Artistically and technically, Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here is not a good novel. Nearly every reviewer at the time of the book’s publication said as much. Richard P. Blackmur famously characterized the book as “a weapon of the intellect rather than a novel; there is hardly a literary question that it does not fail to raise and there is hardly a rule for the good conduct of novels that it does not break.”¹ Lewis himself said so to a gathering of his peers at a dinner sponsored by the communist-dominated League of American Writers in the fall of 1935, shortly after the work was published. “… it isn’t a very good book,” he told his audience, “I’ve done better books—and furthermore I don’t believe any of you have read the book.”² (italics in source) He distrusted the adulations of the left, so his response was partly parodic. But the man known as Red, ironically considering how the left has embraced the book that was not, in the end, either pro-Communist or pro-Socialist, was right. Many of his fellow writers probably had not read it or chose to interpret it to fit their own political purposes. Doubtless, they were impressed by its popularity and its subject and the popularity or notoriety of the subject. The sales impressed Lewis too. The book sold 94,000 copies in its trade edition and made the best sellers list.³ Altogether the book sold 320,000 before the end of the 1930s.⁴ It has been on the best-sellers list as recently as 2018.
It Can’t Happen Here was begun in May 1935; the completed draft was done in August; final revisions were done by late September. The book was published in October 1935. A book of such complex political pretensions and concerns and of such considerable length could be written well this quickly, but it is not likely. The result speaks for itself or at least it ought to. But to say that it is not a good novel is not to say it is not an effective novel as much for what readers want it to be as for what it actually is. The critics and reviewers of Lewis’s day in effect argued that the book transcended its limitations as a novel. Clifton Fadiman declared It Can’t Happen Here to be Lewis’s most important work to date. He continued, “I do not believe I have ever before recommended the reading of any book as a public duty. I do now recommend ‘It Can’t Happen Here.’”⁵ It Can’t Happen Here is for young readers today probably Lewis’s popular novel or at least the one novel of his that might most immediately interest them, in part because of the times in which we live and in part because Lewis is no longer a central or important figure in the American literary canon despite winning the Nobel Prize for Literature, so his other work might seem out of date or irrelevant. His fascist American fantasy is more likely to be read than Main Street, Babbitt, Elmer Gantry, or Arrowsmith, the novels on which his reputation rests. There is something sensationalist about It Can’t Happen Here that I suspect many readers find both curious and irresistible. If the United States becoming a dictatorship was an intense preoccupation for many during the crisis decade of the 1930s, it remains so with many people today. It is something that charges the American imagination, our fear and loathing of the allure of the dark side of the American psyche.
Since its original publication during the heart of the Great Depression, the novel has enjoyed periods of intense revival: the first during the McCarthy era of the early 1950s; then, it was popular again during the late 1960s when the Black Power and anti-Vietnam War movements made the idea of not simply America becoming fascist but indeed being fascist quite the trendy political notion; during the Reagan years of the 1980s, the novel was again “must reading” as the country experienced its first president who was a product of the 1950s Conservative Movement whose ideological twin pillars were anti-Communist and anti-welfare statism; finally, It Can’t Happen Here has emerged as a satiric adumbration of Donald Trump, who in some circles is thought to be America’s first dictator, Mussolini come back as a crass and devious New York real-estate developer and pop-culture celebrity. In short, the novel has returned to public consciousness, even best seller status as it has since Trump was elected, almost exclusively when liberals or the left feel the country is experiencing some extraordinary political crisis where the right is in power or, as during the late 1960s, mounting a tremendous backlash against a leftist insurgency.
If the United States becoming a dictatorship was an intense preoccupation for many during the crisis decade of the 1930s, it remains so with many people today. It is something that charges the American imagination, our fear and loathing of the allure of the dark side of the American psyche.
Liberals particularly seem attracted to the novel in moments of high anxiety about the future of liberal values. Perhaps they find especial identification with the novel’s bourgeois, newspaper editor hero, Doremus Jessup, whose battles with the left are almost as fierce as his battles against the fascists in the novel, his valiant beliefs in the sanctity of the individual, mirror the liberals’ own. Perhaps it is because the novel is told largely from the point of view of the resistance to the fascist government rather than from the view of the fascist government leaders themselves and their own particular court intrigues that makes so appreciated by liberals. Every political side loves to think itself heroic. As Lewis relates Doremus’s conclusion near novel’s end in his rejection of Karl Pascal’s doctrinaire communism, “But he saw now that he must remain alone, a ‘Liberal,’ scorned by all the noisier prophets for refusing to be a willing cat for the busy monkeys of either side. But at worst, the Liberals, the Tolerant, might in the long run preserve some of the arts of civilization, no matter which brand of tyranny should finally dominate the world.”⁶
Lewis, despite youthful forays with the Socialist Party and novelist Upton Sinclair’s experimental community, Helicon Hall, was essentially a liberal at heart and sometimes Jessup sounds like his mouthpiece. In any case, the novel is very much a product of the time in which it was written. It was written in 1935 but its action begins in 1936. A reader needs to know the politics and personalities of Depression-Era America to be able to read the book comfortably, which of course all of Lewis’s readers did at the time of publication. The novel is, in fact, so topical that students today may need annotation in order to understand who the characters are and the historical references Lewis makes.⁷ (In this regard, I should note that my daughter, who has a master’s degree in German literature, found Lewis’s novel completely unreadable in its topicality and quit after only a few pages. It was so topical that she thought it was mind-numbingly provincial.) It is remarkable that so topical a novel has managed to endure in such a compelling way.
The novel functioned for readers in the mid-1930s purely as an allegory about Huey Long, the governor of and later senator from Louisiana who hoped to defeat Roosevelt for the presidency in 1936 with a third party powerful enough to enable a Republican victory and then after four years of Republican debacle to seize the presidency for himself in 1940 with the expectation of keeping the office for four terms.
The novel’s attraction is solely its dystopian vision of a fascist America. None of its characters or situations are memorable. That is not to say that some of the characters are not interesting or diverting. They are simply types, flat surfaces upon which the story can be unfurled. But this is often the nature of satire. The novel functioned for readers in the mid-1930s purely as an allegory about Huey Long, the governor of and later senator from Louisiana who hoped to defeat Roosevelt for the presidency in 1936 with a third party powerful enough to enable a Republican victory and then after four years of Republican debacle to seize the presidency for himself in 1940 with the expectation of keeping the office for four terms. Lewis wrote the novel in the hopes of defeating Long, a point which became moot when Long was assassinated on September 8, 1935, nearly a month before It Can’t Happen Here was published.
But what is interesting is not that Lewis wanted to write a novel about Long, probably the most famous politician in the United States aside from President Franklin Roosevelt. (Roosevelt, incidentally, thought the two most dangerous men in America at the time were Long and Douglas MacArthur.) What is striking is that he chose not to place Long within his proper historical setting as a populist Southern politician, that Lewis chose not to do extensive research on the region, its culture, and its politics and write a kind of Southern Gothic. Instead, he chose to write a fiction of Long with the coverlet of European fascism draped over it. Lewis loved doing intense research for his novels and had done so for Arrowsmith (which was essentially co-written), Babbitt, Elmer Gantry, and Main Street. He did none for It Can’t Happen Here.
… the common belief on the American elitist right such as the American Liberty League and among Republicans at the time was that Roosevelt was a would-be dictator and that any real dictatorship in the United States would emerge from the Democratic Party with either Roosevelt or Huey Long, the only national politicians of the moment who were selling some sort of populism that the American public was interested in.
