935
By Joe Martin
Dignity City contributor
Illustration by Jon Williams
The year 1907 saw publication of “The Iron Heel,” an early foray into dystopian fiction by Jack London. London, who was just 30, was already a widely known and popular novelist of the exhilarating stories “Call of the Wild” and “White Fang.” He had been a staunch advocate of socialist ideas. By way of his own impoverished childhood, the myriad arduous jobs he undertook, and his wide-ranging travels, London was acutely aware of hardships, disparities and injustices pervading human society. In “The Iron Heel” he depicts a formidable oligarchy, an elite combination of unscrupulous and power-drunk industrialists and exploiters who lord it over the disempowered masses. Eventually, anger and resentment build leading to an informed and organized resistance that challenges the arrogant rule of the autocrats.
During an appearance at Yale University, London spoke about the politics and philosophy of socialism. There he met an aspiring writer, nine years his junior. Sinclair Lewis, nicknamed “Red,” would get to know London and even provided the older man with plot suggestions for future stories for which London paid him cash. Not all of Lewis’ submitted ideas went anywhere. But one suggestion became “The Assassination Bureau Ltd.” After endeavoring to write the story, London couldn’t find a way to adequately conclude it. Writer Robert Fish would complete the unfinished manuscript years later, in 1963. A well-received film version appeared in 1969.
Sinclair Lewis was an awkward and gangly fellow from Sauk Centre, Minnesota. He was an early and inveterate reader. After getting through Yale, Lewis kicked about writing for newspapers. He wrote a novel for boys under a pseudonym and that was followed by a couple of pedestrian dabs at fiction for adults. Nothing particularly special and certainly no hint of what scintillating achievements lay ahead. All that changed spectacularly in 1920, as though Lewis had burst suddenly out of nowhere. The story of small-town American provincialism — “Main Street” — was an unprecedented publishing sensation. It is a depiction in fine detail of the claustrophobic tedium imposed by shallow perfunctory mores and keenly circumscribed expectations. Understandably there were some who were offended by the portrayal but the book sold splendidly and it was readily devoured by the reading public.
The select jury for the Pulitzer Prize chose “Main Street” that year but the decision was reversed by the trustees who bestowed the honor on Edith Wharton’s “Age of Innocence.” When a few years later the Prize came around again in recognition of Lewis’ controversial “Arrowsmith” — his story of the travails of an ethically burdened physician —Lewis told the Pulitzer crowd that they could keep their award.
Over that most creative decade, Lewis produced other memorable and lasting works like “Babbit” and “Elmer Gantry.” In 1930, he would be the first American to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. He was gracious in his Nobel acceptance speech in referring by name to the vitality and artistry of a number of his contemporaries on the American literary scene — such as Theodore Dreiser and Willa Cather among others. But the august Nobel recognition was seemingly a dizzying pinnacle, an exalted ceiling beyond which Lewis felt he did not have the creative strength to venture. He confided to the actress Lillian Gish, “This is fatal. I cannot live up to it.”
That may have been so; nonetheless, Lewis continued to write. And in October of 1935, he offered a tale that has an eerie resonance and relevance for the United States today. A disturbing and violent cocktail at once satirical and deadly serious, “It Can’t Happen Here” is worthy of any thoughtful citizen’s consideration. Especially right now.
A fascist takeover of the United States has been spearheaded by a fulsome shallow-minded self-absorbed bigmouth with a capacity to charm and entertain. Alluring, humorous and disarming his ideas and proposals are insubstantial and flimsy as though made of air. Which, of course, they are.
This book is not of the lofty standard of Lewis’ previous prized works. The author admitted as much. It was deliberately intended as a propaganda piece — an affirmation of American democratic values over the seething and slithering authoritarian miasma then vitiating various nations. Hastily written, Lewis finished the job within four months. The Great Depression was reeking devastation, stoking political tumult and social insecurity on a global scale. Tin bromides and simplistic solutions promulgated by assorted pundits could provide ersatz comfort. Glimmering albeit hollow promises of deliverance give transitory solace — particularly when played on fears and bigotries already ensconced firmly in many hearts and minds.
