by Perry Meisel
It Can't Happen Here. By Sinclair Lewis. New York: Signet Classics, 1993.
It Can't Happen Here is unique among Sinclair Lewis's major novels, and very likely among his best. Although the book's appearance in 1935 was a topical response to the advent of fascism in Europe (Mussolini had come to power in Italy in 1922, Hitler in Germany in 1933), its depiction of a fascist future for the United States has a force that grows stronger with each passing year. Rather than criticize America for its provincialism as he did in the novels that had made him the first American to win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1930 - Main Street (1920), Babbitt (1922), Arrowsmith (1925), Elmer Gantry (1927), and Dodsworth (1929) - Lewis now celebrated America by writing a cautionary tale rather than a satiric one.
The urbane Europe of Dodsworth was no longer urbane when Lewis began work on It Can't Happen Here in 1934. His wife, Dorothy Thompson, was a journalist, and had published a book called I Saw Hitler in 1933; Lewis obviously knew what was afoot. His predilection for moral disgust was doubtless kindled by tales of Hitler. He had little patience with presumptive authority, and now found that what he hated about American provincialism - its gullibility - was mirrored by the success of the Nazis. It gave him an entirely fresh aesthetic perspective. Despite received critical opinion (Mark Schorer, Lewis's biographer, has said that after 1930 Lewis was "finished" as a "serious writer"), It Can't Happen Here marks a singular advance in Lewis's art as a novelist that transforms the assumptions of his earlier work into the problems of the new, and that leads to a startling self-reassessment that crowns his career.
Although It Can't Happen Here is as a rule compared to George Orwell's 1984 (1949) and Aldous Huxley's Brave New World (1932) in its representation of a totalitarian future, its best analogue is Nathanael West's A Cool Million, published just a year before Lewis's novel in 1934. West narrates the rise of an American fascism by showing the grotesque violence that brings to power Shagpoke Whipple, a dishonest banker and former president modeled upon Ronald Reagan's preferred precursor, Calvin Coolidge. Whipple puts America - and West's hero, poor Lemuel Pitkin - under the boot of his Storm Troops to secure the triumph of his National Revolutionary Party.
Lewis's plot is not dissimilar, but it has a wonderfully logical ease compared to West's Kafkaesque fantasy (there is some irony in the fact, too, that Jack London, to whom the young Lewis had sold plots in 1910-11, had in 1907 published the first of what Erich Fromm later called the "negative utopias," The Iron Heel). Unlike Orwell and Huxley, Lewis portrays not an achieved state of totalitarianism whose protocols the novel's characters take for granted, but a slow, altogether believable process whereby the America we all of us know crosses a line that we didn't realize was there. While Orwell and Huxley largely override the specificities peculiar to British culture as part of the nature of the fascist nightmare, Lewis takes advantage of specificity by employing American customs and conventions that we know by heart to stoke the loud realism that makes his story so extraordinarily vivid. The novel charts the rise to power of Senator Berzelius "Buzz" Windrip, a right-wing demagogue modeled on Huey P. Long of Louisiana, and whose partisans, who call themselves the "Corpos," have persuasive heirs in today's New Right.
Lewis focuses on the American electoral process in an outlandish and uncannily prophetic way, presaging the media campaigns that we now expect in American politics, and mixing, like Norman Mailer or Tom Wolfe, fact and fiction when, for example, Windrip beats Franklin D. Roosevelt out of the presidential nomination at the 1936 Democratic national convention. The campaign, too, is utterly convincing to American readers of any generation, especially those who saw Ronald Reagan's presidency, although the climactic Democratic rally at Madison Square Garden in New York the night before the election adds to the clatter of familiar American sounds and images the ominous centrality of the Minute Men, Windrip's storm troopers who, like West's Storm Troops in A Cool Million (they dress in Davy Crockett uniforms), use the virtues of a pioneer image in order to refashion it.
The story is told from the point of view of Doremus Jessup, a sixty-year-old newspaper editor in the small town of Fort Beulah, Vermont. Happiest when he is alone in his attic study amid "an endearing mess," as Lewis puts it, of books - novels, the complete works of Jefferson, the Bible, the Koran, the Book of Mormon - Doremus is, unlike Babbitt, say, or the more heroic Martin Arrowsmith, a fair surrogate for the novelist himself. What Doremus learns over the course of the novel is that the "cackle" of the world, as Lewis describes the clutter of contending voices and opinions that makes up America, is not at all unlike the "endearing mess" of books in his study. Society, too, is a motley of speech, a "mess" of variegated languages of thought and feeling that its members expound. The novel and the world are continuous rather than different in kind. America is a particularly manifest example of social life as a tissue of dialects in its own right. It is not a question of who is Right and who is Left, who is right and who is wrong. Each side needs the other for a sense of identity. America is like the "patchwork quilt" under which the fugitive Doremus sleeps in the house of strangers who at the novel's close give him refuge.
It Can't Happen Here is an aesthetic breakthrough for Lewis because his novel shows us the real relation between politics and literature. They are overlapping worlds, not separate ones. Both are signifying pageants, dazzling patchworks of language. This is precisely what the novel as a form uniquely enjoys among other discourses. It is also what the novel as a form shares with democracy as a form. It is Lewis's achievement in It Can't Happen Here to have grasped, after a long and successful career as a satirist, this critical identity, and to realize the thickening of illusion that it can technically effect. No longer a sarcastic onlooker, Lewis has risen from the satirist's chair of the 1920s to a more farcical realist stance in which all the attitudes are equally credible and equally preposterous. He delights in a play of multiple idioms unknown to him before despite a history of critical reception that praises him for tuning single American dialects to perfection.
