Archive for the ‘Sinclair Lewis’ Category

it-cant-happen-here-sinclair-lewis-1935

Not my copy, which is one of the blandly dark blue Collier “Nobel Prize” uniform editions. This is the first edition dust jacket.

It Can’t Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis ~ 1935. This edition: Collier, circa 1938. Hardcover. 458 pages.

My rating: Pretty well have to award a 10/10 for timeliness, but for readability I’m afraid I am stuck fast at 6/10.

It’s well on the “okay” side of the personal rating chart, but that’s all I can honestly give it, when comparing it to some of the writer’s equally thought-provoking but rather more smoothly written A-List books. (Main Street et al.)

I know the Press only too well. Almost all editors hide away in spider-dens, men without thought of Family or Public Interest or the humble delights of jaunts out-of-doors, plotting how they can put over their lies, and advance their own positions and fill their greedy pocketbooks by calumniating Statesmen who have given their all for the common good and who are vulnerable because they stand out in the fierce Light that beats around the Throne.

Zero Hour, Berzelius Windrip.

It Can’t Happen Here is a sardonic alternative history of the United States falling under its own brand of fascist leadership, after the defeat of Franklin Delano Roosevelt by the ravingly populist Berzilius “Buzz” Windrip. (The oft-quoted Zero Hour is Windrip’s own Mein Kampf.)

The novel is chilling in its prescient description of mass rallies and grassroots hysteria, and the comfortable conviction of the optimistic liberals that, well, “it can’t happen here.”

Written as Hitler and Mussolini blazed to their vicious power, the parallels are unhappily contemporary when considering the strange rise of a certain American wanna-be politician. (The world laughed at Hitler, too. At first.)

I’d been saving this one for the elusive “right time”, and what better timing than during this current and deeply disturbing power struggle between political factions in the U.S.A.?

Any of these political platform points sound just a tiny bit familiar?

During the very first week of his campaign, Senator Windrip clarified his philosophy by issuing his distinguished proclamation: “The Fifteen Points of Victory for the Forgotten Men.” The fifteen planks, in his own words (or maybe in Lee Sarason’s words, or Dewey Haik’s words), were these:

(1) All finance in the country, including banking, insurance, stocks and bonds and mortgages, shall be under the absolute control of a Federal Central Bank, owned by the government and conducted by a Board appointed by the President, which Board shall, without need of recourse to Congress for legislative authorization, be empowered to make all regulations governing finance. Thereafter, as soon as may be practicable, this said Board shall consider the nationalization and government-ownership, for the Profit of the Whole People, of all mines, oilfields, water power, public utilities, transportation, and communication.

(2) The President shall appoint a commission, equally divided between manual workers, employers, and representatives of the Public, to determine which Labor Unions are qualified to represent the Workers; and report to the Executive, for legal action, all pretended labor organizations, whether “Company Unions,” or “Red Unions,” controlled by Communists and the so-called “Third International.” The duly recognized Unions shall be constituted Bureaus of the Government, with power of decision in all labor disputes. Later, the same investigation and official recognition shall be extended to farm organizations. In this elevation of the position of the Worker, it shall be emphasized that the League of Forgotten Men is the chief bulwark against the menace of destructive and un-American Radicalism.

(3) In contradistinction to the doctrines of Red Radicals, with their felonious expropriation of the arduously acquired possessions which insure to aged persons their security, this League and Party will guarantee Private Initiative and the Right to Private Property for all time.

(4) Believing that only under God Almighty, to Whom we render all homage, do we Americans hold our vast Power, we shall guarantee to all persons absolute freedom of religious worship, provided, however, that no atheist, agnostic, believer in Black Magic, nor any Jew who shall refuse to swear allegiance to the New Testament, nor any person of any faith who refuses to take the Pledge to the Flag, shall be permitted to hold any public office or to practice as a teacher, professor, lawyer, judge, or as a physician, except in the category of Obstetrics.

