It Can't Happen Here (Signet Classics)

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9780451465641: It Can't Happen Here (Signet Classics)

“The novel that foreshadowed Donald Trump’s authoritarian appeal.”—Salon

It Can’t Happen Here
is the only one of Sinclair Lewis’s later novels to match the power of Main Street, Babbitt, and Arrowsmith. A cautionary tale about the fragility of democracy, it is an alarming, eerily timeless look at how fascism could take hold in America.

Written during the Great Depression, when the country was largely oblivious to Hitler’s aggression, it juxtaposes sharp political satire with the chillingly realistic rise of a president who becomes a dictator to save the nation from welfare cheats, sex, crime, and a liberal press.

Called “a message to thinking Americans” by the Springfield Republican when it was published in 1935, It Can’t Happen Here is a shockingly prescient novel that remains as fresh and contemporary as today’s news.

With an Introduction by Michael Meyer
and an Afterword by Gary Scharnhorst

"Sinopsis" puede pertenecer a otra edición de este libro.

About the Author:

The son of a country doctor, Harry Sinclair Lewis (1885–1951) was born in Sauk Centre, Minnesota. His childhood and early youth were spent in the Midwest, and later he attended Yale University, where he was editor of the literary magazine. After graduating in 1907, he worked as a reporter and in editorial positions at various newspapers, magazines, and publishing houses from the East Coast to California. He was able to give this work up after a few of his stories had appeared in magazines and his first novel, Our Mr. Wrenn (1914), had been published. Main Street (1920) was his first really successful novel, and his reputation was secured by the publication of Babbitt (1922). Lewis was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for Arrowsmith (1925) but refused to accept the honor, saying the prize was meant to go to a novel that celebrated the wholesomeness of American life, something his books did not do. He did accept, however, when in 1930 he became the first American writer to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature. During the last part of his life, he spent a great deal of time in Europe and continued to write both novels and plays. In 1950, after completing his last novel, World So Wide (1951), he intended to take an extended tour but became ill and was forced to settle in Rome, where he spent some months working on his poems before dying.

Michael Meyer, PhD, a professor of English at the University of Connecticut, previously taught at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and the College of William and Mary. His scholarly articles have appeared in such periodicals as American Literature, Studies in the American Renaissance, and Virginia Quarterly Review. An internationally recognized authority on Henry David Thoreau, he is a former president of the Thoreau Society and the coauthor of The New Thoreau Handbook, a standard reference. His first book, Several More Lives to Live: Thoreau’s Political Reputation in America, was awarded the Ralph Henry Gabriel Prize by the American Studies Association. In addition to The Bedford Introduction to Literature, his edited volumes include Frederick Douglass: The Narrative and Selected Writings.

Gary Scharnhorst is Distinguished Professor Emeritus of English at the University of New Mexico, editor of American Literary Realism, and editor in alternating years of American Literary Scholarship.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

SINCLAIR LEWIS

IT CAN’T
HAPPEN HERE

With an Introduction
by Michael Meyer
and a New Afterword
by Gary Scharnhorst

 

Table of Contents

Introduction

Sinclair Lewis enjoyed a brilliant career in the 1920s portraying and satirizing what he regarded as the mediocrity, materialism, corruption, and hypocrisy of middle-class life in the United States. His five major novels of the twenties—Main Street (1920), Babbitt (1922), Arrowsmith (1925), Elmer Gantry (1927), and Dodsworth (1929)—were all bestsellers that served to hold a mirror up to the parochialism and provincialism of that decade. A good many Americans winced at their own reflections in those novels, but they eagerly bought Lewis’s iconoclastic books, because, however much they flinched at his representations of their middle-class lives, they were finally snugly, if not smugly, comfortable in the economic security that produced their prosperous confidence.

