If you’ve never heard of Sinclair Lewis, perhaps you should. He was, in 1930, the first American to win the Nobel Prize for literature. But that’s not why I picked this up – it was a brief Guardian mention about how this, and other dystopian novels such as Brave New World and 1984 were experiencing a resurgence in popularity.
Now, Brave New World I’ve never read, although I’ve heard the CBS Radio Workshop version, and 1984 I’ve read many times (and I’m waiting for the Peter Cushing version to be released on DVD.) But “It Can’t Happen Here”, I’d never heard about before.
The novel centres around Doremus Jessup, editor of the local paper in Fort Beulah. While the paper isn’t particularly partisan, he does pride himself on standing up for truth, justice, the American Way, etc. Then along comes Berzelius Windrip and Lee Sarason – modelled on Hitler and Goebbels, they could just as easily be Trump and Bannon.
There are major spoilers ahead, and should you wish to read it without the benefit of those spoilers, please look away now. Still here? Good.
Windrip runs for the Democratic nomination against Roosevelt, and wins. Then he starts the standard dictator playbook – impose martial law, just “for the duration of the current crisis”, of course. Then start rounding up your political opponents, using your own militia. Send them to concentration camps.
The descriptions of the camps are brutal and unflinching. If you have delicate sensibilities, maybe this book isn’t for you – Lewis insists on letting his readers have it, both barrels.
To be honest, for me, up until the election everything rang true. The imposition of martial law, the creation of the “Minute Men” (the president’s personal militia), and how fast that all happens struck me as a bit fast. But then, I’ve never lived through anything like that, and Lewis’s imposition of martial law is based on accounts from his wife who covered fascism extensively as a reporter, as well as accounts from anyone he could find who’d been in Italy or Germany.
So what to make of it? The warning against the rise of fascism is prophetic. It’s the argument that the fascist takeover happens simply because nobody stands up to stop it, at least, not in a way that makes a material difference, that is the core of the book’s message.
As a novel, it stands up pretty well. The introduction to my edition said that it would help if you know the names of a lot of famous people from America in the 20s and 30s. I do, as it happens, a lot because of listening to old radio programs I downloaded from the Internet Archive. But to be honest, I don’t think that matters so much. The lists of people hauled off to concentration camps for one reason or another are clear enough why that happened; you don’t need to know who everyone in the list is beforehand.
Even though I disagree with the manner in which totalitarianism might happen, Lewis sketches clearly what would happen – how people would react to it. Come to terms with things. “Keep calm and carry on”, as it were (a British WW2 propaganda phrase that was intended for use if the German army ever did invade England).
It made me think, more than anything. Perhaps what made me think, more than anything, was the occasional, pre-chapter quotations from Windrip’s “Zero Hour”, the in-book version of “Mein Kampf”. Because – and this is probably the most frightening lesson of all – it sounded so normal. So natural. So sane.