It has been pointed out by nearly all Lewis scholars that the novel likely would not have been written had it not been for his wife at the time, noted journalist Dorothy Thompson. In 1931, she was the first American journalist to interview Adolph Hitler, who, in 1934, kicked her out of Germany. She also interviewed Huey Long in 1935, whom she found “shrewd, fantastic, and not altogether unlikable.”⁸ (Some have said, unsurprisingly, the same about Trump. Many observers, such as journalist Jonathan Karl, hardly a Trump supporter, have found Trump, like Long, to be an extraordinarily friendly man, “charming.”⁹) She spoke incessantly, and to Lewis’s great annoyance, about the rise of fascism in Europe with her friends and in her book, I Saw Hitler, put Nazism in an American context: “Imagine that in America, an orator with the tongue of the late Mr. [William Jennings] Bryan and the histrionic powers of Aimee Semple McPherson combined with the publicity gifts of Edward Bernays and Ivy Lee” and this person united farmers, unemployed professionals, people who had lost their savings, the American Legion, the Daughters of the American Revolution, the KKK, Henry Ford, and the like, “and you will have some idea of what the Hitler movement in Germany means.” In short, Thompson gave Lewis the blend of Long and Hitler, the idea of the Americanization of Nazism, that sparked It Can’t Happen Here. At the time, the New Deal was struggling. Thompson even predicted the possibility of “a Republican-fascist dictatorship in 1940.”¹⁰ What is odd about this is that the Republican Party had been obliterated in the national election of 1932, had no alternatives to the New Deal, and no purchase with the electorate to seize power. Indeed, the common belief on the American elitist right such as the American Liberty League and among Republicans at the time was that Roosevelt was a would-be dictator and that any real dictatorship in the United States would emerge from the Democratic Party with either Roosevelt or Huey Long, the only national politicians of the moment who were selling some sort of populism that the American public was interested in. In any case, these are the historical and biographical circumstances of how It Can’t Happen Here came to be.
I would like to conclude my presentation with three brief observations about this novel that I hope might be interesting to you:
First Observation: Race, Huey Long, and Being the Outsider
Always take the offensive. The defensive ain’t worth a damn.
—Huey Long, 1929¹¹
What the fuck is this? I don’t need all this. Just give me a phone number and tell me who to call.
—Donald J. Trump to campaign managers who gave him lengthy background notes about radio shows that wanted to interview him¹²
Everybody who ain’t with us is against us. I used to try to get things done by saying ‘please.’ That didn’t work and now I’m a dynamiter. I dynamite ‘em out of my path.
—Huey Long, 1930¹³
Withal, [Long] managed with wily care to see that he never fetched up in the impasse where Populism had come to grief. And what makes that a little wonderful is that he was also the first Southern demagogue—the only one to date—successfully to set himself, not to bring the established state machine and hierarchy to terms but to overwhelm it altogether and largely replace it with one of his own.
—W. J. Cash’s The Mind of the South¹⁴
As Berzelius “Buzz” Windrip, the politician who leads the fascist takeover of the United States, serves as the Huey Long stand-in in Lewis’s novel, it means that when audiences today read the novel as allegory of our own time they are comparing a version of Long to Donald Trump. There are some superficial similarities: Long was impeached by the Louisiana Lower House in 1929 after one year of being governor but he beat the rap in the State Senate, where he in fact he was not even tried, and was never removed from office. The fight to remove Long started when Long decided to bully the legislature in taxing oil refineries $.05 per barrel of refined oil (not crude, which the company preferred). The idea of taxing Standard Oil was good, the way Long went about it was not. Long learned his lesson. Indeed, Long became even more powerful as a result, ruthlessly dealing with his enemies, taking over virtually all the jobs and patronage of the state. Trump has been impeached on fairly much the same general grounds as Long, “‘incompetency, corruption, favoritism, oppression, gross misconduct.’”¹⁵ Specifically, he was accused of bribing Ukraine with foreign aid in exchange for opposition research on his Democratic challenger Joe Biden and Biden’s son. Trump too beat the rap in the Senate and has not been removed from office. How he will deal with his enemies as a result remains to be seen, although he has removed some who testified against him such as Alexander Vindman. But Trump has removed enemies or blunderers, from Omarisa Manigault to Jeff Sessions, with alacrity since he assumed the office. He was not necessarily unjustified, from the perspective of his own political self-interest, in removing these people. The possibility that he could take control of the federal government in the way Long took control of a corrupt Southern backwater like late 1920s Louisiana is nearly impossible, considering both the complexity of the entity as a bureaucratic and administrative leviathan and the intensity, influence, and money of the forces that oppose him. There is simply no comparison here. Trump could not do what Long did, even if he truly wanted to.
