Sinclair Lewis wrote a book in the 1930s and when I tell you that it will, at some points, have you shooketh even in this here 2018, well…don’t take my word for it. Just read the book. First of all, Lewis was a white man in the 1930s, and I tend to have exceedingly low expectations for such. For every FDR, there were 10 Klan hooligans who terrorized Black folks by night and led their normal, lackluster ass white lives by day. For every William Lewis Moore, there were many Doremus Jessups, who, in addition to being the main character of It Can’t Happen Here, represents the every-man of America who has some benevolent beliefs but lacks any dog in the race that would push him towards action. So yea, when I picture the average 1930s white man, it’s not someone that I would ever want to meet—and shit, to be honest, most of them would probably rather kill my ass than have to eat at the same table as me.
But Lewis is something else. He wrote a book about the rise of a fascist dictator in America and he imbued it with so much realness that it truly transcends its era. Let me make it clear right now. Lewis is not a genius writer. His language is language and his characters are…characters. This book isn’t “deep” because it presents the labor of a naturally gifted writer and linguist. This book is prescient because it conveys an understanding of humanity, if we still are trying to claim that this word has meaning, and gets at the truth of folks hearts and minds that is often missed by many writers. What’s more, whereas some writers like Upton Sinclair (Lewis throws a bit of literary shade his way in this book, and I, as a book worm, was here for every bit of it) write a book about ideas under the shroud of some thing characters and plot, Lewis writes a book about possibilities that draws on the ideas and inevitabilities of human failings but also brings alive some characters whom we can recognize as part of us and our neighbors.
How could a fascist dictator rise to power in the Land of the Free and Home of the Brave? Well, according to Lewis,
“The tyranny of this dictatorship isn’t primarily the fault of Big Business, nor of the demagogues who do their dirty work. It’s the fault of Doremus Jessup! Of all the conscientious, respectable, lazy-minded Doremus Jessups who have let the demagogues wriggle in, without fierce enough protest.
It’s my sort, the Responsible Citizens who’ve felt ourselves uperior because we’ve been well-to-do and what we thought was ‘educated,’ who brought on the Civil War, the French Revolution, and not the Facist Dictatorship…It’s I who persecuted the Jews and the Negroes.”
Damn skippy. Yes, yes, and more yes. Look around you now. Think about what we saw out of America during the presidency of Barack Obama, the first Black president. Think about what we saw out of white America during the campaign in 2016. Think about what we see on our Facebook and Twitter feeds everyday, bringing the actions of folks who would claim to be “good people” to light. I picked this book up off the shelf in a sojourn through the library without having ever heard of it before, and I am damn glad I did because I recognize so much of Lewis’ world in modern America.
Another line in the book grabbed my spirit and let me know that Lewis was not your average white man. When discussing the campaign of the soon to be dictator, Lewis writes how his promise to reduce the wealth and upward mobility of Black folks, stating, “nothing so elevates a dispossessed farmer or a factory worker on relief as to have some race, and race, on which he can look down.” Lewis understood what current Democratic party leadership cannot—that “Middle America” ain’t gone never be happy with jobs because it ain’t the jobs that’s the problem. Enter Donald Trump.