“It Can’t Happen Here” by Sinclair Lewis

“It Can’t Happen Here”  by Sinclair Lewis (1935)

The year was 1935.  The fascists under Mussolini had been in power in Italy a long time, and the Nazis under Adolf Hitler had taken power in Germany in 1933.  Poland, Hungary, and Turkey either had or were leaning toward fascist governments.  The following year there would be civil war in Spain with the fascists under Frnacisco Franco ultimately winning.  In the Far East, Japan had installed a fascist dictatorship.   The United States and the world had been in economic depression for six years, and many of especially the upper classes in both England and the United States admired and praised these fascist governments for keeping order in their countries.

Given the strong democratic tradition of the United States, many in the States claimed “It Can’t Happen Here”.  Sinclair Lewis decided to write a book called “It Can’t Happen Here” showing how the United States could end up with a fascist government.

Here is how Sinclair Lewis saw it happening.  By opposing unions,  a presidential candidate wins the support of big business and many of the major religious leaders.  Appealing to the patriotism of the people, the candidate gets elected President.  As soon as he takes office, he immediately gets the country involved in a foreign war.  Thousands of families send their sons or daughters off to fight for their country in the war.  Then political and religious leaders throughout the country and the newspapers and radio commentators denounce anyone who disagrees with the administration or opposes the war as un-patriotic and un-American.   Meanwhile  citizen militia groups, known as Minute Men, are set up in the towns and cities to take care of those who speak out against the administration.   Originally they beat up the ones who disagree, but later the administration sets up ‘re-education’ camps for these recalcitrants. These militia are well-armed with their own guns and thus some of the dissentors are murdered.   Besides the recalcitrants, the administration sends members of the ethnic groups they don’t like to these camps.  As conditions in the United States worsen, people start moving their families to Canada to get away. However, some of these militia groups are statiioned at the borders to prevent people from leaving.

Sinclair Lewis shows us that it could happen here all too easily. 

By the time Lewis wrote this novel in 1935, he had already won the Nobel prize for literature in 1930.  He had written ‘Main Street’ and ‘Babbitt’, both novels of which I have read and admired.  He had also written several other novels I haven’t read, including ‘Arrowsmith’ and ‘Elmer Gantry’.

There are several things that lessen the impact of “It Can’t Happen Here’.  First most of the characters are given folksy names like ‘Doremus Jessup’ or ‘Brezilius Windrip’, as if the intent were satirical rather than ominous.  The entire novel is entirely too good-natured considering the terrible things that happen to people.   Also there are many references to specific people or events that occurred in the Thirties that don’t have much significance today.  One wonders if Lewis would have had more impact if he had written the novel as an allegory.  Of course, Lewis is more of a realist in his novels than a writer of allegories.  I think what Lewis was aiming for was to show that a fascist regime could be established amongst even plain old ordinary U.S. people at that time, and at that time the people of the United States were still pretty good-natured and respectful of each other despite the Depression    That makes  the fascist takeover at that time seem not so threatening.   

I don’t think this novel is anywhere near as good as Lewis’  “Main Street”.  “Main Street” is an outstanding realistic novel about a small town in Minnesota.   One gets the impression that Lewis dashed “It Can’t Happen Here”  off quickly with little regard for lasting value.  But the book does strike one as quite unique in American literature, and is somewhat useful as a potential warning.


15 responses to this post.

  1. I’ve always meant to read this novel. I am a fan of Sinclair Lewis and love both Main Street and Babbitt. I’ve read other less famous, odd novels, like The Prodigal Parents–not bad.

    Qutie a bit of this sounds scary: too close to events at the turn of this century. But it does seem counter to Lewis’ realism and I can see that it would be disappointing.

    So maybe I’ll wait on this one…


  2. Hi Mad HouseWife,
    Yes, I knew that “It Can’t Happen Here” was lesser Lewis before I read it, but the idea intrigued me. Now I need to figure out which Sinclair Lewis novel to approach next that would be as good as ‘Main Street’ or ‘Babbitt’. I know Lewis had a severe alcoholic problem, and none of his work after 1930 measures up to his early work. That leaves his three early novels ‘Arrowsmith’, ‘Elmer Gantry’, and ‘Dodsworth’. Maybe someone will comment on which is best.


  3. Thanks for this review, Tony. It sounds like a fascinating read. Philip Roth did something similar, very recently, with his “Plot Against America”, which I found a little disappointing…


    • Hi Kimbofo,
      Yeah, I read Roth’s “Plot Against America”. I much, much preferred Roth’s “Indignation”. I know “The Plot Against America” was about famous American Nazi supporter Charles Lindbergh.


      • I immediately thought of The plot against America too when reading this review. I really must read Sinclair Lewis – but perhaps I should start with Main Street, albeit that this one sounds interesting.


        • Hi Whisperinggums,
          “Main Street” takes place in the small Minnesota town that was Lewis’s birthplace which he called Gopher Prairie in the novel. “Babbitt” takes place in a big city much like Minneapolis. So one difference is that one is small town and one is big city. “Main Street” has a female main character while “Babbitt” has a male main character. I read Babbitt so long ago that I can’t remember much about it, but I remember being very impressed with “Main Street”.


  4. I’ll admit that I haven’t read this one. One of the things I keep putting off really–reading some of the less popular American novels. But it’s not all bad. I did read OIL! and McTeague not too long ago.

    Your post reminded me about the British miniseries Mosley which I watched lately and found myself enjoying far more than I’d anticipated.


    • I read McTeague a few years ago, remember being quite impressed with it. I’m not familiar with OIL! Haven’t watched the miniseries Mosley either, might give it a try.


  5. Synchronicity! This morning, before I read this post, I downloaded Main Street and Babbit to my Kindle, for reading later on this year when I’m overseas:0


  6. I have a kindle and it is loaded with classics from Amazon. Most of them were free–although I did spring for a few compilations for the sake of organisation.

    OIL! (Upton Sinclair) is much better than the film version. Well I thought so, but I may be in the minority here.


  7. […] “It Can't Happen Here” by Sinclair Lewis « Tony's Book World June 10th, 2010 | […]


  8. ?It Can't Happen Here? by Sinclair Lewis…

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