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It Can't Happen Here

by Sinclair Lewis

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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2,383664,358 (3.73)133
First published in 1935, when Americans were still largely oblivious to the rise of Hitler in Europe, this prescient novel tells a cautionary tale about the fragility of democracy and offers an alarming, eerily timeless look at how fascism could take hold in America. Doremus Jessup, a newspaper editor, is dismayed to find that many of the people he knows support presidential candidate Berzelius Windrip. The suspiciously fascist Windrip is offering to save the nation from sex, crime, welfare cheats, and a liberal press. But after Windrip wins the election, dissent soon becomes dangerous for Jessup. Windrip forcibly gains control of Congress and the Supreme Court and, with the aid of his personal paramilitary storm troopers, turns the United States into a totalitarian state.… (more)
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Where is your breaking point? What is your red line? When is enough enough?

In recent weeks and months of this year 2017, a good many Americans have asked themselves the same question. All humans have their limits, and as we find ourselves pushing up against, it becomes a universal quest for self-definition. What would shake me from my complacency?

Such a question plagues Doremus Jessup, the protagonist of Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here. A self-described “indolent Liberal” through-and-through, he would rather just continue to publish his small-town newspaper, the Daily Informer of Fort Beulah, Vermont. His natural cynicism serves him well during the political rise of Berzelius "Buzz" Windrip, the Führer-in-waiting and a thinly-veiled version of Huey Long who manages to displace Franklin Roosevelt from the 1936 Democratic nomination by promising to give $5,000 a year for every household, to put the uppity Negroes and Jews in their place, and to strip Congress and the Supreme Court of their Constitutional powers.

While many of the esteemed burghers of Fort Beulah sign right up for Windrip’s promises, however, Jessup remains apart, keeping company with his few fellow skeptical friends. Among these are Buck Titus – essentially the prototype for Dorothy Thompson’s “Mr. H” – Father Perefixe, the local Catholic priest; and Karl Pascal, noted Communist and Jessup’s frequent verbal sparring partner. They are all together listening to the Democratic convention over the radio when eventually Windrip manages to wrest it away from Roosevelt.

Needless to say, he goes on to win the election, ushering in the "American Corporate State," with financiers and big business occupying the prime seats at the table, and Windrip's Ernst Röhm-like consigliere/Secretary of State Lee Sarason pulling many of the strings behind the scenes. As the Sturmabteilung equivalent “Minute Men” (or “MMs”) begin restructuring the country, enforcing Windrip’s rule, arresting members of Congress, and establishing concentration camps, the insidious nature of the new Corpo regime comes into clear focus.

But like today’s debate over whether Donald Trump is a mere symptom of the larger system, or if he’s an aberration in an otherwise-functioning polity, so too do the inhabitants of Doremus Jessup’s Fort Beulah argue about the same:

Altogether too easy to explain everything just blaming it on Windrip … Why, Windrip's just something nasty that's been vomited up. Plenty others still left fermenting in the stomach—quack economists with every sort of economic ptomaine! No, Buzz isn't important—it's the sickness that made us throw him up that we've got to attend to—the sickness of more than 30 per cent permanently unemployed, and growing larger. Got to cure it!

Is there a collective that can be saved from racism and scapegoating by appealing to its material interests? This debate – and the 2016 Democratic primary – continues to rage, as it likely will for all time, like the fires below Centralia, PA. The ability of the mythical “white working class” to vote sufficiently for a black president promising hope and better things would seem to imply the wisdom of such a strategy, despite a hardcore of committed white nationalists who can never be won over. Of course, most people don’t necessarily think in those terms, and indeed, any form of political consciousness can be more difficult to establish than one might assume.

At first, if not actively collaborating or joining up with the Corpos, most Americans continued to go about their business, perhaps wary or hopeful of coming changes. But gradually, even the complacent ones like Jessup begin to get “woke”:

The tyranny of this dictatorship isn't primarily the fault of Big Business, nor of the demagogues who do their dirty work. It's the fault of Doremus Jessup! Of all the conscientious, respectable, lazy-minded Doremus Jessups who have let the demagogues wriggle in, without fierce enough protest.

