It Can’t Happen Here

While Sinclair Lewis’ It Can’t Happen Here is remarkably prescient of the events to come in the late 1930s and early 1940s, and the World War II years specifically, and while some of the ideas even transfer well to the early 2000s’ post-9/11 hysteria (the passing of the PATRIOT Act, for instance, and the surrendering of civil liberties), it isn’t necessarily a great book.

Lewis is a great writer, of course, and there are flashes throughout this novel of a great prose artist, but a discerning reader can certainly see that this thing was written in a matter of months. The narrative moves along so quickly, with such little regard for the shifting of perspective or for the shifting of structural strategy, that it’s easy to imagine Lewis blazing away at his typewriter, churning out pages with barely a glance at the finished product before shipping it off to his editor.

The result is a protagonist who is poorly developed, who we don’t care about, and who serves only as a prop, a vehicle, for all of the political events swirling around him. He has little agency, just seems thrown about, and frequently makes or listens to sweeping political speeches that could just as easily have been editorials previously published by Lewis himself.

It Can’t Happen Here should join the interesting American canon of paranoid political novels (right up there with, say, Alas Babylon) because, while I wasn’t satisfied with the book as character-driven fiction, it never failed to be engaging or relevant. But to be honest, it is most interesting as an artifact, a slice of 1930s paranoia, and not as a piece of enduring literature.

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