Book review by Jodey BatemanIT CAN’T HAPPEN HERE by Sinclair LewisMon Oct 2, 2006 17:41
IT CAN’T HAPPEN HERE by Sinclair Lewis
Book review by Jodey Bateman
Sinclair Lewis, the first American to receive the Nobel Prize For Literature, wrote this satirical political novel in 1935, a time when the United States and Western Europe had been in a depression for six years. In this novel, Sinclair Lewis asks the question – what if some ambitious politician would use the 1936 presidential election to make himself dictator by promising quick, easy solutions to the depression - just as Hitler had done in Germany in 1933.
The hero, Doremus Jessup, a small-town newspaper editor in Vermont, turns 60 years old the year the dictator is elected. Doremus struggling for a year with the new government’s attempts to censor his paper and ends up in a concentration camp. Within a year he escapes to Canada, from there, he goes on missions back into the states for the underground resistance movement against the dictatorship.
While Doremus Jessup could be anybody, the identity of Buzz Windrip, the power-hungry senator who makes himself a dictator would be obvious to any American in 1935. Parallels are made in his dictatorial control of his own un-named state with the career of Huey Long, senator from Louisiana. In 1935 Long had a mass organization, the Share the Wealth League, and was planning to challenge Roosevelt for the Democratic nomination for the president in 1936. (While Lewis was writing his novel, Long was assassinated.)
The identity of the main ally of the fictional dictator would be equally obvious, Bishop Peter Paul Prang, the popular radio preacher who endorses Buzz Windrip’s campaign, is based on Father Charles Coughlin, the most popular radio speaker of the thirties who had a weekly program on CBS in which he denounced President Roosevelt and the Jews for causing and perpetuating the depression. Father Coughlin’s fans included the father of Pat Buchanan, a candidate for the Republican nomination for the president in the year 2000.
The parallel between Father Coughlin and such present-day TV evangelists as Pat Robertson is equally obvious. (In his novel, Lewis foresees that TV would have even greater propaganda potential than the radio – this fictional dictator introduces mass coast-to-coast TV broadcasting in 1937 - something that did not happen in reality until 1948.)
Lewis’s novel was supposed to be made into a film in 1936, but Will Hays who was in charge of censorship for the movie studios, used all his power and stopped the film from being made. Hays felt that a film of this novel would be seen as an attack on the Republican party. Although Lewis’s fictional dictator Windrip ran for President as a Democrat, any implied attack on Hitler’s Germany was seen as Democratic party propaganda in 1935, since Jews, Hitler’s enemies, mostly voted Democrat, and eighty percent of all movie studio executives at that time were Jews. Whatever dislike most Republicans might have for Hitler’s Nazi State, Republicans were seen as more opposed to anything that might lead to war with Germany than Democrats were.
IT CAN’T HAPPEN HERE was issued in a new edition in 1993. At the moment, there seems less chance of the current equivalents of Lewis’s villains gaining dictatorial power in this country than there was a few years ago, because the economy has improved - but the equivalents are still there on the sidelines, waiting for the next big economic down turn to try for power.
Any discussion of the politics of It Can’t Happen Here should keep in mind that Sinclair Lewis, the author, whas a political moderate although he had been around the left wing for a while in his youth. In his novel, Lewis satirized the conservative midwestern small town life ha had grown up in, but he also satirized the left wing.
Doremus Jessup, the hero of It Can’t Happen Here is a moderate Republican editor whose motto is: "Blessed are those who don’t think they have to go out and Do Something About It!"
But then Doremus Jessup, like his creator Sinclair Lewis is plunged into the chaos of the Depression, when American society seemed to be falling apart.
When Americans looked for solutions to the Depression, the great majority went no further than the liberal reforms of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. But for many, these reforms did not seem to be effective and they looked for something more drastic.
Lewis believed that most of those who wanted more radical solutions would not turn to the small American left wing, but to the right. He based the two villains of It Can’t Happen Here, Buzz Windrip and Bishop Prang on the two leading right-wing demagogues of the Thirties, Huey Long and Father Coughlin.
Doremus Jessup for all his moderation and trying to get along with the new right-wing dictatorship, winds up in a concentration camp. When he escapes from the concentration camp, he finds himself part of the resistance movement because that is all there is left for him to do. He blames himself for the failed revolution because he did not take Buzz Windrip more seriously when there was still a chance to stop him.
It Can’t Happen Here is not a revolutionary book. It reflects the fears of essentially moderate people like Sinclair Lewis that that desperate conditions of the thirties would sooner or later leave them no other choice than revolution.
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