A few months ago I thought the slaughter of the Civil War, and the agitation of the violent Abolitionists who helped bring it on, were evil. But possibly they had to be violent, because easy-going citizens like me couldn't be stirred up otherwise. If our grandfathers had had the alertness and courage to see the evils of slavery and of a government conducted by gentlemen for gentlemen only, there wouldn't have been any need of agitators and war and blood.

It's my sort, the Responsible Citizens who've felt ourselves superior because we've been well-to-do and what we thought was 'educated,' who brought on the Civil War, the French Revolution, and now the Fascist Dictatorship … It's I who persecuted the Jews and the Negroes. I can blame…no Buzz Windrip, but only my own timid soul and drowsy mind. Forgive, O Lord!

Is it too late?

It's a striking confession from a self-described liberal - and his own tensions between fascism and communism come to the fore over and over again. Not long before Jessup is thrown into a concentration camp along with Karl Pascal, he wonders: “I guess you know, the Communists are too theocratic for my tastes. But looks to me as though they have more courage and devotion and smart strategy than anybody since the Early Christian Martyrs—whom they also resemble in hairiness and a fondness for catacombs. I want to get in touch with 'em and see if there's any dirty work at the crossroads I can do for 'em—say distributing a few Early Christian tracts by St. Lenin.” And yet, until the end, he thinks must go it alone, that liberalism is the great differentiator of America, that individualism is worth preserving at any cost.

But indeed, even if Jessup doesn’t get all the way to Communism, this own great awakening comes with the realization of the dangers of the present. We live in a time when many are discovering the looming threats that have been there all along, when solutions like socialism and social democracy have regained their luster as both a moral politics and as a means to keep fascism at bay.

The debates of the mid-1930s sadly – and troublingly – resonate all too clearly with those we continue to have to this day. Is Trump a Huey Long? A Sarason? A Windrip? One of Lewis’s characterization makes the latter sound likely:

Daily he wanted louder, more convincing Yeses from everybody about him. How could he carry on his heartbreaking labor if nobody ever encouraged him? he demanded. Anyone, from Sarason to inter-office messenger, who did not play valet to his ego he suspected of plotting against him. He constantly increased his bodyguard, and as constantly distrusted all his guards and discharged them, and once took a shot at a couple of them, so that in all the world he had no companion save his old aide Lee Sarason, and perhaps Hector Macgoblin, to whom he could talk easily…

As a bank clerk might, quite rationally, worry equally over the whereabouts of a hundred million dollars' worth of the bank's bonds, and of ten cents of his own lunch money, so Buzz Windrip worried equally over the welfare—that is, the obedience to himself—of a hundred and thirty-odd million American citizens and the small matter of the moods of Lee Sarason, whose approval of him was the one real fame. (His wife Windrip did not see oftener than once a week, and anyway, what that rustic wench thought was unimportant)…

Just how COULD he get Lee to be a good boy and come play with him again? wistfully wondered the man who now and then planned to be emperor of the world.

Whether tyrant or fascist or petulant child, there comes a time to actively oppose authoritarians of all stripes, and It Can’t Happen Here is an extremely relevant exploration of how to draw that line. It illustrates what to look for, how to remain aware of a creeping totalitarianism, and most importantly, what the consequences might be for realizing too late. ( )
  goliathonline | Jul 7, 2020 |
Nobel laureate Sinclair Lewis’ imagining of the rise of fascism in America (written in 1935) is at once satirical and horrifying…especially when you realize that the major premise of the novel is that it CAN happen here just as easily as it happened in Germany and Italy. In fact, Lewis goes to some pains to link the novel to the real world by including historical figures (especially journalists) in the background of his fictional narrative.

The story revolves around the Vermont editor Doremus Jessup, a stalwart Liberal, caught up in the maelstrom that follows the election of Senator Berzelius Windrip (“Buzz” to all his friends) on a platform designed to reclaim America for working-class Americans, stripping Big Business and especially the international cabal of Jewish financiers of their inordinate power and influence. Lewis provides this suggestive character sketch of Windrip, the “Professional Common Man”:

“The Senator was vulgar, almost illiterate, a public liar easily detected, and in his ‘ideas’ almost idiotic, while his celebrated piety was that of a traveling salesman for church furniture, and his yet more celebrated humor the sly cynicism of a country store.”

