Wednesday, February 26, 2014

It Can't Happen Here

While I was reading Ishmael, Daniel Quinn made reference to Sinclair Lewis' It Can't Happen Here.  I looked up the book to determine the reference, and it intrigued me.  Dictatorship in the US pre-WWII?  It had all the makings of a dystopia.  My favorite kind of novel.

I have to say, I enjoyed it.  Immensely.  I read a warning that the references might be a little dated and difficult to understand, but I've had enough American history that there was very little that snuck past me, even in a paper copy where I could hop to Wikipedia every time I saw a 1930's era name.

It really is rather amazing how little the environment has changed in some respects since 1936.  And I realized while I was first thinking that that 1936 was closer to my year of birth than my year of birth is to know.  Much closer.  Favoring the bankers, yet speaking out against banks?  Complaining about taxes?  Liberty measles instead of liberty fries?  Religious hysteria and use of big media?  Complaining that a small percentage of the populace (actually) owns 40-60% of the wealth? Tying patriotism to places it doesn't seem to belong?  It's all there.  Lewis' dictator, Buzz Windrip, isn't particularly cunning as he comes to power, but Lewis' point isn't the machinations of how he comes to power, but rather that it could happen and that all the things associated with fascism could happen in the US, with a distinctly US flavor of folksiness.  Likewise, the hero, a newspaper editor of the middle class, Doremus Jessup, isn't fully flushed out, but he's both a representation of the middle class, and a character who's forced to experience the wide range of behaviors under a fascist government so we can see them all at work

I appreciated that Lewis is an excellent writer.  I can see why he gained his status as the first American writer to receive the Nobel Prize in writing.  Glowing, witty, prose hopped out in unexpected places and I found myself enjoying some of his style as much as the topic and story.  I don't often laugh out loud at a particularly well-written bit of writing, but it happened to me more than a few times in It Can't Happen Here.

I'll close with a few of my favorite passages.  Not the planks and platform of Windrip, but some bits and pieces that stood out to me:

Doremus' daughter Sissy, on the nature of grabby men (277):
"They always, all of them, went through the same procedure, heavily pretending that there was no system in their manual proposals; and to a girl of spirit, the chief diversion in the whole business was watching their smirking pride in their technique.  The only variation, every, was whether they started in at the top or the bottom."

On detention camps and torture (285)
"All dictators followed the same routine of torture, as if they had all read the same manual of sadistic etiquette.  And now, in the humorous, friendly, happy-go-lucky land of Mark Twain, Doremus saw the homicidal maniacs having just as good a time as they had had in central Europe."

After Doremus is put in a detention camp and mistreated and sees those he knows beaten and starved and worse: (288)
"He simply went on."

On a particularly American version of the ideological struggle and how it's tied to religion and patriotism (358).
"He was afraid that the world struggle today was not of Communism against Fascism, but of tolerance against the bigotry that was preached equally by Communism and Fascism.  But he saw too that in America the struggle was befogged by the fact that the worst Fascists were they who disowned the word "Fascism" and preached enslavement to Capitalism under the style of Constitutional and Traditional Native American Liberty.  For they were thieves not only of wages but of honor.  To their purpose they could quote not only Scripture but Jefferson."

Hyperbolising the reach of a potential enemy (369):
"...conscience compelled him to reveal that his Mexican superiors were planning to fly over and bomb Laredo, San Antonio, Bisbee, and probably Tacoma, and Bangor, Maine."

No comments: