Sinclair Lewis was an American novelist and playwright. His novel, Main Street, was to be awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1921. The Columbia University Board of Trustees overturned the jury’s decision. Five years later, Lewis again was awarded with the Pulitzer, this time for his novel Arrowsmith. Lewis refused. In 1930, Lewis became the first American author to win the Nobel Prize in Literature. Insightful and critical, satirical, and sympathetic– It Can’t Happen Here is Lewis’ last great work. This speculative novel warns that political movements akin to fascism can come to power in countries such as the United States when people blindly support their leaders.
It has been misattributed to Lewis that he writes in this book, “When fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross.” And while the particular quote was never written, the sentiment behind it permeates much of the language. New American Library recently reprinted this novel in 2005 and I picked it up as my next book in part due to the the power I perceive in the quote coupled with the impact of the recent documentaries, Jesus Camp and The Corporation, and the non-fiction books, State of Fear and Fast Food Nation.
Michael Meyer wrote a new introduction to the 2005 printing. He concludes his introduction with:
[Lewis] believed that dissent– even a cranky, erratic, eccentric, old-fashioned version of it– was not disloyalty but at the heart of an American democratic identity. Engulfed in the complexities and vulnerabilities of our post-September 11 world, Americans of nearly all political persuasions are likely to find that It Can’t Happen Here, though firmly anchored in the politics of the 1930s, surfaces as a revealing and disturbing read.
The book’s back cover reads:
It Can’t Happen Here is the only one of Sinclair Lewis’ later novels to match the power of Main Street, Babbitt, and Arrowsmith. A cautionary tale about the fragility of democracy, it is an alarming, eerily timeless look at how fascism could take hold in America. Written during the Great Depression, when the country was largely oblivious to Hitler’s aggression, it juxtaposes sharp political satire with the chillingly realistic rise of a President who becomes a dictator to save the nation from welfare cheats, rampant promiscuity, crime and a liberal press.