Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Book Review: It Can't Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis

It Can't Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis

Paperback, 380 pages

Published October 2005 by NAL Trade (first published 1935)

When talking about this novel (in 2018) it is pretty much impossible to escape the connection to Donald Trump. I mean the NY times published an essay by Beverly Gage three days before Donald Trump was inaugurated as president with the headline was "Reading the classic novel that predicted Trump..." I admit that was my primary motivation in reading this novel. My father was reading a different classic by Sinclair Lewis I knew that he had written this novel that I had remembered reading about it maybe in college. Talking about that other book I asked my father about it and he said he had not read it. So one of us had to read it right?

I knew that it would be interesting to read it in light of the new president, I no idea others had the same thought, and in fact many had.

Written in 1935 Sinclair Lewis wrote this novel over the summer in a clear and obvious attempt to make a point before the 36 election 82 years ago. In that election the democrats were in a primary battle between FDR and a candidate who was a very Trump like rich populist who was the governor of Louisiana Huey Long.

Lewis was very worried about Long bringing fascism into power if he defeated Roosevelt in that election. He had some far left views about redistributing wealth but he was also extremely racist. Lewis saw this democrat as being America's answer to fascism. The on the nose title makes the point and the 300 plus pages are are like a hammer pounding away at the idea.

What makes this novel interesting is that when it was released it was a dystopian work of speculative fiction. 82 years ago it is still dystopian sci-fi but it has become an alternate history novel not unlike Philip K Dick's Hugo award winning classic Man in the High Castle. I say that in that it re-writes history to explore a nightmare past that never happened. The comparisons to Trump ended up being far less interesting to me than thinking about how the novel is totally different based on when it was written verses when I was reading it.

It is important to note that Lewis was warning his readers about Hitler more than three years before the Germans invaded Poland. So I was surprised by the mentions of concentration camps as I was not sure that anyone in the U.S. knew about them at the time.

Sinclair Lewis paints a grim vision and it is one worth reading but I think the comparisons to Trump are over blown. For one thing the dictator in the book Senator Berzelius "Buzz" Windrip is a far leftie who wants to redistribute wealth. On the other hand he is driven to power by a Steve Bannon-like figure who was his campaign manager turned Secretary of State, Lee Sarason. In It Can't Happen Here Sarason writes his candidate's book, and forms his ideas about crushing his opposition. It is not long before they are shutting down papers (Fake news!), Opening camps (see the border crisis) and centralizing power (see how Trump has destroyed agencies like the EPA) so there are similarities.

While Trump was manipulated into sacking Bannon, Buzz was over thrown by Sarason. I think the comparisons are interesting considering the book was written in 1935 but it is not that close. I mean close enough to be impressive. I think this is an important novel but i think the most interesting thing to discuss is how it as a work of political fiction exists then and how it exists now.

The story is OK, the characters are pretty dry, and the events are interesting enough but without the historical aspect I am not sure how interested I would have been. It should also be noted that the former newspaper man Jessup in the book leads a revolution in the end while most in America are putting their hopes in the former director of the FBI to save them from Trump.

It Can't Happen here? I am sure some pointed to this book as commenting on LBJ, Regan, GW Bush and now Trump. It does talk about all those leaders and it will continue to comment on future leaders, that is until we get a better system. It is a classic for a reason. It has happened here, not as bad as europe but we have let little forms of fascism take hold and novels like this are important reminders what we need to do to keep liberty a thing.

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