Today, I am reviewing a novel published in 1935 by Sinclair Lewis entitled “It Can’t Happen Here.” This cautionary tale about the rise of fascism in America is a timeless classic, and given the current political landscape, a chillingly prescient voice from the pages of history that outlines how fascism and martial law comes wrapped in red, white and blue bunting. The parallels between the Trump administration and the characters and events in Lewis’ novel are nothing less than astounding.
In a review of Lewis’ novel published in the October 1935 issue of Nation, critic R.P. Blackmer stated that “there is hardly a literary question that it does not fail to raise and there is hardly a rule for the good conduct of novels that it does not break.” Other reviewers complained of a loose melodramatic plot, and among other things, heavy-handed satire and irony.
I will leave the “good conduct of novels” to writers of novels, but insofar as a “loose melodramatic plot” and “heavy-handed satire” are concerned, I could not disagree more. Chaos and the absence of a happy ending were purposeful. And Lewis authenticated his award of the Nobel Prize with the psychological underpinning of this novel. It Can’t Happen Here is a loud satire about the dangerous inability of low-ability persons to recognize their own ineptitude, a condition which modern day psychologists know as the “Dunning-Kruger Effect.” In other words, these are people who are ignorant about what they don’t know. Lewis brilliantly created this condition in his dog-kicking character, Shad Ledue.
From the novel: Jessup, returning home at 7 AM after staying up all night with a circle of friends to discover the outcome of a political convention encounters his hired hand, Shad Ledue, uncharacteristically early on the job.
Ledue: “I’m going to vote for Buzz Windrip. He’s going to fix it so everybody will get four thousand bucks, immediate, and I’m going to start a chicken farm. I can make a bunch of money on chickens! I’ll show some of these guys who think they’re so rich!”
Jessup: “But Shad, you didn’t have so much luck with chickens when you tried to raise ‘em in the shed back there. You, uh, I’m afraid you sort of let their water freeze up on ‘em in the winter, and they all died, you remember.”
Ledue: “Oh, them? So what! Heck! There was too few of ‘em. I’m not going to waste my time foolin’ with just a couple dozen chickens! When I get five-six thousand of ‘em to make it worth my while, then I’ll show you! You bet. Buzz Windrip is O.K.”
Jessup: “I’m glad he has your imprimatur.
Sinclair Lewis (1885-1951) was born in Sauk Center, Minnesota, and graduated from Yale University. He worked on both coasts as an editor for newspapers and magazines, and supplemented his income with submissions of articles to various magazines. He considered himself a despised critic―the eternal faultfinder; in his own words, “That’s what I was put here for.” Indeed, Lewis was a remarkable student of the human condition, and chose satire as the vehicle to relate the findings of his studies. Insofar as effectiveness and political satire are concerned, only one piece of work in all of literature rivals It Can’t Happen Here; that would be Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal, wherein Swift suggested in the guise of an economic treatise that Ireland could lessen poverty by butchering the children of the Irish poor and selling them as food to wealthy English landlords.
Lewis published his first novel in 1914, Our Mr. Wrenn. The book was favorably reviewed by critics, but sold few copies. However, Lewis secured his reputation as one of the giants in literature in 1920 with the publication of Main Street, as seen through the eyes of protagonist Carol Kennicot in the Minnesota town of Gopher Prairie. Gopher Prairie, of course, was modeled after his home town of Sauk Center, and Lewis used local customs and social amenities to satirize both the townspeople and the superficial intellectualism of their critics. This double-edged satire is probably what led the Columbia University trustees of the Pulitzer foundation to reject Main Street as winner of the Pulitzer Prize after judges had selected Lewis’ novel as the winner. Lewis thus vowed to refuse the award if it was ever offered.
As an author, Lewis owned the 1920’s, and followed Main Street with Babbit, Elmer Gantry, Arrowsmith and Dodsworth. Through his novels, Lewis stirred the waters of social niceties and forced every part of middle-class America to look at itself in the mirror. Arrowsmith (1925) was selected as a Pulitzer Prize winner, however, Lewis, in keeping with his earlier vow, rejected both the prize and the thousand-dollar award that came with it. Nevertheless, following his outstanding body of work during the 1920’s, Lewis became the first American recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1930.
At the outset, Lewis conceded that It Can’t Happen Here was pure propaganda, but he stated that the novel was propaganda for one thing; American democracy. When the stock market crashed in 1929, the previous target for Lewis’s satire―
America’s carefree and provincial middle class―had all but evaporated into soup lines and unemployment. Most banks closed, and farmers had to deal with the dust bowl in the Midwest, and scant funds to purchase agricultural products elsewhere. People were not in the mood for soul searching; they simply wanted to survive. Lewis understood this narrative very well. Anyone with a plan to distribute money―no matter how far-fetched―would command a very large audience. Thus, the groundwork for It Can’t Happen Here had been laid threefold; by a mind-numbing depression, a threat of the spread of communism, and observation of economic powerhouse Nazi Germany building a war machine. Consequently, in America, of all places, the Nazi Party and German Bund were attracting new members by the thousands. Lewis, who for the most part was apolitical, became alarmed and decided to take action.
It Can’t Happen Here takes place between 1936 and 1939. In addition to what he was personally observing in the United States in the 1930’s, Lewis’ second wife, Dorothy Thompson, was a newspaper correspondent in Berlin and had interviewed Adolph Hitler on several occasions. As was his custom, Lewis pumped his wife every morning at the breakfast table for the most minute details of her Hitler interviews. Through the information he gathered, he found a ready-made plot for his book. He wrote and revised the novel in just four months, releasing it for publication in October 1935, which short period probably accounts for the large number of negative reviews it received. However, his friend Clifton Fadiman declared it “one of the most important books ever produced in this country.” (New Yorker, 1935). More than 320,000 readers agreed. And the New York Post, with a circulation of 60,000, serialized the book―without abridgment―in the summer of 1936.
Doremus Jessup is the protagonist in It Can’t Happen Here. Lewis presents Jessup, born in 1876, as an individualist and liberal newspaper editor who subscribes to the Congressional Record, the New Yorker, Time, the Nation, the New Republic and the New Masses. Jessup sports a beard, making him look scholarly, and Lewis uses Jessup to satirize and criticize ―among others―the Ku Klux Klan, Father Coughlin and Huey Long. Jessup’s allegiance to American values, along with a streak of silent individualism, make him a political subversive in this novel’s plot. Jessup has a wife Emma, and three children, Philip, a lawyer who is married and practicing law, Mary, the wife of a doctor, and Cecilia, who is 18 and goes by the name “Sissy.”
Berzelius (Buzz) Windrip is the antagonist. The introduction of Windrip is a clear satire of former Louisiana Governor Huey Long, who had presidential aspirations. Lewis disguises Windrip as a folksy senator from New England and avoids legal implication by also listing Long as a separate character in the plot. Huey Long was assassinated in 1935 at the age of 42 after Lewis sent his manuscript for publication, so the publisher had to modify the script. In the run-up to the 1936 presidential election, Windrip has presented for public consumption a Fifteen Points of Victory for the Forgotten Man position paper. This bizarre adaptation of some of Long’s plans (Share-the-Wealth―$5,000.00 for each homestead, and $2000.00 for each family) and Hitler doctrine was a “treatise” of contradictions
which proposed to disenfranchise women, blacks, Jews and intellectuals, and further intended to end free speech as an “enemy” to the Corporate State.
Shad Ledue is Jessup’s hired hand and the psychological profile for the novel’s tension between protagonist and antagonist. Lethargic Shad can barely tolerate the learned types who don’t coon hunt or take pleasure in games of craps and poker.
A peripheral character is Windrip’s secretary, Lee Sarason. Lewis cast Sarason as a monstrosity; not only as Windrip’s minister of propaganda, but also a sadomasochist who wavers between socialism and anarchism, with an admiration for Hitler and Mussolini. It appears that Joseph Goebels was the model for this character. Furthermore, Sarason was credited with writing Windrip’s lone book, Zero hour―Over the Top, portions of which serve as chapter epigraphs throughout the novel.
Widow Lorinda Pike is the manager of a boarding house known as the Beulah Valley Tavern. She is cast as a troublemaker and the discrete lover of Doremus Jessup.
Bishop Prang is an anti-semitic radio host who leads an organization known as the League of Forgotten Men. This character is an unmistakable reference to Father Coughlin, who had a large radio following estimated at 30 million during the Depression.
The story begins in Fort Beulah, Vermont (a town of ten thousand souls) at the Ladies Night Dinner of the Fort Beulah Rotary Club, and continues with the observations of Jessup leading up to the election of 1936.
Buzz Windrip wins the election―fairly―and immediately implements martial law in the United States. He redistricts the country into provinces and seizes control of the press and universities. He abolishes the Supreme Court and holds Congress subject to his proclamations. The Fifteen Point Plan is activated, paving the way for a corporate state (Corpos) in which labor unions are banned, women are told to get back into the kitchen, Jews are forced to pay extortion and blacks are denied all rights. All of these measures are enforced by “Minute Men,” a thuggish knockoff of Hitler’s Gestapo. Other changes take place so gradually that hardly anyone notices; such as the erection of concentration camps and the torture and murder of political rivals. All of this activity continues under the mantra of a “necessity to preserve the American way of life.”
Following the murder of two respected friends, Jessup decides to stray from his silent individualism and publish an editorial condemning the brutalities of the Windrip regime. While friends and family urge Jessup not to publish the article, his confidante and mistress Lorinda Pike lends support. Following publication, the Corpos haul Jessup off to the county jail.
Jessup is in the midst of a Corpo interrogation in the early morning hours when his enraged son-in-law doctor enters the courthouse to confront the Corpos. The doctor receives summary judgment on the spot, and is sentenced to immediate execution. The sound of the rifle volley, followed by a single pistol shot from the courtyard outside provides the psychological turning point for this novel. “It is we, the Jessups, who have let the demagogues wriggle in, without fierce enough protest.” Jessup laments the fact that his silence and inaction may have played a part in the rise of Windrip, and thereafter, vows to revolt by all means available.
In Chapter 22, the bloody rebellion begins. The Corporate state responds by opening concentration camps. Lewis listed thirteen actual journalists of the 30’s who were imprisoned by the Corpos. Furthermore, he used Shad Ledue as a prop in replicating the book burnings of May, 1933 in Germany.
A new “underground railroad” leading to safety in Canada is formed by Corpo dissenters. Jessup makes an attempt to gather his family and flee to Canada, but is caught and returns home with more enlightened thinking; “Now I know why men like John Brown became crazy killers,” and decides that perhaps Brown was not so insane after all. On top of it all, an enraged Jessup discovers his lawyer son Phillip justifying the book burnings and violent suppression of dissenters with the blasé comment that “you can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs,” and quickly throws him out of the house.
Jessup begins publication of the Vermont Vigilance, an underground paper that exposes the corruption and murderous reign of the American Corporate State and the Patriotic Party. His widowed daughter inserts copies of the publication into volumes of Reader’s Digest at the local drug store.
Shad LeDue, now a district commissioner in the Corpo hierarchy, discovers Jessup’s covert activities, and on July 4, 1938 leads a band of Minute Men to Jessup’s home. The home is destroyed, and Jessup is carted off to the local concentration camp. Thereafter, LeDue terrorizes Jessup’s family and makes lewd advances toward Sissy. Acting as a spy, however, Sissy discovers corrupt affairs by LeDue and exposes his conduct to a superior. LeDue is sentenced to the same concentration camp as Jessup, where inmates he caused to be incarcerated plan and carry out his murder.
Jessup’s stay at the camp is brief. As a result of inhumane treatment and conditions at the camp, Jessup becomes more aware of how men like John Brown come unhinged. Nevertheless, despite a feeling of camaraderie with other group-minded prisoners, Lewis’ hero shuns communism and refuses to abandon his individualism. Jessup relates, “What I want is mass action by just one member, alone on a hilltop. I’m a great optimist…I still hope America may someday rise to the standards of Kit Carson.” Jessup’s friends bribe one of the camp guards and he escapes to Canada.
Jessup begins work for the underground, first, as a spy in the northeastern part of the country, and next, as a secret agent using a cover of farm implement salesman. He resurfaces in Minnesota and coordinates raids against Minute Men outposts. Although participating in an organized response to fascism, Jessup remains apolitical, conducting what he thinks of as a “one man revolution.” Jessup, wrote Lewis, saw that he must remain alone…scorned by all the noisier prophets for refusing to be a willing cat for the busy monkeys of either fascism or communism. Jessup: “I am convinced that everything that is worthwhile in the world has been accomplished by the free, inspiring critical spirit, and that the preservation of this spirit is more important than any social system whatsoever.”
