Monday, March 29, 2010

Yes, It Can Happen Here

It's easy to write off Sinclair Lewis these days as outdated and irrelevant. His novels are clogged with antiquainted, cringe-worthy slang. His premises seem quaint. Why, in 2010, would we be interested in reading about that blustery failure Babbitt? Or the alienated souls of Main Street? Or Elmer Gantry and his unholy rise and fall? These are characters so squarely set in their times that they can no longer hold any interest for us.

But of course I lie. Despite his awkward, somewhat embarrassing dependence on slang, Lewis's characters have as much life today as they ever did. Much of what Lewis wrote was satiric, but it was a rather tender satire that understands the underlying humanity of its subjects. Their situations are human situations, which recur again and again, achingly recognizable. Babbitt is attending a Tea Party this weekend, shouting slogans he doesn't quite understand, while Carol Kennicott wistfully searches for soul-mates on the internet and Elmer Gantry rants from his weekly show on the Inspiration Network. When we read Lewis, we not only recognize the characters, we empathize with them. We sometimes pity them. And we realize we don't live in such different worlds after all.

Which brings me to the book I'm recommending today, Lewis's It Can't Happen Here. One of his lesser-known, lesser-read works, it was published in 1935 in the middle of the economic crisis we remember as the Great Depression. Lewis depicts a populace largely uninformed but angry, its rage confused and looking for focus. In steps a folksy populist by the name of Berzelius ''Buzz'' Windrip, who is elected President of the U.S. by promising to bring back American Values and who, with the help of Big Business, promptly begins to dismantle the government and its bill of rights, saving the goodies of power for himself and his corporate friends. This is, in fact, a depiction of fascism taking over the U.S. from within its own borders and with the apparent approval of much of its people. Lewis depicts its inexorable advance with a precision that is utterly believable. There's a war declared on Mexico in order to distract the citizenry with patriotism. Dissidents flee, eventually, to Canada. That's not the end, of course, I won't reveal the end except to say the book is not entirely hopeless.

Neither is this country. Not in 1935, not now. What we need is more people to read books like this, to recognize the symptoms of the power-hungry and manipulative, the fake populists who would try to turn a people's hurt and confusion into a war on democracy itself.

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