After the stock market crash of 1929, however, there wasn’t much left of the middle class of the early 1930s. Many who were previously solid, respectable breadwinners found themselves on bread lines, soup lines, and relief rolls. “Normalcy,” a twenties password synonymous with security, gave way to the “jitters” as profitless corporations laid off millions of workers who drifted across the country like Oklahoma farm dust. The popular song and exuberant theme of the twenties “Ain’t We Got Fun” changed its tune to “Brother Can You Spare a Dime” during the Great Depression. Although Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s first inaugural address in 1933 promised a New Deal, he also let his countrymen know what the score was in grim tones:

Values have shrunken to fantastic levels; taxes have risen; our ability to pay has fallen; government of all kinds is faced by serious curtailment of income; the means of exchange are frozen in the currents of trade; the withered leaves of industrial enterprise lie on every side; farmers find no markets for their produce; the savings of many years in thousands of families are gone.

Not surprisingly, the middle class was no longer interested in being discounted by bankers or by satirists. Lewis had to find new material.

Given the stormy economic and social climate of the early 1930s, Lewis had plenty of other topics to consider that were more relevant than middle-class predispositions to be foolish and venal. He found a ready-made plot in the nervous undercurrent that accompanied the volatile politics of the period. With the rise of Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini in Europe and the alarming popularity of a variety of demagogues from both the left and right in the United States, there was widespread concern that the country could be taken over by a fascist dictatorship. Lewis placed these fears at the center of It Can’t Happen Here.

Published in October of 1935, the novel gave shape to the free-floating anxieties that had consumed worried citizens for several years as the country stumbled through economic turmoil desperately seeking solutions. Lewis was intimately familiar with these concerns because Dorothy Thompson, his second wife, had interviewed Hitler as a foreign correspondent in Berlin and had written a series of articles between 1931 and 1935 warning Americans about the Nazi propaganda machine that masked the vicious persecution of Jews and the growing number of concentration camps designed to annihilate them. In addition to what he heard at his breakfast table, Lewis was very much aware of the many debates swirling around him in newspapers, journals, and books. In September of 1934, for example, The Modern Monthly featured a symposium titled “Will Fascism Come to America?” that featured a number of leading intellectuals such as Theodore Dreiser, Norman Thomas, Charles A. Beard, and Waldo Frank debating the question, and in early 1935, the Nation ran a series of articles on “forerunners of American Fascism.” Although Lewis is often credited with coining the phrase “it can’t happen here,” Herschel Brickell points out in his review of the novel in North American Review (December 1935) that the book actually “takes its title from the typical American remark concerning the possibility of a dictatorship in this country” (a quick search of the Internet demonstrates that the phrase continues to be used by a wide range of political perspectives to evoke the various tyrannies Lewis describes). Echoing Brickell, another contemporary reviewer, Benjamin Stolberg, aptly notes that the novel “has successfully plagiarized our social atmosphere” (Books, October 1935). Lewis’s take, however, is that it can happen here.

The threat of fascism in America captured his readers’ attention. It Can’t Happen Here quickly became a national bestseller (more than 320,000 copies were sold), and it has become by now part of the same thirties’ social and political fabric that Lewis wove into the novel. While Lewis’s contemporaries were thirsty for the “successfully plagiarized” details about the 1930s that saturate the novel, twenty-first-century readers may sometimes feel as if they’re in over their head owing to the book’s deep topical nature. The novel is a kind of Sears, Roebuck catalogue of early 1930s American political figures, events, and movements both central and peripheral to the decade’s issues. Scores of historical figures populate the book, such as Huey Long, Father Charles Coughlin, William Randolph Hearst, Upton Sinclair, William Allen White, Mike Gold, and for a remarkable example, thirteen actual working journalists whose names appear on page 219. Although lots of these names are perhaps unfamiliar to many readers today, Lewis’s plot and characterizations are not wholly dependent upon historical knowledge for readers to understand and appreciate the novel’s conflicts. The names, as well as political events and movements, certainly form the major portion of the book’s highly detailed political scenery, but there’s little, if any, doubt about how Lewis wants us to think about them.

