To say that It Can’t Happen Here—Sinclair Lewis’s 1935 story of a fascist-like takeover of the United States by a populist president who uses lofty promises and scare tactics to win and control supporters—owes its popularity to its relevance to contemporary political issues of the 1930s would be a serious understatement, and one requiring some qualification. Sinclair Lewis’s biting condemnation of fascism and government controlled by a single demagogue paints a bleak but terrifyingly real potential future for readers in the United States in the late 1930s. And still today, unfortunately, the author’s warnings resonate in a political climate controlled by social media and threatened by the suppression of free speech and press. Such conditions make the novel’s message universal and worthy of inspection. But it is not exclusively the book’s politics that made it—and continue to keep it—a bestseller, for certainly Sinclair Lewis was not the only author suggesting the possibility that fascism could come to the United States as easily as it had taken over several European countries. Rather, it is a combination of Lewis’s own celebrity as a well-established best-selling author, the multi-faceted quality of the book itself—the ways in which it walks the line between realism and pure fiction—and a number of political reasons that, in 1935, made It Can’t Happen Here fly off the shelves, and in 2018 continue to make the novel a hotbed of reinterpretation and discussion on more than just political themes.
Despite being authored by one of the most prolific novelists of the first half of the 20th century and the first American to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, in terms of its themes and subject matter It Can’t Happen Here could hardly be more different from Sinclair Lewis’s earlier novels. Compared to Mainstreet (1920), Babbitt (1922), Arrowsmith (1925), Elmer Gantry (1927), and Dodsworth (1929), all of which dealt with the economic and personal struggles of the ever-growing American middle class, It Can’t Happen Here is in a league of its own. Of course, most of the elements of Sinclair Lewis’s distinct writing style are visible in the latter as well as the formers—a meticulously-crafted and researched world (Fort Beulah, Vermont in the case of It Can’t Happen Here), witty and realistic dialog, and description just literary enough in its verbiage to intrigue but not confuse a mass audience. In short, the book has all the empirical qualities of a novel that made Lewis’s earlier books so successful, and undoubtedly contributed to the success of It Can’t Happen Here.
With respect to narrative structure, Lewis plays it safe as well, not wanting to provoke readers any more than the potential for a totalitarian government in the United States already would. The plot is linear, and Lewis’s attempts to simplify the politics of fictional president Berzelius “Buzz” Windrip and the United States government for the general public are admirable, and at least somewhat effective. The author spares readers the overt propagandizing found in other political novels like Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, except in cases where such speeches are satirical, and spoken by Windrip or any of his loyal supporters. And there is a relatively even mixture of pure political rhetoric, shocking drama, and well-crafted storytelling. The combination of these elements makes for an easily accessible novel—likely a necessity for Lewis when dealing with a topic as incendiary as fascism in America. Possibly a more experimental form may have detracted from the novel’s popularity, even if it was written by someone as famous as Lewis. And the simplicity of the structure of It Can’t Happen Here may provide some insight into the general public’s taste for fiction. That such a novel, any novel written in a way as formally straightforward, could achieve so much success speaks not only to the importance of the book’s themes or the excitement of its plot, but to the desire of readers—at least those in 1935 who bought bestsellers—for something somewhat, standard, or “normal” —something that Lewis arguably provides in all of his novels, including It Can’t Happen Here.
Of course, in analyzing the success of a bestseller, diction and syntax are not the sole variables, or even two of the most important. A book’s genre is crucial to investigating not only its success in general, but its connection to the time in which it was written and its intended audience’s connection with it on the level of subject matter, themes, and tone. Many critics, particularly those scrutinizing It Can’t Happen Here through a chiefly-political lens, tend to label the book a dystopian novel. And certainly, there is something to be said for Lewis’s idea of a dystopia; however, the subject of Lewis’s novel is not the far-off future of other 20th century dystopian fiction, both bestsellers and classics of literature. Compared to Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932) or George Orwell’s 1984 (1949), Lewis’s interpretation of 1936 is similarly terrifying, but miles closer to home for readers in late 1935. In light of this, it may be appropriate to term It Can’t Happen Here a “near-dystopian” novel. And it is not the first of its kind. Jack London’s The Iron Heel, written in 1908, in a vein similar to It Can’t Happen Here, tells the story of the rise of an authoritarian oligarchy in the United States. Even before the spread of fascism in Europe, Lewis’s predecessors questioned whether “it” truly could “happen here.”