The other most obvious difference to point out is age: Long was 34 when he was elected governor of Louisiana in 1928 and 38 when he became a U.S. senator in 1932. Trump was 70 when he was elected president in 2016.
As Berzelius “Buzz” Windrip, the politician who leads the fascist takeover of the United States, serves as the Huey Long stand-in in Lewis’s novel, it means that when audiences today read the novel as allegory of our own time they are comparing a version of Long to Donald Trump. There are some superficial similarities …
Both Trump (the real-estate developer) and Long (a door-to-door hawker in his youth) were salesmen, drummers, to use an old-fashioned term, and both relied on the politics of provincialism—the rural and the small town over the metropolis—to win high office. (Long did the impossible by winning the governorship of Louisiana in 1928 while losing the state’s three biggest cities—New Orleans, Shreveport, and Baton Rouge. This means he produced overwhelming numbers among the outstate “hillbillies,” clearly, getting some people to vote who had never voted before.) Long, in some measure, seemed somewhat more a product of his constituencies’ social background than Trump. But neither could be said to be quite authentic. Long traveled tirelessly across Louisiana as both a salesman and as an elected member of the Railroad Commission, meeting with and listening to the poor whites and standing up for their interests. (“The Karl Marx of the Hillbillies” as someone called him.¹⁶) Trump, a reality television show and popular culture figure for most of his life, has long appealed to working-class and lower middle-class folk more as an object who reflected and legitimated their taste and interest than as their voice. But when Trump chose to become their voice, he was accepted in the way bedazzled church members accept a slick, glib, high-living minister.
Long ran on taxing Standard Oil, providing free school books, and building good roads. Trump ran on building a border wall to staunch illegal immigration, reworking trade deals so that the United States would benefit more and return manufacturing jobs to American workers, and rebuilding American infrastructure. Each focused on what disaffected whites wanted to hear, shaping the welfare state primarily around the concerns of the disaffected white in fierce opposition to the intelligentsia and the established ruling elite. Both men lied, but not necessarily equally. Long lied because he wanted to; Trump lies because he likes to. For both men, lying is a sign of power. Truth, in politics, is whatever the strongest faction says it is. Truth is a political struggle.
Long called himself “sui generis” and Trump feels the same about himself. In this way, both men are political auteurs; they were not created by handlers but rather, Zeus-like, sprung out of their own heads. They crafted their own images, ran their campaigns as they wanted them run, characterized by their undisciplined but cunning improvisations, and spoke to their audiences as they wanted to speak. (Trump particularly with his controversial tweets that so many “political wise men” have advised him not to do.) “Huey Long took devilish delight in shattering political traditions,” as one biographer put it.¹⁷ Both men hated the press and fought against their coverage constantly. “‘One day you pick up the papers and see where I killed four priests. Another day I murdered twelve nuns, and the next day I poisoned four hundred babies. I have not got time to answer all of them,’” Long said to a crowd in 1927. One newspaper described a Long speech as “‘disgusting buffoonery,’” “‘a thousand people witnessed a cheap vaudeville performance, the chief actor in which was uncouth in manner and speech, preaching demagoguery of such arrant type that almost every utterance was an affront to an intelligent audience.’”¹⁸ (Identical criticism has been made against Trump’s speeches.¹⁹) Long even got into a fist-fight with an editor when he was running for the governorship in 1928. (Trump, to his credit, has never done this.) Few newspapers supported Long in 1928, as did few support Trump in 2016. Long became so unhappy with his press coverage that, after becoming governor, he started his own paper, Louisiana Progress. (Trump does not really need to do that with a robust conservative media that supports him: Rush Limbaugh radio program, the Liberty Daily, Red State, PJ Media, The Bongino Report, The Federalist, The Daily Caller, and The Gateway Pundit, among others..) In these ways, speaking for disaffected or forgotten whites, running their campaigns in their own way, and their fights with the press, both men are very similar. And this coincides in some measure with the liberal Doremus Jessup’s description of the fascist Windrip in It Can’t Happen Here: “The Senator was vulgar, almost illiterate, a public liar easily detected, and in his ‘ideas’ almost idiotic, while his celebrated piety was that of a traveling salesman for church furniture, and his yet more celebrated humor the sly cynicism of a country store.”²⁰ But what is important to understand here, of course, is that this is the white liberal’s view. The insistence in a white liberal society is that the white liberal’s view is the normative view.
Now, let us consider this passage from Black Panther founder Huey Newton’s 1973 autobiography, Revolutionary Suicide:
“My parents named me after Huey Pierce Long, the former Governor of Louisiana, assassinate seven years before I came along. Even though he could not vote, my father had a keen interest in politics and followed the campaigns carefully. Governor Long had impressed him by his ability to talk one philosophy while carrying out programs that moved Louisiana in exactly the opposite direction. My father says he was up front, ‘looking right into his mouth,’ when Huey P. Long made a speech about how Black men in the hospitals, ‘out of their minds and half naked,’ had to be cared for by white nurses. This was, of course, unacceptable to southern whites, and therefore a number of black nurses were recruited to work in Louisiana hospitals. This was a major breakthrough in employment opportunities for black professionals. Huey Long used this tactic to bring other beneficial programs to blacks: free books in the schools, free commodities for the poor, public road- and bridge-construction projects that gave blacks employment. While most whites were blinded by Long’s outwardly racist philosophy, many blacks found their lives significantly improved. My father believed that Huey P. Long had been a great man, and he wanted to name a son after him.”²¹
Unlike Muhammad Ali, who changed his name from Cassius Marcellus Clay, a famous white Kentucky politician, Newton seems proud of being named after Long. Notice how Newton credits Long with providing employment for blacks, improving materially the lives of blacks in Louisiana, despite making rabidly racist remarks to his white supporters.
Here is a passage about Long from Condoleezza Rice’s autobiography:
“The whole family was taken with and followed closely the famed Louisiana governor and U.S. senator Huey Long. Daddy’s uncle on his mother’s side, Sylvester, would go down to the courthouse and sit in the ‘colored’ section when Huey Long was a trial attorney. Family lore contends that Long wouldn’t start a trial until Sylvester was seated. Daddy remembered the family gathered around the radio listening to Huey Long speak and the absolute devastation they felt years later when Long died after being shot at the capitol building. ‘They turned on every light in the capitol that night,’ he recalled. ‘The funeral procession was miles long.’ I suspect this event loomed larger than life in my father’s memory, as is often the case with childhood recollections. But the Rices really loved Long, a populist politician whom they saw as caring about common people—even black people.”²²
So just as the family of the black Marxist revolutionary Huey Newton adored Long, so did the family of the black moderate Republican Condoleezza Rice. Long’s broad appeal to blacks, despite his racist speeches, reveal a certain level of perceptiveness in how blacks parsed and evaluated white politicians that perhaps has never been fully understood or appreciated by either liberals or conservatives.
Long’s broad appeal to blacks, despite his racist speeches, reveal a certain level of perceptiveness in how blacks parsed and evaluated white politicians that perhaps has never been fully understood or appreciated by either liberals or conservatives.