Jessup is uneasy with the extremity of Candidate Windrip’s rhetoric but grows more horrified when President Windrip turns rhetoric into policy and action. Slowly, Doremus (whose wife affectionately and appropriately calls him “Dormouse”) relinquishes his pacifism and becomes part of the active resistance against the one now known as “the Chief.” The story ends (rather unsatisfactorily) I might note, after Dormouse’s—I mean, Doremus’—escape from a concentration camp to Canada and his return to America as a fully-fledged secret agent of the “New Underground,” the resistance movement, actively working to overthrow the fascist government.

This version of Lewis’ novel is accompanied by helpful interpretive essays by Michael Meyer and Gary Scharnhorst, which shed light on the important and often uncanny ways in which Lewis actually foretold developments in fascist Germany and captured the darker side of the American Zeitgeist. Lewis’ Buzz Windrip is a send-up of Senator Huey P. “Kingfish” Long, whose brash personality and wildly impracticable ideas presented a potent threat to American stability.

However, when compared to Lewis’ “big five” (the 1920s’ novels for which he won the Nobel Prize, including “Babbit,” “Main Street,” “Elmer Gantry,” “Arrowsmith,” and “Dodsworth”), “It Can’t Happen Here” is, by all critical accounts, a failure. As prescient as it may have been, it has never been qualified as a great novel. Its plot feels both contrived and unfinished. The characters (even Jessup) are caricatures. The satire is a little TOO biting to be taken as serious critique. And, probably the worst failure of all, the book offers no solutions to the crises it depicts. In fact, Lewis has Jessup offer up this self-understanding of the role he played:

“Don’t you understand that it’s my mission in life to be the despised critic, the eternal faultfinder? I must carp and scold until everyone despises me. That’s what I was put here for.”

If that can be truly described as a “life mission” (an open question to my way of thinking), I’m sure most would agree it certainly is not a noble one.

I discovered this novel, frankly, only because it skyrocketed onto Amazon’s bestsellers list in 2016, following the election of Donald J. Trump, who for many is a living, breathing example of Buzz Windrip. And, as much as I despise getting “political,” I feel it is important to make the following observations:

1) While I understand and share many people’s personal aversion to President Trump (having referred to him on more than one occasion as an “amoral cretin,” an opinion that has only been reinforced over time), the “fascist” results of his presidency are honestly not in evidence.

2) It is forgotten by many that, in Lewis’ world, Buzz Windrip was a DEMOCRAT, not a Republican. The reason that I find this so significant is that I completed this novel in the midst of the COVID-19 global pandemic. As a resident of St. Louis, Missouri, I was fascinated to watch the difference in the responses of Missouri Governor Mike Parsons (a staunch Republican) and Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker (a die-hard Democrat). It is a classic case-study in “top down” versus “bottom up” theories of government…of centralized versus localized control. And, as I write this, Pritzker’s executive orders that have effectively shut down the entire state (including southern Illinois where conditions are much different than the Chicago area) are being challenged as an unconstitutional abuse of the governor’s executive power. It seems to me that the Lewis’ inkling on the potential source of such fascistic tendencies is being borne out here.

3) Finally, I think Lewis may have made the unintended point that modern Liberalism is unable to effectively combat the rise of dictatorial forms of government and, in its own snide self-satisfaction, actually ends up aiding and abetting its growth. That Lewis offers no solutions to preventing the rise of fascism in his novel is a rather damning indictment of the vacuous idealism that constitutes current liberal thinking. I’ve also said many times that the election of Donald J. Trump is the Left’s fault (especially the media); the sneering condescension (if not outright hatred and spite) with which they have treated white, middle-class America has foreclosed any serious debate of ideas. Liberal America has decided that Conservative America doesn’t deserve the dignity of argument and persuasion but only jeers and mockery. And Conservative America is now more than happy to return the favor.

