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US Populism & Totalitarianism: Sinclair Lewis’ It Can’t Happen Here Essay

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Updated: Oct 25th, 2021

Introduction

Sinclair Lewis was the first American awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. The novel was written only in some months; it is considered to be inferior to the brilliant author’s novels of the 1920s. Nevertheless, Lewis’s satire still captured the attention of all the American readers. The novel appeared in 1935, in the period when the USA and the Western Europe were still in depression. In this political novel Lewis described the dangers of fascism by transferring this movement from Germany to the USA. What is more, later the novel inspired a play with the same title, which was extremely popular all over the United States.

Main body

In this novel the author describes his idea of what would happen if a dictator who promises an easy solution to the depression is elected.

In It Cant’t Happen Here there is a story of a “small-town newspaper editor” Doremus Jessup. When the new president is elected Doremus is 60. For a year he struggles with a new government in attempt to defend his newspaper from the censorship. His newspaper is the only liberalistic voice in his town. He struggles to fight against the totalitarian regime, but fails. Eventually Doremus Jessup is in a concentration camp. He is surprised to see that prison is the only future waiting for people like him.

To the journalist Doremus and his family it was not least interesting that among these imprisoned celebrities were so many journalists: Raymond Moley, Frank Simonds, Frank Kent, Heywood Broun, Mark Sullivan, Earl Browder, Franklin P. Adams, George Seldes, Frazier Hunt, Garet Garrett, Granville Hicks, Edwin James, Robert Morss Lovett—men who differed grotesquely except in their common dislike of being little disciples of Sarason and Macgoblin. (Lewis, 1993, 98).

In a year he manages to escape to Canada, and after that he goes back to his country in order to organize the underground resistance movement.

The new president Windrip is a power-hungry populist who appeals to his voters with stories of growing up poor. “He continued to tell himself that his main ambition was to make all citizens healthy, in purse and mind, and that if he was brutal it was only toward fools and reactionaries who wanted the old clumsy systems” (Lewis, 1993, 67). He masterly plays on anti-intellectualism of his electorate, which is the result of the lack of education, presenting Jefferson and Washington as pompous and old-fashioned politicians. According to his speeches, the Constitution itself is out of date. People from abroad cannot be trusted, especially if they are members of the “international Jewish Communist” conspiracy.

Any person advocating Communism, Socialism, or Anarchism, advocating refusal to enlist in case of war, or advocating alliance with Russia in any war whatsoever, shall be subject to trial for high treason, with a minimum penalty of twenty years at hard labor in prison, and a maximum of death on the gallows, or other form of execution which the judges may find convenient. (Lewis, 1993, 135).

Windrip is supported by an organization called the League of Forgotten Men, the members of which are mostly the representatives of the lower levels of the society.

The identity of Windrip is clear to every American who leaved then. Huey Long, senator from Louisiana, served his prototype. In 1935 Long has organized so-called the Share the Wealth League; he was actually going to replace Roosevelt in the capacity of the Democratic nominee in 1936.

The head of the League of Forgotten Men was Bishop Peter Paul Prang, the radio preacher. He made his contribution to the campaign by creating the belief that the church supports Windrip and his policy. Here we can observe a parallel with the present-day TV evangelists. In his novel Sinclair Lewis gives us the idea that television is even the more powerful tool of influencing the audience’s opinion than radio.

When Windrip finally gains the nomination of the party, first of all he announces of the nationalization of the mines, banks and transportation facilities. He proclaims that all the unions that can be suspected of having ties to the “reds” must be abolished. His policy is also to limit annual incomes and dividends.

Conclusion

So it is not difficult to trace the parallels of the plot to the present-day society. The public opinion is being constantly formed with the help of mass media, and usually people do not think about what hides behind pompous words and promises. We must learn from the history that such blind belief in what is being said by ads and TV may lead to sad consequences for the whole nation.

Reference

Lewis, Sinclair (1993). It Can’t Happen Here. USA: Signet Classics.

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IvyPanda. "US Populism & Totalitarianism: Sinclair Lewis’ It Can’t Happen Here." October 25, 2021. https://ivypanda.com/essays/us-populism-amp-totalitarianism-sinclair-lewis-it-cant-happen-here/.

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IvyPanda. 2021. "US Populism & Totalitarianism: Sinclair Lewis’ It Can’t Happen Here." October 25, 2021. https://ivypanda.com/essays/us-populism-amp-totalitarianism-sinclair-lewis-it-cant-happen-here/.

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IvyPanda. (2021) 'US Populism & Totalitarianism: Sinclair Lewis’ It Can’t Happen Here'. 25 October.

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