April 2, 2009

It Can't Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis

This book is what is referred to as a "negative utopia," a futuristic (futuristic being a very relative term here) depiction of a world gone wrong, usually in a political sense.

This book was actually written in the early 30's during the Great Depression, and takes place in the late 30's. During this time the ideas of Socialism were looking pretty good to a lot of people who were unable to find work or to afford the simplest utilities. The book assumes that it is a given that the government will have to take control of any corporation that provides something that effects all people, such as utilities. The heros are Liberals, the bad guys are conservatives that want a more corporate state.

The funny thing about political extremism is that if you go too far to one side, you'll actually find yourself coming out on the opposite end. It's not really a scale, it's more like a circle. I've seen this with my husband, who's so right-wing that his right-wing desires end up being the very things the left wing advocates, though he will never admit it. They want the same things for different reasons. Sinclair doesn't himself make this connection, but unwittingly demonstrates it in this book.

This book is meant to show how a horrible dictatorship could come about even in America, in a place where such a thing seems impossible. In their economic crisis, the Americans in this book elect Buzz Windrip because he promises that every family will receive $5,000 a year (probably about equivalent to $40k a year now) no matter what. He promises to eliminate unemployment and crime and create a smaller government. And so he's elected. But he eliminates unemployment by sending everyone to work camps, and crime by rounding up everyone even suspected of ever having committed a crime and having them shot. He abolishes all political parties and creates his own. He creates smaller government by abolishing statehood and setting up six large disctricts run by tyrranical commissioners. In the meantime detractors are killed or sent to concentration camps. A new Underground Railroad is established to send refugees to Canada.

It seems like Sinclair took elements of Soviet Russia (although some of his heros are communists) and Nazi Germany (althought this was pre-WWII, the Nazis were in power when the novel was written) and smooshed them together to show how such a regime could happen in the USA. A lot of the situation was really unique to that time period though and truly could not happen now, such as the media being limited to radio and newsprint and information therefore easily repressed or delayed.

It was hard to get into. It didn't actually get interesting until the last third or so, and had an open ending. It was funny in some places and horribly boring in others, but that's probably because a lot of the language and situations were familiar to that time and not to me.


  1. This sounds really interesting. I really like dystopias, and have read many from that time period. There was a lot of that circular political logic going on, particularly when it came to socialism, as Soviet Russia manipulated socialism until it actually was a dictatorship (like in Animal Farm).

  2. Oh boy, nothin' beats dystopian fiction! I'm addicted, and this sounds pretty interesting!


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