Although Lewis’s protagonist, Doremus Jessup, is “a mild, rather indolent and somewhat sentimental Liberal” (p. 46) who is slow to respond to the rise of an American version of a fascist dictatorship, Lewis responded quickly and intensely to the fascist threats he saw all around him. He wrote and revised the entire novel in fewer than four months while he summered in Vermont in 1935. His preparation for the book took longer than its writing; he had been simmering with materials for several years as he recognized with increasing alarm the dangers that threatened democratic institutions. Unfortunately, his writing displays the haste in which he wrote—and so do the book’s reviews. R. P. Blackmur laments that “there is hardly a literary question that it does not fail to raise and there is hardly a rule for the good conduct of novels that it does not break” (Nation, October 1935). Despite the many reviewers who complained about the novel’s loose melodramatic plot, flat and even corny characters, weak clichéd dialogue, padded political discourse, awkward sentimentality, and heavy-handed satire and irony, many also judged the book to be a timely caveat and applauded its propagandistic value against fascism. Clifton Fadiman pronounced it to be “one of the most important books ever produced in this country” (New Yorker, October 1935), a book that all Americans should read to help save the country from impending political failures and potential tyrannies.

In March of 1935, two months before Sinclair Lewis began writing It Can’t Happen Here, Walter Lippmann lamented in a popular magazine that the United States had “come to a period of discouragement. . .. Pollyanna is silenced and Cassandra is doing all the talking.” There was much for Cassandra to talk about: the administration of the New Deal seemed hopelessly bogged down and the fierce strident polemics of popular leaders such as Huey Long and Father Coughlin seemed to speak more directly than the president to the poor, the dispossessed, the frustrated, and the angry. Neither the Louisiana Kingfish nor the populist radio priest freighted their remedies for the country’s ills with feasible ideas or coherent programs. Immediate solutions were too important to be burdened with details and troublesome facts; it was enough for Long simply to announce the justice of a $5,000 “homestead allowance” coupled with an annual income of at least $2,000 for every American family. The Kingfish was long on proposals but short on perceiving potential problems: “Who cares,” he said, “what consequences may come following the mandates of the Lord, of the Pilgrims, of Jefferson, Webster and Lincoln? He who falls in this fight falls in the radiance of the future.”

The liberals who worried about the possible consequences that attended this future brave new world were particularly wary because the Old World had already produced Hitler and Mussolini. Fascism was becoming fashionable, a fact manifested by the Brown Shirts, Black Shirts, Khaki Shirts, White Shirts, and Silver Shirts—complete with matching boots—that came out of closets all over Europe and the United States. In October of 1935, the month It Can’t Happen Here was published, William Randolph Hearst encapsuled the problem with a statement that delighted shirt makers but terrified liberals. He counseled his fellow citizens: “Whenever you hear a prominent American called a ‘Fascist,’ you can usually make up your mind that the man is simply a LOYAL CITIZEN WHO STANDS FOR AMERICANISM.”

Lewis transforms this advice into a warning in his novel by showing how Americans elect as their president Berzelius Windrip, a folksy New England version of the dictatorial Kingfish who ushers in a fascistic regime of suppression, terror, and totalitarianism—all draped in red, white, and blue bunting. Invoking the highest patriotic principles, Windrip disguises his fascism in the historical trappings of the Republic; his Gestapo, for example, is called the Minute Men. Lewis projects a dire version of the immediate future—the story begins in 1936 and ends in 1939—by creating fictional equivalents of the trepidations liberals experienced in the mid-thirties. Although Lewis looks to the future for the actualization of what liberals feared might happen, he turns to the past for the antidote to a poisoned America. To combat Windrip’s deceptive use of a past that is employed to corrupt the present, Lewis draws upon a national heritage of individualistic and democratic values in order to redeem the country from the fascism masquerading in a patriotic costume.

