What if America had become a fascist state in the 1930s? That’s the question that Sinclair Lewis answers with his book, It Can’t Happen Here. It is not only a thought provoking novel, but one that’s written in a very unique style.
At some points, the book feels as if it’s a history book from another universe. The way that political events are written about is very much as if they were real, and I thought that this was a really effective method for helping make the book feel more believable. But it’s not all like that: at the heart of the book is a man called Doremus Jessup and his family.
Doremus and his family live a kind of idyllic life at the start of the book, but that soon begins to deteriorate once Berzelius “Buzz” Windrip becomes president. This gives everything a much-needed human aspect, because going for the purely ‘alternative historic’ style might have made it all feel too academic, but seeing the consequences of fascism manifesting in the lives of characters for whom you feel some level of fondness makes it all much more distressing.
And it is a very distressing book, at times. Admittedly, I think that Lewis was trying to be very darkly comic with some parts, but certain events which take place are so enormously harrowing that they’ll stay with you a long time – not least because many similar atrocities have actually happened in reality in other dictatorships.
Of course, that’s really what the book is all about: the horrors of fascism. The story is fictional, but it draws on some very real horrors. It’s awfully clever in a lot of ways, because as much as Doremus is opposed to the new regime and does what he can to challenge it, the book also shows how he was complicit in Buzz’s rise to power as well, and how certain attitudes and behaviour feed into a dictator being democratically elected.
It also does a good job of illustrating that with fascism, nobody wins – not even the fascists themselves. The book could often be quite depressing, in part, because of the sad fates which befall even those who are loyal to the oppressive government – though I do think it ended on a fairly optimistic note.
As dystopian fiction goes, I think It Can’t Happen Here is one of the best. Even though it was written before Nineteen Eighty-Four, I believe it does a much better job of challenging fascism than that book does, by showing exactly how a dictator could rise to power. Although, I have to admit, that some aspects of it felt a little bit ‘fast’ in terms of the steps Buzz takes to cement his power.
Though I am a bit biased because I find the 1930s a very interesting time period (it’s also filled with literary references that I enjoyed), I genuinely think that this is a fantastic book and one that I definitely recommend. Now more than ever, people need to be aware of the risk posed by fascism…