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.
Two days before Christmas of 2011, my father died of a heart attack; he was 77 years old. He and my mother had watched an episode of Jeopardy! a few minutes before it happened. This detail, passed on during her tearful phone call later that night, seemed insignificant at the time; I had, of course, other things to consider. More than four years later, though, it’s one of the first things I think of when I recall that night. My parents didn’t do many things together, and had almost nothing in common, but for a half-hour each evening, they did have Alex Trebek.
Throughout my life, I struggled, as my mother did, to understand my dad. He was frustratingly aloof, and rarely made the proper associations in conversation, inevitably damming up what could have been pleasantly-flowing creeks. My wife, upon studying autism in graduate school, gave him a dime-store diagnosis of Asperger’s syndrome, and she may have been correct. But we’ll never know for sure, because we were too sensitive, or cowardly, to bring it up with him. So it was up to each of us to figure out how to forge connections with him, Asperger’s or not. For my mother, there were things like Jeopardy! and nature photography. For me, there were books.
In my childhood home, my father’s bedroom was lined with sagging shelves, filled with slipcased, hardcover editions of classic novels: Main Street, Omoo, The Last of the Mohicans. He was always in the middle of one book or another, and when I came of reading age, sometime in my early 20s, books became something, like baseball or the weather, that we could always talk about. He had never known what to give me for my birthday or on Christmas; now, suddenly, he did: Ethan Canin’s America America, Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain. He bought me a book of Mark Helprin short stories and implored me to read “Perfection,” about a Hasidic teenager who pulls the New York Yankees out of a slump. “The other stories are also good,” my father said, but you have to read ‘Perfection.’” I did, and found it wonderful. I was nearly as surprised by its narrative potency as by the fact that my dad had known what I might like.
Our newfound relationship as readers and sharers of books — and his unexpected death — came at a moment when books were losing their importance, being swept aside, with seemingly everything else, by a riot of digitization. In recent years, the Kindle, Nook, and others have been rightly hailed for their function and utility, their ease of use and simplicity of acquisition. These qualities are inarguable; it’s why tens of millions of Kindles (Amazon doesn’t release sales numbers for the device) have been sold. Yet there is nothing I want less than to read from a tablet — the thought of doing so irritates me irrationally — and I’ve begun to wonder if my attachment to the physical book has anything to do with an attachment to my father, or at least my memory of him.
In the eight years since the first Kindle was introduced, the tactile pleasures of books — oh, the feel of a just-flipped page…the smell of binding glue! — have been exhaustively, and often absurdly, chronicled. Those of us who refuse to give up the printed book — a population that seems, surprisingly, to have stabilized — do so for largely similar reasons: books bring a unique mental quiet, offer respite from our screens, are a habit we have no interest in breaking. These reasons are universal and specific to no one. The bond that books helped my father and I establish, however, was ours and ours alone. And that bond was so personal, so giving, that I wish I could somehow thank those books for everything that they did.
America America and the rest of them, up there on their shelves, are now as representative of my dad as the photograph of him that hangs by my bedroom door. And now that I’m a father myself, this concept of objects, imbued with memory, has taken hold in my mind — and my books are as worthy an expression of who I am as anything I can imagine. Though there’s every possibility that, after I die — whenever that may be — my son might frown at my old paperbacks and lug them to the curb, he might also cherish them, or at least pick out a few. E-readers’ branded, dark-gray impersonality strikes me as anathema to such emotion, to such a passing-down. There is little warmth in them; beyond the files stored within, there is no you or me. And while this isn’t the only reason I’ve resisted the devices, it’s been a subconscious one. To say that I “just like books better” now seems insufficient; there are reasons for everything. Some inscrutable logic tells me that if I were to abandon books, I would abandon my dad. It looks ridiculous up there on the screen, now that I’ve written it, but it feels true all the same.
Why do some of us stick with old things as the rest of the world hums by? Is it because we’re a bunch of musty Luddites, fearful of losing what we know? Or is it because we’ve lost enough already?
Image Credit: Pexels/freestocks.org.
Toward the end of his life, John Updike was fond of musing about how little the world would note his passing. He suspected that “a shrug and tearless eyes / will greet my overdue demise; / The wide response will be, I know, / ‘I thought he died a while ago.’”
The John Updike Society, which held its first conference last month, is dedicated to proving the author wrong. The event, held near Updike’s hometown of Shillington, Pennsylvania, started the society’s work of sustaining and growing a literary reputation. The weekend included academic readings, panels of friends and family, and tours of the author’s two boyhood homes and the environs of Shillington and Reading where much of his fiction was set. The mission of the Society — along with creating opportunities to enjoy the fellowship of Updike devotees – is “awakening and sustaining reader interest in the literature and life of John Updike.”
No detail was too small for discussion. Attendees wanted to know if Updike did the dishes at home, whether he liked Sinatra, if he was handy around the house. On bus tours, attendees pondered the department store where his mother worked, the restaurant where he’d lunched as teenager, the old movie theater featured in his non-fiction.
