Novelist Sinclair Lewis is known for a number of novels he wrote in the 1920s and 1930s. Main Street (1920) gave him wide recognition and he followed it with Babbitt (1922) and Arrowsmith (1925). The latter was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1926, but Lewis declined the award. After Elmer Gantry (1927) and Dodsworth (1929), Sinclair Lewis became the first American author to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.
One of his lesser known novels is It Can’t Happen Here, published in 1935. He was writing during the Great Depression and during a time when most Americans were oblivious to Hitler’s rise to power. Certainly Lewis had Hitler in mind and was warning Americans of the possibility of such a leader rising to power in the United States – even though most Americans would have said “it can’t happen here.”
Lewis was also connecting his character Buzz Windrip with the Louisiana politician Huey Long, who was preparing to run for president in the 1936 election. Huey Long was assassinated in 1935 just prior to the novel’s publication.
Lewis’ novel has gotten some attention again now because people are seeing parallels to Donald Trump’s campaign and administration. Take a look at the novel’s description on the back cover of Lewis’ book and you can see why.
It Can’t Happen Here is being viewed as a prescient novel that seems more like contemporary commentary on our current political climate.
During the 2016 Presidential campaign, I spent some time in Europe and a number of people I met in Eastern Europe asked about Donald Trump. I said that I didn’t think, at that point, that he had much of a chance of getting the nomination or winning. I was there during the week of the Brexit vote and a number of Brits told us that would not be passed. When it was, they were shocked, and told us that don’t be surprised if the same feelings aren’t present in America and would help Trump’s campaign. “Don’t think it couldn’t happen in America too, ” they warned me.
I did some reading about Sinclair Lewis, who I have not read since my undergraduate days. He graduated from Yale University in 1908, but had an interrupted college career as he worked at several part-time jobs. One of those that caught my attention was a period he spent working at the Helicon Home Colony.
The Colony was novelist Upton Sinclair’s socialist experiment in New Jersey. Upton Sinclair Jr. was also an American writer who is best known for his classic muckraking novel The Jungle. Helicon Home Colony was an experimental community he formed in Englewood, New Jersey using the proceeds from The Jungle. It was short-lived. It was established in October 1906, but the home burned down in March 1907 and the experiment ended.
After graduating Yale, Lewis worked as an editor and journalist, and published several novels that gained little attention. But Main Street in 1920 gave him recognition.
I only discovered It Can’t Happen Here recently via a tweet – which seems appropriate if you are making a Trump connection.
I think I will have to give Lewis’ novel a read.
From the summary I read, Lewis was clearly portraying a genuine U.S. dictator. But Lewis’s character of Windrip is not so much an American Hitler as he is a con-man – a good one who knows how to appeal to people’s desperation, but he has no overarching ideology or desire for world domination.
I’m behind on picking up on the novel because I can see online that since the 2016 United States presidential election, sales of It Can’t Happen Here shot up and this old novel made it to Amazon.com’s list of bestselling books, as did Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm. As with Orwell, Sinclair Lewis wrote what he considered a warning about something dangerous he saw beginning in America and portrayed in fiction how that might eventually play out in reality.