(5) Annual net income per person shall be limited to $500,000. No accumulated fortune may at any one time exceed $3,000,000 per person. No one person shall, during his entire lifetime, be permitted to retain an inheritance or various inheritances in total exceeding $2,000,000. All incomes or estates in excess of the sums named shall be seized by the Federal Government for use in Relief and in Administrative expenses.

(6) Profit shall be taken out of War by seizing all dividends over and above 6 per cent that shall be received from the manufacture, distribution, or sale, during Wartime, of all arms, munitions, aircraft, ships, tanks, and all other things directly applicable to warfare, as well as from food, textiles, and all other supplies furnished to the American or to any allied army.

(7) Our armaments and the size of our military and naval establishments shall be consistently enlarged until they shall equal, but–since this country has no desire for foreign conquest of any kind–not surpass, in every branch of the forces of defense, the martial strength of any other single country or empire in the world. Upon inauguration, this League and Party shall make this its first obligation, together with the issuance of a firm proclamation to all nations of the world that our armed forces are to be maintained solely for the purpose of insuring world peace and amity.

(8) Congress shall have the sole right to issue money and immediately upon our inauguration it shall at least double the present supply of money, in order to facilitate the fluidity of credit.

(9) We cannot too strongly condemn the un-Christian attitude of certain otherwise progressive nations in their discriminations against the Jews, who have been among the strongest supporters of the League, and who will continue to prosper and to be recognized as fully Americanized, though only so long as they continue to support our ideals.

(10) All Negroes shall be prohibited from voting, holding public office, practicing law, medicine, or teaching in any class above the grade of grammar school, and they shall be taxed 100 per cent of all sums in excess of $10,000 per family per year which they may earn or in any other manner receive. In order, however, to give the most sympathetic aid possible to all Negroes who comprehend their proper and valuable place in society, all such colored persons, male or female, as can prove that they have devoted not less than forty-five years to such suitable tasks as domestic service, agricultural labor, and common labor in industries, shall at the age of sixty-five be permitted to appear before a special Board, composed entirely of white persons, and upon proof that while employed they have never been idle except through sickness, they shall be recommended for pensions not to exceed the sum of $500.00 per person per year, nor to exceed $700.00 per family. Negroes shall, by definition, be persons with at least one sixteenth colored blood.

(11) Far from opposing such high-minded and economically sound methods of the relief of poverty, unemployment, and old age as the EPIC plan of the Hon. Upton Sinclair, the “Share the Wealth” and “Every Man a King” proposals of the late Hon. Huey Long to assure every family $5000 a year, the Townsend plan, the Utopian plan, Technocracy, and all competent schemes of unemployment insurance, a Commission shall immediately be appointed by the New Administration to study, reconcile, and recommend for immediate adoption the best features in these several plans for Social Security, and the Hon. Messrs. Sinclair, Townsend, Eugene Reed, and Howard Scott are herewith invited to in every way advise and collaborate with that Commission.

(12) All women now employed shall, as rapidly as possible, except in such peculiarly feminine spheres of activity as nursing and beauty parlors, be assisted to return to their incomparably sacred duties as home-makers and as mothers of strong, honorable future Citizens of the Commonwealth.

(13) Any person advocating Communism, Socialism, or Anarchism, advocating refusal to enlist in case of war, or advocating alliance with Russia in any war whatsoever, shall be subject to trial for high treason, with a minimum penalty of twenty years at hard labor in prison, and a maximum of death on the gallows, or other form of execution which the judges may find convenient.

(14) All bonuses promised to former soldiers of any war in which America has ever engaged shall be immediately paid in full, in cash, and in all cases of veterans with incomes of less than $5,000.00 a year, the formerly promised sums shall be doubled.

(15) Congress shall, immediately upon our inauguration, initiate amendments to the Constitution providing (a), that the President shall have the authority to institute and execute all necessary measures for the conduct of the government during this critical epoch; (b), that Congress shall serve only in an advisory capacity, calling to the attention of the President and his aides and Cabinet any needed legislation, but not acting upon same until authorized by the President so to act; and (c), that the Supreme Court shall immediately have removed from its jurisdiction the power to negate, by ruling them to be unconstitutional or by any other judicial action, any or all acts of the President, his duly appointed aides, or Congress.