Obviously, Lewis wanted as many people as possible to read this book and ponder the nightmarish barbarism orchestrated by an unyielding and militarized state. Precious democratic institutions are more fragile than we suppose and could be severely deformed or extirpated altogether.
Mussolini and Hitler had successfully brought their fists down on the heads of perceived enemies of their regimes. Was fascism irresistible force far-reaching and unstoppable? Contemporaneously America had its own crop of self-styled demagogues hungry for power and influence. Lewis’ pages sound a cautionary narrative for all who would uphold principles of freedom and decency. Indeed Democracy was imperiled. Though not sophisticated fiction, “It Can’t Happen Here” was pronounced by one eminent critic to be “one of the most important books ever produced in this country.”
As early as 1922 the first American local of the Nazi Party popped up in New York and by 1935 — when Lewis’ book saw light — there were 10,000 official members of the German American Bund, an organization that applauded Hitler and his nefarious regime. There was much else afoot in America that raised alarms.
Populist Huey Long of Louisiana — known as “The Kingfish” — had amassed inordinate power for himself as a bombastic back-slappin’ good ol’ boy. Elected to governor of that state and then made a U.S. senator, Long’s influence and notoriety continued to grow. So did his megalomania. His “Share-Our-Wealth” campaign envisioned a program of redistributive economics to promote widespread financial security for the lower classes. He openly despised plutocrats and Standard Oil. He made enemies. Long might have run for president against FDR had he not been assassinated in 1935.
Another outrageous character of that day was a Catholic priest, Father Charles Coughlin. He was the first shock radio personality. His broadcasts were often tirades consisting of an amalgam of populist economic nostrums, venomous antisemitism and fervid anti-communism. Throughout the land, a panoply of listeners devoured his weekly servings of tendentious airwave fodder. In 1934, he introduced his National Union for Social Justice in opposition to FDR. Coughlin was finally ordered off the air by the Catholic hierarchy that had become increasingly alarmed at his unabashed vitriol and intolerance.
One of the more curious homegrown personages quite open about his admiration for Hitler was the occultist William Dudley Pelley. He had claimed that the ascension of the Fuhrer to the throne of German leadership was the fulfillment of a prophetic vision to which Pelley himself had been privy. So inspired he founded the Silver Legion from whence came his version of storm troopers, the Silver Shirts. If ever enacted, his peculiar “Christian” program would implement draconian economic edicts as well as re-enslave Black people and disenfranchise all Jews. Not to worry, he claimed to have the official endorsement of Jesus Christ. Apparently, his largest following was in the Pacific Northwest where he made it onto the presidential ballot in 1936. He didn’t get many votes. In the course of his strange journey, Pelley wound up in the slammer until his release in 1950.
Lewis’ first marriage ended in an amicable divorce. His son from that union was named Wells after Lewis’ hero H.G. Wells. As a soldier, young Wells would die at the hands of a sniper near the end of World War II. In 1928 Lewis remarried, this time to the intrepid American journalist Dorothy Thompson. During her time reporting from Berlin, she interviewed Hitler multiple times and became increasingly critical of the man who would eventually assume dictatorial power. Her blatant dislike for the impetuous fascist got Thompson summarily booted out of Hitler’s domain once he consolidated his reign. She was the first American journalist to be so expelled. Often Lewis got an earful from his wife about the threat Hitler and his minions posed to rationality and reason. Thus did Thompson help spur her husband’s effort in sounding the tocsin.
The master conteur Lewis conjured forth Doremus Jessup, the kindly bearded 60-year-old editor of the Daily Informer in Vermont’s Beulah Valley. Though some called him a “Bolshevik” on occasion, he was “a mild, rather indolent and somewhat sentimental liberal” who dutifully monitored and reported on the goings-on within Fort Beulah, its environs and beyond. It is an election year and presidential candidate Berzelius “Buzz” Windrip is gaining traction on the national stump. A cross between carnival huckster and sly satrap, Windrip’s endearing public performances are guided by Lee Sarason, his gray eminence.