Much of the attendees’ interest, understandably, focused on discovering if their idol was indeed the man they knew.
During the testimony of family and friends, Updike held up pretty well. He was described by classmates as bookish, popular and enduringly responsive; by his children as a present if occasionally distracted father; and by his first wife Mary Weatherall as an author who valued his spouse’s opinion. There were a couple of surprises – he might not have written as many words each day as he claimed and according to his children, he inexplicably struggled to connect with his father, Wesley, a man Updike’s children seemed to adore.
Then of course there were the conference papers, all intended to continue the critical discussion that will be so important to sustaining the Updike reputation long-term.
“Can an author survive without authorial champions?” Society President James Plath asked when I interviewed him after the conference. “I don’t think so.”
The evidence supports his claim. In one of his last interviews, in October 2008, Updike cited the curious case of Emily Dickinson, who was not well known upon her death and who required the help of critics decades down the road to lift her to her current place in the canon. “There is a whole raft of poets contemporary with Emily Dickinson,” Updike said. “None of them would have imagined that she would have become one of the defining names of American letters.”
The most famous of the exhumed luminaries — the example often cited to convey the cruelties of literary reputation — is Herman Melville, who died at age 72 in relative anonymity after several literary disappointments and 19 years working in a customs house. His obituary in 1891 in the New York Times looked, in its entirety, like this:
Herman Melville died yesterday at his residence, 104 East 26th Street, this city, or heart disease, aged seventy-two. He was the writer of Typee, Omoo, Mobie Dick, and other sea-faring tales, written in earlier years. He leaves a wife and two daughters, Mrs. M. B. Thomas and Miss Melville.
Bummer. Melville apparently was the deceased writer Updike worried he would become — dead before he‘d died.
It took 30 years for what is now called the Melville Revival to commence and for Melville to ascend to his rightful place in the American canon. This was accomplished by the only people capable of doing it — scholars, historians, writers, publishers. In Melville’s case, it was biographers Raymond Weaver and Carl Van Doren and author and critic D.H. Lawrence. Without them, Melville’s historical significance might have diminished beyond even the four lines devoted to him in the Times obituary.
Updike seemed to understand as much. In that late 2008 interview, he said literary reputations are “strange things,” left often to the whims and tastes of future generations. He noted that 19th century readers were often concerned with order, meter, and plots in which good triumphs over evil – qualities less important to today’s modern and postmodern readers. He lauded Norman Mailer for not pushing too hard in his lifetime on behalf of his literary reputation, since it was an issue largely beyond his control.
Society President Plath, of course, likes Updike’s odds. He suspects future scholars will be wondrous of Updike’s capacity with metaphor, happy to find his descriptions of sex, thrilled at the number of other texts that Updike works off of in his oeuvre — including three novels written in homage to Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. “I think he’s in pretty good shape,” Plath says.
Updike’s sometimes editor at the New Yorker, Charles McGrath, also liked Updike’s odds of enduring. During that late interview with Updike, he said, “If those of us in this room had to bet who would last, you’d put your money on Bellow, Updike, and Roth.”
And yet Updike knew even he could be forgotten. There was the fear, very real, Updike thought, that reading of any kind might wither away, as well as the possibility that future generations will not be concerned with the perspective of a white, middle-class male from the Mid-Atlantic region who wrote primarily in a realistic mode. He said:
These piles of books that all of us writer are piling up [could] become just as burdensome as Latin writing in the Renaissance. There was a lot of that, and who reads it now except a few scholars? So, yes, it’s not something you should stay awake at night about, you should, my theory is, do your best, try to be honest, in your work, and amusing…. Beyond that it is out of your control
And, on a weekend devoted to John Updike, there were signs of the struggle to endure any author faces. His children, though admiring and laudatory of their father’s work, admitted to not always getting through it – daughter Miranda has tried to read Couples a few times. Daughter Elizabeth Cobblah said her father had decades ago suggested she read his African novel, The Coup, in anticipation of her marrying a man from Ghana. She hasn’t yet gotten around to it, but she plans to.
Trouble also lurked in the center of the Updike universe, the Shillington house where he grew up, and which he lovingly described in short stories, novels, and his memoirs, Self-Consciousness. The house is now occupied by the advertising agency Niemczyk/Hoffman, whose employees graciously allowed the Society members to tour their offices. In one room, formerly the guest bedroom where Updike watched his mother write fiction, the agency’s principal, Tracy Hoffman, was asked by a Society member if he read Updike.
“I’ve tried, but the descriptions …” Hoffman said, his voice trailing off, suggesting the descriptions were … um … too much.
“Have you tried Pigeon Feathers?” the Society member asked.
“I did,” Hoffman said, wincing.
In his memoirs, Updike said, that one of his great lifetime joys was watching the world going on without him, “ the awareness of things going by, impinging on my consciousness, and then, all beyond my control, sliding away toward their own destination and destiny.”
In that respect, too, Updike might have been gratified by this first weekend held in his honor – the world, as he suspected, will continue to roll on happily both with and without him.