The polarities that satire structurally requires (if something is stupid and evil, then I who show it to you must be smart and virtuous) are among the kinds of conflict or opposition that Lewis's shock of recognition leads him to override in favor of a more telescopic realism bent on discovery rather than judgment. Lewis now sees that his earlier satiric mode pivoted on the kinds of distinctions that he is no longer willing to make. In Arrowsmith in particular (Lewis had turned down the Pulitzer Prize for the novel in 1926 because, as Schorer describes it, he didn't believe in the legislation of taste such prizes represented), Lewis crystallized the implicit assumptions of Main Street and Babbitt by opposing, plainly and absolutely, the will to truth and the will to dominion.
The simplicity of the opposition - indeed, the opposition itself - is no longer an assumption in It Can't Happen Here. Through Doremus, Lewis realizes that the languages that people speak - the satirist's included - are actually languages of belief rather than of any sort of established truth, each vying for a purely documentary priority, whether Karl Pascal's Marxism or Shad Ledue's resentment. In It Can't Happen Here, Communists and Corporatists, Left and Right, are alike "theocratic," as Lewis puts it, thereby dismantling the presumable opposition between the two, and finding instead a common bond between them in the wish to believe in something. As Orwell argues in his famous essay, "Politics and the English Language" (1946), no language is, despite our "belief" in it, a "natural growth." West's Shagpoke Whipple is blunter still: "This is not a matter of opinion, it is one of faith." Any "loyalty," Doremus concludes, is "religious." He, too, finds himself wanting "a church," as he calls it, to redeem America from fascism. Indeed, winning the Resistance is couched in overtly religious terms - as a redemption from tyranny in an inescapable typology based in a tradition of faith (the Communists refuse to join the Resistance in order to vouchsafe their own purity of belief). The world is dangerous not because people don't mean what they say, but because they do. Belief is somehow inevitable; theocratic piety even attends the use of language as such, since grammar presupposes a stability of relation between subject and object that the world itself may not possess, but in whose name it gets transfigured nonetheless.
Thus the political dangers that the novel shows us are also literary dangers. Lewis's focus on Lee Sarason, Windrip's secretary of state and chief adviser, is decisive in establishing the link between American life and American fiction that is the book's chief invention. Although Sarason is eventually unwise enough to seize power from Windrip as the book steams toward its end (he, too, gets toppled in turn), he is Windrip's speechwriter, press agent, and the real author of Zero Hour, Windrip's version of Mein Kampf, "the Bible," as Lewis calls it, of Windrip's "followers." Sarason's "smoking typewriter" is what is ultimately responsible for the fascism that Lewis describes. "It all made dazzling reading," thinks Doremus of the whole political situation late in the novel. "There had never been a more elegant and romantic fiction."
Windrip is not, however, without his own skills, too. Like Sarason's bewitching typewriter, Windrip's oral ability to entrance his audience has its counterpart in the novelist's ability to absorb and fascinate his or hers. A politician with the rhetorical talents of Windrip is, like Sarason, a kind of novelist in his own right, although a very different one from the surrogate novelist presented by the figure of Doremus. This is the second model of authorship or governance that the novel offers, and it is clear which of the two it prefers despite the irony of having to choose. The danger, in literature as in life, lies in taking any illusionism, any language at all, for "gospel," as Lewis puts it - in believing in it rather than simply appreciating it and weighing its role in a balance of values.
Hence It Can't Happen Here is a particularly relevant text for any assessment of American culture at the present time. After all, Lewis portrays what we can very reasonably call a multicultural America in the book as a whole, and in its concluding image of the patchwork quilt. The principal question he raises is, how do you read a world, or a novel, full of contending tongues without succumbing to the fascism or theocracy of either Left or Right, or to the kind of "message" literature that Zero Hour, for example, recommends to control the polyphony? One guards against the fixities of belief to which Left and Right, and sociological literature, alike aspire by insisting, as Lewis does, on America as a poetic fiction - a poem by Whitman, if you will - and on its endless self-invention rather than on anything self-evident in its constitution. America's precise and paradoxical virtue is that it is decidedly artificial, imagined rather than found.
Lewis conjoins politics and the novel by showing that both are dialogues, unlimited conversations between readerly assumption and writerly surprise, conducted in order to make up what world there is. This is Lewis's reflexive realism - his ability to show the similarities between reading the world and reading a text. This is also a vision of politics itself as ultimately aesthetic, like his account of the campaign, a proleptic Warholesque view of life as television well before the fact. Lewis had been an aesthete in college, writing imitations of Swinburne as a Yale freshman before growing more topically inclined as a writer of prose. This repressed aestheticism returns in It Can't Happen Here, a presumably political novel from a sociological writer, but one in which the certainties of satire wane in favor of a renewed aesthetic irony poised enough to let the sensation of every position, every language, every belief have its effect.
Like its insistence on endless dialogue in both life and literature, the novel's own superb plot does not conclude with the melodrama of either a successful overthrow of fascism or its absolute dominion. Rather, it simply stops with the start of a struggle between the Corpos and New Underground, leaving the story's destiny open. The play of dominion and defiance in America's yielding to Windrip is reflected in the novel's own technique of engaging the reader in a dialogue or, if you prefer, a Socratic dialectic between belief and resistance, expectation and amazement. Debate is the only freedom and dialogue the only art. This is decidedly American writing. The grand image of the patchwork quilt not only links America; it also links Lewis with other American writers of his time such as Willa Cather, for whom the image of the quilt is like testimony to a shared vision of a multicultural America. Indeed, the patchwork quilt has become a popular image for such a vision during the last quarter of this century. If It Can't Happen Here is still real to readers more than half a century after it was written, it is because Sinclair Lewis has identified the precise tensions that structure both democracy and the art of fiction.