The best reading from 1936 for today’s readers are both about people caught in tempestuous political and cultural shifts: Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind and It Can’t Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis.
Southerners who put on gray uniforms for the old South were fighting to retain a way of life that was familiar and comfortable—was facing extinction.
That life was already nearly gone when the men in gray mounted up.
Rhett says to Scarlett before he leaves her:
I want the outer semblance of the things I used to know, the utter boredom of respectability—other people’s respectability, my pet, not my own—the calm dignity life can have when it’s lived by gentle folks, the genial grace of days that are gone. When I lived those days I didn’t realize the slow charm of them.
And Scarlett runs home to Tara to Mammy, “the last link with the old days.”
It Can’t Happen Here is not nearly as good a novel as Gone With the Wind, but it has some uncomfortable similarities.
Although Lewis starts out satirically skewering hot-air politicians, he soon gets seriously interested in his topic and begins wondering what would happen if a charismatic, Hitler-like leader began to rally the discontents in America.
After the Rotary Club meeting in Fort Beulah, Vermont in 1936, men are already wishing for someone who can bring things back the way they used to be.
Fort Beulah’s leading businessman gripes: “These are serious times—maybe twenty-eight million on relief, and beginning to get ugly—thinking they’ve got a vested right now to be supported.”
Local newspaper editor Doremus Jessup responds:
Yes, I agree it’s a serious time. With all the discontent there is in the country to wash him into office, Senator Windrip has got an excellent chance to be elected President, next November, and if he is, probably his gang of buzzards will get us into some war, just to grease their insane vanity and show the world that we’re the huskiest nation going. And then I, the Liberal, and you, the Plutocrat, the bogus Tory, will be led out and shot at 3 A.M. Serious? Huh!
That November Sen. Berzelius “Buzz” Windrip is elected president.
Soon Windrip’s “Minute Men” become his private army.
Civil rights are suspended, and dissidents rounded up and taken to concentration camps.
There’s no Tara for Doremus Jessup to flee to.
Unfortunately, the novel’s uneven tone lessens its literary value and makes Lewis’s story less credible.
But what Lewis got right—the unpredictable, totally unthinkable election of a totally unqualified egomaniac as president of the United States—seems real enough in 2016.
Over the summer, read one or both of these classic novels, and think about the “genial grace of days that are gone” in America and what might be ahead.
©2016 Linda Gorton Aragoni