For readers when the novel was first published in October of 1935, the events of the book were not an alternate reality but a very possible immediate future. Lewis, at the risk of sacrificing his readers’ comfort, flirts with the idea of immersing the audience into the world of the novel by including excerpts at the start of each chapter from the fictional president Buzz Windrip’s fictional book—the manifesto of his followers; his Mein Kampf—Zero Hour; Lewis incorporates just as many actual historical figures as fictional ones into a novel riddled with names and people; and the author’s research into his own fabricated world, as well as his knowledge and understanding of the United States, its citizens, the shortcomings of the American system of government and the behavior of its constituents, are obvious. The effect of this mixture of realism and pure fiction is twofold: it draws readers in with direct parallels between the world of the novel and the real world and provides just enough separation to satisfy readers’ appetites for an escape from reality through fiction. Indeed, It Can’t Happen Here provides both political commentary and escapism, and could be read for pleasure as well as for analysis—the mark of a truly successful bestseller, perhaps. Like all things, however, time has altered perceptions of It Can’t Happen Here from a dystopian fiction to something more complex.
In his introduction to the Signet Classics edition of It Can’t Happen Here, in an easily forgettable sentence in the last paragraph, Michael Meyer rather matter-of-factly describes the book as “a satirical novel rather than a five-year plan framed by an inaugural address” (Meyer xv). And contemporary scholars seem to have reached a consensus in categorizing Lewis’s novel as a piece of political satire. But in light of its heavy themes of political corruption, oppression through intimidation, and the sheer amount of violence that pervades the novel—particularly compared to Lewis’s earlier, tamer works—satire seems a bold claim. Admittedly, elements like Berzelius Windrip, his Minute Men, and his cabinet of sycophants are caricatures or parodies as well as mirrors of fascist dictators such as Hitler or Stalin, their secret armies like the Gestapo, and their adoring advisers. Perhaps another reason why Lewis’s novel succeeded was because of its absurdity as a piece of satire, because of Lewis’s contempt for the spread of fascism in Europe, and for the ridiculousness of the idea that “it can’t happen here.” The idea of a fascist government in the United States was certainly a tough pill to swallow, and Lewis’s novel may have been the perfect wake-up call—laced with just the right mixture of cynicism and caution—for an America already hungry for political fiction. But while the novel sold well in the years following its publication—320,000 copies according to Mark Schorer in his biography on the author, Sinclair Lewis: An American Life (1961)—holding positions on weekly bestseller lists for months throughout 1935 and 1936, and the number 5 spot on the Publisher’s Weekly annual bestseller list for 1936, its popularity was to prove short lived.
In the years following its publication, after it fell off the bestseller lists and after the success of its 1936 Federal Theatre Project adaptation, which ran for weeks in theaters across the country, It Can’t Happen Here fell into relative obscurity. Like many of Lewis’s works—and frankly like many bestselling novels—the book lacked the quality necessary to make it a “classic” of literature, and its themes, however universal, were not enough to cement it in the hearts and minds of later generations of readers. For over 80 years, with the exception of infrequent new editions published in the Signet Classics series, and a brief revival of the stage version of the novel in 2011 in celebration of the production’s 75th anniversary, hope seemed lost for the rebirth of Doremus Jessup and Berzelius Windrip until, in 2016, Donald Trump secured the nomination for Republican candidate for president, and in November defeated Democrat Hillary Clinton in the general election. Though some of his campaign promises may not have been as outrageous as Windrip’s “Fifteen Points of Victory for the Forgotten Man,” many of Trump’s political tactics—particularly his condemnation and attempts at suppression of his dissenters—were eerily reminiscent of Windrip’s, and arguably European dictators’ before him.
Similarities between the 2016 election and Lewis’s novel did not go unnoticed. In 2016, the Berkeley Repertory Theatre commissioned an all new stage adaptation of the novel—with a script different from Lewis’s 1936 attempt. The production was generally well-received if not solely for its ambition or artistic merit, then (like the novel) for its chilling relevance. And more than reinvigorating the market for political satire and dystopian fiction, the 2016 election and the Berkeley Theatre production revealed something about It Can’t Happen Here that readers in 1935, even Lewis himself, could not have foreseen. The political heart of the novel—and possibly the strongest indication of Lewis’s own beliefs—can be found in a line spoken by Doremus late in the plot: “I am convinced that everything that is worthwhile in the world has been accomplished by the free, inquiring, critical spirit, and that the preservation of this spirit is more important than any social system whatsoever” (Lewis 359). Michael Meyer says of this quote, and by extension the entire novel, “To readers in the 1930s, this…evocation of self-reliant virtues was attractive, but it provided only the vaguest kind of solutions to pressing political issues” (Meyer xiv). And while the first readers of It Can’t Happen Here may have been more frightened than steeled by Lewis’s novel, now, decades after its original publication, the book’s political themes are more relevant than ever.
