Book Review – It Can’t Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis

Sinclair Lewis crafted the most dystopian vision of America’s future in the form of It Can’t Happen Here . It illustrated what can happen when a discontented citizenry determined that conventional leaders lacked the capability to cope with an uncertain world. A chilling image of a country rejecting its own political traditions and a culture of freedom resulted.

This 1935 masterpiece included Lewis’ signature writing techniques. The choice of distinct character names made this book one of the author’s best. My personal favorites included President Berzelius (Buzz) Windrip, Senator (later Attorney General) Porkwood and Bishop Paul Peter Prang. The protagonist’s appellation, Doremus Jessup, earned an honorable mention; as did his attorney, Mungo Kitterick.

Lewis possessed a unique genius for the clever use of sarcasm. It Can’t Happen Here contained its share of memorable passages.

Doremus had never heard Windrip during one of his orgasms of oratory, but he had been told by political reporters that under the spell you thought Windrip was Plato, but that on the way home you could not remember anything he said. (Page 73)

For three nights he was questioned and lashed—once late at night, by guards who complained of the inhumane callousness of their officers in making them work so late. (Page 268)

The D. A. R. (reflected the cynic Doremus Jessup, that evening) is a somewhat confusing organization—as confusing as Theosophy, Relativity, or the Hindu Vanishing Boy Trick, all three of which it resembles. It is composed of females who spend one half their waking hours boasting of being descended from the seditious American colonists of 1776, and the other more ardent half in attacking all contemporaries who believe in precisely those principles for which these ancestors struggled. (Page 18)

The story presented a rather eerie situation for the nation. Ardent populist, Senator Buzz Windrip managed to secure the Democratic nomination for President over incumbent Franklin Delano Roosevelt. With the aid of his “satanic” secretary, Lee Sarason’s, proficiency for public relations, he won the White House.

With what’s going on in the US right now, I’m sure some readers think I’m making this up. Here’s a direct quote from the book. In it, the new President spoke to the “Minute Men” who made up his de facto secret police force.

“I am addressing my own boys, the Minute Men, everywhere in America! To you and only you I look for help to make America a proud, rich land again. You have been scorned. They thought you were the ‘lower classes.’ They wouldn’t give you jobs. They told you to sneak off like bums and get relief. They ordered you into lousy C.C.C. camps. I tell you that you are ever since yesterday noon, the highest lords of the land—the makers of the new America of freedom and justice. Boys! I need you! Help me—help me to help you! Stand fast! Anybody tries to block you—give the swine the point of your bayonet!” (Page 127)

And there’s more.

Lewis selected an interesting structure for this book. In the chapters leading up to Windrip’s election, the author prefaced them with a paragraph from the candidate’s book, Zero Hour. The latter allegedly written by Lee Sarason. Here’s a paragraph describing the media that reads like something more contemporary.

I know the press only too well. Almost all editors hide away in spider-dens, men without thought of Family or Public Interest or the humble delights of jaunts out-of-doors, plotting how they can put over their lies, and advance their own positions and fill their greedy pockets by calumniating Statesmen who have given their all for the common good and who are vulnerable because they stand out in the fierce Light that beats around the Throne. (Page 43)

With an antagonist consumed by such animosity for reporters, it didn’t surprise that Lewis selected a newspaper editor (Doremus Jessup) as his hero. As disturbing as I found America’s decent into a fascist state, the true tragedy for me concerned Jessup’s internal struggle with his own disillusionment. He expressed the following thoughts on idealism.

“Is it just possible,” he sighed, “that the most vigorous and boldest idealists have been the worst enemies of human progress instead of its greatest creators? Possible that plain men with the humble trait of minding their own business will rank higher in the heavenly hierarchy than all the plumed souls who have shoved their way in among the masses and insisted on saving them?” (Page 111)

Later in the book, Jessup experienced another sullen realization.

The tyranny of this dictatorship isn’t primarily the fault of Big Business, nor of the demagogues who do their dirty work. It’s the fault of Doremus Jessup! Of all the conscientious, respectable, lazy-minded Doremus Jessups who have let the demagogues wriggle in, without fierce enough protest. (Page 169)

While written over 80 years ago, Sinclair Lewis crafted a timeless book that’s relevance never seems to wane. In a preface to George Orwell’s 1984, Walter Cronkite commented something to the effect that: “while 1984 might not arrive on time, there’s always 1985.” In It Can’t Happen Here, Doremus Jessup observed that “it can’t happen here” even while it happened here.

 

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