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Reader’s Den

The Reader's Den: "It Can't Happen Here"


Summertime--the time of year when I get the yen to dip into some of the literature I've heard about over the years but had not gotten around to reading. Sinclair Lewis's works fall into that category and he's the writer I chose. Did I select Main Street, Babbitt, or Arrowsmith? No, It Can't Happen Here caught my fancy. And once I started it I was hooked.

It Can't Happen Here was written by Sinclair Lewis in 1935, five years after he became the first American to win the Nobel Prize in Literature. The Nobel Committee selected him for "his vigorous and graphic art of description and his ability to create, with wit and humour, new types of characters." And note what Lewis himself says in his acceptance speech: "in America most of us--not readers alone, but even writers--are still afraid of any literature which is not a glorification of everything American, a glorification of our faults as well as our virtues." This was another America... but his outrageous (yet somehow familiar) characters and scenarios can still make a reader squirm. There have been stage and screen versions of the work, and various editions over the decades. Though he's less read today, several terms and expressions from Lewis's works have entered the vernacular including Babbitt, Main Street, and "It can't happen here!" Many have described Lewis as satirist, a master of irony, and a superb mimic. I agree.

The plot: Berzelius "Buzz" Windrip runs for U.S. president as a Populist, and wins on the weight of his promise to restore prosperity and greatness to the country. His true colors are soon revealed as he turns the U.S. into a totalitarian state complete with concentration camps for his (many) enemies. Our hero, journalist Doremus Jessup, writes editorials against the state's abuse of power and suffers mightily for it. So, can it happen here? Read the book and tell us what you think.

It's widely available at NYPL, and you can also borrow it in e-audiobook format, to listen to on your computer or transfer to a portable device. Another e-book option: it's on Project Gutenberg Australia.

Tune in next week to get the discussion going--I look forward to talking to you about this book.


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