Thursday, April 26, 2012

Book Talk: “It Can’t Happen Here”

It Can’t Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis

It’s been over four years since I last posted about a specific book. That doesn’t mean I haven’t read any books since then—I have—but it’s probably true that there have been many more that I never finished than those that I did.

So it’s kind of appropriate that the book that made me break the drought is It Can’t Happen Here, a 1935 novel about a fascist takeover of America, which has been on my “to read” list for decades. The book’s plot hinges, appropriately enough, partly on the failure of people to read and learn (or to care), allowing fascism to come to the US.

The story is told primarily through Doremus Jessup, a small town Vermont newspaper editor, his family and friends, and the US presidential election campaign that elects Berzelius "Buzz" Windrip as president. Windrip is a charismatic populist who, once in power, immediately usurps the US Constitution and becomes a dictator.

The character of Buzz Windrip is said to be modelled on Louisiana’s infamous Huey Long, who planned to run for US president in 1936, and Lewis was determined to stop him. Long’s assassination in September 1935 put an end to the specific threat Lewis saw.

Because of all this, especially the examination of America embracing and suffering under fascism, the novel has long been discussed among students of politics. So, it became one of those books I “needed” to read, so I found a free ebook version (the illustration with this post is a public domain version of a poster for the play version that Lewis co-wrote, which was used as the cover art for the ebook).

To me, “must read” books are not necessarily the same as “good to read” ones, and this book wasn’t. I found most of the characters flat, their unusual names distracting and the dialogue downright weird. Did people really talk like that in 1930s Vermont? The action was also very slow.

I also found the long exposition leading up to the dictatorship, as well as its establishment, unbelievable. This was, to be fair, partly because we have no modern equivalents of Huey Long to compare Buzz Windrip to, but also because the immediate acts to establish the dictatorship were, to me, absurd, though the bedding in of it once established was believable.

Which is not to say there weren’t good parts: The part from Doremus’ arrest through to the concentration camp and beyond was fast-paced and interesting. Some of the observations were also spot-on, such as when Doremus thinks to himself, as the dictatorship becomes increasingly vicious and brutal:
"The tyranny of this dictatorship isn't primarily the fault of Big Business, nor of the demagogues who do their dirty work. It's the fault of Doremus Jessup! Of all the conscientious, respectable, lazy-minded Doremus Jessups who have let the demagogues wriggle in, without fierce enough protest.

"It's my sort, the Responsible Citizens who've felt ourselves superior because we've been well-to-do and what we thought was 'educated,' who brought on the Civil War, the French Revolution, and now the Fascist Dictatorship. It's I who murdered Rabbi de Verez. It's I who persecuted the Jews and the Negroes. I can blame no Aras Dilley, no Shad Ledue, no Buzz Windrip, but only my own timid soul and drowsy mind. Forgive, O Lord!

"Is it too late?"
On the whole, I found the book instructive. It was interesting to see one version of what fascism in the US would look like, and how it could arrive. However, Lewis was criticised for being too influenced by actual fascist regimes of the day in Europe. There’s something to that, but it’s a topic for another day (and another Book Talk, actually).

I’m not sure I’d recommend the book to anyone who’s not a student of politics, and possibly not even then. Other books by Lewis are, in my opinion, much better. Still, it’s always nice to get one off the “must read” list.

What I read: It Can’t Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis. Page count not relevant, as it was an ebook, but it was 124,299 words. I obtained it free from feedbooks.com, which offers the book in many formats for countries where copyright is life of the author plus 50 years.

Alternatively for people in the USA, the Kindle edition of It Can't Happen Here (Annotated) can be purchased from Amazon, which also sells a paperback version.

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