It Can’t Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis
In 1930, Sinclair Lewis became the first American to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, and has since been praised for his satirical takes on materialism and consumerism in American culture between the two World Wars. His writing career began in newspaper and magazine journalism, and It Can’t Happen Here was written after he won the Nobel Prize.
It has become arguably his most enduring novel, perhaps due to the chillingly recognisable depiction of the rise of a populist leader in America. The novel explores implications of creeping fascism and far-right ideologies, many of which have gained popularity and mainstream coverage since the ascendancy of Donald Trump in the present day. Lewis saw totalitarian patriotic populism emerging in his own period and used the novel to satirise society’s failures to halt its ascendancy.
In the novel, Franklin D. Roosevelt is defeated by a fictitious zealot, Berzelius ‘Buzz’ Windrip, thanks to his appeals to ‘traditional’ values and his hateful position on immigration. Doremus Jessup, a newspaper editor, bears shocked witness to this unexpected rise to power. Eventually, Jessup must go into hiding, and ultimately escapes to Canada. Readers may find an interesting echo of this in Margaret Atwood’s pregnancy dystopia The Handmaid’s Tale (1986), in which an exit into Canada is similarly presented as a political dissident’s only chance of escape.
The extract from Sinclair’s novel here is the first chapter of the novel, opening with details of a Ladies’ Rotary Dinner – an event at which politicians, activists, and lobbyists present their causes and fundraise through speeches and networking. One speech in the scene is by General Edgeways. His rhetoric is war-mongering and self-congratulatory: ‘we must be prepared to defend our shores against all alien gangs of international racketeers that call themselves “governments” and that with such feverish envy are always eyeing our inexhaustible mines, our towering forests, our titanic and luxurious cities, our fair and far-flung fields.’ Some of these positions are repeated later in the extract by Mrs Gimmitch. Sheadvocates for war to protect the United States from those ill-defined European nations suggested by the General. In this portrayal, Lewis lampoons the idea that American nature is inexhaustible, and presents the isolationist character of totalitarian ideology.
Opening with this dinner scene, Lewis creates at times hilariously exaggerated and insidious portraits of people who hold perspectives that make the election of someone like Windrup possible: the apathy of certain characters (Mrs Doremus suggesting the one voice in the room against an aggressively isolationist policy is a ‘silly Socialist’); the vehement pro-war sentiment of the local elite and industrialists (such as Francis Tasbrough, the quarry owner); and the capacity of third-generation immigrants to forget their origins and “pull up the ladder” behind them (Louis Rotenstern, a third-generation Pole who believes: ‘We ought to keep all of these foreigners out of the country,’ seemingly forgetting that his grandfather was born in Prussian Poland). In this way, Lewis establishes a social setting in which immigrants reject their cultural and ethnic identities women advocate for their own oppression, and local elites lobby for conflicts that can only be financially beneficial to themselves. These, the scene implies, are the circumstances under which far-right populism can foment and become successful. And so, the scene is set for the descent into Windrip’s Nazi-like populist regime, fuelled by propaganda. Journalist Jessup struggles to understand the shift in the political discourse, but finds that, despite his work, he is almost powerless. While he is not a wholly likeable character, Jessup is a plausible protagonist. Lewis writes him as a kind of everyman, flawed and at times even misogynistic, whose journey from the dining room where he hears ridiculous propaganda to the underground resistance is one that dwells on the necessity of individual action to resist the creep of fascism.
It Can’t Happen Here
THE handsome dining room of the Hotel Wessex, with its gilded plaster shields and the mural depicting the Green Mountains, had been reserved for the Ladies’ Night Dinner of the Fort Beulah Rotary Club.
Here in Vermont the affair was not so picturesque as it might have been on the Western prairies. Oh, it had its points: there was a skit in which Medary Cole (grist mill & feed store) and Louis Rotenstern (custom tailoring—pressing & cleaning) announced that they were those historic Vermonters, Brigham Young and Joseph Smith, and with their jokes about imaginary plural wives they got in ever so many funny digs at the ladies present. But the occasion was essentially serious. All of America was serious now, after the seven years of depression since 1929. It was just long enough after the Great War of 1914-18 for the young people who had been born in 1917 to be ready to go to college... or to another war, almost any old war that might be handy.