In regard to Long’s appeal to blacks despite his racist veneer, it should be remembered that President Trump continually stressed, before the COVID-19 economic shutdown, how he had lowered unemployment among blacks, that he had done good things for blacks, despite having made racist comments. The point I wish to make is that some blacks, perhaps not a lot but more than might be expected, may not wind up in November 2020 looking at Trump in the way white liberals and leftists do, just as Newton, the black Marxist, and Rice, the moderate Republican, clearly did not see Long in the way Sinclair Lewis, the white liberal, did in portraying him simply as an unrepentant and determined racist in It Can’t Happen Here, far more racist in his vision and manifesto than Long actually was, (although Long could “niggerize” with the best of white Southern politicians). That is something to think about. There has always been a persistent strain in black thinking where it preferred the racist over the liberal, or as black conservative Clarence Thomas put it in his autobiography, the rattlesnake over the water moccasin.²³ White people and black people are in a struggle over the nature of reality, as Richard Wright once remarked.²⁴ They are capable of seeing the same object very differently sometimes.
Second Observation: Authoritarianism and Liberal Hypocrisy
Did Sinclair Lewis see the 1933 MGM film Gabriel Over the White House, starring Walter Huston? Indeed, Huston played the title character in the 1934 Broadway production and 1936 film version of Lewis’s novel, Dodsworth, so there is at least that much of a connection between Gabriel Over the White House and Lewis. During his lifetime, Lewis saw several of his major novels made into films including Babbitt, Main Street, Arrowsmith, Ann Vickers, Cass Timberlane, and Mantrap. The Hollywood film version of It Can’t Happen Here was never completed despite considerable interest and valiant attempt. So Lewis certainly had more than a passing interest in film. It is unlikely that he read the novel on which Gabriel Over the White House was based, Rinehard: A Melodrama of the Nineteen-Thirties, published in 1933. The author was Thomas F. Tweed, a British soldier and political advisor to David Lloyd George. It is also a political fantasy about the Depression in the United States and is set, like It Can’t Happen Here, in the near future. In this instance, 1940. The film version was made mere weeks after the release of the novel and was partly funded, not so oddly, by William Randolph Hearst.
It (both book and film) is, like It Can’t Happen Here, about an American president, Rinehard, who becomes a fascist dictator. Rinehard starts out as an amiable but corrupt politician who, after being in an automobile where he suffers a severe head injury, becomes an entirely different man, dedicated to serving the people and improving the country but this can only be achieved by his becoming a dictator and taking over the country. By novel’s end, another violent blow brings him back to himself. The idea of a leader being two different persons embodied by the same appearance is an old trope, used in political fantasies such as The Prince and the Pauper, The Man in the Iron Mask, The Corsican Brothers, The Black Room, The Prisoner of Zenda, and most recently the 1993 film, Dave, to name only a few.
Is Rinehard a novel about liberal hypocrisy, that underneath their pious shibboleths about democracy, the right of the individual, the rule of law, and the like, they enjoy naked power as much as the so-called extremists of the left and the right? The major difference structurally between the two books is that Lewis concentrates on the resistance and Rinehard, as a novel and a movie, concentrates on the people who are running the government.
