June 4, 2010

Tales from the Completist: "It Can't Happen Here," by Sinclair Lewis

(Just like anyone else who is a lover of great books, I find myself sometimes with a desire to become a "completist" of certain authors; that is, to have read every book that author has ever written. This series of essays chronicles that attempt. Don't forget, a list of all the other books reviewed as part of this series can be found on CCLaP's main book review page.)

It Can't Happen Here, by Sinclair Lewis

It Can't Happen Here (1935)
By Sinclair Lewis

"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." --William Randolph Hearst, October 1935, one month after the release of It Can't Happen Here

Although it's easily my favorite of all the things I do here, there are nonetheless some frustrations that come with writing the CCLaP 100 essay series concerning literary classics: for example, since I choose only books I myself have never read before, the series is missing an awful lot of major touchstones in literary history; and since I only cover a maximum of one title by any given author, this forces me to abandon a whole plethora of other books I think I would've enjoyed reading as well. Take for example early Modernist Sinclair Lewis, who before opening CCLaP I was barely familiar with at all, but am rapidly growing to admire more and more, the more I learn about him; and although my official selection of his for the CCLaP 100 is the masterpiece Babbitt (which I'll be reading later this year), while researching him I also came across a 1935 book of his called It Can't Happen Here that I found simply impossible to pass up.

The book is essentially a speculative novel, taking the real events and popular figures of the 1930s to show just how easy it would've been for a fascist takeover of the United States to happen back then, right in the same period where the same thing had already happened in Germany, Italy, Japan, Spain, Scandinavia, and other places; and although the book has been largely forgotten by now, it actually served as a comeback vehicle of sorts for Lewis at the time of its publication, after having a whole string of hits during the Roaring Twenties but rapidly falling out of favor with the onset of the Great Depression. See, for those who don't know, you can think of Lewis as perhaps the Jonathan Franzen or Tom Perrotta of Early Modernism: possessed with a skepticism towards humanity that knew no bounds, he originally became famous for a series of funny yet scathing novels about the naked hypocrisy of the bland middle class, sleepy midwestern suburbs, and conservative religious groups. (In fact, Lewis is widely considered to have written the very first satire of televangelists ever penned, 1927's Elmer Gantry, which has profoundly influenced every televangelism satire that has come since, although of course such people were technically radio stars in Lewis' day.)

At the time, such books were eagerly eaten up not just by bitter intellectuals but also the very self-loathing middle-classers he was making fun of, which again like Franzen or Perrotta made him a hit not only academically but among the beach-and-airport crowd; in fact, he famously won the Pulitzer Prize in those years (for 1925's Arrowsmith) just to infamously turn it down, using the occasion to express his open contempt for everything the Pulitzers stood for, and later in life became the very first American to ever win the Nobel Prize for literature. But the audience for witty yet ultimately gentle parodies of the middle class profoundly dried up after the Great Depression hit -- not just because the middle class virtually disappeared, but because they were posthumously blamed for much of the things that had led to the Great Depression in the first place -- with the audience for contemporary novels turning more and more in the 1930s to such progressive social realists as Nelson Algren and Richard Wright. But of course, Lewis never stopped being bitter and angry through those years, and never stopped writing either; and like many political moderates at the time, he too watched with growing horror as these middle-classers he once made gentle fun of started turning more and more to such dangerous ideologues as politician Huey Long (the Sarah Palin of the 1930s) and media star Father Coughlin (the '30s Glenn Beck), and as more and more business tycoons like Henry Ford and celebrities like Charles Lindbergh started opening singing the praises of Adolph Hitler and Benito Mussolini, who had of course already successfully taken over their own countries by then, and were manipulating the media into making it seem like everything was going just peachy.

It's easy to forget now, but during the nadir of the Great Depression, when unemployment was at its highest and it hadn't nearly been proven yet that Roosevelt's New Deal was actually going to work, the empty promises and hateful blame-shifting of fascism actually looked like a pretty good idea to a growing amount of Americans -- as the old justification goes, after all, "Hitler may be a mean guy, but at least he's building the highways!" -- even while those who were against fascism were walking around in those days self-righteously declaring that such a thing could never happen in such an enlightened, sophisticated democracy as the United States. This book, then, was Lewis' angry response to both those groups, using extrapolation of all the real issues at the time to show that, yes, a fascist takeover of the US actually could happen, and by the way, the reality would be so much worse than any of you rah-rah Jew haters could possibly, possibly imagine.

And indeed, one of the reasons this book was so anticipated at the time and later became such a big hit was precisely because of its laser-precise look at all the current issues dominating the headlines during the early 1930s, making it just as important as a historical document as it is simply a novel; I mean, sheesh, just in the first third of the manuscript alone, Lewis makes specific references to Oswald Villard, Norman Thomas, Admiral Byrd, Hiram Powers, Thaddeus Stevens, Brigham Young, Chester Arthur, Billy Sunday, Aimee McPherson, Mother Eddy, Al Smith, Tom Heflin, Tom Dixon, William Jennings Bryan, Herbert Hoover, Senator Vandenberg, Ogden Mills, Hugh Johnson, Frank Knox, Senator Borah, Walt Trowbridge, George Norris, Jim Farley, William Rollins, John Strachey, Stuart Chase, Al Smith, Carter Glass, William McAdoo, Cordell Hull, Bruce Barton, Edgar Guest, Arthur Brisbane, Elizabeth Dilling, Walter Pitkin, William Dudley Pelley, S. Parkes Cadman, Edward Bernays, Upton Sinclair, Charles Beard, John Dewey, General Balbo, Ernest Hanfstangl, Ramsay MacDonald, Jimmy Walker, Olin Johnston, Mayor La Guardia, Eugene Debs, Steve Perefixe, Neil Carothers, Dowie and Voliva, Jeb Stuart, Nathaniel Lyon, Pat Cleburne, James McPherson, Jane Addams, Mother Bloor and Carrie Nation, many of whom were barely famous even when this book first came out, and of course had already landed in the dustbin of history even by the time World War Two rolled around.

