Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Sinclair Lewis On The Brain

Kim and I are abroad for the month.  So, we're missing the accompanying hoopla  and hyperbole that surrounds the quadrennial meeting of the simmering Kool Aid factories that are the party conventions.  But, I'm getting texts and emails from former students (mainly from the 1990s and early 2000s), bringing up one book I had them read in college: Sinclair Lewis's It Can't Happen Here. 

It Can't Happen Here is science fiction, an alt-history novel written in the early 1930s by Sinclair Lewis. It is the story of Doremus Jessup, a small-town newspaper editor from Vermont with an outsized national voice (imagine HoddingCarter in Mississippi), and his observations and struggles in watching a Fascist takeover of the Democratic Party in advance of the 1936 election. FDR's New Deal has failed, the Republicans are still in disarray, and a spellbinding, plain-talking strongman, Buzz Windrip, takes the party, the election, and eventually the nation by storm. The result is a totalitarian state that seemed unimaginable at the time, but which in fact unfolded in Nazi Germany at the very same time. 

It's a fascinating read. The argument for strong-man government is made by the antagonist Windrip. It is a simple argument, long on benefits and restoring prestige to 'the forgotten man' in America -- America needs to be redeemed, taken back to a better time. It is an agenda deeply invested in xenophobia, covert racism, and restoring women to a formal, secondary status in society.   Sinclair shows how nicely a thin veneer of Americanism can be applied to a Fascist agenda -- because ultimately, Windrip's ascendancy is about profits for the corporate few. 

Is it a cautionary tale? Of course it is. Lewis's target at the time was leftist-populist Louisiana politician Huey P. Long. But, as is often the case in the United States, cautionary tales about the fragile nature of the Republic are set aside because of the resiliency of the American institutions. And, Lewis's "Corpos" are less Fascists, and more like shallow carnival-barking manipulators who lack any ideological depth.  It is not as good as Lewis's earlier works, but it still offers sound commentary on even our modern times. 

Lewis is mainly remembered for other works. Arrowsmith, the study of an idealistic doctor and his challenges as he rises in the scientific medical community, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1926  (Lewis refused the prize). A satirical treatment of American commercialism in Babbitt and his sendup of evangelical hucksterism in Elmer Gantry are more widely known. Babbitt in particular shaped Lewis's winning nomination for the Nobel Prize in literature in 1930. Elmer Gantry was vilified by many American religious leaders and banned in many communities -- but it later (1960) became an acclaimed motion picture starring Burt Lancaster. 

The book is still available for sale, and, in some countries such as Australia, it has fallen into the public domain. If you need something different, to show you that there's nothing new under the American sun, this might just be your read.