- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 15, 2005

ROGER K. MILLER

on Sinclair Lewis’

IT CAN’T HAPPEN HERE

Seventy-five years ago this fall Sinclair Lewis became the first American to be awarded the Nobel Prize in literature. By that time his reputation and the quality of his work had begun their steady decline, and never again until his death in 1951 would he publish another novel to match the five for which he is noted—”Main Street,” “Babbitt,” “Arrowsmith,” “Elmer Gantry” and “Dodsworth.”

There were occasional upward bumps, however, and 70 years ago this fall one of them came with “It Can’t Happen Here,” Lewis’ warning about the dangers of fascism. He conceived the idea in May 1935 and, after two months of writing at white heat—12-hour days, seven days a week—he finished Aug. 13, and the book came out two months later, on Oct. 21.

Time was of the essence, because fascism and tyranny were thriving all about, not just overseas in the form of Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini, but perhaps domestically as well in dubious movements led by such charismatic and quasi-populist prophets and demagogues as Sen. Huey Long, Father Coughlin and others.

The premise underlying “It Can’t Happen Here” is that a dictator like Hitler could come to power because civilized people did not believe that he could and did not oppose him until too late—which is an insight that Lewis gleaned from his wife, the acclaimed international journalist Dorothy Thompson, whose brain was one of many he picked. But while European fascism (and Stalinist communism) are the models Lewis borrowed, he erected them, albeit somewhat wobbly, on the streets of places like Zenith and Gopher Prairie.

“ICHH” revolves around a 60-year-old Vermont newspaper editor, Doremus Jessup, and his reaction to the dictatorial takeover of the U.S. government by Sen. Berzelius (“Buzz”) Windrip after winning the presidency in the 1936 election. Doremus, “a mild, rather indolent and somewhat sentimental Liberal” and a “small-town bourgeois Intellectual,” is clearly Lewis’ alter ego.

Doremus’ opposition to Windrip grows as the Nazi-like screws of his rule tighten on America. By the novel’s end (it is then 1939) Doremus has escaped from a concentration camp, where he has been severely beaten, and is acting as an agent slipping into the country from Canada to aid the growing resistance.

Curiously, until the terror intensifies toward the end, what is happening in “ICHH” does not feel terribly alarming, despite the many alarms. It is, Doremus remarks of the idiosyncratically American nature of Buzz’s movement, “Revolution in terms of Rotary.”

Lewis appears to acknowledge a difference between homegrown and European totalitarianism: Berzelius is “a dictator with something of the earthy American sense of humor of a Mark Twain, a George Ade, a Will Rogers, an Artemus Ward.”

Then again, that may be the point: People adjust to anything. “The worst of it was that it wasn’t so very bad,” Doremus thinks of his everyday life under Buzz’s regime.

The novel has more than a few flaws; some are practically systemic to Lewis’ writing. The plot creaks at nearly every seam, and many scenes are set-pieces whose only purpose is to make a point.

The characters are so flat—not all, but too many—you can imagine them being propped up by V-shaped supports, like paper dolls. Too often they engage not in believable thought processes or dialogue, but in mental and oral sloganeering.

Still, if it is propaganda—and it is, given Lewis’ admiration of Franklin Roosevelt and his fear that he would founder in the 1936 election—it fits well into the narrative and is successful in sounding its cautionary note. Indeed, critics who praised the book tended to do so for its political and intellectual rather than its artistic values—an assessment with which Lewis did not wholly disagree.

On the other hand, the novel has more than a few delights. There is above all Lewis’ incomparable talent as a mimic and satirist. Satire may be, as George S. Kaufman said, what closes Saturday night, but in 1935 readers who knew Lewis’ writing must have been drawn to this aspect of it.

It is an unsubtle, mocking brand of satire. There is the banker Crowley, “a financier who liked to cultivate an appearance of free intellectual discussion, though only after the hours devoted to refusing credit to desperate farmers and storekeepers.”

Yet what Lewis loves to satirize he also loves, period, as is shown by the loving detail he goes into. Here, in part, is Doremus’ office: “on the wall it did have historic treasures in the way of a water-stained surveyor’s-map of Fort Beulah Township in 1891, a contemporary oleograph portrait of President McKinley, complete with eagles, flags, cannon, and the Ohio state flower, the scarlet carnation, a group photograph of the New England Editorial Association (in which Doremus was the third blur in a derby hat in the fourth row), and an entirely bogus copy of a newspaper announcing Lincoln’s death.”

“ICHH” sold extremely well on original publication—320,000 total copies—and was generally favorably reviewed. And it received, for a book of its kind, the ultimate accolade: It was banned in Nazi Germany.

Roger K. Miller, a former newspaper book review editor, is a freelance writer, reviewer and editor.

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