Lewis, Sinclair: It Can't Happen Here
(researched by Jess Miller)

Assignment 1: Bibliographical Description

1 First edition publication information (publisher, place, date, etc.)

Sinclair Lewis. It Can't Happen Here. New York: Doubleday, Doran & Company, 1935.

Copyright: Sinclair Lewis

2 First edition published in cloth, paper, or both? If both, simultaneous or staggered?

First American edition in trade cloth binding

3 JPEG image of cover art from first edition, if available

4 Pagination

232 leaves, pp. [6] [1] 2-458

5 Edited or Introduced? If so, by whom?

Neither edited nor introduced, with the exception of advertisements for other works of Sinclair Lewis published by Doubleday, Doran & Company on the back of first leaf, adjacent to title page (2nd unnumbered page).

6 Illustrated? If so, by whom?

Not illustrated

7 JPEG image of sample illustration, if available

8 General physical appearance of book (Is the physical presentation of the text attractive? Is the typography readable? Is the book well printed?)

Text is large and readable. Book is relatively thick, but capable of being held in one hand. Page size is 145mm x 199mm; text size is 97mm x 139mm (excluding page numbers and headers). Bottom margin (41mm) is much larger than top margin (19mm). Font is 85R serif. Chapter headings are in Arabic numerals, surrounded on top and bottom by symmetrical parallel lines measuring 64mm and 94mm. Chapter headings on pp. [1], 15, 24, 33, 43, 55, 61, 74, 84, 94, 101, 109, 124, 142, 156, 170, 180, 196, 218, 237, 253, 260, 271, 284, 292, 309, 325, 332, 342, 353, 372, 389, 395, 402, 410, 429, 440, 451. On pages with chapter headings (excluding page [1]) page number found on bottom directly below text and in slightly smaller font size. On pp. 2-458 (excluding chapter pages) page number found on top, outer-most corner above text and in same font size; pp. 2-458 (excluding chapter pages) also contain heading “IT CAN’T HAPPEN HERE”.

9 JPEG image of sample chapter page, if available

10 Paper (Assess the original quality of the paper used for the book. Is the paper in the copy or copies you examined holding up physically over time?)

Paper is wove, white and smooth. Top and bottom edges are smooth; side has deckle edge. Some slight, even discoloration throughout. No obvious staining or significant deterioration.

11 Description of binding(s)

Binding is black cloth. Endpapers are slightly waxy. No illustrations on endpapers. Some even discoloration on endpapers. Front cover binding is embossed with design of hatchet (?) and branches similar to one seen on dust jacket front cover.

Spine has horizontally-aligned gold serif text reading: "IT CAN'T/HAPPEN/HERE/SINCLAIR/LEWIS/DOUBLEDAY/DORAN".

12 Transcription of title page

Recto: IT/CAN’T HAPPEN HERE/A Novel/By/SINCLAIR LEWIS/[Illustrated Doubleday, Doran & Company Logo; artist uncredited]/1935/DOUBLEDAY, DORAN & COMPANY, INC./GARDEN CITY, NEW YORK


13 JPEG image of title page, if available

14 Manuscript Holdings

Manuscript held at Yale University Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library

15 Other (typograpical information from title page, etc.)

Dust Jacket in gray paper, with some tearing on top and bottom; inside flaps are white.

Front cover of dust jacket: WHAT WILL HAPPEN WHEN/AMERICA HAS A DICTATOR?/[bears colored illustration of hatchet (?) and branches {artist unknown} behind text]/IT CAN’T/HAPPEN/HERE/A Novel by/SINCLAIR LEWIS

Spine of dust jacket: IT CAN’T/HAPPEN/HERE/A Novel by/SINCLAIR LEWIS/[same illustration as front]/DOUBLEDAY/DORAN

Back of dust jacket: What SINCLAIR LEWIS[red] had to say/about Small Towns in/MAIN STREET[red]/About Business Men in/BABBITT[red]/About Science in/ARROWSMITH[red]/About Wives in/DODSWORTH[red]/he has at last said about American/Politics and a world bound for war in this/story of Doremus Jessup, American, in/IT CAN’T HAPPEN [red]/HERE[red]

Front dust jacket flap contains price of $2.50 as well as a short blurb in black serif text. Top and bottom corners of front flap have been cut slightly, but no information appears to have been obscured or excised.

Back dust jacket flap contains a list of other books by Sinclair Lewis and published by Doubleday, Doran and Company, all with prices of $2.50; as well as “The Nobel Prize Edition" published by Harcourt Brace. This list includes other Sinclair Lewis books and plays, all priced at $2.50. Top and bottom corners of back flap have been cut slightly, but no information appears to have been obscured or excised.

First page of first leaf bears sticker with the words “Hic Fructus Virtutis” in black font, below it a family crest, and below that the name “Clifton Waller Barrett” in black font. Back cover bears sticker with the name “BARRETT” in black font, and in pencil “Deposit/P5/3523/.E94I79/1935/Copy 2”.

Front of first leaf reads “IT CAN’T HAPPEN HERE”. Back of first leaf (adjacent to cover page) contains list of other books and plays by Sinclair Lewis.

Front of third leaf reads “IT CAN’T HAPPEN HERE”. Back of third leaf empty.

(All photographs taken with permission of University of Virginia Small Special Collections Library)

Assignment 2: Publication and Performance History

1 Did the original publisher issue the book in more than one edition? If so, briefly describe distinguishing features of each (illustrations, cover art, typography, etc.); if not, enter N/A

The original publisher, Doubleday, Doran & Co., published at least five editions of the novel between its release in 1935 and the end of 1936. However, there seem to be no significant changes in the binding, pagination, or physical appearance of these subsequent editions aside from the different year of publication, and the inclusion of the words “5th Edition” in the front flap of the dust jacket of that edition (see supplementary materials; Source: AbeBooks.com). 

2 JPEG image of cover art from one subsequent edition, if available

3 JPEG image of sample illustration from one subsequent edition, if available

4 How many printings or impressions of the first edition?

Research produced no information about the number of printings or impressions of the first edition. Interestingly, the editions published in 1935 by Doubleday, Doran & Co. (considered the first American edition), P.F. Collier, and Sun Dial Press (in fact a subsidiary of Doubleday, Doran & Co. created to produce cheaper versions of popular books), appear to have the same pagination, and in the case of the latter, the same binding and dust cover, with the exception of a different publishers’ emblem on the spine and title page of the book (Source: AbeBooks.com, Book Publishing in America). 

5 Editions from other publishers? If so, list their dates and publishers; if not, enter N/A

After the first edition in 1935, other English editions were published by several groups, including: London: Cape, 1935; New York: P.F. Collier, 1935; New York: Sun Dial Press, 1935; New York: Triangle, 1939; New York: Dell, 1961; New York: Laurel, 1961; New York: Penguin, 1963; London: Mayflower, 1965; New York: Signet, 1970; Toronto: New American Library of Canada, 1970; Norwalk, CT: Easton Press, 1991 (Collector’s Edition); and MA: Center Point, 2007 (Large Print Edition) (Source: WorldCat.org, Hathi Trust).

6 Last date in print?

As of February 2018, It Can't Happen Here is still in print (Source: Amazon).

7 Total copies sold? (source and date of information?)

In the 1961 biography, Sinclair Lewis: An American Life, author Mark Schorer states that It Can’t Happen Here sold 94,000 copies in “trade sales” and 320,000 copies in total (as of 1961). There was a reported surge in sales of the novel following the 2016 election of President Donald Trump; however exact figures for these sales are unknown.

8 Sales figures by year? (source and date of information?)

According to Stephen R. Pastore’s Sinclair Lewis: A Descriptive Bibliography (1997), 20,000 copies of the first edition from Doubleday, Doran & Co. were sold. The novel first appeared on the Publisher’s Weekly bestseller list in the November 2, 1935 issue (vol. 128 no. 18, p. 1679), reaching the number one spot in the November 16, 1935 issue (vol. 128 no. 20, p. 1837). In the December 28, 1935 issue of PW (vol. 128 no. 26, p. 2328), it was reported that “70,000 copies have been sold.” And in the February 22, 1936 issue (vol. 129 no. 8, p. 908), “D.D. tells us it’s selling 2,000 a week.” (which, if consistent throughout the year, would put annual sales of the book in 1936 alone at 104,000). According to Keith Justice's Bestseller Index, the book spent 32 weeks, 8 alone in the number one position, on the Publisher's Weekly bestseller list, as well as 12 weeks, 8 in the number one position, on the New York Times bestseller list. The novel was listed as the Publisher’s Weekly Number 5 Bestseller in the United States for the year 1936 (criteria for inclusion on the list are unknown), as well as in the number 5 spot on the list of bestsellers for the year 1936 in Alice Hackett's 80 Years of Best Sellers. According to John Tebbel's A History of Book Publishing in the United States, following a controversy in 1936 surrounding the cancellation of production on the MGM film version of It Can't Happen Here, "the book itself...jumped in sales from 3,000 to 6,000 a week."

9 Advertising copy (transcribe significant excerpts, briefly identify where ads were placed)

Given that, in 1935, Sinclair Lewis was already established as a prolific author at the height of his career, It Can’t Happen Here was announced to great acclaim. An ad appears on the cover of the October 5, 1935 issue of Publisher’s Weekly (vol. 128 no. 14, p. 1239), almost three weeks before the books release on October 21 of that year, that reads:

“HERE’S/THE BOOK!/464 startling, breath-/taking pages of Sin-/clair Lewis at his inim-/itable best. A hand-/some, oversize book,/bound in black natur-/al-finish cloth, stamp-/ed in gold. Smashing/wrapper in red, green/and black against a/striking silver back-/ground./   ‘AAA—One of the/season’s big shots, of/course—The book’ll/be a sensation,’ writes/DONALD GORDON/in The American/News of Books./[illustration of hand pointing] IT WILL NOT/BE SERIALIZED!/October 21st—$2.50/DOUBLEDAY, DORAN”.

The ad also boasts a large black and white photograph of the novel itself in a three-quarter profile view (such that both the cover and spine are visible).


In addition to this early advertisement, the October 26, 1935 issue of Publisher’s Weekly (vol. 128 no. 17, p. 1561) bears a small advertisement for the upcoming (later cancelled) film version of It Can’t Happen Here from MGM. And the issue of November 2, 1935 (vol. 128 no. 18, pp. 1644-45) contains a full two-page spread advertisement for the book, proclaiming “IT CAN’T HAPPEN HERE/is taking America by storm!” The ad comprises mostly reviews from critics from publications across the country including The New Yorker, N.Y. Times, The Saturday Review, Chicago Tribune, Boston Herald, and Los Angeles Times (see supplementary materials).

10 JPEG image of sample advertisement, if available

11 Other promotion

After production on the film version of the book was cancelled, Lewis spoke out against the Production Code Administration, accusing them of halting production for fear of angering foreign governments, specifically the then-facist governments of Germany and Italy. In the 1936 New Yorker article “Lewis Says Hays Bans Film of Book,” Lewis is quoted as saying “Are we…to be delivered over to a film industry whose every step must be governed by whether or not the film will please or displease some foreign power? …Democracy is certainly on the defensive when two European dictators, without opening their mouths or knowing anything about the issue, can shut down an American film.” In the afterword of the 2014 Signet Classics edition of It Can’t Happen Here, author Gary Scharnhorst describes that the Authors’ League of America supported Lewis’s attack, the German film association described the author as “a full-blooded Communist.” In response to the scandal, Lewis's publisher, Doubleday, Doran & Co. took out an ad in the New York Times arguing "It is happening here," according to John Tebbel's A History of Book Publishing in the United States. Aside from this scandal, though (as well as the various performances in other media), no other promotion—official or otherwise—seems to have occurred.

12 Performances in other media? If so, list media, date, title, production information; if not, enter N/A

Theatre: Sponsored by the Federal Theatre Project, a stage adaptation of It Can’t Happen Here was written in 1936 by Sinclair Lewis and John C. Moffitt. It premiered on October 27, 1936 in 21 theatres across 18 cities—this included a production in Yiddish, a Spanish production in Tampa, and an all-African-American production in Seattle. The main production premiered at the Adelphi Theatre in New York, was performed ninety-five times in the weeks after its opening, and was seen by over 100,000 people. A revised version of the script was published in 1938. And beginning on August 22, 1938, Lewis himself performed the role of Doremus Jessup in a summer stock production in Cohasset, Massachusetts, and spent the next years of his career as an actor, director, and producer. The play is still produced today, including in 2011, when it was shown in 20 theaters across the United States to mark the seventy-fifth anniversary of its original premier. Most recently, in September 2016, capitalizing on the buzz surrounding the U.S. presidential election and the relevance of the themes of It Can’t Happen Here, a new adaptation—different from the 1936 script by Lewis and Moffitt—by Tony Taccone and Bennet S. Cohen premiered at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre (Source: The New Yorker, Afterword of Signet Classics 2014 edition of It Can't Happen Here).

Film: In late 1935, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer reportedly paid $200,000 for the film rights to the novel (an ad in the Oct. 26, 1935 [vol. 128 no. 17, p. 1561] issue of Publisher’s Weekly promoted the film), and by early 1936, screenwriter Sidney Howard had completed an adaptation. Director J. Walter Rubin, as well as actors Lionel Barrymore, Walter Connolly, and Virginia Bruce became attached to the project; however, production was plagued by postponements and financial issues, and the movie was eventually scrapped in 1936 (Source: Afterword of Signet Classics 2014 edition of It Can't Happen Here). 

Television: The 1968 made-for-TV movie, Shadow of the Land was based loosely on It Can’t Happen Here. The novel also served as the inspiration for a miniseries titled Storm Warnings, written by Kenneth Johnson in 1982 and proposed to NBC. The series was never produced; however, Johnson later revised the script replacing the original facist figures with man-eating aliens. This new storyline served as the basis for the miniseries V, which premiered on May 3, 1983 (Source: Wikipedia).

13 Translations? If translated, give standard bibliographic information for each translation. If none, enter N/A

There were several international translations published, including editions in German (Das ist bei uns nicht möglich: Roman. Amsterdam: Querido, 1936.); French (Impossible ici. Paris: Gallimard, 1937 [translated by Raymond Queneau].); Spanish (Eso no puede pasar aquí!. Publisher unknown, ~1960.); Russian (U nas ėto nevozmozhno. Moskva: Pravda, 1965.); Slovenian (To se pri nas ne more zgoditi. Ljubljana: Cankarjeva Založba, 1978.); and Portuguese (Isso não pode acontecer aqui. Alfragide, Portugal: Dom Quixote, 2017 [translated by José Roberto].) (Source: WorldCat.org).

14 Serialization? If serialized, give standard bibliographic information for serial publication. If none, enter N/A

Serialized without abridgement in The New York Post, Summer, 1936 (Source: Afterword of Signet Classics 2014 edition of It Can't Happen Here).

15 Sequels/Prequels? Give standard bibliographic information for each. If none, enter N/A

Lewis never wrote any direct sequels or prequels to It Can’t Happen Here, nor does it appear that there were any written by other authors. His last novels before It Can’t Happen Here were Work of Art, published in 1934, and Ann Vickers in 1933. Lewis did not write another novel after It Can’t Happen Here until 1938’s The Prodigal Parents, followed by Bethel Merriday in 1940, and Gideon Planish in 1943 (Source: Sinclair Lewis, a Descriptive Bibliography).

Assignment 3: Biographical Sketch of the Author

1 Paste your biographical sketch here (maximum 500 words)

In 1935, when It Can’t Happen Here was published, Sinclair Lewis’s career as a bestselling author was in its second decade. He had achieved huge success, along with a Nobel Prize for Literature, for books like Main Street (1920) and Babbitt (1922) which condemned the “mediocrity, materialism, corruption, and hypocrisy of middle class life in the United States” (Meyer v). The Great Depression, however, essentially destroyed this middle class Lewis was so fond of—and so adept at—satirizing. In light of the rise of fascism in Europe, as well as the growing influence of political demagogues on both sides of the aisle in the United States, Lewis turned to politics for the subject of It Can’t Happen Here.

Lewis was no stranger to the details of the situation in Europe; particularly Germany. His second wife, Dorothy Thompson, working as a foreign correspondent in Berlin, had interviewed Adolf Hitler in 1931, and wrote a series of cautionary articles in the United States between 1931-35. Lewis himself began writing the novel in May of 1935, finishing his first draft in July, and a final version in August of that year. The book was published on October 21, 1935.

Yet for as radically political a novel It Can’t Happen Here appears, a friend of Lewis’s once said of the author “it would be a mistake to attribute to Sinclair Lewis any kind of sustained political conviction” (Scharnhorst 384). Even his wife, Thompson, described him as “basically apolitical” (Scharnhorst 384). He was a Liberal, a supporter of the New Deal and, like most Americans in the mid-1930’s, was concerned by the threat of fascism in the United States. Lewis’s intentions for the novel were made clear in a statement from a New York Times article from February of 1936, following the cancellation of production on a movie version of the book—a cancellation which Lewis attributed to the close relationships between Hollywood and some then-fascist European countries. Lewis is quoted as saying, “it [the novel] is propaganda for only one thing: American Democracy” (“Lewis Says Hays Bans Film of Book”). But, lest Lewis be remembered as a political manipulator or ideologue, heed his own words from his final press interview, in 1949, when the author stated firmly that he was “a diagnostician, not a reformer” (Scharnhorst 386).

Following the immediate success of the novel, and the failure of the film adaptation, a stage version of It Can’t Happen Here was commissioned by the Federal Theatre Project. Lewis, collaborating with reporter-turned-playwright John C. Moffitt, wrote the script throughout 1936, and the play premiered on October 27 at the Adelphi theater in New York, as well as in twenty other theaters in cities across the United States, and in multiple languages. Afterwards, Lewis took a break from novel-writing to focus on the theatre, with which he had become enamored, but his later life was plagued by alcoholism and an inability to rekindle his old success. Lewis died on January 10, 1951, of a heart attack.


Works consulted (*indicates sources that produced information): “Lewis Says Hays Bans Film of Book.” The New Yorker, 16 Feb. 1936. *; Lingeman, Richard. Sinclair Lewis: Rebel from Main Street. New York: Random House, 2002. *; Meyer, Michael. Introduction. It Can’t Happen Here, by Sinclair Lewis, 1935, 1st Signet Classics Edition (Scharnhorst Afterword), Penguin, 2014, pp. v-xv. *; Scharnhorst, Gary. Afterword. It Can’t Happen Here, by Sinclair Lewis, 1935, 1st Signet Classics Edition (Scharnhorst Afterword), Penguin, 2014, pp. 383-  394. *; Schorer, Mark. Sinclair Lewis: An American Life. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1961. *

Assignment 4: Reception History

1 Paste contemporary reception history in here (maximum 500 words)

As Sinclair Lewis was already an established author, and a consistent bestseller, at the time of It Can’t Happen Here’s release, the novel was an immediate commercial success. Indeed, even before its release the book was touted as a need-to-buy novel, as in an ad from Publisher’s Weekly printed on October 5, 1935 which stated “HERE’S THE BOOK!” and called the yet-unseen novel “464 startling, breathtaking pages of Sinclair Lewis at his inimitable best” (Publisher’s Weekly, vol. 128 no. 14 Oct. 5, 1935 p. 1239). Again, arguably capitalizing more on Lewis’s fame than on the novel’s quality, It Can’t Happen Here appeared on Publisher’s Weekly bestsellers lists within weeks of its release on October 21 of 1935, jumping to the number one spot in less than a month, where it remained for 8 weeks. In total the book spent 32 weeks on the Publisher’s Weekly list and was named the number five bestseller overall for the year 1936.

Beyond its profitability, reviews for the novel were generally favorable. An issue of Publisher’s Weekly from November 2nd, 1935—just over a week after the book’s release—contains a full two-page spread advertising the novel which had already become “the most talked of novel of the year.” The ad also includes rave reviews from big-name newspapers: The New Yorker’s Clifton Fadiman asserts the book’s potential to be “one of the most important books ever written in this country,” and describes it as “so crucial, so passionate, so honest, so vital that only dogmatists, schismatics, and reactionaries will care to pick flaws in it.” “All of Sinclair Lewis’ best cunning has come back to him in this stinging, violent, satirical imaginary picture of the next few months in American politics” writes Fanny Butcher of The Chicago Tribune. And Butcher even goes so far as to compare the novel to Lewis’s other work: “It is to Elmer Gantry and Babbitt as a depth bomb is to a hand grenade.” And John Clair Minot, speaking on behalf of all of The Boston Herald says “We suspect it may be called Mr. Lewis’s masterpiece” (Publisher’s Weekly, vol. 128 no. 18 Nov. 2, 1935 pp. 1644-45).

Like many bestsellers of the time, there were almost immediate plans to adapt It Can’t Happen Here into a film; Lionel Barrymore was even attached to the project to play the lead role of Doremus Jessup. However, production on the film stalled in early 1936, and was eventually cancelled. Lewis lashed out at William Hays, the then-president of the Production Code Administration or “Hays Office,” alleging ties to fascist European countries and suppression of his cautionary political tale. And while the film’s cancellation and Lewis’s allegations gained attention from newspapers, plans for the film remained in MGM’s vaults of obscurity. In 1936, however, the New Deal’s Federal Theatre Project commissioned a stage version of the story, written by Lewis and playwright John C. Moffitt. The production was a success, premiering in 18 cities in the United States on one night.


Works consulted (*indicates sources that produced information): Butcher, Fanny. “Sinclair Lewis Uses Dictator for New Satire.” Chicago Daily Tribune [Chicago] 19 Oct. 1935: 16. *; “Lewis Says Hays Bans Film of Book.” The New Yorker, 16 Feb. 1936. *; Meyer, Michael. Introduction. It Can’t Happen Here, by Sinclair Lewis, 1935, 1st Signet Classics Edition (Scharnhorst Afterword), Penguin, 2014, pp. v-xv.; Publisher’s Weekly, various issues, 1935-36. *; Scharnhorst, Gary. Afterword. It Can’t Happen Here, by Sinclair Lewis, 1935, 1st Signet Classics Edition (Scharnhorst Afterword), Penguin, 2014, pp. 383-394. *

2 Paste subsequent reception history in here (maximum 500 words)

Based on a lack of critical essays, information about the novel, or any subsequent productions of its apparently-successful theatre adaptation in the latter half of the 20th century, it seems It Can’t Happen Here, like its author, dwindled in celebrity. In very recent years however, owing undoubtedly to the election of president Donald Trump in 2016 and growing political polarization in the United States, Lewis’s book has experienced a resurgence in relevance and popularity. In fact, in September of 2016, over 80 years after the novel’s original release, a new theatrical adaptation by Tony Taccone and Lisa Peterson was created and premiered at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre.

As a testament to the obscurity of the original 1936 play by Lewis and Moffitt, Taccone and Peterson were surprised to learn that a stage version of the novel already existed, but Taccone described this original script as “terrible.”

A theatre critic for The New Yorker, Alexander Nazaryan, commenting on the Berkeley Theatre adaptation as well as the novel itself, says Lewis’s “gripes about Roosevelt and the New Deal” in It Can’t Happen Here "have the quality not of fiction but of reportage." Nazaryan, with the advantage of decades of context and hindsight, is slightly more discerning when discussing Lewis’s writing, saying “Lewis was never much of an artist, but what he lacked in style he made up for in social observation.” In short, the eerie relevance of the novel in the current American political climate has provided an ample opportunity for the rediscovery of Lewis's novel not only as a political warning, but an important later work of one of the early 20th centyury's most prolific authors.


Works consulted (*indicates sources that produced information): Meyer, Michael. Introduction. It Can’t Happen Here, by Sinclair Lewis, 1935, 1st Signet Classics Edition (Scharnhorst Afterword), Penguin, 2014, pp. v-xv.; Nazaryan, Alexander. “Getting Closer to Facism with Sinclair Lewis’s, ‘It Can’t Happen Here’.” The New Yorker, 19 Oct. 2016,   https://www.newyorker.com/culture/culture-desk/getting-close-to-fascism-with-sinclair-lewiss-it-cant-happen-here. *; Scharnhorst, Gary. Afterword. It Can’t Happen Here, by Sinclair Lewis, 1935, 1st Signet Classics Edition (Scharnhorst Afterword), Penguin, 2014, pp. 383-394. *

Assignment 5: Critical Analysis

1 Paste your critical analysis in here (maximum 2500 words)

To say that It Can’t Happen Here—Sinclair Lewis’s 1935 story of a fascist-like takeover of the United States by a populist president who uses lofty promises and scare tactics to win and control supporters—owes its popularity to its relevance to contemporary political issues of the 1930s would be a serious understatement, and one requiring some qualification. Sinclair Lewis’s biting condemnation of fascism and government controlled by a single demagogue paints a bleak but terrifyingly real potential future for readers in the United States in the late 1930s. And still today, unfortunately, the author’s warnings resonate in a political climate controlled by social media and threatened by the suppression of free speech and press. Such conditions make the novel’s message universal and worthy of inspection. But it is not exclusively the book’s politics that made it—and continue to keep it—a bestseller, for certainly Sinclair Lewis was not the only author suggesting the possibility that fascism could come to the United States as easily as it had taken over several European countries. Rather, it is a combination of Lewis’s own celebrity as a well-established best-selling author, the multi-faceted quality of the book itself—the ways in which it walks the line between realism and pure fiction—and a number of political reasons that, in 1935, made It Can’t Happen Here fly off the shelves, and in 2018 continue to make the novel a hotbed of reinterpretation and discussion on more than just political themes.

Despite being authored by one of the most prolific novelists of the first half of the 20th century and the first American to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, in terms of its themes and subject matter It Can’t Happen Here could hardly be more different from Sinclair Lewis’s earlier novels. Compared to Mainstreet (1920), Babbitt (1922), Arrowsmith (1925), Elmer Gantry (1927), and Dodsworth (1929), all of which dealt with the economic and personal struggles of the ever-growing American middle class, It Can’t Happen Here is in a league of its own. Of course, most of the elements of Sinclair Lewis’s distinct writing style are visible in the latter as well as the formers—a meticulously-crafted and researched world (Fort Beulah, Vermont in the case of It Can’t Happen Here), witty and realistic dialog, and description just literary enough in its verbiage to intrigue but not confuse a mass audience. In short, the book has all the empirical qualities of a novel that made Lewis’s earlier books so successful, and undoubtedly contributed to the success of It Can’t Happen Here.

With respect to narrative structure, Lewis plays it safe as well, not wanting to provoke readers any more than the potential for a totalitarian government in the United States already would. The plot is linear, and Lewis’s attempts to simplify the politics of fictional president Berzelius “Buzz” Windrip and the United States government for the general public are admirable, and at least somewhat effective. The author spares readers the overt propagandizing found in other political novels like Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, except in cases where such speeches are satirical, and spoken by Windrip or any of his loyal supporters. And there is a relatively even mixture of pure political rhetoric, shocking drama, and well-crafted storytelling. The combination of these elements makes for an easily accessible novel—likely a necessity for Lewis when dealing with a topic as incendiary as fascism in America. Possibly a more experimental form may have detracted from the novel’s popularity, even if it was written by someone as famous as Lewis. And the simplicity of the structure of It Can’t Happen Here may provide some insight into the general public’s taste for fiction. That such a novel, any novel written in a way as formally straightforward, could achieve so much success speaks not only to the importance of the book’s themes or the excitement of its plot, but to the desire of readers—at least those in 1935 who bought bestsellers—for something somewhat, standard, or “normal” —something that Lewis arguably provides in all of his novels, including It Can’t Happen Here.

Of course, in analyzing the success of a bestseller, diction and syntax are not the sole variables, or even two of the most important. A book’s genre is crucial to investigating not only its success in general, but its connection to the time in which it was written and its intended audience’s connection with it on the level of subject matter, themes, and tone. Many critics, particularly those scrutinizing It Can’t Happen Here through a chiefly-political lens, tend to label the book a dystopian novel. And certainly, there is something to be said for Lewis’s idea of a dystopia; however, the subject of Lewis’s novel is not the far-off future of other 20th century dystopian fiction, both bestsellers and classics of literature. Compared to Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932) or George Orwell’s 1984 (1949), Lewis’s interpretation of 1936 is similarly terrifying, but miles closer to home for readers in late 1935. In light of this, it may be appropriate to term It Can’t Happen Here a “near-dystopian” novel. And it is not the first of its kind. Jack London’s The Iron Heel, written in 1908, in a vein similar to It Can’t Happen Here, tells the story of the rise of an authoritarian oligarchy in the United States. Even before the spread of fascism in Europe, Lewis’s predecessors questioned whether “it” truly could “happen here.”

For readers when the novel was first published in October of 1935, the events of the book were not an alternate reality but a very possible immediate future. Lewis, at the risk of sacrificing his readers’ comfort, flirts with the idea of immersing the audience into the world of the novel by including excerpts at the start of each chapter from the fictional president Buzz Windrip’s fictional book—the manifesto of his followers; his Mein KampfZero Hour; Lewis incorporates just as many actual historical figures as fictional ones into a novel riddled with names and people; and the author’s research into his own fabricated world, as well as his knowledge and understanding of the United States, its citizens, the shortcomings of the American system of government and the behavior of its constituents, are obvious. The effect of this mixture of realism and pure fiction is twofold: it draws readers in with direct parallels between the world of the novel and the real world and provides just enough separation to satisfy readers’ appetites for an escape from reality through fiction. Indeed, It Can’t Happen Here provides both political commentary and escapism, and could be read for pleasure as well as for analysis—the mark of a truly successful bestseller, perhaps. Like all things, however, time has altered perceptions of It Can’t Happen Here from a dystopian fiction to something more complex.

In his introduction to the Signet Classics edition of It Can’t Happen Here, in an easily forgettable sentence in the last paragraph, Michael Meyer rather matter-of-factly describes the book as “a satirical novel rather than a five-year plan framed by an inaugural address” (Meyer xv). And contemporary scholars seem to have reached a consensus in categorizing Lewis’s novel as a piece of political satire. But in light of its heavy themes of political corruption, oppression through intimidation, and the sheer amount of violence that pervades the novel—particularly compared to Lewis’s earlier, tamer works—satire seems a bold claim. Admittedly, elements like Berzelius Windrip, his Minute Men, and his cabinet of sycophants are caricatures or parodies as well as mirrors of fascist dictators such as Hitler or Stalin, their secret armies like the Gestapo, and their adoring advisers. Perhaps another reason why Lewis’s novel succeeded was because of its absurdity as a piece of satire, because of Lewis’s contempt for the spread of fascism in Europe, and for the ridiculousness of the idea that “it can’t happen here.” The idea of a fascist government in the United States was certainly a tough pill to swallow, and Lewis’s novel may have been the perfect wake-up call—laced with just the right mixture of cynicism and caution—for an America already hungry for political fiction. But while the novel sold well in the years following its publication—320,000 copies according to Mark Schorer in his biography on the author, Sinclair Lewis: An American Life (1961)—holding positions on weekly bestseller lists for months throughout 1935 and 1936, and the number 5 spot on the Publisher’s Weekly annual bestseller list for 1936, its popularity was to prove short lived.

In the years following its publication, after it fell off the bestseller lists and after the success of its 1936 Federal Theatre Project adaptation, which ran for weeks in theaters across the country, It Can’t Happen Here fell into relative obscurity. Like many of Lewis’s works—and frankly like many bestselling novels—the book lacked the quality necessary to make it a “classic” of literature, and its themes, however universal, were not enough to cement it in the hearts and minds of later generations of readers. For over 80 years, with the exception of infrequent new editions published in the Signet Classics series, and a brief revival of the stage version of the novel in 2011 in celebration of the production’s 75th anniversary, hope seemed lost for the rebirth of Doremus Jessup and Berzelius Windrip until, in 2016, Donald Trump secured the nomination for Republican candidate for president, and in November defeated Democrat Hillary Clinton in the general election. Though some of his campaign promises may not have been as outrageous as Windrip’s “Fifteen Points of Victory for the Forgotten Man,” many of Trump’s political tactics—particularly his condemnation and attempts at suppression of his dissenters—were eerily reminiscent of Windrip’s, and arguably European dictators’ before him.

Similarities between the 2016 election and Lewis’s novel did not go unnoticed. In 2016, the Berkeley Repertory Theatre commissioned an all new stage adaptation of the novel—with a script different from Lewis’s 1936 attempt. The production was generally well-received if not solely for its ambition or artistic merit, then (like the novel) for its chilling relevance. And more than reinvigorating the market for political satire and dystopian fiction, the 2016 election and the Berkeley Theatre production revealed something about It Can’t Happen Here that readers in 1935, even Lewis himself, could not have foreseen. The political heart of the novel—and possibly the strongest indication of Lewis’s own beliefs—can be found in a line spoken by Doremus late in the plot: “I am convinced that everything that is worthwhile in the world has been accomplished by the free, inquiring, critical spirit, and that the preservation of this spirit is more important than any social system whatsoever” (Lewis 359). Michael Meyer says of this quote, and by extension the entire novel, “To readers in the 1930s, this…evocation of self-reliant virtues was attractive, but it provided only the vaguest kind of solutions to pressing political issues” (Meyer xiv). And while the first readers of It Can’t Happen Here may have been more frightened than steeled by Lewis’s novel, now, decades after its original publication, the book’s political themes are more relevant than ever.

Lewis’s lack of a solution for the political problems presented in the book is an expected flaw. Perhaps no such solution exists—not for 1935 or today. Regardless of any potential prescribing or proselytizing, though, the “free, inquiring, critical spirit” that Doremus praises so highly remains at the center of the ideal of American democracy, and for this political reason, maybe more so than any other, Lewis’s novel remains an important piece of cultural history and political fiction. Lewis does not presume to know the answers to any of the problems that plagued the world of 1935. In his last press interview in 1949, the author described himself as “a diagnostician, not a reformer.” Lewis merely presents a problem that may have otherwise been overlooked by an apolitical faction of the United States in a way that is simultaneously simulated and engaging, but also real and terrifying. He does not offer a solution, but in this uncertainty lies the true impact of Lewis’s book: its ability, or rather its power, to force readers to think about the situation, whatever situation, to which it applies. The moral of the story: it can happen here.

For all its popularity and lasting impact, however, It Can’t Happen Here would arguably not have been as well-received had it been on a topic other than politics. Lewis wrote the novel over just four months in 1935, from May to August, and after his final revisions were completed on September 28, the novel was published on October 21 of that year. Of course, the novel’s gestation cannot be assumed to have been a mere six months; as Gary Scharnhorst states in his Afterword to the Signet Classics edition, “Lewis’s interest in the subject [of fascism] was no doubt piqued by Dorothy Thompson [his then-wife], who had interviewed Hitler in 1931” (Scharnhorst 385). It is likely that Lewis was toying with the idea of a political novel ever since the Great Depression stymied any possibility for another of his great middle-class masterpieces. Nevertheless, the actual writing of the novel took less than half a year and by several accounts—from both modern and contemporary critics—it shows. In 1935, J. Donald Adams of the New York Times called the book “exciting reading, even if it does nothing to advance Mr. Lewis’s art as a novelist” (quoted in Scharnhorst, 389-390). And some, like R.P. Blackmur, were less diplomatic in their criticism: “there is hardly a literary question that it does not fail to raise and there is hardly a rule for the good conduct of novels that it does not break” (Nation, October 1935; quoted in Meyer, viii). Still, though, the novel found many supporters such as Clifton Fadiman of The New Yorker, who called it “one of the most important books ever produced in this country” (New Yorker, October 1935).

It Can’t Happen Here is not a good book, but it is an important book. Its status as a bestseller, indeed like that of many bestsellers, comes more from the popularity of its author than any actual literary merit, and in the specific case of It Can’t Happen Here, its universal political relevance. The novel’s thematic significance, however, cannot detract from its formal shortcomings. While the book may be well-structured and exhibit some of Lewis’s most iconic writing techniques, in some instances it borders on the verbose and confusing, if not simply boring, such that for modern audiences, at least in the context of classic literature, the book remains a strange artifact of a mid-1930s taste for fiction. In the context, though, of bestsellers as indicators of culturally important ideas and markers of their audiences’ worldviews as well as their tastes, It Can’t Happen Here remains a vital piece of a puzzle. Literary merit aside, the novel’s success based on its themes and relevance offers an important potential answer to the question: what sells a bestseller?


Works consulted (*indicates sources that produced information): Butcher, Fanny. “Sinclair Lewis Uses Dictator for New Satire.” Chicago Daily Tribune [Chicago] 19 Oct. 1935: 16. *; Fadiman, Clifton. “Books: Red Lewis,” New Yorker [New York] 29 Oct. 1934: 99. *; Lewis, Sinclair. It Can’t Happen Here. New York: Signet Classics, 2014 (1935). *; Meyer, Michael. Introduction. It Can’t Happen Here, by Sinclair Lewis, 1935, 1st Signet Classics Edition (Scharnhorst Afterword), Penguin, 2014, pp. v-xv. *; Nazaryan, Alexander. “Getting Closer to Facism with Sinclair Lewis’s, ‘It Can’t Happen Here’.” The New Yorker, 19 Oct. 2016, https://www.newyorker.com/culture/culture-desk/getting-close-to-fascism-with-sinclair-lewiss-it-cant-happen-here. *; Publisher’s Weekly, various issues, 1935-36. *; Scharnhorst, Gary. Afterword. It Can’t Happen Here, by Sinclair Lewis, 1935, 1st Signet Classics Edition (Scharnhorst Afterword), Penguin, 2014, pp. 383-394. *; Schorer, Mark. Sinclair Lewis: An American Life. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1961. *; Yerkes, Andrew C. “‘A Biology of Dictatorships’: Liberalism and Modern Realism in Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here.” Studies in the Novel, 42 (Fall 2010), p. 292. *

Supplemental Material

Advertisement from Publisher's Weekly, Nov. 2, 1935 (vol. 128 no. 18 pp. 1644-45)

Inside front flap of dust jacket from "5th edition" of novel from Doubleday, Doran & Co.

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