Sinclair Lewis injects more than a little dark humour into his dystopian fable, and though I appreciated the frequent deliberate ridiculousness of the political rhetoric, it’s not really an amusing read, with our hindsight of the excesses of the Gestapo and the Final Solution, and our fresh and raw here-in-2016 imagery of ranting American rallyers advocating a “return to greatness” which seems to be mostly about kicking others in the teeth.

Current affairs aside, It Can’t Happen Here is a tougher read than many of Lewis’ earlier novels; he pontificates an awful lot, and the individuals of his vivid cast of characters are parodies from start to finish, although always relatable in their human flaws and frailties, and in their sometimes dark desires.

It shouldn’t happen here, but it could, and therein lies the strangely compelling appeal of this vintage work of “what if?” fiction.

Reviews abound, many of them very recent. A casual internet search will net you more than you can comfortably peruse, and I couldn’t decide on which ones to link, so I’ll leave a further investigation (if any) up to you.

Vote carefully, my American neighbours.

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main street sinclair lewisMain Street by Sinclair Lewis ~ 1920. This edition: Penguin, 1991. Afterword by Mark Schorer. Softcover. ISBN: 0-14-018124-5. 432 pages.

My rating: 8/10

This is decidedly one of those books which deserves sober consideration and scholarly discussion. Luckily it has been so treated by so many people that I can justify this very casual review of it by referring anyone eager to delve deeper to the many other discussions which abound in print and online.

I had read Main Street several times before, though not very recently, so was wondering if my impressions would change this time around. And the answer to my musings was no, not at all. I still feel exactly the same about Carol Kennicott’s emotional journey, even though I am now at the far end of the arc myself in regards to age and situation in relation to Carol, compared to our shared optimistic youth the first time I made her acquaintance.

Carol Milford, college girl, strides eagerly forward into her future. Anything might happen, and the world is full of potentially wonderful things – art, literature, poetry, travel!

Contemplating but reluctant to commit to a career as a teacher, Carol ends up spending a year in Chicago hobnobbing with the local bohemians, then moves on to a position as a librarian in St. Paul, Minnesota, with her lofty ideals slightly rattled though not at all dulled. She meets Dr. Will Kennicott, some years older than herself, rising young physician in the (fictional) prairie town of Gopher Prairie, and is wooed both by handsome Will’s physical appeal and by his readiness to bow down before Carol’s intellectual superiority.

Come to Gopher Prairie, pleads Will. Show us how to bring culture into our lives. You could do such good…

Already rather jaded by the workaday routines of her not-very-exciting job, Carol allows herself to be romanced, and off she goes to Gopher Prairie, as Mrs. Doctor Kennicott, full of ideas and ideals.

Gopher Prairie raises a collective eyebrow at Carol and her effervescent cultural improvement projects, and sturdily attempts to put her in her place, an enterprise which takes some years but which is eventually mostly successful.

I found Main Street to be rather slow going this time round, and I found myself putting it down for a day or two here and there and turning to other diversions. But I always returned, and towards the end of the extended read, I found myself wondering if the long, slow tone were in fact a deliberate attempt by Sinclair Lewis to demonstrate the long, slow taking down of Carol Kennicott from her uppity ideals to a state of intellectual dullness acceptable to her fellow Gopher Prairie-ites.

Carol Kennicott is very much a woman written by a man, and though Sinclair Lewis did a stellar job in putting himself in his character’s shoes, there are authorial lapses here and there, as Lewis conveniently skips over the time around Carol’s pregnancy and new motherhood with a few (admittedly apt) paragraphs:

The baby was coming. Each morning she was nauseated, chilly, bedraggled, and certain that she would never again be attractive; each twilight she was afraid. She did not feel exalted, but unkempt and furious. The period of daily sickness crawled into an endless time of boredom. It became difficult for her to move about, and she raged that she, who had been slim and light-footed, should have to lean on a stick, and be heartily commented upon by street gossips. She was encircled by greasy eyes. Every matron hinted, “Now that you’re going to be a mother, dearie, you’ll get over all these ideas of yours and settle down.” She felt that willy-nilly she was being initiated into the assembly of housekeepers; with the baby for hostage, she would never escape; presently she would be drinking coffee and rocking and talking about diapers.