And yes, as you can imagine if you're a regular reader here, there are all kinds of ways to directly compare the events of this book with the real events of the Bush administration in the years following 9/11, making it an impressively prescient look at what happened in the US when a quasi-fascist (okay, fascism-friendly) group actually did take over the federal government for a time. See for example the establishment of a new uber-department of the US military in this novel, one that reports not to Congress but directly to the President (think Homeland Security, made by Bush into a White House Cabinet department instead of a new wing of the military); the psychotic powermonger who serves as the vicious puppetmaster behind a genial, populist President (think Karl Rove); the outlawing of criticism against the army ("SUPPORT THE TROOPS, F-GGOT! SUPPORT THE TROOPS, F-GGOT!"); the worship of rural life and the demonization of urban living ("Country First," "Real America"); the elevating of a barely educated blue-collar thug to a position of national importance, because of a freak celebrity status bestowed by a bored media ("Joe the Plumber"); the slow rise of open racism and sexism as legitimate forms of entertainment (where do I even start?); the growing belief that corporate executives are the best-qualified people to lead our country, and the eventual complex intermingling of the private boardroom with the White House Cabinet (again, where do I even start?); the scapegoating of an entire section of the population, one already distrusted by most middle-class Caucasians, as a way to deflect attention from the massive corruption of their chosen officials ("Arabs! Terrorists! BOO!"); the overly quick passing of profoundly paradigm-changing legislation, long before its merits can actually be debated (think Patriot Act); the open mocking of intellectuals and academes in order to deflate their power; a faux-folksy autobiography-cum-manifesto from a major politician, full of empty promises delivered in homespun "common man" language (think Sarah Palin's Going Rogue); the hypocritical claim that censorship is the best way to honor the original intents of the Founding Fathers; a media-driven ad-hoc "populist grassroots movement" not officially associated with a political party, but used bilaterally by politicians anyway to justify the worst of their draconian wishes (the teabaggers in a nutshell); an ineffectual opponent who comes off as elite and impotent at the exact wrong moment in history to do so (think John Kerry); the belief that we must "show" to the rest of the world that we're "real men" and "can't be pushed around," no matter how much damage it causes to international relations (the attitude that virtually defined the Bush administration for eight years); and even a trumped-up war against Mexico when things start going badly for the people in charge, and who need a nation-unifying enemy to divert attention from inner-party conflict (think post-Bush Arizona, "The Wall," ad nauseum). Each and every one of the things just mentioned is found in Lewis' book; and that's astounding, given that it was written almost 75 years before September 11th and the rise of Bushism, and even more astounding when you consider that Lewis told his own story through the filter of a charming faux-Democrat coming to power, not a bumbling faux-Republican.

Now, of course, that also brings us to this book's greatest criticism, a pretty fair one in my opinion now that I've read it myself -- that once we actually come to the Presidential win of this charming Huey-Long-type faux-Democrat about halfway through, the book quickly becomes the 1930s equivalent of the cheesy action movie Red Dawn, with for example the construction of public concentration camps, the dissolving of Congress, and the morphing of the former 48 continental state boundaries into nine "administrative districts" all happening before even the first year of this new President's term is finished. (And in fact, speaking of cheesy genre actioners, the original '80s version of the sci-fi series V was itself a modified adaptation of this very book, after a straight adaptation of it by showrunner Kenneth Johnson [originally titled Storm Warnings] was deemed "too talky" by the network.) And that quite obviously leads us to why It Can't Happen Here is now largely forgotten, and is generally considered by Lewis fans to be one of his minor works, despite it being a fairly massive hit when it first came out (even adapted by the WPA into a highly successful stage play, which at one point during the Great Depression was being performed at 35 different theatres across the nation simultaneously); because once again, just like Franzen or Perrotta, Lewis' early novels are admired so much precisely for the nuanced subtlety he manytimes brings to his points, while here he essentially rants like an angry teenager for nearly 400 pages. But then again, maybe this just proves what a polarizing subject fascism is, and that it's simply impossible to respond to the issue in any kind of nuanced way; and in that regard, just think of how many crappy books and movies have now been made about 9/11 and the Bush years, projects that were made with good intentions but might as well be re-titled George Clooney Screams For Two Hours About What a Monster Dick Cheney Is.

In any case, it's for sure a fascinating book, one that for obvious reasons deserves to be much better known these days by the general population than it currently is; and in fact, like I said, the more I learn just about Lewis in general, the more I believe that we're in store soon for a major cultural reassessment of his oeuvre (especially as we approach the 100th anniversaries of many of his most famous titles), a writer who is more and more these days starting to appear eerily ahead of his times, and who still has a lot to tell us about what motivates all those endless SUV-driving, yellow-ribbon-wearing, Joel-Osteen-following soccer moms out there in the "flyover states." Although it should be approached with tolerance and a forgiving mindset, I recommend reading It Can't Happen Here if you get the chance, and see for yourself just how universal the fear of uppity hypocrites has actually been over the course of history.

Read even more about It Can't Happen Here: Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Shelfari | Wikipedia

Filed by Jason Pettus at 2:02 PM, June 4, 2010. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |