It Can’t Happen Here Summary & Study Guide
SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides for challenging works of literature. This 70-page guide for “It Can’t Happen Here” by Sinclair Lewis includes detailed chapter summaries and analysis covering 38 chapters, as well as several more in-depth sections of expert-written literary analysis. Featured content includes commentary on major characters, 25 important quotes, essay topics, and key themes like American Totalitarianism and The Conditions Necessary for Liberal Democracy to Survive.
It Can’t Happen Here, a political novel by Sinclair Lewis first published in 1935, details the rise, consolidation, and partial collapse of an American fascist dictatorship. The book is told primarily from the perspective of Doremus Jessup, an owner-editor of a small-town Vermont newspaper and self-described middle-class liberal intellectual. Jessup is 60 years old at the start of the novel.
Jessup begins as a cynical but detached observer of politics but over the course of the novel becomes an active member of the resistance, paying heavy personal costs. The book describes how easy it would be for a charismatic, populist politician to rise to power during times of economic crisis and implement totalitarian rule in America, in contrast to many characters in the novel who argue that totalitarianism can’t happen in America. Lewis argues for a politically-engaged and informed population that can resist the empty promises of demagogues, as well as for establishment political and economic elites to be aware of how they might be creating the conditions that allow totalitarianism to flourish.
The novel is broken into three sections, with Chapters 1-12 introducing the primary characters and describing the conditions that allow Berzelius “Buzz” Windrip to rise to become president. Chapters 13-18 describe the rapid consolidation of Windrip’s regime and the erosion of democratic norms. Chapters 19-38 cover the resistance struggle against the regime, focusing on Jessup, his family, and his friends.
The book begins in 1936, as Berzelius “Buzz” Windrip campaigns for the Democratic nomination, running on a populist platform that promises to restore American prosperity and glory while portraying himself as an anti-politician and avatar of the common man. While Windrip is a charismatic and popular politician, the intellect behind his campaign is his secretary, Lee Sarason. Doremus Jessup, a newspaper owner-editor in Fort Beulah, Vermont, covers the rise of Windrip and fears that Windrip will implement totalitarian rule if elected. However, he does little and is frequently told by others that such a thing would be impossible. Windrip wins the Democratic nomination and easily defeats his Republican opponent, Walt Trowbridge.
After his inauguration, Windrip moves rapidly to consolidate his power. He makes his private militia, the Minute Men, an official part of the US Army and ends the power of Congress and the Supreme Court, making himself the unchecked leader of the country. “Temporary” martial law is declared and resistance is violently put down by the Minute Men. Windrip also implements labor camps for the unemployed, and suspected dissidents are rounded up and sent to concentration camps. Women, African-Americans, and Jews have their rights suppressed, and Sarason constructs a massive propaganda apparatus that takes over newspapers and schools.
Jessup initially despairs to Windrip’s election. However, after he hears a story of a rabbi and a professor being murdered by a Windrip cabinet member, he takes action. He writes an anti-Windrip editorial, which leads to his arrest by his old handyman, Shad Ledue, who now leads the local Minute Men. During the trial, Jessup’s son-in-law interrupts, and he is summarily executed. Jessup’s paper is forced to print regime propaganda, and Minute Men raid his home several times looking for banned books. Jessup’s best friend, Buck Titus, warns him that he is likely to be arrested and sent to a concentration camp at any moment and arranges for the family’s escape to Canada. However, they are unable to cross the border and forced to turn back.
After several of his friends are sent to Trianon, the local concentration camp, Jessup quits at the paper and forms a cell of the New Underground, a Canada-based resistance group led by Walt Trowbridge. Jessup, his lover Lorinda Pike, Buck Titus, and his daughters Mary and Sissy all become members of the cell, which publishes news critical of the regime and assists refugees fleeing to Canada. However, Jessup’s work is eventually discovered and he is sent to Trianon, where he is regularly beaten and tortured.
While Jessup is imprisoned, his cell continues to operate, albeit in a diminished capacity. His daughter, Mary, whose husband was killed defending Jessup, joins the Women’s Flying Corps and eventually kills the judge responsible by crashing her plane into his. Jessup’s youngest daughter, Sissy, seduces Shad Ledue and gathers information about him, which she uses to have him sent to Trianon. Ledue is then burned to death by the other prisoners.
At the same time, the regime begins to buckle under the pressure of supporting the ever-growing Army and MM, as well as due to economic mismanagement and graft. By early 1939, Windrip has become increasingly paranoid and power-hungry, and rebellions have begun in in the Midwest. Sarason, becoming frustrated with Windrip, takes power in a bloodless coup. However, his weak and ostentatious rule quickly loses support and he is in turn deposed by Colonel Haik, the leader of the Minute Men. Haik’s rule is even harsher than Windrip’s or Sarason’s, and in a last-ditch effort to reinvigorate patriotism, he declares war on Mexico, which instead provokes wide-ranging revolt against the regime. The rebels seize territory in the Midwest but then settle into a stalemate caused by the collapse of the education system.
Lorinda and Sissy arrange for Jessup’s escape from Trianon; he flees to Canada, where he continues his work. However, Jessup becomes frustrated living in exile, and desires to return to America as a spy. After Haik’s coup, his request is granted. The novel ends sometime in the early 1940s, with Jessup undercover and running a New Underground cell in regime-controlled Minnesota.