It Can’t Happen Here, Sinclair Lewis 1937
My paperback copy of Lewis’s book was published by Dell (not publication date unfortunately) and sold for 60 cents. The frontispiece has a penciled ’25 cents’ in the upper right hand corner, almost certainly indicating that I had bought this book at Bryn Mawr Books on Huron Avenue in Cambridge between 1971-1973 when we lived nearby.
So what led to my schlepping this book through at least six moves finally coming to rest in Vermont nearly 50 years later still unread, and what led to my finally opening it this month?
The book is set in America in 1937, a country still struggling with the Great Depression and facing domestic upheaval and jingoism. FDR running for a second term is defeated for the nomination by Senator Buzz Windrip whose 15 points platform includes a $5000 check to every American (sound familiar?). Windrip, supported by his private, several hundred thousand strong Minute Man militia, is swept into office and within days has abolished the Congress, Supreme Court, and the states themselves reorganizing the country into a fascist, militarist entity called Corpoism serving the interests of big business, bankers (but not Jewish ones!), and Windrip’s cronies. Blacks, Jews, and other political opponents are quickly swept up and placed in concentration camps while the country beats the drums of war and supports the ‘law and order’ of Windrip, at least initially.
This depressing and all too familiar scenario is narrated through the eyes of Doremus Jessup, the editor of the Sentinel, a small town newspaper in Fort Beulah, Vermont. Through Jessup’s family and friends, we get an up close look at how fascism can undermine and destroy even the most cherished of democratic values if there is a Big Lie coming from D.C.
I know now why I avoided the book until now and also why after being written 83 years ago, it shot to the top of Amazon’s best seller list shortly after trump’s election in 2016. Windrip and trump share so many characteristics from their greed, ignorance, intellectual bankruptcy, corruption, and need to be surrounded by sycophants as well as their willingness to do anything to stay in power. Lewis captured our present-day Windrip with great accuracy.
Born in rural Minnesota, Sinclair Lewis attended Yale and began his successful writing career with Main Street in 1920. He was the first American to win the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1930 after winning the Pulitzer Prize in 1925 for Arrowsmith, one of my all time favorite books.
I feel very connected to Lewis—Yale, his home in nearby Barnard, Vermont which he bought in 1928, his 720 acre farm in Williamstown, his 14 year marriage to Dorothy Thompson one of my journalistic heroines, and his collaboration with Paul deKruif who worked at my medical school alma mater, University of Michigan, in writing Arrowsmith are all connected in some way to my life.
I’m pleased that I finally added this book to my reading though remaining depressed about the events that led me back to it after all these years on my shelves. The book ends with Windrip exiled in Europe, his yes-man successors assassinating or imprisoning each other, and America in rebellion against Corpoism with Doremus Jessup who had escaped from a concentration camp, working as New Resurrection spy in Minnesota. Though this book ends without resolution but with hope, perhaps our current agony will end happily.