… She alternately detested herself for not appreciating the kindly women, and detested them for their advice: lugubrious hints as to how much she would suffer in labor, details of baby-hygiene based on long experience and total misunderstanding, superstitious cautions about the things she must eat and read and look at in prenatal care for the baby’s soul, and always a pest of simpering baby-talk. Mrs. Champ Perry bustled in to lend “Ben Hur,” as a preventive of future infant immorality. The Widow Bogart appeared trailing pinkish exclamations, “And how is our lovely ‘ittle muzzy today! My, ain’t it just like they always say: being in a Family Way does make the girlie so lovely, just like a Madonna. Tell me—” Her whisper was tinged with salaciousness—”does oo feel the dear itsy one stirring, the pledge of love? I remember with Cy, of course he was so big——”

… Then the baby was born, without unusual difficulty: a boy with straight back and strong legs. The first day she hated him for the tides of pain and hopeless fear he had caused; she resented his raw ugliness. After that she loved him with all the devotion and instinct at which she had scoffed… For two years nothing else existed…

The baby grows, life steadily grinds on. Carol loses one of her best friends – her ex-maid Bea – to typhoid, and finds her neighbours casually dismissive of her emotional pain. Will strays into a casual relationship with a neighbour’s wife, though Carol is unaware of it; she herself goes through a period of infatuation with a beautiful younger man, a Swedish farm boy with high aspirations working as a tailor’s apprentice. Gopher Prairie sees all, and files it all away for future reference. The Great War creates a few ripples; Carol eventually uses it as an excuse to break away with Hugh and take on a job in Washington, DC, while Will remains in Gopher Prairie.

main street 1st edition sinclair lewisIs the Kennicott marriage dissolving? Is Carol on the path at last that she was forced off of so many years ago? Apparently not, as her return to Gopher Prairie in a sleet storm with her husband at her side brings her full circle, back again to the place she could not change, and which has done its stolid best to change her into the acceptable pattern of a Gopher Prairie matron.

We end with Carol looking to her child – sorry, children – she does pop out another baby right at the very end of the saga, this one too without much obvious effort or appreciable comment by Lewis – with speculative eyes. Surely he/she will go out into the world and bring about the change which Carol herself has so far been unable to pull off…

For all of its hype as one of the Great American Novels – so often a foreboding designation of excessive earnestness – Main Street is a very readable thing, cynically amusing and cleverly analytical in its satire of Every Town, U.S.A. And though Carol fails to fully engage me as a relatable heroine – she never becomes quite real, for she is as terminally misguided as the rest of the Gopher Prairie characters and as stereotyped in her way as they are – her struggles are thought provoking and her situations cleverly staged.

What does Carol really want? We never do find that out, for she doesn’t know herself, and that is perhaps the most real and relatable thing about Main Street.

This remains to me a book not so much about the mythical Carol Kennicott as it is about the real man Sinclair Lewis, based as it is on his own experiences of growing up in Sauk Center, Minnesota. Discussing Lewis this morning with my husband, we both agreed that cynically enjoyable though his writings are, there is a certain spirit of – well – meanness showing through, as though Lewis never really got over some slight of his early days, and is always hitting back at the place he came from. Escaped from, is the implication. (In our joint opinion, anyway.) Too much of that kind of thing rather gets the reader down; I’ll be taking a breather before going on to another of Sinclair Lewis’s eminently readable but slightly depressing tomes.

And there I will leave you. A worthwhile read for its detailed portrait of a time and (generic) place; a fascinating piece of Americana.

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