Review: It Can’t Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis

“More and more, as I think about history,” he pondered, “I am convinced that everything that is worth while in the world has been accomplished by the free, inquiring, critical spirit, and that the preservation of this spirit is more important than any social system whatsoever. But the men of ritual and the men of barbarism are capable of shutting up the men of science and of silencing them forever.”
~Sinclair Lewis, It Can’t Happen Here

Plot summary

“In 1936, the American electorate votes a populist presidential candidate into the White House, where he rewrites the Constitution and declares Congress obsolete – thereby ushering fascism into the United States. The story follows dissenting newspaperman Doremus Jessup as he works against the government.” More on Goodreads

On Sinclair Lewis

“Lewis was the first American to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, which he received prior to publication of this novel, which was inspired in part by ‘maddening’ conversations about European politics with his wife, the influential anti-Nazi journalist Dorothy Thompson.

Awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1930 ‘for his vigorous and graphic art of description and his ability to create, with wit and humor, new types of characters.’ His works are known for their insightful and critical views of American capitalism and materialism between the wars. He is also respected for his strong characterizations of modern working women. H.L. Mencken wrote of him, ‘[If] there was ever a novelist among us with an authentic call to the trade…it is this red-haired tornado from the Minnesota wilds.'” More on Goodreads

Key concepts
  • Insightful 1930’s science fiction
  • Freedom of expression
  • Looking for Trump in the wrong place

[Spoilers will follow]

I accidentally stumbled upon Sinclair Lewis’ novel It Can’t Happen Here (1935). I think I had already added the novel to the to-read category in Goodreads but it was only at Worldcon 75 this August that someone in a panel discussion mentioned the book and it entered into active memory.

It Can’t Happen Here comes highly recommended. I believe Sinclair Lewis was ahead of his time. And it’s not only this particular novel, he seems to have been a modern free spirit in his earlier writings as well. In Main Street (1920), Lewis portrays how an idealistic young woman attempts to reform her small town, and in Kingsblood Royal (1947), the story centers around “a stirring & wickedly funny portrait of a man who resigns from the white race” (Goodreads). No wonder Lewis was the first American to receive the Nobel Prize in literature.

The novel was written in 1935, there were symptoms of totalitarianism and fascism all around the world. The fictive story happens around the late 1930’s, a future setting at the time of writing.

Published during the rise of fascism in Europe, the novel describes the rise of Berzelius “Buzz” Windrip, a politician who defeats Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) and is elected President of the United States, after fomenting fear and promising drastic economic and social reforms while promoting a return to patriotism and ‘traditional’ values. After his election, Windrip takes complete control of the government and imposes a plutocratic/totalitarian rule with the help of a ruthless paramilitary force, in the manner of Adolf Hitler and the SS. The novel’s plot centers on journalist Doremus Jessup’s opposition to the new regime and his subsequent struggle against it as part of a liberal rebellion. Reviewers at the time, and literary critics ever since, have emphasized the connection with Louisiana politician Huey Long, who was preparing to run for president in the 1936 election when he was assassinated in 1935 just prior to the novel’s publication.” ~Wikipedia

The nicknames of dictators. Photo: johnhain / Pixabay, CC0 Creative Commons
The nicknames of dictators. Photo: johnhain / Pixabay, CC0 Creative Commons

The novel is not a masterpiece in terms of elegant language and sentence construction but the message is powerful. However, as I was perusing reviews of the novel drafted in the recent years, there seems to be one huge flaw in interpretation. A lot of eminent newspapers and magazines have shortened Lewis’ story into an issue that he “predicted” Trump. How wrong can they get it?

Overall, the novel depicts the liberal struggle against a multitude of threats to free speech, freedom of expression and possibility of criticism. The totalitarian system in the novel goes along, as quoted above, the same lines as fascist or national-socialist politics did in the 1930’s. Economic and social reforms, be it promising to make an end to unemployment in the post-depression Germany in Hitler’s world or in the similar fictive world of Windrip.

He loved the people just as much as he feared and detested persons.” ~Sinclair Lewis, It Can’t Happen Here

So, about President Trump. I don’t think he could be characterized as a popularist guy for the masses but rather a man of the corporate world and personal profit. He might not be the first person to turn to in case of healthcare insurance for everybody and putting a raise to the minimum wage or something.

[Spoilers will follow from here on]

The novel is at the same time a sort-of family saga portraying the Jessup household, but each of the family members aren’t really individuals. They stand for an idea. The Corpo system representatives remain distant. In the end of the novel, the system becomes its own victim when internal purges take place.

In a sense, nonetheless, Lewis did predict the coming of the freedom fries debacle. Just see for yourself the quote from the novel below:

Remember our war hysteria, when we called sauerkraut ‘Liberty cabbage’ and somebody actually proposed calling German measles ‘Liberty measles’?” ~Sinclair Lewis, It Can’t Happen Here

If you are too young and have no idea what on earth the freedom fries issue was, then there is one word: KVG. If you have no clue what that means, take it as Lesson Nr. 1 in learning Finnish, check the f*****g Google 🙂

What Lewis’ novel It Can’t Happen Here does tell us is that it – i.e. the fall of democracy and dictatorial rule – CAN indeed happen anywhere in the world and it does happen. But the good news is that no matter how big and dangerous the oppression, liberty can never be killed. It always rises from the trenches to make one more snarky and critical comment. Then it sighs and falls back into the mud where it came from.

Enjoy this never aging novel! I believe it will keep on haunting us for centuries to come.

Other novels and stories by Lewis
  • Free Air (1919)
  • Main Street (1920)
  • Babbitt (1922)
  • Arrowsmith (1925)
  • Elmer Gantry (1927)
  • Dodsworth (1929)
  • Cass Timberlane (1945)
  • Kingsblood Royal (1947)

More information
– Beverly Gage: Reading the Classic Novel That Predicted Trump, published in the Guardian on 17 January 2017, link retrieved on 17 October 2017
– Erika Milvy: It Can’t Happen Here: a demagogue rises, but the parallels aren’t yuge, published in the Guardian on 5 October 2016, link retrieved on 17 October 2017
– Alexander Nazaryan: Getting Close to Fascism with Sinclair Lewis’s “It Can’t Happen Here”, published in The New Yorker on 19 October 2016, link retrieved on 17 October 2017
– Jules Stewart: The 1935 novel that predicted the rise of Donald Trump, published in the Guardian on
– Olivia B. Waxman: The Book People Are Saying Predicted Donald Trump’s Rise, as Reviewed in 1935, published in TIME on 16 November 2016, link retrieved on 17 October 2017

“And still Doremus goes on in the red sunrise, for a Doremus Jessup can never die.”
~Sinclair Lewis, It Can’t Happen Here

The oppressive lamp. Photo: Michi-Nordlicht / Pixabay, CC0 Creative Commons
The oppressive lamp. Photo: Michi-Nordlicht / Pixabay, CC0 Creative Commons

Author: fictivestina

Hey, I'm a native Helsinkian but a cosmopolitan at heart :) Outdoors, reading, writing and cultural attractions are my passion. Hiking in Lapland cannot be competed with!

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