Sinclair Lewis, 'It Can't Happen Here'
One of the most important American writers of the early twentieth century was Sinclair Lewis, who had commercial success through the 1920s and became the first American to win the Nobel prize for literature in 1930. Several of his books were turned into major Hollywood films. But in recent years one of the few important novels from his later years became popular once again.
It Can’t Happen Here (1935) was written during the height of fascism in Europe, with Hitler and Mussolini in power in Germany and Italy, respectively. The novel tells the story of how a populist politician could win the presidency in America. The general sentiment at the time was that the liberal institutions of Britain and America were too strongly built for what was happening on the continent to take root in either of these countries. Lewis saw this as complacency, and while the title of the novel refers to that widely held opinion the plot of the book challenges that idea, demonstrating quite clearly that it CAN happen in a liberal democracy.
While the protagonist of the novel is Doremus Jessop, in many ways the most important character is “Buzz” Windrip, a politician without scruple who is able to build a broad coalition. He appeals to some people by making grand promises that he is never going to be able to keep, but that they believe because their situation makes those promises appealing. To others, he is the man for the job because he presents himself as an outsider and promises that he has the strength to fix a system that is rigged against the common man. While saying one thing to the labouring classes he says something else to business. This broad coalition means that he beats President Roosevelt for the Democratic nomination and then beats the Republican candidate for the Presidency.
When in office, Windrip (and his ideological muscle, Lee Sarason) make rapid changes to the US. Dissent is essentially outlawed as unpatriotic. Political enemies are interred in concentration camps. Windrip also has his own version of the S.S., named after the ‘Minute Men’ of the American Revolution, as again patriotism is used as a cover for the tactics that were being used in fascist Europe. Eventually, Jessop is forced out of his complacency and his refusal to go along with the new regime leads to him being victimised, as the new ruling party attempt to crush all opposition to them.
There are many more things that one can say about this book, though for the time being we want to avoid giving away too many plot details in case readers want to look for themselves. But we do want to focus on the contemporary revival of interest in this novel.
At the time, connections were made with American politicians in the Democratic Party that had an appeal across the South, such as Huey Long in Louisiana - a longstanding cultural trend that would bleed into Hollywood in films such as All The King's Men (1949) and A Lion is in the Streets (1953). But in 2016, the novel underwent a huge spike in popularity once again. Following the election of Donald Trump, the book was marketed as one that ‘predicted’ him and reached number #4 on Amazon. In the UK it was out of print but in 2017 Penguin ordered a new run of 11,000 copies to deal with the increased demand. This is alongside a general increase in the demand for dystopian fiction, with spikes also evident in readers of 1984 by George Orwell, and Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, amongst others. Whether or not the response in this novel is doing the same things as we encounter in those texts is an interesting debate, in and of itself.
Quite whether the book ‘predicts’ Trump is, of course, up to you. One thing is clear, though – the novel plays into a feeling that exists about British and American politics today, and that our current climate has given this novel a new lease of life.