Sinclair Lewis' 'It Can't Happen Here' becomes a bestseller after Trump's win

Sinclair Lewis, author of 'It Can't Happen Here'
Sinclair Lewis, author of 'It Can't Happen Here'
Book cover courtesy of publisher; portrait from AFP/Getty Images

Sinclair Lewis, born in Sauk Centre, Minn., became the first American to win the Nobel Prize for literature in 1930.

Though considered classics, his books are not as widely read as they once were — even in his home state.

Until now.

Following the recent presidential election, Lewis' 1935 novel, "It Can't Happen Here," has sold out at locations across the country and online. It is currently the No. 1 bestseller in the Classic American Literature section on Amazon.

The reason? Some see in the novel an uncanny prediction of the rise of Donald Trump.

"It Can't Happen Here" is a dark satire of American politics. Lewis imagines a world in which Franklin D. Roosevelt loses the 1936 election to a charismatic politician named Buzz Windrip.

Windrip "presents himself as a man of the people and gets elected, but it turns out he's a fascist, and he remakes the country in a way that takes away individual liberty. He imprisons people who don't agree with him," explained Sally Parry, a longtime Lewis expert and associate dean for the College of Arts and Sciences at Illinois State University.

Parry was surprised to see Lewis' book climbing bestseller charts after so many decades. But there's plenty of material to make the novel seem timely, she said.

"Lewis identified a kind of anger among people who were not well-off economically, who were kind of condescended to by more educated people. And that anger festered and festered," Parry said. "[Windrip] taps into that anger in a very visceral way — very much the way that I think Donald Trump did with voters in this country."

In "It Can't Happen Here," Windrip's base, called the "League of Forgotten Men," rallies behind him and his plain-spokenness. Its members vote him to victory, allowing him to carry out sweeping acts of restriction and control.

Richard Lingeman, who wrote a biography on Sinclair Lewis, said the author modeled Windrip on a real-life politician of the time, Huey Long. Long, who served as a U.S. senator and the governor of Louisiana, is a controversial figure in American politics: He was an ardent populist, but some denounced him as a dictator. He was assassinated one month after declaring he would run against Roosevelt for the presidency.

This isn't the first time current events have propelled Lewis to new popularity.

In the 1990s, as scandals broke around the indiscretions of televangelists, Lewis' book "Elmer Gantry" became a bestseller, Parry said. "Elmer Gantry" is a satirical novel about a pastor with a taste for alcohol and sex.

"I think if people read Lewis, they will get a sense that the American people in some ways haven't changed," Parry said. "To read Lewis is to get a sense of what Americans are capable of doing in a really good way, and also capable of doing in a really bad way."

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