When I was in my early 20s — still youthful enough to consider myself an angry young man — I discovered the novels of Sinclair Lewis. My father had had an old slipcased edition of Main Street alongside titles like Omoo and Wuthering Heights — so I’d always thought of Lewis as too musty to bother with. Yet when I finally read one of his books — Babbitt was the first — I was shocked by how modern it felt. Despite the references to derbies and pipe tobacco, it was as indignant and cynical as I was. When you’re an angry young man, this qualifies as a good thing.
I soon read Lewis’s other classics — Arrowsmith, Elmer Gantry, Dodsworth, Main Street, and It Can’t Happen Here. Lewis’s skepticism, his disdain for hypocrisy, and his ringing pessimism felt in step with a hypocritical and pessimistic world: it was the early 2000s, and George W. Bush was dragging us into war.
Given the timing, It Can’t Happen Here’s dystopianism struck a chord with me. In the book, Senator Berzelius “Buzz” Windrip wins the presidency through a mix of populism and economic promises, then promptly turns the country into a fascist hellscape. Though the book was published in 1935, it felt as if it had been written just before I read it: the conflict in Iraq was at its height, and Bush had, like Windrip, gone from folksy numbskull to leering warmongerer. Bush was Buzz; Lewis had seen our future. I pressed the book upon friends, as if reading it would somehow change the country’s predicament.
Thanks to the United States’ latest predicament, It Can’t Happen Here has become a back-catalogue hit; Donald Trump’s election has made it Amazon’s top-selling American Classic, and 22nd-bestselling book overall. Americans seem to be reading it as something like non-fiction, more Michael Lewis than Sinclair Lewis. On its surface, this seems reasonable: like our new president, Windrip rails against the media and intellectual elites, and Windrip’s white supporters — who mass to hear him talk of restoring America’s greatness — lash out at minorities. Windrip even employs a Steve Bannon-like propagandist who sneers at supplying “ordinary folks” with “true facts.”
Once in power, Windrip jails dissenting congressmen, abolishes the states, and opens concentration camps, among other general horrors. And this is where It Can’t Happen Here lost me in 2004, and loses me today: it becomes so relentlessly, cartoonishly grim that its prescience is dimmed by its alarmism. Which begs the question: do we need It Can’t Happen Here for this? We seem to be depressing and alarming ourselves without any outside help; thanks to social media, we’ve become a nation of hissing cats, our backs perpetually arched.
There’s another Lewis novel that describes a Trump-like figure’s rise with none of It Can’t Happen Here’s Hunger Games hyperbole: the religion-deflating Elmer Gantry, written in 1926. While It Can’t Happen Here posits the aftermath of a false prophet’s ascent, Elmer Gantry is a complete portrait of such a man — and, in our present moment, strikes me as the far more useful book.
Elmer Gantry’s titular character is a boozing womanizer who, as a college student, learns “the intoxication of holding an audience with his closed hand” in his public speaking class. Yet he shunned the debate team because “he viewed as obscene the notion of digging statistics about immigration…out of dusty spotted books in the dusty spotted library.” Gantry chooses a life in religion more out of lassitude than belief — his mother, “owned by the church,” “had always wanted Elmer to be a preacher” — though he was “a little too much tempted by the gauds of This World.”
As he moves up the ministerial ladder — beginning in lowly Banjo Crossing and grinding towards the metropolis of Zenith — he preaches against personal ambition, though he “advertised himself in the newspapers as though he were a cigarette or a brand of soap.” He rails against immorality, though he’s a Ku Klux Klan admirer and a sexual predator. He’s too hypocritical to consider his hypocrisy. None of this bothers his followers; all they want is a good, fiery show — never mind that he considers them “pop-eyed and admiring morons.”
“He had a number of phrases — all stolen — and he made his disciples repeat them in chorus, in the manner of all religions,” Lewis writes. In different circumstances, Gantry wouldn’t hesitate to lead chants of “Lock her up” or “Build the wall” — regardless of whether he believed in the words or their consequence. Unsurprisingly, Gantry fixates on his audiences’ sizes, not any good that he might do: “The crowds do seem to be increasing steadily,” he tells an associate. “We had over eleven hundred present on my last Sunday evening…and during the season we often have nearly eighteen hundred, in an auditorium that’s only supposed to seat sixteen hundred!” Indeed, he has the bigliest crowds around.
In It Can’t Happen Here, Buzz Windrip emerges from the traditional architecture of American politics. He’s a despot but he’s also, first and foremost, a politician. Gantry, though, is more Trumpian, a fraudulent fish-out-of-water who makes it up as he goes. And, like Trump, he knows that truth is no match for style. Elmer Gantry ends with the preacher thundering to a crowd of 2,500, “We shall yet make these United States a moral nation!” — though he has just emerged from a sex scandal involving his secretary. The lesson of Elmer Gantry — and, perhaps, of Donald Trump — isn’t that terrible people succeed. It’s that good people enable them by hearing what they want to hear.
If you want to read a nightmare about the havoc Donald Trump might wreak, then pick up It Can’t Happen Here. But if you want a guide to how we’ve come to find ourselves in such a bewildering, dangerous place —– and to how we might, in the future, avoid such empty hucksters — choose Elmer Gantry. It’s one of Sinclair Lewis’s best. And it’s the story of Donald Trump.
Jonathan Franzen occupies the cover of this week’s Time, and, as the magazine will happily point out, he’s the first novelist to do so in “more than a decade.” The Franzen cover—and the Franzen headline: “Great American Novelist”—is a pretty transparent bit of attention-mongering. After all, Franzen’s predecessor, Stephen King, got only one paragraph in his cover story, and Time profiled Franzen only four years ago. (Both Franzen stories include lots of bird watching and Lev Grossman.)
Still, Time could use a boost as much as literature, and it’s hard to fault the magazine. In fact, its choice of Franzen provides an opportunity to look back at Time’s long history as literary arbiter and evangelist.
In The Powers That Be, David Halberstam writes that Time impresario Henry Luce
had a powerful sense of what people should read, what was good for them to read, and an essential belief worthy of the best journalist, that any subject of importance could be made interesting. Thus the cover story, the personalizing of issues so that a lay reader could become more interested and more involved in serious reading matter.
This same impulse seems to be at work in Time’s Franzen cover. (Under the headline it reads: “His characters don’t solve mysteries, have magical powers or live in the future.”) Franzen himself has remarked on it. In his famous Harper’s essay “Perchance to Dream,” he writes that “my father, who was not a reader, nevertheless had some acquaintance with James Baldwin and John Cheever, because Time magazine put them on its cover.”
Franzen ends up arguing that a shift in Time’s cover choices—from James Joyce to Scott Turow—offers more proof of America’s cultural decline. But just about every interaction between Time and a literary type has been characterized by a waffling between reaching out and selling out that, today, we’d describe as Franzean. Two favorite examples: When Bennett Cerf tried to convince William Faulkner to do a second Time cover, 15 years after his first, Faulkner asked for an estimate on how much it would add to Random House’s bottom line so that he could simply reimburse the publisher. In The Prisoner of Sex, Norman Mailer—who seems to have married Jeanne Campbell, Luce’s former mistress, for revenge as much as for love—recalls Time’s offer of “a cover story on the author’s reactions to the most prominent phenomenon of the summer season: the extraordinary surge of interest in Women’s Liberation.” Despite having a movie to promote, Mailer decides that “only a fool would throw serious remarks into the hopper at Time.”
In 1923, Joseph Conrad appeared on Time’s first bookish cover and its sixth overall. The story began:
Joseph Conrad, rover of the seven seas, has never set foot in the United States. Now he is coming. At about the end of this month the man who holds probably the most exalted position in contemporary English letters is to arrive here for a visit which it is hoped will last through May.
And that’s about it. Conrad’s entire cover story ran only 425 words, a standard length for early Time articles, and this first batch of literary covers were mostly linked to reviews. Thanks to the magazine’s short and punchy house style, these reviews always managed to include some biographical information. (The section on “The Author” came right after the one on “The Significance.”)
By the 1930s, though, you could see a formula beginning to set — a personalized opening, a capsule biography, some detailed description (Willa Cather “looks and talks like a kindly, sensible Middle-Western housewife, stout, low-heeled, good at marketing and mending“), and, above all, a few kind words about the author’s latest. Given Time’s practice of deploying multiple reporters, these profiles were often the most thorough or invasive of their time. (The J. D. Salinger cover story is a good example of this.) Given Time’s goal of reaching the broadest possible audience, these profiles also turned their subjects into rather flat characters: Cather the housewife, Hemingway the hunter, and so on.
The other thing to say about Time’s audience is that, from the beginning, the magazine has paid attention to lowbrow lit. Its cover story on E. Phillips Oppenheim praises his “light fiction” and opens with a mutually flattering comparison to Henry Ford, and this is one of many such examples. In fact, after surveying its literary history, I’m more surprised that Time hasn’t put Dan Brown or Stephanie Meyer on its cover than that Jonathan Franzen made the cut. (Time did put Harry Potter on its cover for what was essentially a profile of J. K. Rowling.)
Below, you too can survey this history through links to the covers and cover stories for each of Time’s literary stars. Read them to chuckle at the magazine’s weakness for hype (Robinson Jeffers is someone “a considerable public now considers the most impressive poet the U. S. has yet produced“). Read them to get a contemporary perspective on some historical figures (though don’t expect the best and the brightest: Lillian Ross’s New Yorker profile of Hemingway, for example, is much better than Time’s). Read them to marvel at Time’s uncanny ability to feature the best writers’ worst books. Most of all, read them to watch how this red-bordered cultural institution ferries between the high and the low. The Virginia Woolf cover story is especially good at this, but all of them do it to one degree or another. Even Jonathan Franzen’s.
Time put 14 authors on its cover in the 1920s, 23 in the 1930s, seven in the 1940s, 11 in the 1950s, 10 in the 1960s, eight in the 1970s, four in the 1980s, four in the 1990s, one in the 2000s, and, now, Franzen in 2010. That adds up to an objective-sounding 83, but I should explain my principles in compiling this list. While Time also likes to revive dead authors—Faulkner, for example, submitted to that second cover in 1964, two years after his death—I included only living authors who wrote primarily imaginative work: novels, plays, or poetry. These criteria still left room for some judgment calls—William Allen White did not make the list because he’s better known for his politics and his newspapering (and because White’s cover story focuses on his Kansas gubernatorial campaign), but I kept Upton Sinclair and the cover story on his California gubernatorial campaign. Feel free to dispute my choices or to add anyone I missed in the comments.
Each entry includes the author’s name and, where applicable, the name of the work that prompted the profile. There are also links to a print-friendly version of the cover story and to an image of the cover itself. In fact, thanks to Time’s new paywall, the Franzen cover story is the only one you can’t read online.
Israel Zangwill. “Imaginary Interviews: Israel Zangwill, Englishman of Letters.” September 17, 1923. Cover image.
Amy Lowell / John Keats. “Miss Lowell Eulogizes, Analyzes, Forgives the Poet.” March 2, 1925. Cover image.