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.
On Tuesday night I felt briefly the old urge to find a book to deal with hard times, and took The Berlin Stories off the shelf. As is so often the case lately, the tug of my phone was stronger, and I left the book sitting on the floor after leafing through its pages. I was too jittery to do anything but scroll, and in any case the book was actually too grim for election night, both painful artifact and apparent harbinger of days to come. By its last lines, Christopher Isherwood is leaving Germany; his landlady Fr. Schroeder is inconsolable at his departure:
It’s no use trying to explain to her, or talking politics. Already she is adapting herself, as she will adapt herself to every new regime. This morning I even heard her talking reverently about ‘Der Führer,’ to the porter’s wife. If anybody were to remind her that, at the elections last November, she voted communist, she would probably deny it hotly, and in perfect good faith. She is merely acclimatizing herself, in accordance with a natural law, like an animal which changes its coat for the winter. Thousands of people like Frl. Schroeder are acclimatizing themselves. After all, whatever government is in power, they are doomed to live in this town.
When someone like Donald Trump is elected, I suspect that many writers are besieged with doubt about the novel’s utility as a tool of resistance. Events move quickly, and writing is slow. And even should writers have the ability to capture some aspect of the current moment with aching precision, passages like Isherwood’s remind us that they are often Cassandras, writing for a future that will marvel at how right they were and how little that rightness mattered.
But still as a society we persist in believing that there are “important books,” and certain texts keep reappearing. Although the fragility of our educational system and the degraded place of the humanities therein is reported everywhere, we still pay lip service, as a culture, to the idea that American children have to read important books to participate in society. So it seems fitting to look again at the Modern Library list, which is a very flawed, sometimes bizarre, distillation of the enshrining principle, but one filled with some wonderful books.
After the election I thought I’d revisit a work of prognostication based on the observed realities of the day, and I have been rereading Brave New World. The problem with reading dystopian political novels from the past is that you tend to try and match up the current circumstances with the implied prophecy of the novel. And on that count, nothing in Aldous Huxley’s novel comes close to the simple horror of Christopher Isherwood’s paragraph above. Huxley was looking ahead, past the interim nastiness of bloodshed that Isherwood recorded in real time — after “the explosion of the anthrax bombs” that is “hardly louder than the popping of a paper bag.” Huxley imagined the fait accompli: a single world order founded on an unholy marriage of capitalism and communism, with the stated mission of “Community, Identity, Stability” and drugs for all. There are many things that match up to the world today — consumerism, consumption — and many things that don’t; we have not yet discarded the family as a unit of social cohesion and significance, for example.
In a lot of ways Brave New World is a mess. It is now seen as an anti-science, anti-technicalization novel, but scholars have pointed out that it was in one sense an extension of Huxley’s own interest in “reform eugenics” at the time. It is deeply racist, and not only in its depiction of the Savage Reservation, which is speciously deployed to highlight the comparative vulgarity of the rest of the world: a trip to the movies, the ostensible height of this vulgarity, reveals “stereoscopic images, locked in on another’s arms, of a gigantic negro and a golden-haired young brachycephalic Beta-Plus female.” It is also a deeply sexist book — one of the ostensible absurdities of the new world is women’s sexual and reproductive autonomy (hilariously, even in this utopia, contraception is the cumbersome responsibility of women, who have to carry it around in bandoliers). Whatever regrets Huxley had about the novel — and he describes some of them in his foreword to the 1946 reprint — they do not seem to have included those elements. Instead he notes the lack of world-annihilating weaponry in the book and the unforgiving choice it offers between “insanity on the one hand and lunacy on the other.” But despite its many shortcomings as a work of art, as a work of prophecy, a work of moral vision, the book retains power.
I have been thinking as a consequence about what power means in a literary context. I don’t know how the novelists at the height of their game and fame feel about their professions, but most aspiring novelists have an internalized sense of skepticism about the pursuit. Writers are not assigned high value in a capitalist society, and among writers other harmful hierarchies assert themselves — these are being tested and negotiated, the hard work, as is inevitably the case, being done by the writers who are working against the odds, rather than those enjoying their favor.
There is one view by which we might say that Brave New World only stays so high in our collective cultural estimation because it is itself a reflection of the racism and sexism and classism that we continue to uphold, and which enabled us to elect Donald Trump. This is a more revolutionary viewpoint than I’m prepared to accept wholeheartedly, no doubt due to my own social conditioning (as Huxley might put it). I don’t want to throw this novel away, only to understand why it works, or doesn’t. I have to believe that novels are important not just because I like them, but because they contribute something irreplaceable to the historical record, both as objects of testimony and objects of study.
