"A Biology of Dictatorships": Liberalism and Modern Realism in Sinclair Lewis's It Can't Happen Here

Article excerpt

   "America" is to New World liberalism as the doctrine of the divine
   right of kings is to medieval monarchy. Open competition, group
   pluralism, voluntarism, private enterprise, personal rights,
   community by contract and consent, equality under the law,
   mobility, free opportunity, individualism--all the tenets of
   modern liberal society find their apotheosis in the symbol of
   America. The process by which the United States usurped America for
   itself, symbolically, is also the process by which liberalism
   established its political and economic dominance. Sacvan
   Bercovitch, The Office of the Scarlet Letter xxi

Louis Hartz influentially argued in 1955 that the only significant political tradition in America is classical liberalism, by which is meant a set of ideas that, as Bercovitch points out, have served as idealistic maxims for freedom and equality, while also legitimating cultural and material practices of empire and domination that belie those same ideals. This essay examines the presence of several strains of liberal thought that appear in what I argue is the unrecognized but important subgenre of modern realism, and looks specifically at Sinclair Lewis's 1935 alternative historical novel It Can't Happen Here as an example of liberalism as an ideology of form. Lewis's novel makes a particularly apt case study in the connections between liberalism and realism, as it confronts fascism, and allows the postulation of questions regarding whether liberalism's inclusionary politics can satisfactorily account for and refute fascism, its ideological antithesis. This essay acknowledges the points made in the often harsh critiques of the novel, but argues that rather than attributing the novel's treatment of fascism to Lewis's lack of political insight, we should interpret it as symptomatic of both the strengths and weaknesses of liberal thought.

Classical liberalism and the realist novel both emerged from the rationalism of the Enlightenment, the former during the mid-eighteenth century and the latter in the early nineteenth century. