"It Can't Happen Here"
[an America in thrall to a homespun
Sinclair Lewis's 1935 novel
book review by Joe Keohane
Boston Globe, www.boston.com,
December 18, 2005
PICTURE THIS: A folksy, self-consciously
plainspoken Southern politician rises to power during a period
of profound unrest in America. The nation is facing one of the
half-dozen or so of its worst existential crises to date, and
the people, once sunny, confident, and striving, are now scared,
angry, and disillusioned.This politician, a ''Professional Common
Man,'' executes his rise by relentlessly attacking the liberal
media, fancy-talking intellectuals, shiftless progressives, pinkos,
promiscuity, and welfare hangers-on, all the while clamoring for
a return to traditional values, to love of country, to the pie-scented
days of old when things made sense and Americans were indisputably
American. He speaks almost entirely in ''noble but slippery abstractions''-Liberty,
Freedom, Equality-and people love him, even if they can't fully
articulate why without resorting to abstractions themselves.
Through a combination of factors-his easy
bearing chief among them (along with massive cash donations from
Big Business; disorganization in the liberal opposition; a stuffy,
aloof opponent; and support from religious fanatics who feel they've
been unfairly marginalized)-he wins the presidential election.
Once in, he appoints his friends and political
advisers to high-level positions, stocks the Supreme Court with
''surprisingly unknown lawyers who called [him] by his first name,''
declaws Congress, allows Big Business to dictate policy, consolidates
the media, and fills newspapers with ''syndicated gossip from
Hollywood.'' Carping newspapermen worry that America is moving
backward to a time when anti-German politicians renamed sauerkraut
''Liberty Cabbage'' and ''hick legislators...set up shop as scientific
experts and made the world laugh itself sick by forbidding the
teaching of evolution,'' but newspaper readers, wary of excessive
negativity, pay no mind.
Given the nature of ''powerful and secret
enemies'' of America-who are ''planning their last charge'' to
take away our freedom-an indefinite state of crisis is declared,
and that freedom is stowed away for safekeeping. When the threat
passes, we can have it back, but in the meantime, citizens are
asked to ''bear with'' the president.
Sure, some say these methods are extreme,
but the plain folks are tired of wishy-washy leaders, and feel
the president's decisiveness is its own excuse. Besides, as one
man says, a fascist dictatorship ''couldn't happen here in America...we're
a country of freemen!''
While more paranoid readers might be tempted
to draw parallels between this scenario and sundry predicaments
we may or may not be in right now, the story line is actually
that of Sinclair Lewis's 1935 novel ''It Can't Happen Here,''
a hastily written cautionary note about America's potential descent
into fascism, recently reissued by New American Library in a handsome
trade edition with a blood-spattered cover design.
The book, though regarded as a departure
for Lewis, bears all the trappings of the writer in his prime.
Lewis made his name, and his fortune, writing scathing indictments
of an America enamored of materialism and mediocrity in the prosperous
'20s; he won America's first Nobel Prize for Literature for it.
From ''Main Street'' to ''Babbitt,'' ''Arrowsmith'' to ''Elmer
Gantry,'' there was no instance of egregious Rotarianism or middle-class
hypocrisy he wouldn't gleefully assail. Lewis was so successful
in these forays that the eponymous protagonist of ''Babbitt,''
whom Lewis held up as the embodiment of all that was wrong with
middle-class America in the '20s, saw his name transformed into
a widely used pejorative.
At its center, ''It Can't Happen Here''
is no different from these prior efforts. It's just carried out
on a bigger, more hyperbolic scale: Lewis takes that Babbitt mentality-the
entrenched incuriosity, the smug certitude, the conformity, the
complacency-and combines it with the growing desperation of the
times to envision an end of America as we know it.
It's an unsettling read, especially in
a day and age where wags and politicos on both sides compulsively
accuse one another of plotting to destroy America. Other such
books, most recently Philip Roth's ''The Plot Against America,''
ask whether a fascist dictatorship can happen here. But whereas
Roth manipulates history in order to show what could have happened,
imagining an America so blinded by celebrity adulation that it
elects an isolationist, anti-Semitic Charles Lindbergh president,
Lewis suggests that it already has happened, in little pockets
all over America: in bridge club meetings, Rotary luncheons. No
invading army will be needed to turn America fascist. Instead,
the catalyst will come from within, and when it does it will speak
colloquial American, and it will come waving the Stars and Stripes.
However broad its themes, ''It Can't Happen
Here'' echoes its time, sometimes literally. The Depression was
dragging on, the New Deal was on the rocks, FDR was vulnerable,
and the GOP had foundered. People were desperate for strong leadership,
and as a result there was a real threat coming from numerous quasi-populist
movements led by fire-breathing demagogues promising deliverance.
Among these groups was the Share Our Wealth
movement, spearheaded by Senator Huey Long, a former Louisiana
governor best known as the inspiration for Willie Stark in Robert
Penn Warren's ''All the King's Men.''
Long sought to radically redistribute
the nation's wealth and impose an income gap, which, while socialist
on its face, was more a cynical ploy for votes than a fast-held
ideology. Equally prominent was sulfurous radio personality Father
Charles Coughlin's Union of Social Justice, a nativist movement
that proposed abolishing the Federal Reserve to reverse the Depression.
Both groups were as corrupt as they were illogical, and FDR feared
they would combine, unseat him, and replace American democracy
with a strain of Hitlerism suited to America's unique temperament.
Driven by his support of Roosevelt and
informed by the insights of his second wife, Dorothy Thompson,
a pioneering journalist who more than anyone helped bring home
the full horrors of Hitler's rise, Lewis cranked out the book
in two months in 1935, in the hope that it would help avert what
he felt was a looming catastrophe. In order to do so effectively,
though, he would have to mine the collective prejudices and disenchantments
inherent in the American character.
Enter Berzelius ''Buzz'' Windrip, Lewis's
tyrant. He's a regular guy, personable, plainspoken, ''with something
of the earthy American sense of humor of a Mark Twain...a Will
Rogers.'' Guided by his secretary Lee Sarason, he cozies up to
the electorate by stoking their disdain for fancy ideas and encouraging
them to follow their hearts, not their minds.
Windrip's economic policies are disastrous,
his figures often incorrect, and his platform seems to change
depending on who he's talking to, but none of that matters as
long as he keeps expressing himself decisively. ''I want to stand
up on my hind legs,'' he writes in ''Zero Hour,'' his widely read
pre-campaign book, ''and not just admit but frankly holler right
out that...we've got to change our system a lot, maybe even change
the whole Constitution (but change it legally, not by violence)....The
Executive has got to have a freer hand and be able to move quick
in an emergency, and not be tied down by dumb shyster lawyer congressmen
taking months to shoot off their mouths in debates.''
When Windrip is elected, all hell breaks
loose. Dissent is crushed, the Bill of Rights is gutted, war is
declared (on Mexico), and labor camps are established to help
shore up Windrip's vaunted ''New Freedom,'' which is more like
a freedom from freedom. All that's really left of the old America
are the flags and patriotic ditties, which for many is more than
enough. But to Lewis it's not entirely the fault of those who
will gladly abide America's principles being gutted. The blame
also falls on the ''it can't happen here'' crowd, those yet to
realize that being American doesn't change your human nature;
whatever it is that attracts people to tyranny is in Americans
like it's in anyone else.
When Lewis embarked on ''It Can't Happen
Here,'' his wife wondered if a dictatorship could happen in this
country, whether complacent Babbitt, as she put it, could be taught
to march ''quickly enough.'' It was a question that Lewis had
already answered. There's a scene in ''Babbitt'' where the title
character blows up at his wife and admits for the first time in
years that he's not as thrilled with his lot as he lets on. His
wife soothes him and sends him off to bed, where, ''For many minutes,
for many hours, for a bleak eternity, he lay awake, shivering,
reduced to primitive terror, comprehending that he had won freedom,
and wondering what he could do with anything so unknown and so
embarrassing as freedom.''
In other words, the marching is just pageantry.
Windrip's most formidable task, convincing Americans to renounce
bedrock democratic principles, was already accomplished well before
he took power. It was just waiting for its moment.
Joe Keohane is the editor of Boston's