We talk often about writing as an act of radical empathy, but I’d like to posit that Brave New World, and many novels that have endured, have been less about empathy than they have been about disdain. Disdain is empathy’s evil and more efficient twin, both borne of close observation. Novels that consider individual reactions to events must be empathetic. But any novelist who wishes to depict society must harness disdain in order to make the depiction stick for the long term.
Brave New World falls apart at the end, because its measure of empathy did not match its measure of disdain in a plotline — the “savage meeting civilization” — that required it. It is telling that Huxley’s women are never granted the interiority of his men. But where the novel is strong and memorable, it is so because its author used pointed observations of his own society to depict a future world and the ways that people behaved therein. The unforgettable opening tour of the Central London Hatchery and Conditioning Centre — what volumes it speaks about the existing hierarchies of class and race as Huxley saw them. How well he captures the misfit characters, with a disdain clearly rooted in self-identification — Bernard Marx, whose “chronic fear of being slighted made him avoid his equals, made him stand, where his inferiors were concerned, self-consciously on his dignity.” Or Hemholtz Watson, the “Escalator-Squash champion, this indefatigable lover (it was said that he had had six hundred and forty different girls in under four years), this admirable committee man and best mixer” who realizes “quite suddenly that sport, women, communal activities were only, so far as he was concerned, second bests.”
Satire is the romping ground of disdain, but by no means is it its only province. Many of the books that appear on the Modern Library list are disdainful. Native Son is disdainful. The Age of Innocence is disdainful. Midnight’s Children. Invisible Man. Main Street. 1984. And disdain is alive in literature today. Paul Beatty’s The Sellout, which, arguments about its quality raging in The Millions comments notwithstanding, seems on its way to becoming a seminal American text, begins:
This may be hard to believe, coming from a black man, but I’ve never stolen anything. Never cheated on my taxes or at cards. Never snuck into the movies or failed to give back the extra change to a drugstore cashier indifferent to the ways of mercantilism and minimum-wage expectations. I’ve never burgled a house. Held up a liquor store. Never boarded a crowded bus or subway car, sat in a seat reserved for the elderly, pulled out my gigantic penis and masturbated to satisfaction with a perverted, yet somehow crestfallen, look on my face.
Elena Ferrante’s immersive novels are empathetic as hell, but they are also full of disdain: “I told him that I intended to take the Pill in order not to have children…he made a complicated speech about sex, love, and reproduction.” Claudia Rankine’s prose-poetry in Citizen disdains: “The real estate woman, who didn’t fathom she could have made an appointment to show her house to you, spends much of the walk-through telling your friend, repeatedly, how comfortable she feels around her.”
I have to believe that literature can be a weapon of a sort — it explodes comfort even while it delivers comfort; it reveals hypocrisy in a way that the mere presentation of facts often cannot. And I’m beginning to think it is disdain that most effectively weaponizes a novel.
So now what? In a society that does not assign significant value to writing, any writing can feel like an act of resistance. And for some people that is the case. But I’m a white American woman, and I cannot pretend my writing, driven most days by a peculiar combination of self-loathing and self-regard, is a truly revolutionary act. This is not to consign the lived experience of women to irrelevance — that tendency was one factor in the election of a self-identified sexual predator. But we cannot weaponize literature if our only goal is mapping the territories of the individual, without simultaneously looking keenly at the world in which the individual was formed — and without disdaining the world that would make Frl. Schroeders of us. White American writers cannot leave the vast work of (consciously, intentionally) documenting white supremacy — that which brought Donald Trump to the White House — at the feet of the writers who are harmed by it.
People who understand political movements better than I do can parse the specific ideologies Huxley employed to prophesy about state and social power, and whether he was right or wrong. For me, it is the novel’s endurance as a literary touchstone that is intriguing now, and what it might say about power in art. We need empathy more than ever, yes, on the one-on-one, human-to-human level. But empathy for the aggregate was not useful in this election, and we cannot count on it from the politicians who will troop into the White House in January. Trump voters who don’t believe they are bigots assured themselves that it was his business empire or his placid and beautiful daughter that qualified him for the office. But his real credential was his rhetoric. The man will say anything, and he said it, and it won him the election. Somehow, fiction must reflect our disdain.
