Of all the great modern American novelists, including Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Steinbeck and Faulkner, Sinclair Lewis has always been my favorite. His works were required reading for my generation, and I read them eagerly – Main Street, Babbitt, Arrowsmith, Elmer Gantry, and Dosworth. In 1930 Lewis was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, the first American writer to be so honored.
Sinclair’s writing has withstood the test of time, and is still considered some of the greatest literature of the twentieth century. It can be said that great literature captures the time period in which it was written while exploring universal themes of the human condition. No matter how dated the setting or characters, great literature is able to connect with every generation and audience because it speaks to these universal truths.
Sinclair Lewis had a talent for holding up a mirror to American life. He had an amazing eye for society and an incredible ability to create characters that reflect the very best and the very worst of society. His characters include con artists, feminists, hack politicians, populists and fear mongering isolationists, do-gooders and doubters. He writes frankly about racism and about how politicians use fear and distrust for their own ends. He discusses religion and religious scams. His novels read as if they were written this morning rather than almost a century ago. Read his novels and nothing in contemporary American life will surprise you, not even the current political mess in which we find ourselves.
In fact, it is the current political situation that has brought Sinclair Lewis to mind. One of his last great novels, It Can’t Happen Here, was published in 1935, as waves of fascism were sweeping through Europe. The novel describes the ascent of “Buzz” Windrip, a political populist who is elected President of the United States, after provoking fear and promising economic and social reforms while promoting a return to patriotism and “traditional” values. After his election, Windrip takes complete control of the government and imposes authoritarian rule with the help of a paramilitary force. Democratic norms are eroded as he becomes increasingly paranoid and power-hungry. The plot is heavy with the dramatic. One of the most chilling moments is an attempt to flee to sanctuary in Canada. There’s a military coup, an assassination and a war with Mexico. It’s a cautionary tale about the fragility of American democracy that speaks to us today.
Americans of all political persuasions are likely to find It Can’t Happen Here, though firmly grounded in the politics of the 1930s, a fascinating if disturbing read. One is left with the lingering question, “Can it happen here?”