I find myself, more than ever after reading this novel, despising the political culture that we’ve allowed to develop in our country. And perhaps, in this review, I’ve given in a bit to the “eternal faultfinder” spirit that, at the end of the day, does nothing to solve problems and everything to exacerbate them. Perhaps, at the end of the day, it is not Buzz Windrip but Doremus Jessup who is the REAL anti-hero of the story…and I would do well to take the warning of his life seriously. ( )
  Jared_Runck | May 23, 2020 |
As everyone who recommended this book has said, for a work published in 1935, it's eerily prescient. The writing style is a bit dated, full of page-long sentences that go on and on, and many of the references are less familiar now, but the overarching plot of America's takeover by a folksy demagogue is certainly still quite relevant. I was surprised by the references to Hitler and concentration camps, which I imagine read quite differently before World War II... There's a bit of misogyny and disdain for gay men, but rather less than I would have expected for the time period. Overall, it was an interesting look into where the writer thought we were headed in the 1930s. ( )
  lavaturtle | Feb 16, 2020 |
Though some parts of the book are politically dated and move fairly slow,
with no total military takeover and murders of Democrats, Socialists, or Independents,
the fascist terror has already taken place under the current administration in 2020.

The ending is a little confused. It people can still safely escape, why don't they ALL go? ( )
  m.belljackson | Feb 10, 2020 |
Before November 2016, this book would have read like an alarmist dystopian fantasy. Instead, this book shows us what would happen if the Trump administration was allowed to do everything they want to do. It is a reminder of what can happen when democratic norms erode.

Berzelius Windrip is Donald Trump if he was minimally competent. The fact that Trump is such a bumbling dope is all that separates us from the reality in this book. The Windrip platform points listed in one of the early chapters sound a lot like the policy proposals I read on Trump's campaign website before the election.

The ending of the book gives some grudging hope that if Trump goes too far, somebody will act to stop him.

This book is important, but also depressing given current events.

Recommended. ( )
1 vote reenum | Dec 1, 2019 |
Showing 1-5 of 64 (next | show all)
“It Can’t Happen Here” is a work of dystopian fantasy, one man’s effort in the 1930s to imagine what it might look like if fascism came to America. At the time, the obvious specter was Adolf Hitler, whose rise to power in Germany provoked fears that men like the Louisiana senator Huey Long or the radio priest Charles Coughlin might accomplish a similar feat in the United States. Today, Lewis’s novel is making a comeback as an analogy for the Age of Trump.

» Add other authors (18 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Sinclair Lewisprimary authorall editionscalculated
Kennedy, Jay RichardIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Meisel, PerryIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Meyer, Michael LeversonIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Scharnhorst, GaryAfterwordsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Schorer, MarkIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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The handsome dining room of the Hotel Wessex, with its gilded plaster shields and the mural depicting the Green Mountains, had been reserved for the Ladies' Night Dinner of the Fort Beulah Rotary Club.
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.
Summarized, the letter explained that he was all against the banks but all for the bankers—except the Jewish bankers, who were to be driven out of finance entirely; that he had thoroughly tested (but unspecified) plans to make all wages very high and the prices of everything produced by these same highly paid workers very low; that he was 100 per cent for Labor, but 100 per cent against all strikes; and that he was in favor of the United States so arming itself, so preparing to produce its own coffee, sugar, perfumes, tweeds, and nickel instead of importing them, that it could defy the World . . . and maybe, if that World was so impertinent as to defy America in turn, Buzz hinted, he might have to take it over and run it properly. (Chapter 7)
And Loveland, teacher of Greek, Latin, and Sanskrit (two lone students), had never till now meddled in any politics of more recent date than A.D. 180. (p. 25)
"...we've got to change our system a lot, maybe even change the whole Constitution...The executive has got to have a freer hand and be able to move quick in an emergency, and not be tied down by a lot of dumb shyster-lawyer congressmen taking months to shoot off their mouths in debate." (p. 30, Senator Windrip)
He used to surprise persons who were about to shake hands with him by suddenly bending their fingers back till they almost broke. (p. 29)
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