The features of this night among the Rotarians were nothing funny, at least not obviously funny, for they were the patriotic addresses of Brigadier General Herbert Y. Edgeways, U.S.A. (ret.), who dealt angrily with the topic “Peace through Defense—Millions for Arms but Not One Cent for Tribute,” and of Mrs. Adelaide Tarr Gimmitch— she who was no more renowned for her gallant anti-suffrage campaigning way back in 1919 than she was for having, during the Great War, kept the American soldiers entirely out of French cafés by the clever trick of sending them ten thousand sets of dominoes.
Nor could any social-minded patriot sneeze at her recent somewhat unappreciated effort to maintain the purity of the American Home by barring from the motion-picture industry all persons, actors or directors or cameramen, who had: (a) ever been divorced; (b) been born in any foreign country—except Great Britain, since Mrs. Gimmitch thought very highly of Queen Mary, or (c) declined to take an oath to revere the Flag, the Constitution, the Bible, and all other peculiarly American institutions.
The Annual Ladies’ Dinner was a most respectable gathering—the flower of Fort Beulah. Most of the ladies and more than half of the gentlemen wore evening clothes, and it was rumored that before the feast the inner circle had had cocktails, privily served in Room 289 of the hotel. The tables, arranged on three sides of a hollow square, were bright with candles, cut-glass dishes of candy and slightly tough almonds, figurines of Mickey Mouse, brass Rotary wheels, and small silk American flags stuck in gilded hard-boiled eggs. On the wall was a banner lettered “Service Before Self,” and the menu—the celery, cream of tomato soup, broiled haddock, chicken croquettes, peas, and tutti-frutti ice-cream—was up to the highest standards of the Hotel Wessex.
They were all listening, agape. General Edgeways was completing his manly yet mystical rhapsody on nationalism:
“... for these U-nited States, a-lone among the great powers, have no desire for foreign conquest. Our highest ambition is to be darned well let alone! Our only gen-uine relationship to Europe is in our arduous task of having to try and educate the crass and ignorant masses that Europe has wished onto us up to something like a semblance of American culture and good manners. But, as I explained to you, we must be prepared to defend our shores against all the alien gangs of international racketeers that call themselves ‘governments,’ and that with such feverish envy are always eyeing our inexhaustible mines, our towering forests, our titanic and luxurious cities, our fair and far-flung fields.
“For the first time in all history, a great nation must go on arming itself more and more, not for conquest—not for jealousy— not for war—but for peace! Pray God it may never be necessary, but if foreign nations don’t sharply heed our warning, there will, as when the proverbial dragon’s teeth were sowed, spring up an armed and fearless warrior upon every square foot of these United States, so arduously cultivated and defended by our pioneer fathers, whose sword-girded images we must be... or we shall perish!”
The applause was cyclonic. “Professor” Emil Staubmeyer, the superintendent of schools, popped up to scream, “Three cheers for the General—hip, hip, hooray!”
All the audience made their faces to shine upon the General and Mr. Staubmeyer—all save a couple of crank pacifist women, and one Doremus Jessup, editor of the Fort Beulah Daily Informer, locally considered “a pretty smart fella but kind of a cynic,” who whispered to his friend the Reverend Mr. Falck, “Our pioneer fathers did rather of a skimpy job in arduously cultivating some of the square feet in Arizona!”
The culminating glory of the dinner was the address of Mrs. Adelaide Tarr Gimmitch, known throughout the country as “the Unkies’ Girl,” because during the Great War she had advocated calling our boys in the A.E.F. “the Unkies.” She hadn’t merely given them dominoes; indeed her first notion had been far more imaginative. She wanted to send to every soldier at the Front a canary in a cage. Think what it would have meant to them in the way of companionship and inducing memories of home and mother! A dear little canary! And who knows—maybe you could train ’em to hunt cooties!
Seething with the notion, she got herself clear into the office of the Quartermaster General, but that stuffy machine-minded official refused her (or, really, refused the poor lads, so lonely there in the mud), muttering in a cowardly way some foolishness about lack of transport for canaries. It is said that her eyes flashed real fire, and that she faced the Jack-in-office like Joan of Arc with eyeglasses while she “gave him a piece of her mind that he never forgot!”
In those good days women really had a chance. They were encouraged to send their menfolks, or anybody else’s menfolks, off to war. Mrs. Gimmitch addressed every soldier she met—and she saw to it that she met any of them who ventured within two blocks of her—as “My own dear boy.” It is fabled that she thus saluted a colonel of marines who had come up from the ranks and who answered, “We own dear boys are certainly getting a lot of mothers these days. Personally, I’d rather have a few more mistresses.” And the fable continues that she did not stop her remarks on the occasion, except to cough, for one hour and seventeen minutes, by the Colonel’s wrist watch.
