Sinclair Lewis was always a pretty quick worker, but the pace of production of his great dystopian novel It Can’t Happen Here was remarkable. He started writing in May 1935, finished in August, finished revisions in September, and saw the book published and on sale in bookstores by October.
Why the rush? 1936 was an election year. The Liberal hero President Franklin Roosevelt was under siege, attacked regularly on nationally broadcast radio by the hero-pilot Charles Lindbergh and the passionate priest Father Charles Coughlin, and threatened by the likely candidacy of the charismatic Louisiana Senator Huey Long. Lindbergh and Coughlin seemed to style their politics along German Fascist lines, while Long was a corrupt populist authoritarian as American as intoxicating Applejack.
It Can’t Happen Here was a call to reject both strains of mob incitement. America did. The book was a huge best-seller, some 325,000 copies sold, Long was assassinated a month before the book went on sale and Lindbergh and Coughlin and Roosevelt’s real-life 1936 opponent Alf Landon wound up flattened by the FDR steamroller.
The Fascist tyranny Lewis depicted didn’t happen here, but in the weeks after Donald Trump’s election the 80 year old novel surged on Amazon’s best-seller list, along with other famous dystopian novels: Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451 ,” Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World ” and Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale.”
But it wasn’t until Trump’s spokeswoman Kellyanne Conway introduced the concept of “alternative facts” that perhaps the greatest dystopian fiction of all time, George Orwell’s 1984, shot to #1 on the Amazon list. The book’s publisher, Penguin says it’s printing a new edition of 75,000 copies.
Clearly, a lot of Americans are worried that Trump’s election could mean something bad could happen here, that, in non-alternative fact, many of the characteristics of Lewis’ Presidential tyrant Buzz Windrip’s campaign were repeated in Trump’s – the invocation of “The Forgotten Man,” the validation of citizens with nothing but grievances against their government; the encouragement of down-home gun-totin’ militance; the demonization of minorities, intellectuals and the “lies” of the news media.
Gary Scharnhorst is Distinguished Professor of English at the University of New Mexico. Coeditor of the journal American Literary Realism and editor every other year of the research annual American Literary Scholarship, he is the author or editor of eighteen books, most recently Bret Harte: Opening the American Literary West, selected by the Western Literature Association as the Outstanding Book in Western American Literary Criticism for 2000, and Mainly the Truth: Interviews with Mark Twain, 1871–1910.