The success of It Can’t Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis as satire rests on the pillars by which any satire succeeds: firstly, that the events that are sketched through hyperbole have already happened in a more mild form and are thus identifiable even as the reader enjoys the novelty of the expression; and secondly, it is continually fresh as a satire because history keeps repeating itself. If there were real societal progress, if history stopped repeating itself, satire as an art form would be obsolete. I see parody or other forms of political humor as more timely (and thus more quickly dated) takeoffs of topical idiosyncrasies, whereas I envision satire as a more mature and robust genre often employing the creation of a sarcastic universe with its own symbolism—I see many satires as having varying degrees of dystopic elements. Parody differs from satire for me in that satire is more encompassing, more expansive. Satire also often offers a more vital dialogue/ intertextuality with the reality it is exploring, offering a greater depth of critique (and hence being more “literary”) than sheer parody. Parody almost always takes on a humorous aspect, whereas satire, in its range, can be quite dark and brutally scathing. It is free to incorporate (often coded) insults, scorn, and ridicule in addition to mockery.
It is significant, then, that Lewis tries to work within satire but also make his work larger than satire by introducing certain discomforts in his criticism of the Windrip administration and the America in which it is situated. In doing so, It Can’t Happen Here becomes larger than the sum of its parts as satirical novel, historical novel, treatise, and plot-driven novel about a certain cast of characters (i.e., the struggle of how Doremus Jessup reconciles personal freedom and literariness with an awareness of a need for social responsibility). The title of the book becomes the central phrase and paradox of each of the characters, until it becomes part of the inner monologue haunting the psyche of Doremus, Mary, Emma, Sissy, Buck, Karl Pascal, Shad, Windrip, Sarason and all of America (with “America” as a dysfunctional character by itself, demanding its five thousand to the point of neurosis) alike. Each character must investigate their own agency not only in the narrative realm or the world of interpersonal relations, but in the macrocosm of their political selves, learn how they are—or are not—their politics. Tension comes from the exploration of the discrepancies that may exist from the essential Self (not all of which is presented for all the characters) and the Political Self. Thus, Shad can get lonely. Sissy can be manipulative but also fearful. Doremus can be brave in doses but mostly wanting to be idealistic, so idealistic is he that he refuses to admit at times that his idealism could cause difficulties in establishing and following a socially conscious direction, so idealistic that he denies his need for action, can talk himself out of significance privately while defending his role as publisher publicly.
Each character has moments of dissonance between their selves that heightens their drama, that makes them more than caricatures or obvious stock figures playing oft-tread satirical notes (though Lewis also falls into the trap he aims to avoid, often using rough strokes as shorthand for character development—this is because his first priority remains hitting on all the plot points which he considers necessary to his satire). Emma is a classic doormat wife, and her paralysis at Doremus’ arrest is predictable as it typifies her character as given, but she is also given a moment of dissonance where they are on their way to Canada, having car problems, and, alone in the car, asks if she can help. This moment revealing her inner dissonance brings her chosen state of pathetic inertia into relief. Emma embodies the Easily Pleased American in all its minimal-energy complacency—she goes along to Canada and doesn’t criticize her husband’s beliefs and activities to be agreeable—, but she also has the Easily Pleased American’s flip side—again, Lewis resists easy generalizations, for that would be falling into the same heuristics of fascist politics—she has a desire to be Good, to be Helpful and Chipper, Keep a Stiff Upper Lip (and for no other sake than we Should, for crying causes wrinkles and life is a Theatre for which we should look good and ready to play our parts). While those desires are bad in that they come from a certain “unthinkingness” or thoughtlessness, a certain approach to life that advocates taking the easy way out and being patient, taking what is given you and being passive instead of having the creativity to imagine what could happen by being proactive, who are we, Lewis hints, to really criticize Emma? Couldn’t that desire to Be Good actually be harnessed to really Do Good, after all? While certainly not heroic or commendable, she’s not killing anyone or infringing on anyone’s rights. She is, foreshadowing the new paradigm of American political-consumer life, already doing the Supreme Good of Minding Her Own Business, which is seen to be enough even if she doesn’t choose to be more socially active. Is she damnable? If she is worth our condemnation, how do we condemn her and is there any hope in channeling her dissonance? Or is she like the general public of actual or aspiring Easily Pleased Americans, who Lewis seems to imply will go along with fascism if they are told enough times that it is a medicine that they need? Is Emma’s—and the American public’s—complacency dangerous, a permissive audience for the political theatre of fascism? Or do the dangerous roots of fascism lie elsewhere, perhaps in the political and economic systems themselves? Lewis seems to not determine any way of thinking for us, so we can believe there is an interaction of all these factors—ineffective government, corrupt economics, and apathetic public—synergistically combining to go beyond dysfunction into fascism.