Lewis’s lack of a solution for the political problems presented in the book is an expected flaw. Perhaps no such solution exists—not for 1935 or today. Regardless of any potential prescribing or proselytizing, though, the “free, inquiring, critical spirit” that Doremus praises so highly remains at the center of the ideal of American democracy, and for this political reason, maybe more so than any other, Lewis’s novel remains an important piece of cultural history and political fiction. Lewis does not presume to know the answers to any of the problems that plagued the world of 1935. In his last press interview in 1949, the author described himself as “a diagnostician, not a reformer.” Lewis merely presents a problem that may have otherwise been overlooked by an apolitical faction of the United States in a way that is simultaneously simulated and engaging, but also real and terrifying. He does not offer a solution, but in this uncertainty lies the true impact of Lewis’s book: its ability, or rather its power, to force readers to think about the situation, whatever situation, to which it applies. The moral of the story: it can happen here.
For all its popularity and lasting impact, however, It Can’t Happen Here would arguably not have been as well-received had it been on a topic other than politics. Lewis wrote the novel over just four months in 1935, from May to August, and after his final revisions were completed on September 28, the novel was published on October 21 of that year. Of course, the novel’s gestation cannot be assumed to have been a mere six months; as Gary Scharnhorst states in his Afterword to the Signet Classics edition, “Lewis’s interest in the subject [of fascism] was no doubt piqued by Dorothy Thompson [his then-wife], who had interviewed Hitler in 1931” (Scharnhorst 385). It is likely that Lewis was toying with the idea of a political novel ever since the Great Depression stymied any possibility for another of his great middle-class masterpieces. Nevertheless, the actual writing of the novel took less than half a year and by several accounts—from both modern and contemporary critics—it shows. In 1935, J. Donald Adams of the New York Times called the book “exciting reading, even if it does nothing to advance Mr. Lewis’s art as a novelist” (quoted in Scharnhorst, 389-390). And some, like R.P. Blackmur, were less diplomatic in their criticism: “there is hardly a literary question that it does not fail to raise and there is hardly a rule for the good conduct of novels that it does not break” (Nation, October 1935; quoted in Meyer, viii). Still, though, the novel found many supporters such as Clifton Fadiman of The New Yorker, who called it “one of the most important books ever produced in this country” (New Yorker, October 1935).
It Can’t Happen Here is not a good book, but it is an important book. Its status as a bestseller, indeed like that of many bestsellers, comes more from the popularity of its author than any actual literary merit, and in the specific case of It Can’t Happen Here, its universal political relevance. The novel’s thematic significance, however, cannot detract from its formal shortcomings. While the book may be well-structured and exhibit some of Lewis’s most iconic writing techniques, in some instances it borders on the verbose and confusing, if not simply boring, such that for modern audiences, at least in the context of classic literature, the book remains a strange artifact of a mid-1930s taste for fiction. In the context, though, of bestsellers as indicators of culturally important ideas and markers of their audiences’ worldviews as well as their tastes, It Can’t Happen Here remains a vital piece of a puzzle. Literary merit aside, the novel’s success based on its themes and relevance offers an important potential answer to the question: what sells a bestseller?
Works consulted (*indicates sources that produced information): Butcher, Fanny. “Sinclair Lewis Uses Dictator for New Satire.” Chicago Daily Tribune [Chicago] 19 Oct. 1935: 16. *; Fadiman, Clifton. “Books: Red Lewis,” New Yorker [New York] 29 Oct. 1934: 99. *; Lewis, Sinclair. It Can’t Happen Here. New York: Signet Classics, 2014 (1935). *; Meyer, Michael. Introduction. It Can’t Happen Here, by Sinclair Lewis, 1935, 1st Signet Classics Edition (Scharnhorst Afterword), Penguin, 2014, pp. v-xv. *; Nazaryan, Alexander. “Getting Closer to Facism with Sinclair Lewis’s, ‘It Can’t Happen Here’.” The New Yorker, 19 Oct. 2016, https://www.newyorker.com/culture/culture-desk/getting-close-to-fascism-with-sinclair-lewiss-it-cant-happen-here. *; Publisher’s Weekly, various issues, 1935-36. *; Scharnhorst, Gary. Afterword. It Can’t Happen Here, by Sinclair Lewis, 1935, 1st Signet Classics Edition (Scharnhorst Afterword), Penguin, 2014, pp. 383-394. *; Schorer, Mark. Sinclair Lewis: An American Life. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1961. *; Yerkes, Andrew C. “‘A Biology of Dictatorships’: Liberalism and Modern Realism in Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here.” Studies in the Novel, 42 (Fall 2010), p. 292. *