IT CAN’T HAPPEN HERE by Sinclair Lewis

by JF

Sinclair Lewis, one of America’s great writers of the 20th century, was not actually a great writer. But he was a great perceiver of human foibles, especially the human foible of hypocrisy. Indeed, the theme which runs through all of Lewis’s works is how human beings of all walks and stripes are consistently hypocritical, and consistently unable to see their own hypocrisy. Thus did Sinclair Lewis, throughout his entire writing career, inadvertantly (for Lewis was not a professing Bible believer) echo the words of Jesus Christ in Matthew 7:1-5.

What makes It Can’t Happen Here stand out from the rest of Lewis’s works, however, is that here Lewis is not exposing the hypocrisy of any single person nor any class of persons, but rather, Lewis is exposing the hypocrisy of an entire nation–his own.

Published in 1935 when most of the world was casting a nervous eye to the rise of the fascist dictatorships in Europe, Lewis sought to show how relatively easy such a fascist dictatorship could likewise come to power even in America. Lewis was astute enough to realize that, if fascism ever came to America, it would have to camouflage itself in the trappings of traditional Americana. Thus the fascist dictator who takes over America in It Can’t Happen Here, a folksly, charismatic demagogue of the Huey Long ilk named “Buzz” Windrip, portrays himself as a defender of the common American laborer, speaks in homespun Mark Twain-type aphorisms, even while he is in the hip pocket of big business plutocrats. All American institutions are impugned by Lewis as being ripe for takeover by fascism: Lewis shows how remarkably easy it woulc be for even American small businessmen to embrace fascism and justify the brutal suppression of any who spoke out against it; Lewis shows how easily the corporatized “Christian” churches would convert to life under fascism; newspapers and information are co-opted with likewise remarkable facility by the Sinclair Lewis’s fictitious fascistic regime.

Lewis, whose real gift was in observing patterns of human behavior, also gets a lot of minor details right. For example: “Buzz” Windrip’s dictatorship was actually installed and maintained by a secretive little despotic character named Lee Sarason, who is actually the real “power behind the throne” of the American fascistic regime, and this mirrors such powerful and secretive tyrants in American history as Edward House, Harry Hopkins, Henry Kissinger, Zbigniew Brzezinski, and Karl Rove; likewise it smacks as being very believable that the American fascistic regime could call itself the “Corpo” party, what with mega-corporations taking over every single thing in America anymore; even a subtle detail like the high percentage of homosexuality in the Nazi Brown Shirt movement is likewise mirrored here by Lewis in a few veiled homosexual descriptions of the American version of the Brown Shirts, aptly named ”Minute Men.”

It is also of interest that, like George Orwell and Aldous Huxley as well as other 20th century writers of famous dystopian stories, Sinclair Lewis doesn’t allow for a very happy ending here. Lewis’s 60-year old newspaper editor protagonist, the honest and earnest Doremus Jessup, starts out reluctantly fighting the system, then accelerates into a more vigorous fighting of the system, then gets arrested and gets severely and often beaten–this all smacks of Orwell’s 1984. Another odd way in which this novel reminds the reader of 1984 is in Lewis’s decision to show his Doremus Jessup character having a longstanding illicit affair with a woman much younger than him. Lewis’s tone seems to condone this adulterous relationship, but for this reader it nevertheless undermined the integrity of the protaganist, reducing him to much the same type of anti-hero that the character Winston Smith was in the work by Orwell.

This work is, in many ways, strikingly different than anything else Lewis ever wrote. On other hand, one way that It Can’t Happen Here was similar to other Sinclair Lewis works is in the quality of the writing itself, which was not a Lewis strength: The characters speak in an often padded dialogue–that is to say, nobody in real life would ever have the time to enunciate so grandiloquently and for such long stretches in everyday speech; likewise, Lewis’s own writing, in describing the setting, background, and plot development, is often much too wordy and gets in the way of what he is trying to describe.
All said though, this is a work of excellent exposure of the love of the twin roots of all evil: Money and Power. Though written in the 30’s, It Can’t Happen Here is, startingly, a novel which smacks of very contemporary events in America in our day. It can’t happen here? The hell it can’t.

Rating: Δ Δ Δ
8/2008

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