Friday, August 30, 2019

It Can’t Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis

Would have benefited from more realism and less humor
In his satirical political novel It Can’t Happen Here, Nobel laureate Sinclair Lewis envisions the rise and reign of a totalitarian fascist dictatorship in the United States of America. Published in 1935, the characters and events portrayed in the book are patterned after the rise of fascist regimes in Italy and Nazi Germany, as well as the platform of political demagogue Huey Long, the Louisiana governor who planned to run for president but was assassinated just before this book was published. Though Lewis presents a bleak and brutal depiction of America’s possible future, he often does so with tongue in cheek, and not entirely successfully. Nevertheless, more than a few of the acts of corruption, chicanery, and atrocity that Lewis depicts here bear a startling resemblance to the political climate in 21st century America. If ever this novel were due for a revival, now is the time.

The story is mostly told from the perspective of Doremus Jessup, an aging newspaper editor in Fort Beulah, Vermont. Jessup watches in chagrined disbelief as populist candidate Buzz Windrip wins the presidency with a ludicrous platform emphasizing wealth redistribution and racism. The Windrip administration, having amassed its own private army of conservative zealots, strips the Congress and Supreme Court of their powers, thus eliminating any checks to Windrip’s agenda. Soon martial law, forced labor, censorship of the press, executions without trial, and other familiar tactics of fascism become the norm in America. The government takes Jessup’s newspaper from him and forces him to operate it as a propaganda tool for the new regime.

Having an inkling of the basic premise of this novel, I approached this book with enthusiasm, but I soon became exasperated by its flippant and frivolous tone, as Lewis’s sense of humor frequently clashes with the disturbing subject matter he’s depicting. I realize this was intended to be a work of satire, but even when he is talking about torture, concentration camps, and executions, Lewis inappropriately loads his prose with ostentatiously clever turns of phrase, homespun metaphors, and sarcastic witticisms. All the silly character names and period slang make the text genuinely uncomfortable to read and only serve to trivialize the points Lewis is trying to make. Those humorous embellishments may have worked in Babbitt, but they feel woefully out of place here. This would have been a much better book if Lewis had gone dark and serious with it, like Jack London’s The Iron Heel or Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America. At several points in the novel, Lewis pokes fun at Upton Sinclair and his utopian ideas, but the fact is Upton Sinclair can write a better novel of antifascist social commentary than this one, and still manage to do so with a sense of humor, as can be seen in 100%: The Story of a Patriot, for example.

When compared to developments in American politics over the last couple decades, Lewis’s vision of a fascist America seems startlingly prophetic. It Can’t Happen Here? Oh, yes it can! Thankfully, reality seems to be moving at a slower pace than the plot of this novel. Let’s hope we can rise to the occasion and stop short of unbridled authoritarianism. One can’t help but admire Lewis’s audacity in publishing this politically charged work, particularly at the time period in question, when fascism was openly enjoying its European heyday. For that Lewis is to be commended, but admiring and enjoying are two different things, and at times the writing in It Can’t Happen Here just gets on the reader’s nerves.
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