Tyranny in America? Sinclair Lewis’s cautionary 1935 novel It Can’t Happen Here, the 2007 Prometheus Hall of Fame winner

Here is the Prometheus Awards Appreciation for Sinclair Lewis’ novel It Can’t Happen Here, a 2007 Prometheus Hall of Fame winner for Best Classic Fiction.

By Michael Grossberg

“It can’t happen here.”

That common American comment, widely uttered in the 1920s and 1930s as the rest of the world seemingly was going crazy or descending into tyranny and barbarism, became the resonant title of Sinclair Lewis’ cautionary 1935 novel.

First published during the dark era of 1930s collectivism marked by the rise of fascism in Italy and Hitler’s National Socialism in Germany, It Can’t Happen Here offers a semi-satirical tale and timely warning about the potential rise of similar totalitarianism within the United States.

The central character Berzelius “Buzz” Windrip is a demagogue who incites fear while promoting traditional patriotism and ends up elected U.S. President. Windrip takes complete control of the government by exploiting a ruthless paramilitary force, outlawing dissent, ending women’s and minority rights and eliminating the influence of the U.S. Congress.

As in Lenin and Stalin’s Communist U.S.S.R. and Europe’s similarly extreme national-socialist dictatorships, those accused of crimes against the government appear in kangaroo courts presided over by military judges.

Such efforts to wipe out basic libertarian rights are opposed by a journalist as part of a liberal rebellion that sets up a New Underground, named after the slavery era’s Underground Railroad, that distributes anti-Windrip leaflets and helps dissidents escape to Canada. But when the journalists’ efforts are discovered, he’s sent to a concentration camp.

When Windrip goes to far, even ordering mass conscription of young American men (including many of his own supporters) to invade Mexico, a civil war is sparked, leading to a rival seizing power and Windrip’s forced exile.

When the book was published, reviewers found parallels with Louisiana populist politician Huey Long, who was building a nationwide “Share Our Wealth” organization that promises each citizen a handout of $5,000/year (uncomfortably similar to some economic nostrums peddled by today’s Left and Right populists and progressives).

Today, most Americans no longer learn about or remember Long, but other demagogues have risen (and fallen) over the decades along with various authoritarian trends and movements.

Beyond the very real and recurrent threat of authoritarian populism in eras of fear and change, Lewis’ cautionary novel remains more broadly relevant in the 21stcentury as a warning to be vigilant against any threats from demagogues or mobs from the Left or Right that could undermine the freedom and basic respect for one another’s rights to live and let live that Americans have come to cherish.

(Note: Sinclair Lewis (1885-1951) was the first American writer to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature, awarded “for his vigorous and graphic art of description and his ability to create, with wit and humor, new types of characters.”

The great libertarian journalist H.L. Mencken, a contemporary literary critic, praised Lewis, writing “(If) there was ever a novelist among us with an authentic call to the trade… it is this red-haired tornado from the Minnesota wilds.”

Sinclair Lewis in 1930 (Creative Commons license)

Lewis wrote 24 novels between 1912 and 1951, along with many short stories, plays, poems and a screenplay. Several of his novels were made into movies.

Besides It Can’t Happen Here, Lewis is best remembered for his novels Arrowsmith, Babbit, Dodsworth, Elmer Gantry and Main Street.

* Coming up soon on the Prometheus Blog: Vernor Vinge’s story “True Names,” the other 2007 Prometheus Hall of Fame winner for Best Classic Fiction.

* See related  introductory essay  about the LFS’ 40thanniversary retrospective series of Appreciations of past Prometheus Awards winners, with an overview of the awards’ four-decade history.

Prometheus winners: For a full list of winners – for the annual Best Novel and Best Classic Fiction (Hall of Fame) categories and occasional Special Awards – visit the recently enhanced Prometheus Awards page  on the LFS website, which has added convenient links to all published Appreciations of past winners as they are published.

* Read “The Libertarian History of Science Fiction,”  an essay in the June 2020 issue of the international magazine Quillette that favorably highlights the Prometheus Awards, the Libertarian Futurist Society and the significant element of libertarian sf/fantasy in the modern genre.

Join us! To help sustain the Prometheus Awards, join   the Libertarian Futurist Society (LFS), a non-profit volunteer association of libertarian sf/fantasy fans and freedom-lovers.
Libertarian futurists believe cultural change is as (or more) vital as political change in achieving universal individual rights and a better world (perhaps eventually, worlds) for all.

Published by

Michael Grossberg

Michael Grossberg, who founded the LFS in 1982 to help sustain the Prometheus Awards, has been an arts critic, speaker and award-winning journalist for five decades. Michael has won Ohio SPJ awards for Best Critic in Ohio and Best Arts Reporting (seven times). He's written for Reason, Libertarian Review and Backstage weekly; helped lead the American Theatre Critics Association for two decades; and has contributed to six books, including critical essays for the annual Best Plays Theatre Yearbook and an afterword for J. Neil Schulman's novel The Rainbow Cadenza. Among books he recommends from a libertarian-futurist perspective: Matt Ridley's The Rational Optimist & How Innovation Works, David Boaz's The Libertarian Mind and Steven Pinker's Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress.

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