Sunday, February 21, 2010

It Can't Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis

Sinclair Lewis, It Can't Happen Here. Garden City, New York: Doubleday, Doran and Company, 1935

Reviewed by T. Hatch

Doremus Jessup was an aging newspaper editor in bucolic Fort Beulah Vermont in 1935. Leading a thoroughly prosaic middle-aged existence, as the novel's central character, he witnesses the contentious presidential election of 1936. The result of the election is that Senator Berzelius “Buzz” Windrip, an anti-intellectual populist, becomes president and conducts a gleichschaltung of his own, transforming the country into a corporate/fascist state complete with concentration camps. Jessup rides successive waves of totalitarian change and is thrown into working with the political underground, a faux collaboration with the “Corpos,” imprisonment, escape, exile, and finally a return to the underground.

The truly stunning aspect of this book is the absolute continuity of right-wing politics in this country over the last seventy-five years. President Windrip's administration is openly dominated by big business and is not loath to openly display this allegiance (in the same plutocratic spirit of the recent Supreme Court decision in the Citizen's United v. Federal Elections Commission case). Windrip was pro-Christian, anti-feminist, and opposed the teaching of evolution; his administration totally favored what we now call a unitary executive doctrine. Beside issuing false and misleading statements the Windrip White House did its best to suppress independent reporting in an attempt to completely control the flow of all information.

Throughout the reading of Lewis' novel, several works on political history and theory kept springing to mind, namely, the late great Richard Hofstadter's Anti-Intellectualism In American History (1963). as well as his The Paranoid Style in American Politics (1965). More recently Sheldon Wolin's Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism (2008) very much deals with this subject matter. A work of fiction that examines the same subject and the same political era is Philip Roth's The Plot Against America (2004). Lewis was projecting forward to the 1936 election and Roth was glancing backwards in a counterfactual way at the Nazi fellow traveler Charles Lindberg wresting the 1940 presidential election away from Franklin Roosevelt. The two books written seventy years apart provide an interesting contrast on fascism wrapped in an American flag.

Lewis, Sinclair. It Can't Happen Here
Burling Library 3rd Floor PS3523.E94 I8 1935

Hofstadter, Richard. Anti-Intellectualism in American Life. New York: Knopf, 1963.

Hofstadter, Richard. The Paranoid Style in American Politics, And Other Essays. New York: Knopf, 1965.
2nd Floor E743 .H632

Wolin, Sheldon S. Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008
Burling Library 2nd Floor JK1726 .W66 2008

Roth, Philip. The Plot against America. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co, 2004.
Burling Library 3rd Floor PS3568.O855 P58 2004

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