There is a distinct nostalgic quality to Lewis’s hero, Doremus Jessup, born in 1876, an independent, liberal Vermont newspaper editor who stands up to Windrip’s vicious regime. Lewis proudly presents him as a nineteenth-century individualist rather than a twentieth-century automaton. He sports a beard, which his detractors say makes him “high-brow,” “different,” and “artistic” instead of one of the boys. His reading confirms their suspicions about his beard; he subscribes to, among other things, the Congressional Record, the New Yorker, Time, the Nation, the New Republic, and the New Masses. Although Jessup is more articulate and more liberal than most of Lewis’s protagonists, he is confronted with essentially the same kind of phenomena, even if more extreme, that chronically thwart and deny the individual in Lewis’s fiction. At various opportune moments in the novel, Lewis uses Jessup as a spokesman to denounce and satirize the DAR, the KKK, Aimee McPherson, Mary Baker Eddy, Billy Sunday, Father Coughlin, William Jennings Bryan, Huey Long, Tammany graft, Chicago gangsters, Prohibition, lynchings, anti-Semitism, racism, militarism, concentration camps, torture, and political assassinations. Jessup’s announced values are not fundamentally different from some of Lewis’s other famous characters. Whether the vague dissatisfactions festering in George F. Babbitt, the unrealistic impulses toward reform fluttering in Carol Kennicott, or the linear, though uncertain, determination of a Martin Arrowsmith, Lewis’s most interesting characters want, as Carol Kennicott puts it in Main Street, “a more conscious life, we’re tired of seeing just a few people able to be individualists.” Lewis clearly admired and identified with Jessup—so much so that he played the role of Jessup in a dramatic adaptation by the South Shore Players in Cohasset, Massachusetts, one of many of the play’s productions sponsored by the Federal Theater Project throughout the country in the wake of the novel’s popularity.

Jessup is a nineteenth-century styled individualist who has fallen into history; he’s fallen into a world in which his allegiance to predominant American values such as self-reliance and independence mark him as a political subversive. Recalling the achievement of men such as Thaddeus Stevens and Stephen A. Douglas, he compares them to what he describes as “the wishy-washy young people today,” and he wonders aloud

if we’re breeding up any paladins like those stout, grouchy old devils?—if we’re producing ‘em anywhere in New England?—anywhere in America?—anywhere in the world? They had guts. Independence. Did what they wanted to and thought what they liked, and everybody could go to hell.(p. 13)

Jessup subscribes to these values, and though they are implicitly subversive in a politically repressive atmosphere, Lewis describes him as understanding himself too well to consider himself a left-wing radical; instead he is a tentative liberal who basically wants to be left alone to enjoy his small-town life and newspaper work.

One of the few calm and contented moments of the novel consists of a gathering of Jessup’s family and friends for a country picnic where “there was nothing modern and neurotic,” writes Lewis, “nothing savoring of Freud, Adler, Marx, Bertrand Russell, or any other divinity of the 1930’s” (p. 38). From the perspective of the complex, mechanized, modernized, psychologized, and homogenized thirties, Jessup longs for an era now lost. There is no going back to the past, a fact that makes it doubly attractive and no less important to Jessup—or to Lewis. Yet Jessup’s sense of “social duty” (p. 104) does not permit him to ignore the present, nor does he abandon the past because finally it will be a means by which he will attempt to reshape the present.

Jessup’s sense of social duty is informed by his individualism. He does not believe in collective modes of reform because he views them as absolutist and dogmatic, and he objects to any group insisting that it has the final and perfect solution for society’s ills. Neither “Fascists,” “Communists,” “American Constitutionalists,” “Monarchists,” nor “preachers” have the answer, because, according to Jessup, “There is no Solution! There will never be a state of society anything like perfect!” (p. 112). He reflects Lewis’s own values when he insists that “All the Utopias—Brook Farm, Robert Owen’s sanctuary of chatter, Upton Sinclair’s Helicon Hall—and their regulation end in scandal, feuds, poverty, griminess, disillusion” (p. 114). And when they don’t immediately end...

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