Within this unfolding drama are sprinkled numerous references to actual individuals such as FDR, Father Charles Coughlin, Earl Browder, and George Seldes, mixed in with the fictional. Huey Long is invoked and The Kingfish is clearly an inspiration for the character of Windrip who like the historical Long was once a salesman. In Windrip’s case, he drummed for “Old Dr. Alagash’s Traveling Laboratory.” This alleged doctor’s quack concoction “killed off quite a number of persons who, but for their confidence in Dr. Alagash’s bottles of water, coloring matter, tobacco juice, and raw corn whisky, might have gone early enough to doctors.”
Jessup recognizes the broad appeal of the inflated Windrip. From what exactly that appeal springs is enigmatic and eludes satisfactory explanation. Surely Windrip is “vulgar, almost illiterate, a public liar” who dispenses a surfeit of idiotic ideas. While his “orgasms of oratory” are spellbinding, the content amounts to a stream of logorrhea quickly forgotten once the show is over.
Like Hitler, who came to power by way of a democratic election in 1932, so does Windrip accede to the Oval Office. At a vertiginous pace, his administration jams a new jackbooted order in place. It is a white supremacist program that persecutes people of color and Jews and greatly dilutes the rights of women. The Minute Men — Windrip’s paramilitary garrison overseen by Sarason — are considered “the shock troops of freedom.” Their status is soon made official. The group is equipped with ample armaments. Martial law is declared and more than 100 congressmen are arrested. There are book burnings. On the Fourth of July, more than a half-million Minute Men demonstrate support for Windrip in rallies interspersed throughout the country. It is noted that “management of the poor, particularly of the more surly and dissatisfied poor, was undertaken by the Minute Men.” In the course of their duties, the Minute Men displayed a penchant for physical tactics and violence.
Jessup comes to realize the putrid depth of Windrip’s malice and courageously writes a damning editorial. Retribution is swift. He and his family suffer. He is imprisoned. His son-in-law is murdered. Others deemed a threat to the regime are similarly dispatched as happened to some leaders of the American Legion. Eventually, other suspicious and potentially captious journalists are rounded up and incarcerated. Jessup who once held fast to the liberal lore of fairness and reasonableness in political and social affairs now grasps what made men like John Brown to have done what they did. Surely goodness, righteousness and science can be crushed by rabid ideologues and malefactors.
Lewis shares this rumination from a weary yet still undaunted Jessup: “More and more, as I think about history … I am convinced that everything that is worthwhile in this 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.” Jessup does get out of jail. With a nom de guerre and in concert with other good brave men and women, he gives himself fully to the campaign to revive and restore democracy. One wishes Jessup — now William Barton Dobbs — success.
“It Can’t Happen Here” sold well. It roused awareness, stimulated discussion and also sparked a number of theatrical productions around the country. In some venues, it was performed in Yiddish and Spanish. In 1936, a troupe of Black thespians in Seattle — the Negro Repertory Company affiliated with the Federal Theater Project — performed the play, setting the dramatic action in Seattle’s Central District. Lewis himself would later perform on stage in the role of Jessup.
According to the Southern Poverty Law Project there are 22 defined hate groups in the state of Washington with either specified or generalized targets for abuse and violence. At the national level, we bear witness to the first anniversary of the execrable right-wing insurrection that ripped up the nation’s capital on Jan. 6. An editorial in the New York Times intones that the United States “faces an existential threat from a movement openly contemptuous of democracy and has shown it is willing to use violence to achieve its ends.” A situation that constitutes a “recipe for extreme danger.”
Without a doubt, Sinclair Lewis would comprehend the malevolence percolating in our body politic today. Quietism and political neutrality are not an option when tyrants and demagogues threaten. In his book “On Tyranny”, historian Timothy Snyder asserts: “If none of us is prepared to die for freedom, then all of us will die under tyranny.” Lewis would nod gravely in agreement.