In 1935, when It Can’t Happen Here was published, Sinclair Lewis’s career as a bestselling author was in its second decade. He had achieved huge success, along with a Nobel Prize for Literature, for books like Main Street (1920) and Babbitt (1922) which condemned the “mediocrity, materialism, corruption, and hypocrisy of middle class life in the United States” (Meyer v). The Great Depression, however, essentially destroyed this middle class Lewis was so fond of—and so adept at—satirizing. In light of the rise of fascism in Europe, as well as the growing influence of political demagogues on both sides of the aisle in the United States, Lewis turned to politics for the subject of It Can’t Happen Here.
Lewis was no stranger to the details of the situation in Europe; particularly Germany. His second wife, Dorothy Thompson, working as a foreign correspondent in Berlin, had interviewed Adolf Hitler in 1931, and wrote a series of cautionary articles in the United States between 1931-35. Lewis himself began writing the novel in May of 1935, finishing his first draft in July, and a final version in August of that year. The book was published on October 21, 1935.
Yet for as radically political a novel It Can’t Happen Here appears, a friend of Lewis’s once said of the author “it would be a mistake to attribute to Sinclair Lewis any kind of sustained political conviction” (Scharnhorst 384). Even his wife, Thompson, described him as “basically apolitical” (Scharnhorst 384). He was a Liberal, a supporter of the New Deal and, like most Americans in the mid-1930’s, was concerned by the threat of fascism in the United States. Lewis’s intentions for the novel were made clear in a statement from a New York Times article from February of 1936, following the cancellation of production on a movie version of the book—a cancellation which Lewis attributed to the close relationships between Hollywood and some then-fascist European countries. Lewis is quoted as saying, “it [the novel] is propaganda for only one thing: American Democracy” (“Lewis Says Hays Bans Film of Book”). But, lest Lewis be remembered as a political manipulator or ideologue, heed his own words from his final press interview, in 1949, when the author stated firmly that he was “a diagnostician, not a reformer” (Scharnhorst 386).
Following the immediate success of the novel, and the failure of the film adaptation, a stage version of It Can’t Happen Here was commissioned by the Federal Theatre Project. Lewis, collaborating with reporter-turned-playwright John C. Moffitt, wrote the script throughout 1936, and the play premiered on October 27 at the Adelphi theater in New York, as well as in twenty other theaters in cities across the United States, and in multiple languages. Afterwards, Lewis took a break from novel-writing to focus on the theatre, with which he had become enamored, but his later life was plagued by alcoholism and an inability to rekindle his old success. Lewis died on January 10, 1951, of a heart attack.
Works consulted (*indicates sources that produced information): “Lewis Says Hays Bans Film of Book.” The New Yorker, 16 Feb. 1936. *; Lingeman, Richard. Sinclair Lewis: Rebel from Main Street. New York: Random House, 2002. *; Meyer, Michael. Introduction. It Can’t Happen Here, by Sinclair Lewis, 1935, 1st Signet Classics Edition (Scharnhorst Afterword), Penguin, 2014, pp. v-xv. *; 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. *