Rinehard does nearly everything that Buzz Windrip in It Can’t Happen Here does as president: suspend Congress, puts the judiciary under his thumb, abolish all state governments, and establish his own private police force. Rinehard also sends his police force to murder all the gangsters in the country as he nationalizes the sale of liquor. On the whole, while his actions are similar to Windrip, his motives are different. Becoming a dictator makes him morally good and his authoritarianism is good for the country. Without the superstitions of a “sacred” Constitution, the idea of compromise, the voice of the people, vested and special interests, loyalties to such primitive structures as political parties,²⁵ Rinehard, in essence frees the running of government from a set of dangerous delusions, liberates the citizens from the entrenched power of the deep state and its nearly priestly formulations to justify and rationalize its hold on power. Rinehard tells us that fascism is good, if the right person is in charge. It is the liberals who are enthralled with Rinehard’s style of governing and the changes he makes. Is Rinehard a novel about liberal hypocrisy, that underneath their pious shibboleths about democracy, the right of the individual, the rule of law, and the like, they enjoy naked power as much as the so-called extremists of the left and the right? The major difference structurally between the two books is that Lewis concentrates on the resistance and Rinehard, as a novel and a movie, concentrates on the people who are running the government. What Lewis winds up writing is the anti-Rinehard; he provides the liberal’s defense of status quo political beliefs and political structures. It is not matter of whether this is a good or bad thing to do. It is, in the end, a bourgeois, conservative, and unimaginative thing to do and this from an author whose reputation rested on his persistent challenge to the bourgeois class, to its rank conservatism and its dogmatic superstitions.
Third Observation: Race and Slavery
If Shad Ledue, hero Doremus Jessup’s man-of-all-work, is a stand-in for the white working-class in It Can’t Happen Here, then Lewis winds up seeing this group in much the same way that Thomas Dixon in The Clansman and D. W. Griffith in Birth of a Nation saw blacks. Ledue, who rises up as a minor official in Lewis’s fascist order, is the resentful, boorish parvenu: lazy, anti-intellectual, tasteless, cruel, jealous of his middle-class betters, harboring petty ambitions, lusting for Jessup’s young daughter (the bourgeois white woman as a sexual prize), just like the black Union soldiers and the black Reconstruction politicians of Dixon’s and Griffith’s upside-down world of the conquered white South. Most black readers would feel that it is not an unjust way to see poor whites with their blue-collar conservatism and would think it was perceptive of Lewis to depict them in that way, without any sympathetic ambivalence.
In 1935, when Lewis composed the novel, America was still living with the indelible vestiges and remnants of slavery with its hideous structural and legalized racism, its Jim Crow segregation, its unrelenting privileging of whiteness, even in the midst of the social transformation of the New Deal. To paraphrase an idea of Norman Mailer, blacks are the only people to have so thoroughly experienced American democracy as a totalitarian state.
Finally, as much as Lewis wants to give us the world of Nazism in the United States with all its brutal and arbitrary violence, police state surveillance, and unrelenting incarceration, what he winds up evoking is the world of American slavery, right down to the escaping of the oppressed seeking freedom by stealing away to Canada, which for a time is where Doremus winds up. In a certain respect, It Can’t Happen Here is a protest novel in the same vein as Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, a liberal attack against both fascism and the paternalism which poorly masks its brutality. (The paternalism takes the form of the $5,000 every white worker in America is promised. Blacks are pointedly excepted in Windrip’s manifesto, similar to Long’s “Share the Wealth” program. The white workers never receive the money.)
In 1935, when Lewis composed the novel, America was still living with the indelible vestiges and remnants of slavery with its hideous structural and legalized racism, its Jim Crow segregation, its unrelenting privileging of whiteness, even in the midst of the social transformation of the New Deal. To paraphrase an idea of Norman Mailer, blacks are the only people to have so thoroughly experienced American democracy as a totalitarian state.²⁶ So, in some respects, parts of It Can’t Happen Here, like Uncle Tom’s Cabin, read like a slave narrative. It could be said that Lewis’s 1947 novel about race, Kingsblood Royal, is simply a rewrite of It Can’t Happen Here where, once again, white people, as they do in It Can’t Happen Here, experience what it is like to be treated like blacks, when a white family discovers they have the taint of black blood and cannot live as whites anymore. With Lewis’s keen awareness of race in America as shown in such ways as his friendship with NAACP Executive Secretary Walter White, the title, It Can’t Happen Here, is more than a little ironic. He knew, as any aware American must, that it already had.