Due to its inherently startling nature, dystopian fiction remains an effective way to captivate readers and warn them of the dire repercussions of their actions. However, in Sinclair Lewis’s book It Can’t Happen Here, it is the reader’s inaction that leads to a spiralling series of events.
The novel is set in the United States in 1936 as nationalism sweeps through Europe. Across the pond, in a country that prides itself in being a bastion of freedom and democracy, a rich demagogue named Buzz Windrip surprises the world by winning the presidency through the spread of hate-speech and a catchy slogan about making America wealthy again.
Following Windrip’s win, an ordinary newspaper editor named Doremus Jessup slowly begins to realize that the freedom that he once took for granted is no longer guaranteed. So, he embarks on an crusade to wake the rest of the country up from its passive slumber.
However, Jessup faces a monumental challenge as the president denounces all news sources which refuse to print his propaganda and Windrip’s fanatics grow more devout. Indeed, human resolve is put to the test as the country’s oppression begins to rival the authoritarian states in fascist Europe and revolutionaries are forced to hide from a militia that has been formed to protect American order.
So, if you like political thrillers that will keep you wanting to turn the page, this book may be the perfect read as we approach an autumn that will showcase a new batch of American elections.
If you don’t consider yourself a political person, this novel manages to balance heavy subjects with comedic silver linings carried by witty dialogue and outrageous characters. Beware though, It Can’t Happen Here was written in 1935 and it is littered with cultural references that might seem out of date to today’s readers.
However, the degradation of democracy that the novel depicts is not unique to that decade nor the U.S.
Lewis’ Americans ignore the rise of totalitarianism in Europe and, despite all evidence indicating this is possible anywhere in the world, remain adamant that “it can’t happen here.”
So, if you are in the mood for a novel that has a clear moral subtext, this may be the book for you. Lewis seems to convey that it is a national sentiment of exceptionalism that makes his dystopian U.S. an ideal environment for the spread of totalitarianism.
Who knows, the adventures that the characters get up to may make you laugh, cry, contemplate current events, or inspire you to be a politically active citizen. After all, it can’t happen here, right?