Friday, December 2, 2016

"It Can't Happen Here" by Sinclair Lewis

Suddenly last month, Sinclair Lewis's eighty-year-old book It Can't Happen Here became a best seller. I don't know how many of the numerous recent purchasers have finished reading it, but I managed to read the whole thing. It's very depressing, and without giving away the ending, I think I can say it has no brighter side.

Bust of Sinclair Lewis
by Jo Davidson,
National Portrait Gallery,
Washington, D.C.
Paul Krugman says:
"So how bad will the effects of Trump-era corruption be? The best guess is, worse than you can possibly imagine." (Why Corruption Matters)
This could easily be the theme of Lewis's book, which of course did not turn out to be prophetic of his own time. He starts with an imaginary scenario of the American election of 1936, which was the immediate future when he wrote. His scenario takes full account of the current situation in Germany at the time, of America's fragile situation in the Depression, and of America's potential to mirror the escalating Nazi horror show.

It Can't Happen Here projects the election of fictitious candidates in 1936 and the aftermath of this election until around 1940. The candidate, a charismatic demagogue with an even more sinister collaborator, promises prosperity to the masses. He also promises persecution and maltreatment of hated minorities such as Jews and blacks, superpatriotism, glorious conquest of other countries, suspension of civil rights and other rights, and cancellation of democracy by removing the powers of Congress and other means. The candidate is elected by the masses of (white) people, many motivated by his promise to give each of them (the white people only) $5000, which was a lot of money in 1936.

Immediately upon taking office, the new President suspends all democracy by empowering the thugs and rabble as "Minute Men," arming them, and allowing them to terrorize the population. Soon the Minute Men are everywhere, often killing people without consequences. Concentration camps are set up for anyone who objects or belongs to an unwanted race, political party, or ethnic group. The novel is full of vivid descriptions of how this happens, while all along people say "It can't happen here," or more frequently, "It can't be happening here."

The events are seen through the life of one Vermont newspaper owner, Doremus Jessup. Lewis, already a Nobel Prize Winner when he wrote the book, was a fantastic portrayer of ordinary people and had an incredible way of showing how a specific individuals were typical. In reading, one can't help realizing how his characters in one small Vermont town still share so many features of today's Americans 80 years later.

The Jessup family's struggle -- and that of their friends and neighbors -- illustrates the impact of the disaster of totalitarianism and the way that people can be manipulated through their own prejudices and weaknesses. As I said: depressing. I'm sure many others will be or have been writing about this all-too-frightening characterization of American vulnerability and its results. And how much the people can still embrace hatred as an American value. I had chosen some apt quotations from Lewis, but I don't feel as if I need them to recommend this book -- if you want to be horrified, or maybe surprised that maybe we relied on our better nature for so long.

No comments:

Post a Comment