Windrip’s popularity erodes as Americans come to realize that his promises of economic prosperity will not materialize. Lee Sarason and General Dewey Haik seize power and exile Windrip to France. Sarason succeeds Windrip, but his administration is cut short when Haik enters the White House with a band of supporters, murders Sarason, and declares himself president. Following the two coups and a contrived action against Mexico, one of Haik’s senior officers defects to the opposition, taking a large portion of the Corpo army with him. Civil war breaks out, and the novel ends with Jessup working as an agent for the New Underground in Corpo-occupied portions of Minnesota.
Criticisms of It Can’t Happen Here were largely unwarranted. Chaos and mayhem―the animating features of the novel―came as Lewis meticulously planned. As a matter of poetic justice, Shad LeDue, the psychological model for the fascist theme, was murdered by the same people he imprisoned. And Doremus Jessup rides off into the sunset with firm confidence that the benevolent human spirit will prevail.
I would agree that Lewis began to slide as an author, probably due to his heavy drinking. But not until after he published It Can’t Happen Here, which, for its timeliness, and in spite of the short period of creating, belongs on the same masterpiece shelf as the novels Lewis created in the 1920’s.
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If It Can’t Happen Here were made into a contemporary movie, Donald Trump would star as the unmistakable reincarnation of Buzz Windrip. Lewis expertly crafted this character, as seen through the eyes of his protagonist:
“Doremus Jessup, so inconspicuous an observer, watching senator Windrip from so humble a Bœotia, could not explain his power of bewitching large audiences. The Senator was vulgar, almost illiterate, a public liar easily detected, and in his “ideas” almost idiotic, while his celebrated piety was that of a traveling salesman for church furniture, and his yet more celebrated humor the sly cynicism of a country store.”
Like Windrip, Trump suggests that he can use the Department of Justice to prosecute his political foes, and has labeled responsible media as “fake news.” Furthermore, he has indicated that he would like to revoke the FCC license of media outlets that accurately report his activities. Most disturbing, however, against a backdrop of constitutional law, is the fact that on his recent trip to Asia, Trump sat next to Philippine strongman Rodrigo Duterte and chuckled as Duterte called journalists spies. Duterte earlier made news when he claimed that journalists would not be assassinated if, by his own estimation, they were not corrupt.
Greed and the love of money will bring Donald Trump’s demise. Special Counsel Robert Mueller is tightening the noose, and Trump will soon be on the scaffold. Former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn’s text to a business partner―some eight seconds into Trump’s inaugural speech―that Russian sanctions would be “ripped up” and we’re “good to go” provide the smoking gun which proves that the Trump campaign promised to drop sanctions against Russia in exchange for assistance in throwing the presidential election to the Republican candidate. While the text referenced a plan involving nuclear reactors, no doubt Trump envisioned a condo-hotel operation in Moscow to house Russian oligarchs and the epicenter of a worldwide money laundering enterprise.
Sadomasochist Lee Sarason could fit quite comfortably into any one of the several shirts that white nationalist Steve Bannon wears at one time. Bannon worships at the altar of nineteenth century philosopher Julius Evola. Evola’s dark philosophy recognizes progress and racial equality as “poisonous illusions.”
Lewis created provinces in his novel as political subdivisions and this bears strong resemblance to the gerrymandering project used by Republicans after the 2010 census to subvert democratic process and take control of state houses across America, despite a minority position in the number of votes cast. Gerrymandering, no doubt, is a critical fascist tool.
Finally, in Bishop Prang we see the present day “Evangelical” oxymoron. This never-do-wrong group of pure and pristine souls has hitched their wagon to the most vile drivers of filth in the history of man; a sexual predator named Donald Trump, who belongs in the National Registry of Sex Offenders, a horse-faced White House Press Secretary named Sarah Huckabee-Sanders, who uses her faith in God as confidence for spreading a litany of lies, and a man we can confidently label as a pedophile, one Roy Moore, who enjoys the unqualified support of the Republican National Committee for election to the U.S. Senate.
Truman Goodspeed, December 2017