Emma plays such a peripheral role in the book precisely because she is Every American—and, under a fascist government, Every American is told what they want, with their personal realities and freedoms being peripheral, easily manufactured and manipulated by the State. Under fascism, the idea of “the public,” or of “public opinion,” if allowed to exist at all, exists as an afterthought. Emma embodies some problems of democracy, the social contract, and the limits of freedom: while Emma’s/ the public’s inaction may be harming as many people as the MM’s, it is, in a pure-theoretical sense, her prerogative to exercise such inaction. She seems to be guided by a path-of-least-resistance/ live-and-let-live/ your-freedom-is-only-limited, your-swinging-arm-is-only-a-problem, -when-it-hits-my-nose- philosophy. Emma’s sphere is the home, which serves fascist interests; Lorinda Pike’s sphere is outside of the home and traditional gender roles, and in so doing, she becomes a revolutionary, or at least an Accessory to the Cause and thus dangerous. We are told in spots that Emma doesn’t seem to grasp the significance of Doremus’ work—or maybe she doesn’t want to –but we do not condemn her yet on that point alone; to draw attention to her every inaction would defeat her peripheral portrayal. Lewis gets critical of Emma only through Sissy’s thoughts of her (also hitting some interesting mother-daughter relationship issues and intergenerational conflict issues), when Sissy/ Lewis hates how Emma and Philip (who admits he takes after his Mater—334) wish she were more “domestic,” more traditionally oriented as the Corpos want (and adhering to the strict gender roles of fascism), and she thinks Philip (and, by extension, Emma) is “so damned kind to everybody!”—that is, so thoroughly repressive of their own thoughts that they don’t even know what they are thinking (335). It is not surprising that Emma goes to live with the “normal,” “sane,” “socialized,” conforming Philip—and so she is written out of the book, with a whimper.
Given the ease with which parody and satire can become so absolute, so one-sided, it is remarkable how even-handed Lewis tries to make his narrative. By incorporating certain ambiguities about the nature of his satire, Lewis goes beyond traditional satire here, thereby elevating the importance of his subject and the essential questions surrounding it. Lewis may have a satire here, but he hates determinism and uses Doremus as a vehicle to constant remind us how wrong it would be to make easy conclusions—in that way he is critiquing satire itself. To prevent his dramatis personae from becoming solely illustrations of certain elements of satire, thereby being deprived of being complex human beings and decision makers, they will, unlike most people in real life, seek out information and try to make sense of the world they are in. Even Shad can sense when he is getting a raw deal; Emma takes her due through her silence; all the characters have motivations we are allowed to glimpse, and in their dramatic dissonance, become richer than traditional satire would allow—that is one of the virtues of using the novel as a vehicle to exercise satire. If the characters were exclusively roughly drawn, the novel would fall into becoming the kind of political theatre it seems to be so vehemently against and it would become a period piece rather than carrying over its main concerns to today.
It is hard to affect change when the status quo is so profitable. It is hard to avoid going to extremes. Lewis seems to reject a Marxist view of history, espoused by Karl Pascal. Yet even Doremus acknowledges Karl’s potential to be persuasive even in his most bitter hours. Karl’s most brilliant speech reminds us that it can happen here—or anywhere, so long as capitalism remains:
[The Corpos mostly have] been misled by their leaders’ mouthing about Freedom, Order, Security, Discipline, Strength! All those swell words that even before Windrip came in the speculators started using to protect their profits! …I tell you, an honest man gets sick when he hears the word ‘Liberty’ today, after what the Republicans did to it! …they thought, the saps, when he [Windrip] said Security he meant Security! They’ll learn! (357)
Karl’s speech states the shocking truth that most people will sacrifice their “freedom” for the promise of economic stability, i.e., they will submit to any of the Fifteen Points, even the ones authorizing complete tyranny, so long as they are thrown a bone. Perhaps where Doremus gets irritated with Karl is that Doremus wavers on whether people actually will “learn” anything, unsure about pacifism and violence, whether control of resources or a free market is best for ensuring prosperity.
It should be noted that Doremus’/ Lewis’ critique about Communism/Socialism is not in terms of its economic feasibility, but in its implementation and social consciousness and consequences on individuals—or, as Doremus puts it, their “self-righteousness” (357). These systems are to be feared not simply or not only for any deficiencies in themselves, but when they become blind to their public and begin serving only an elite minority, or when they become so zealously in love with themselves that they fall into a mindless stagnation—or, as Doremus ponders, “Let ’em worship their sacred fonts—it was as good a game as any for the mentally retarded” (358). Doremus has to admit that though he reviles Karl’s emerging fanaticism, exacerbated by their imprisonment, he had a glimmer of hope in what he was saying about Communism: “That Karl Pascal should be turning into a zealot, like most of his chiefs in the Communist party, was grievous to Doremus because he had once simple-heartedly hoped that in the mass strength of Communism there might be an escape from cynical dictatorship” (358-9).
In contrast, even while praising personal freedom (and even at times half-questioning the effects of liberalism on cultural taste), various characters throughout the novel usually criticize the free-market capitalism that was responsible for bringing on the Depression and the mass discontent believed to provide the fertile ground for the flourishing of fascism. No reader should hold the illusion that because Socialism is insulted here that capitalism is the working alternative—Lewis makes that very clear. If he had merely intended to dismiss or berate Socialism, he would not have, to borrow from Father Prang, given it so much “air time.” In this way, Lewis foresaw the Cold War—an era of history in which the idea of Socialism had to be given its chance and reckoned with once and for all—where, if Russia and American superpowers could not see eye-to-eye, one would “have” to dominate (358). (And he may have seen the sad era afterward of hypercapitalism and increased strife being imposed as a world model.) Doremus wants us to understand the problematics in dividing the world into two systems and saying that one of those two must “win,” or have privilege over the other:
As a newspaper man, Doremus remembered that the only reporters who misrepresented and concealed facts more unscrupulously than the Capitalists were the Communists.
He was afraid that the world struggle today was not of Communism against Fascism, but of tolerance against the bigotry that was preached equally by Communism and Fascism. But he saw too that in America the struggle was befogged by the fact that the worst Fascists were they who disowned the word “Fascism” and preached enslavement to Capitalism under the style of Constitutional and Traditional Native American Liberty. For they were thieves not only of wages but of honor. To their purpose they could quote not only Scripture but Jefferson (358).
The book makes it clear that to conflate Communism and Fascism, to use them interchangeably, would be very wrong, would be uneducated, would be simply following the blind propaganda of the capitalists in power. Abused, both capitalism and Communism can lead to fascism, though, of course, we are biased to believe—in our America and the America of the novel—that only Communism brings on fascism (Doremus resists any “brand of tyranny” that should eventually try to overtake the lone Liberal—359). The conclusion we must extrapolate is that, while not fully endorsing any socio-economic system, the novel seems to be saying that Socialism has its merits—and would be more viable if it could greater incorporate and ensure the protection of certain customary personal liberties. Above all, we must think critically and not be swayed by political theatre. We can’t take any action until we stop saying to ourselves that “it can’t happen here.” Lewis is against any system—including Democracy—that cannot adapt. Rigidity underlies the many manifestations the stripping of freedom takes in fascism (increasing militarism, undercutting free speech, strict gender roles, etc). Whether due to profit or politics, our current capitalist-democracy can be just as rigid, have just as much inertia, can be just as sterile and inhuman and uncaring in the service of the status quo, as fascism: “…[T]he men of ritual and the men of barbarism are capable of shutting up the men of science and silencing them forever” (359). That’s why it can happen here.
One would imagine Doremus would have great sympathy with the scene in Jean Luc-Godard’s Tout Va B!en in the supermarket/ big box retailer where—oddly enough, as this would never happen in our country—there was a man from the French Communist Party selling some books about his party. Some students come over, take a copy of his book, pick out a sentence and ask the man to explain it. The man, caught off guard, doesn’t know how to react or what to say and asks the young man to come to his office. One of the young women tells him that they will not stand for his not explaining his politics and selling it “like vegetables.” Doremus too would resist such a commodification of beliefs. The market roars on in its monotony, its taking in of people and cash and pushing out of products.
Or so it would seem. A spree of stealing erupts.
Is anarchy possible or workable or is it another caricature, another product, in the world of political theatre?