What happens if your town’s reputation was made by an author who hated it? Sinclair Lewis grew up in Sauk Centre, Minnesota and scathingly satirized it in Main Street (our Modern Library Revue of it), but it’s the town’s only claim to fame nearly a century later. At The Morning News, Matt Ray Robison visits.
Modern Library Revue is Lydia Kiesling’s irreverent, ongoing treatment of the Modern Library’s 100 best novels of the twentieth century. Lydia is a graduate of Hamilton College. She is an ardent book-lover and has spent the last two years working in the antiquarian book trade. The Modern Library project was recently born at her blog, Widmerpool’s Modern Library Revue.On occasion, my mom and other loved ones have gently suggested that I am a cranky sun of a gun. Sinclair Lewis is a panacea to people like me; I would have loved to hang out with him, drink to excess, and complain vociferously. This might help explain my belief that Lewis is one of our finest American novelists. He was not a particularly stylish or literary writer. A few of his novels were boring or bad. But he gave us a savage portrait of American attitudes in the early twentieth century, and he was, perhaps unintentionally, the most prescient of our authors.In Main Street, Lewis describes the American citizenry as a savorless people, gulping tasteless food, and sitting afterward, coatless and thoughtless, in rocking-chairs prickly with inane decorations, listening to mechanical music, saying mechanical things about the excellence of Ford automobiles, and viewing themselves as the greatest race of the world. The novel is about a woman named Carol, who starts out young and breathless and fey – an Anne Shirley with Modern Ideas. Carol goes to college, and then she gets a job. Like most of us, she discovers that working for a living is a drag. She meets a doctor, and they canoodle chastely. They get married, have relations in a tent, and go to live in Gopher Prairie, an up-and-coming Midwestern town. There it is necessary for Carol to comes face to face with American Values. She goes to parties with the smart set, who recite racist stories and complain about labor agitators. They judge her for lacking a foul something called “pep.” She fraternizes a little bit with immigrants, overpays the maid, admires Art, and thinks she yearns for city life. Carol is a Liberal Elitist. She tries to Reform the town, but not very hard. It doesn’t work, so she learns to play bridge. Everyone is watching her. She has a baby, and then she has enough. She goes to work in Washington, alone like a hussy. It’s a little better. Her husband comes to visit and respectfully woos her. Carol goes back to Gopher Prairie. She has another baby. Nothing changes. Life goes on.If you are like me, a hating liberal so-and-so, to read Main Street is to experience the pyrrhic victory of feeling that you are right about everything. Most of Lewis’s novels are demoralizing like that, especially right before or after a U.S. election, when everyone feels distinctly uncharitable toward fifty percent of his neighbors and we have heard those eternal sore spots, taxes, immigration, and morals, argued into the ground in fatuous platitudes. Lewis was not a subtle writer, but I will make bold to say that we are not, in many ways, a subtle people. The misinformed xenophobia and racism of Gopher Prairie are alive and well in America today. We still exhibit a distasteful reverence for “pep” in our politicians; we embrace a down-home rhetoric that is not so very different from the skin-crawling turn-of-the-century boosterism. We still feel the meddling hand of religion in our politics. We still (well, until recently), erect hideous buildings across our beautiful country with unbridled enthusiasm. Like the upstanding folks in Lewis’s novels, we talk about Family Values and goose receptionists in the back room. We are Gopher Prairie, except with cell phones and The Real Housewives of Orange County.If you think these ideas are tired, remember that Lewis wrote almost one hundred years ago, anticipating with strange accuracy the content of HuffPo or The Nation, as well as the often snobbish aversion of the Left for the Right. Sometimes it becomes necessary to shake yourself out of your high-minded ineffectual outrage and remember that some happy changes have in fact taken place since Lewis satirized those “regular Guys, the fellow with sticktuitiveness, that boost and get the world’s work done.” Big things like Civil Rights and the Pill, and smaller but still thrilling innovations like trousers for ladies.Main Street is, I think, the slightest bit longer than it needs be. I suppose it was Lewis’ intention to really paint that picture of how boring and tedious the life in Gopher Prairie was for Carol or someone like her, but it sometimes feels like rather too many iterations of one conversation. I preferred Babbit, which is a similar story but shorter and told from a man’s perspective, and Elmer Gantry, which is about an evangelical preacher and filled me with a really bracing rage. In fact, I have read and enjoyed almost all of his novels, with the exception of something comically terrible called The God-Seeker. I have seen a couple of articles which describe Sinclair Lewis as a forgotten figure of American letters, and I think that is sad. He was an important chronicler of this country’s people and ideas – a prosy Fitzgerald of the middle class.