But her social services were not all confined to prehistoric eras. It was as recently as 1935 that she had taken up purifying the films, and before that she had first advocated and then fought Prohibition. She had also (since the vote had been forced on her) been a Republican Committee-woman in 1932, and sent to President Hoover daily a lengthy telegram of advice.
And, though herself unfortunately childless, she was esteemed as a lecturer and writer about Child Culture, and she was the author of a volume of nursery lyrics, including the immortal couplet:
All of the Roundies are resting in rows,
With roundy-roundies around their toes.
But always, 1917 or 1936, she was a raging member of the Daughters of the American Revolution.
The D.A.R. (reflected the cynic, Doremus Jessup, that evening) is a somewhat confusing organization—as confusing as Theosophy, Relativity, or the Hindu Vanishing Boy Trick, all three of which it resembles. It is composed of females who spend one half their waking hours boasting of being descended from the seditious American colonists of 1776, and the other and more ardent half in attacking all contemporaries who believe in precisely the principles for which those ancestors struggled.
The D.A.R. (reflected Doremus) has become as sacrosanct, as beyond criticism, as even the Catholic Church or the Salvation Army. And there is this to be said: it has provided hearty and innocent laughter for the judicious, since it has contrived to be just as ridiculous as the unhappily defunct Kuklux Klan, without any need of wearing, like the K.K.K., high dunces’ caps and public nightshirts.
So, whether Mrs. Adelaide Tarr Gimmitch was called in to inspire military morale, or to persuade Lithuanian choral societies to begin their program with “Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean,” always she was a D.A.R., and you could tell it as you listened to her with the Fort Beulah Rotarians on this happy May evening.
She was short, plump, and pert of nose. Her luxuriant gray hair (she was sixty now, just the age of the sarcastic editor, Doremus Jessup) could be seen below her youthful, floppy Leghorn hat; she wore a silk print dress with an enormous string of crystal beads, and pinned above her ripe bosom was an orchid among lilies of the valley. She was full of friendliness toward all the men present: she wriggled at them, she cuddled at them, as in a voice full of flute sounds and chocolate sauce she poured out her oration on “How You Boys Can Help Us Girls.”
Women, she pointed out, had done nothing with the vote. If the United States had only listened to her back in 1919 she could have saved them all this trouble. No. Certainly not. No votes. In fact, Woman must resume her place in the Home and: “As that great author and scientist, Mr. Arthur Brisbane, has pointed out, what every woman ought to do is to have six children.”
At this second there was a shocking, an appalling interruption.
One Lorinda Pike, widow of a notorious Unitarian preacher, was the manager of a country super-boarding-house that called itself “The Beulah Valley Tavern.” She was a deceptively Madonna-like, youngish woman, with calm eyes, smooth chestnut hair parted in the middle, and a soft voice often colored with laughter. But on a public platform her voice became brassy, her eyes filled with embarrassing fury. She was the village scold, the village crank. She was constantly poking into things that were none of her business, and at town meetings she criticized every substantial interest in the whole county: the electric company’s rates, the salaries of the schoolteachers, the Ministerial Association’s high-minded censorship of books for the public library. Now, at this moment when everything should have been all Service and Sunshine, Mrs. Lorinda Pike cracked the spell by jeering:
“Three cheers for Brisbane! But what if a poor gal can’t hook a man? Have her six kids out of wedlock?”
Then the good old war horse, Gimmitch, veteran of a hundred campaigns against subversive Reds, trained to ridicule out of existence the cant of Socialist hecklers and turn the laugh against them, swung into gallant action:
“My dear good woman, if a gal, as you call it, has any real charm and womanliness, she won’t have to ‘hook’ a man—she’ll find ’em lined up ten deep on her doorstep!” (Laughter and applause.)
The lady hoodlum had merely stirred Mrs. Gimmitch into noble passion. She did not cuddle at them now. She tore into it:
“I tell you, my friends, the trouble with this whole country is that so many are SELFISH! Here’s a hundred and twenty million people, with ninety-five per cent of ’em only thinking of SELF, instead of turning to and helping the responsible business men to bring back prosperity! All these corrupt and self-seeking labor unions! Money grubbers! Thinking only of how much wages they can extort out of their unfortunate employer, with all the responsibilities he has to bear!
“What this country needs is Discipline! Peace is a great dream, but maybe sometimes it’s only a pipe dream! I’m not so sure—now this will shock you, but I want you to listen to one woman who will tell you the unadulterated hard truth instead of a lot of sentimental taffy, and I’m not sure but that we need to be in a real war again, in order to learn Discipline! We don’t want all this highbrow intellectuality, all this book-learning. That’s good enough in its way, but isn’t it, after all, just a nice toy for grownups? No, what we all of us must have, if this great land is going to go on maintaining its high position among the Congress of Nations, is Discipline—Will Power—Character!”
She turned prettily then toward General Edgeways and laughed:
“You’ve been telling us about how to secure peace, but come on, now, General—just among us Rotarians and Rotary Anns—’fess up! With your great experience, don’t you honest, cross-your-heart, think that perhaps—just maybe—when a country has gone money-mad, like all our labor unions and workmen, with their propaganda to hoist income taxes, so that the thrifty and industrious have to pay for the shiftless ne’er-do-weels, then maybe, to save their lazy souls and get some iron into them, a war might be a good thing? Come on, now, tell your real middle name, Mong General!”
Dramatically she sat down, and the sound of clapping filled the room like a cloud of downy feathers. The crowd bellowed, “Come on, General! Stand up!” and “She’s called your bluff—what you got?” or just a tolerant, “Attaboy, Gen!”
The General was short and globular, and his red face was smooth as a baby’s bottom and adorned with white-gold-framed spectacles. But he had the military snort and a virile chuckle.
“Well, sir!” he guffawed, on his feet, shaking a chummy forefinger at Mrs. Gimmitch, “since you folks are bound and determined to drag the secrets out of a poor soldier, I better confess that while I do abhor war, yet there are worse things. Ah, my friends, far worse! A state of so-called peace, in which labor organizations are riddled, as by plague germs, with insane notions out of anarchistic Red Russia! A state in which college professors, newspapermen, and notorious authors are secretly promulgating these same seditious attacks on the grand old Constitution! A state in which, as a result of being fed with these mental drugs, the People are flabby, cowardly, grasping, and lacking in the fierce pride of the warrior! No, such a state is far worse than war at its most monstrous!
Some themes and questions to consider
Dystopia is a genre of literature, usually beginning in media res (meaning the story opens right in the action, like the dinner party in It Can’t Happen Here, or George Orwell’s 1984 opening with Winston Smith’s ruminations on Oceania). The purpose of this style is to show the reader what the ‘everyday’ situation of the dystopian world of the novel is like, and how it differs from our own but is experienced as ‘normal’ for the characters in the novel. The effect of this is to make the reader consider whether there are aspects of their everyday life that are dystopian – situations like fascism, racial segregation, or climate apartheid are all potentially dystopian real-world scenarios that this genre might be asking the reader to consider.
The ambiguous ‘it’
What does the ‘it’ in the title of the novel refer to? Perhaps ‘it’ refers to the rise of fascism in the United States? Or could ‘it’ signify mass delusion by a populist leader? Equally, ‘it’ might refer to a kind of political apathy that makes it possible for a country’s population to elect morally corrupt and greedily avaricious financially motivated leaders.
The full text of It Can’t Happen Here, is available through Project Gutenberg.
Getting Close to Fascism with Sinclair Lewis’s “It Can’t Happen Here”
A review of a stage adaptation of It Can’t Happen Here in The New Yorker during the run up to Donald Trump’s successful 2016 presidential campaign.
Encyclopaedia Britannica overview of Sinclair Lewis’s life
‘Dystopia Today’ (podcast from the TORCH Crisis, Extremes, and Apocalyse network)
What does it mean to say, as so many now do, that we live in ‘dystopian’ times? With widespread anxiety introduced by Brexit, the Trump presidency, and comparisons with Hitler, and the 1930s, and environmental catastrophe looming, are we on the cusp of a new dystopia? Gregory Claeys considers what dystopia means to us, how the literary tradition helps us to engage with it, and what to do about it.
About the Contributor
Chelsea Haith is a researcher and creative consultant in the creative and development industries, as well as a DPhil candidate at the University of Oxford. She is interested in access and inclusion work, and passionate about how storytelling can shape political action. She is also Project Co-Lead on the Sound of Contagion project.