It Can't Happen Here
|Publisher||Doubleday, Doran and Company|
|October 21, 1935|
|Media type||Print (hardcover)|
The novel was published during the heyday of fascism in Europe, which was reported on by Dorothy Thompson, Lewis's wife. The novel describes the rise of Berzelius "Buzz" Windrip, a demagogue who is elected President of the United States, after fomenting fear and promising drastic economic and social reforms while promoting a return to patriotism and "traditional" values. After his election, Windrip takes complete control of the government and imposes a totalitarian rule with the help of a ruthless paramilitary force, in the manner of European fascists like Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler. The novel's plot centers on journalist Doremus Jessup's opposition to the new regime and his subsequent struggle against it as part of a liberal rebellion.
Reviewers at the time, and historians and literary critics ever since, have emphasized the resemblance with Louisiana politician Huey Long—who used strong-arm political tactics and who was building a nationwide "Share Our Wealth" organization in preparing to run for president in the 1936 election. He was assassinated in 1935 just prior to the novel's publication.
In 1936 Senator Berzelius "Buzz" Windrip, a charismatic and power-hungry politician, wins the election as President of the United States on a populist platform, promising to restore the country to prosperity and greatness, and promising each citizen $5,000 a year. Portraying himself as a champion of traditional American values, Windrip defeats President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the Democratic convention, then easily beats his Republican opponent, Senator Walt Trowbridge, in the November election.
Though having previously foreshadowed some authoritarian measures in order to reorganize the United States government, Windrip rapidly outlaws dissent, incarcerates political enemies in concentration camps, and trains and arms a paramilitary force called the Minute Men (named after the Revolutionary War militias of the same name), who terrorize citizens and enforce the policies of Windrip and his "corporatist" regime. One of his first acts as president is to eliminate the influence of the United States Congress, which draws the ire of many citizens as well as the legislators themselves. The Minute Men respond to protests against Windrip's decisions harshly, attacking demonstrators with bayonets. In addition to these actions, Windrip's administration, known as the "Corpo" government, curtails women and minority rights, and eliminates individual states by subdividing the country into administrative sectors. The government of these sectors is managed by "Corpo" authorities, usually prominent businessmen or Minute Men officers.
Those accused of crimes against the government appear before kangaroo courts presided over by military judges. Despite these dictatorial (and "quasi-draconian") measures, a majority of Americans approve of them, seeing them as necessary but painful steps to restore U.S. power. One of Windrip's cronies brings up the matter of Fascism in America, but Francis Tasbrough, the wealthy owner of the quarry, dismisses it with the remark that it simply "can't happen here" (hence the novel's title).
Open opponents of Windrip, led by Senator Trowbridge, form an organization called the New Underground named after the Underground Railroad, helping dissidents escape to Canada and distributing anti-Windrip propaganda. One recruit to the New Underground is Doremus Jessup, the novel's protagonist, a traditional liberal and an opponent of both corporatist and communist theories, the latter of which Windrip's administration suppresses. Jessup's participation in the organization results in the publication of a periodical called The Vermont Vigilance, in which he writes editorials decrying Windrip's abuses of power.
Shad Ledue, the local district commissioner and Jessup's former hired man, resents his old employer and eventually discovers his actions and has Jessup sent to a concentration camp. Ledue subsequently terrorizes Jessup's family and particularly his daughter Sissy, whom he unsuccessfully attempts to seduce. Sissy does, however, discover evidence of corrupt dealings on the part of Ledue, which she exposes to Francis Tasbrough, a one-time friend of Jessup and Ledue's superior in the administrative hierarchy. Tasbrough has Ledue imprisoned in the same camp as Jessup, where inmates he had sent there organize his murder. Jessup escapes, after a relatively brief incarceration, when his friends bribe one of the camp guards. He flees to Canada, where he rejoins the New Underground. He later serves the organization as a spy, passing along information and urging locals to resist Windrip.
In time, Windrip's hold on power weakens as the economic prosperity he promised does not materialize and increased numbers of disillusioned Americans, including Vice President Perley Beecroft, flee to both Canada and Mexico. He also angers his Secretary of State, Lee Sarason, who had served earlier as his chief political operative and adviser. Sarason and Windrip's other lieutenants, including General Dewey Haik, seize power and exile the president to France. Sarason succeeds Windrip, but his extravagant and relatively weak rule creates a power vacuum in which Haik and others vie for power. In a bloody putsch, Haik leads a party of military supporters into the White House, kills Sarason and his associates, and proclaims himself president. The two coups cause a slow erosion of Corpo power, and Haik's government desperately tries to arouse patriotism by launching an unjustified invasion of Mexico. After slandering Mexico in state-run newspapers, Haik orders a mass conscription of young American men for the invasion of that country, infuriating many who had until then been staunch Corpo loyalists. Riots and rebellions break out across the country, with many realizing that the Corpos have misled them.
General Emmanuel Coon, among Haik's senior officers, defects to the opposition with a large portion of his army, giving strength to the resistance movement. Though Haik remains in control of much of the country, civil war soon breaks out as the resistance tries to consolidate its grasp on the Midwest. The novel ends after the beginning of the conflict, with Jessup working as an agent for the New Underground in Corpo-occupied portions of southern Minnesota.
Reviewers at the time of the book's publication, and literary critics ever since, have emphasized the connection with Louisiana politician Huey Long, who was preparing to run for president in 1936. According to Boulard (1998), "the most chilling and uncanny treatment of Huey by a writer came with Sinclair Lewis's It Can't Happen Here." Lewis portrayed a genuine U.S. dictator on the Hitler model. Starting in 1936 the WPA, a New Deal agency, performed the stage adaptation across the country; Lewis had the goal of hurting Long's chances in the 1936 election. Keith Perry argues that the key weakness of the novel is not that he decks out U.S. politicians with sinister European touches, but that he finally conceives of fascism and totalitarianism in terms of traditional U.S. political models rather than seeing them as introducing a new kind of society and a new kind of regime. Windrip is less a Nazi than a con-man-plus-Rotarian, a manipulator who knows how to appeal to people's desperation, but neither he nor his followers are in the grip of the kind of world-transforming ideology like Hitler's National Socialism.
In 1936, Lewis and John C. Moffitt wrote a stage version, also titled It Can't Happen Here, which is still produced. The stage version premiered on October 27, 1936, in 21 U.S. theatres in 17 states simultaneously, in productions sponsored by the Federal Theater Project.
The San Francisco theater company, The Z Collective, adapted the novel for the stage, producing it both in 1989 and 1992. In 2004, Z Space adapted the Collective's script into a radio drama that was broadcast on the Pacifica radio network on the anniversary of the Federal Theater Project's original premiere.
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) purchased the rights in late 1935 for a reported $200,000 from seeing the galley proofs, with Lucien Hubbard (Wings) as the producer. By early 1936, screenwriter Sidney Howard completed an adaptation, his third of Lewis' novels. J. Walter Ruben was named to direct the film with the cast headed by Lionel Barrymore, Walter Connolly, Virginia Bruce and Basil Rathbone. But studio head Louis B. Mayer citing costs, indefinitely postponed production, to the publicly announced pleasure of the Nazi regime in Germany. Lewis and Howard countered that financial reason with information pointing to Berlin's and Rome's influence on movies. Will H. Hays, responsible for the enforcement of the Motion Picture Production Code, had notified Mayer of potential problems in the German market. Joseph Breen, head of the Production Code Administration department under Hays, thought the script was too "anti-fascist" and "so filled with dangerous material". In December 1938, Charlie Chaplin announced his next movie would satirize Hitler (The Great Dictator). MGM's Hubbard "dusted off the script" in January, but the "idea of a dictator ruling America" had now been discussed in public for years. Hubbard rewrote a new climax, "showing a dictatorship in Washington and showing it being kicked out by disgruntled Americans as soon as they realized what had happened." The film was placed back on the production schedule for the third time with shooting starting in June and Lewis Stone playing Doremus Jessup. However, by July, MGM "admitted it would not make the movie after all" to some criticism.
Inspired by the book, director–producer Kenneth Johnson wrote an adaptation titled Storm Warnings in 1982. The script was presented to NBC for production as a television miniseries, but NBC executives rejected the initial version, claiming it was too cerebral for the average American viewer. To make the script more marketable, the American fascists were re-cast as man-eating extraterrestrials, taking the story into the realm of science fiction. The revised story became the miniseries V, which premiered May 3, 1983.
Since its publication, It Can't Happen Here has been seen as a cautionary tale, starting with the 1936 presidential election and potential candidate Huey Long.
In May 1973, in the middle of Nixon's Watergate scandal, Knight Newspapers published an ad in their own and other publications, headlined "It Can't Happen Here" and emphasizing the importance of free press. “There is a struggle going on in this country. It is not just a fight by reporters and editors to protect their sources. It is a fight to protect the public's right to know... It can't happen here as long as the press remains an open conduit through which public information flows." Herbert Mitgang in his op-ed piece said "The headline of this ad is the title of a novel that keeps insinuating itself these days, not because of its literary qualities but because of its prescience." And that Lewis' point was "that home‐grown hypocrisy leads to a nice brand of home‐grown authoritarianism."
The non-fiction book It Can Happen Here: Authoritarian Peril in the Age of Bush (2007) frequently quotes Lewis's book in relation to the presidency of George W. Bush.
Several writers have compared the demagogue Buzz Windrip to Donald Trump. Michael Paulson wrote in The New York Times that the Berkeley Repertory Theatre's 2016 rendition of the play aimed to provoke discussion about Trump's presidential candidacy. Jules Stewart discussed the similarities between Trump's America with the country as depicted in the book, in an article in The Guardian. Malcolm Harris, in Salon stated: "Like Trump, Windrip uses a lack of tact as a way to distinguish himself" and "The social forces that Windrip and Trump invoke aren’t funny, they’re murderous." In the Washington Post, Carlos Lozada compared Trump to Windrip, opining that "it is impossible to miss the similarities between Trump and totalitarian figures in American literature." Jacob Weisberg in Slate wrote, "You can’t read Lewis’ novel today without flashes of Trumpian recognition." Following the results of the 2016 United States presidential election, sales of It Can't Happen Here surged significantly, and it appeared on Amazon.com's list of bestselling books. Penguin Modern Classics released a new edition of the novel on January 20, 2017, the same day as the inauguration of Donald Trump.
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- Ellen Strenski, "It Can't Happen Here, or Has It? Sinclair Lewis's Fascist America." Terrorism and Political Violence 29.3 (2017): 425-436.
- Edward F. Haas, "Huey Long and the Dictators." Louisiana History 47.2 (2006): 133-151.
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Some, like Berkeley Rep, explicitly aim to prompt discussion about Donald J. Trump
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