Review: It Can’t Happen Here

This novel by Sinclair Lewis caught my eye at the 30th Street Station in Philadelphia when I was in the States visiting family for Thanksgiving. It was published in 1935 when the US was still in the valley of the Great Depression, and parts of Europe were in the grip of fascism. In his introduction to the book, Michael Meyer, Professor of History at the University of Connecticut, says, “Engulfed by the complexities and vulnerabilities of our post-September 11 world, Americans of nearly all political persuasions are likely to find that It Can’t Happen Here, though firmly anchored in the politics of the 1930s, surfaces as a revealing and disturbing read.”

Harry Sinclair Lewis was born in 1885 in Minnesota. He attended Yale where he was editor of the literary magazine. After graduation in1907, he worked as a reporter and editor of various magazines, newspapers and publishing houses. His first novel, Our Mr Wrenn, was published in 1914, but his first successful novel, Main Street was published in 1920. He won the Pulitzer Prize for Arrowsmith in 1925. In 1930 he became the first American writer to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. He died in 1951.

Sinclair Lewis

It Can’t Happen Here is more a political commentary than a novel. Set in the mid-1930s it describes how the political climate at the time results in a fascist government taking power in the United States. It is all seen through the eyes of Doremus Jessup, the editor and publisher of a local newspaper in Vermont. Senator Buzz Windrip is elected President, having promised to restore American prominence in the world while providing $5000 per year for each American citizen. Dissent is outlawed by the new Corpo (short for corporate) regime, the American Congress is neutralised, power is removed from the states and given to new, autocratically-run districts. Women are disenfranchised; a. powerful new, savage militia known at the Minute Men is created, justice is administered by military tribunals, dissidents are imprisoned in concentration camps or executed. Doremus joins the New Underground resistance movement, secretly publishing the truth of what is happening. He is imprisoned, is tortured, escapes to Canada, and is assigned the territory of Minnesota to encourage resistance to the Corpos, who have started a diversionary war with Mexico, as the country descends into civil war.

At a personal level, viewed either from a liberal or an authoritarian position, the story has credibility. A gardener becomes a high-ranking Minute Man, with life and death power over his former employer. The motivations and emotions on each side are clear. The book is filled with minor characters, right- and left-leaning, filling many different positions at local, district and national levels, adding credibility to what is happening. The tone of the book is largely neutral: atrocities are reported factually, so that it is not a grand polemic, but a sober report. There are elements of satire and humour in the descriptions of some events, which make it clear whose side the author is on, while preserving his credibility.

The book is a sobering attention-getter without suggesting an action plan. Lewis was not a political thinker; he was an independent liberal who believed in individual rights. He was a reporter of what he saw and could foresee.

It seems unlikely that even with the concerted efforts of group of powerful fanatics America could become fascist as easily as it did in It Can’t Happen Here. It would not be easy to overcome the democratic forces exerted by an aroused US Congress, the US judiciary and the armed forces. But given what happened on January 6 2021, one has to pause for thought.

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