It Can’t Happen Here – by Sinclair Lewis – independent book review – Fiction

Though not a long book, this was a very hard one to finish. It is BLEAK! Awarded three stars on Goodreads.

Written and published in the mid 1930s, Author Sinclair Lewis (1885-1951) poses the question — what believable scenario might allow Fascism to take control in the United States? And one of the most alarming aspects of his created scenario is how similar Lewis’s fictional demagogue is to the man who currently occupies the White House. You will recognize the bluster. And there are moments, too many of them really, when the similarities and quotes are uncanny.

Using powerful yet folksy rhetoric, Republican Presidential Candidate, Senator“Buzz” Windrip, channels widespread Depression-era resentment into focused hatred of Black Americans, Jews, and immigrants. Promising a redistribution of the nation’s wealth (much of Windrip’s election platform is borrowed from former Louisiana Senator’s Huey Long’s (1893-1935) own 1930s political campaign), Windrip gets elected and, under the pretext of handling a temporary crisis, immediately declares martial law. Congress and the Supreme Court are neutralized, universities are closed or taken over, and a para-military force (modeled on Hitler’s Gestapo) is created to keep order. 

Lewis’s protagonist is small-town Vermont newspaper editor Doremus Jessup, who, at first, simply watches events unfold but later, determines to fight the Fascist regime. Unfortunately, as the story progresses, the line between the good folks and the evil ones increasingly blurs. And what the novel actually becomes is a look at the dark soul of humanity— simple in its thinking, eager to follow blindly, hungry for power, and prone to violence.  

Don’t expect Lewis to offer any solution either. This novel is his warning call. Nothing more. But his skill in predicting future events is nothing less than astonishing. Remember this was written in the 1930s, as Adolph Hitler and Benito Mussolini were just coming into power and World War II was not yet on the horizon. 

I have not read any of Lewis’s other novels. But contemporary reviewers noted at the time that while IT CAN’T HAPPEN HERE was an important book, it was not a great novel. I have to agree. The most interesting parts for me were the parallels between Windrip and Donald Trump — in the ways they both gain popular support and how each manages to defy the other branches of government that are supposed to ensure a balance of power. But once Windrip’s leadership descends into media manipulation, mass arrests and brutal enforcement — I found it harder and harder to continue reading. 

Author Sinclair Lewis

Do I recommend this book? Well, I greatly admire Lewis’s clever, sometimes even humorous, writing style and I likely will now read some of his other novels. This one is certainly an interesting testament to both the cyclical nature of history and a novelist’s ability to be prescient. But it’s also no fun. So, you’ll have to decide on your own if you want to tackle it.

More about Sinclair Lewis, the first American to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature.