It Can’t Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis (1935. Reprinted 2014. Signet. ISBN 978-0-451-46564-1)

I finished this book while on a fishing trip with my 89 year old father and one of my favorite Minnesota legends, Former Vice President Walter Mondale. To say the two old men were interested in what I thought of Lewis’s novel, a story which essentially foretells the coming of a narcissistic, narrow minded, unprincipled populist into the United States Presidency, foreshadowing the ultimate collapse of American democracy, would be an understatement. And I have to say, after enduring a three month bout of writer’s block caused by the completely unexpected (by me and every major pollster) arrival of The Orange Headed One on Pennsylvania Avenue, I was a bit hesitant to dive into a novel so close to home, politically speaking. But I read the book, a book handed to me by my son Chris, whose presentation included this caveat, “Let me know what you think.” Well, Chris, here goes.

Lewis chronicles the mercurial rise of Senator Buzz Windrip from U.S. Senator to the Democratic nominee for the presidency, a man so absent morality and principles and intellect and political acumen beyond speechifying and simplifying that one would think, “No way in hell is this morally corrupt, empty-headed windbag (I see the connection, don’t you!) can win the presidency”. Well, just as it couldn’t happen in 2016 and it did, so too it goes in the novel. Here’s a scene from the Democratic convention as depicted by Lewis that seems eerily familiar to me:

In honor of Senator Robinson, the University of Arkansas brass band marched in behind a leader riding in an old horse-drawn buggy which is plastered with great placards…The name of Miss Perkins had been cheered for two hours while the delegates marched in their state banners and President Roosevelt’s name had been cheered…(But) every delegate knew that Mr. Roosevelt and Miss Perkins were far too lacking in circus tinsel and general clownishness to succeed at this critical hour of the nation’s hysteria, when the electorate wanted a ringmaster-revolutionist like Senator Windrip.

Sound familiar? I think it’s spot on. But then, like I said, I am no fan of The Orange Headed One, a man so devoid of morality and experience and patience and grammatical skills that he makes my skin crawl. So it’s easy for me to see the current situation in Sinclair’s fiction. But I think the connections are multiple and inescapable.

The author sets up a regional, small town journalist, Vermont newspaper owner and editor Doremus Jessup, as Windrip’s foil. The scribe’s opposition to the new president’s Hitler-like power grab earns him beatings, the death of loved ones and friends, and ultimately, confinement in a concentration camp alongside Communists, labor leaders, religious objectors, and Jews. Yes, Jews. Lewis is writing, in 1935, a time when America and much of the West deny the mechanized destruction of the Jews by the Nazis, universally claiming, “Oh, Adolf can’t be that bad!”, when in fact, he is inherently murderously evil. Jessup calls Windrip out, recognizing the man’s inherent intellectual and moral failings early on in the game:

Doremus Jessup, so inconspicuous an observer, watching Senator Windrip from so humble a Bœotia could not explain his power of bewitching large audiences. The Senator was vulgar, almost illiterate, a public liar easily detected, and in his “ideas” almost idiotic, while his celebrated piety was that of a traveling salesman for church furniture, and his yet more celebrated humor, the sly cynicism of a country store.

On many levels, the author’s prediction of our current estrangement from reality as a nation, is unsettling. Where is the hope? Where is the promise of the Founders? Where is the leader that children look up to and respect? The connections between fact and fiction are numerous and ominous despite Lewis’s penchant for resorting to cartoonish lampooning and sarcasm to make his point:

Windrip had redeemed himself, no doubt, by ascending from the vulgar fraud of selling bogus medicine, standing in front of a megaphone, to the dignity of selling bogus economics, standing…in front of a microphone.

At times, Lewis’s writing is literary in the vein of Fitzgerald and Hemingway, two of his contemporaries and rivals for public attention. But in the background, there always lurks the author’s somewhat dated need to resort to wit and tomfoolery with words to lambast Windrip, America’s fictional Mussolini (the character is far too simple minded and too easily manipulated by his shadowy handler, Lee Sarason-a dead ringer for Stephen K. Bannon-to be equated to Hitler’s evil mastery). It’s as if the author couldn’t decide whether he was writing a serious novel exposing the dangers of Fascism and racism and false prophets, or writing satire. The book contains both and the fact Lewis couldn’t settle on one approach makes the book feel uneven and perhaps a bit hastily written so as to attain publication before it’s subject matter became passe. But the truth is,  even after eighty years, the evolution of Buzz Windrip is so compelling, when judged against current events, that the story continues to have validity whatever editorial or stylistic faults one cares to find with the book. The title, however, is a misnomer. The title really should be changed to It Has Already Happened Here…

4 star out of 5. Well worth the read.

Peace.

Mark

 

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