Sunday, April 10, 2005

It Can't Happen Here (ICHH) by Sinclair Lewis, part 1

SinclairLewis

Okay, having appropriated Lewis' title for my blog theme, I've read his novel. I found it plenty rich enough so that this will be the first of a series of posts bouncing off it. It Can't Happen Here is a scary fable of homegrown US fascism overwhelming the US political system in the context of the Depression 1930s.

Sinclair Lewis had won the Nobel Prize for Literature in the 1920s; his fiction so honored satirized the bumptious, shallow middle class in the United States. During the Depression of the 1930s, he had intimate reason to understand the rise of fascism in Europe, as his wife, Dorothy Thompson, had worked as a correspondent in Berlin during Hitler's rise to power. In 1935 he responded to the fascist potential he saw around him by dashing off this novel, which quickly became a bestseller; it was also widely produced as a play by the Federal Theatre Project.

Interestingly, apparently I'm confessing my crassness and naiveté by thinking highly of this book. Literary critics are pretty dismissive of ICHH. Robert E. Fleming of the University of New Mexico calls it "artistically inferior." David Neiwert of Orcinus whose writing on contemporary fascist tendencies I'll be visiting in these posts, calls ICHH "one of his weakest works; it lacks most of the human detail and probing realism of his greatest novels."

Most oddly, Michael Meyer, the professor of English who thought the book important enough to write the introduction to the 2005 Signet paperback edition, puts us on notice that many reviewers "complained about the novel's loose melodramatic plot, flat and even corny characters, weak clichéd dialogue, padded political discourse, awkward sentimentality, and heavy handed satire and irony…"

Why so dismissive? I think this book scares the beegeesus out of anyone who is seriously considering whether US fascism is possible or likely. None of us want to admit that we do have to raise the question. Lewis can't answer it for us; he's dead. But the question, "can it happen here?" is all too live.

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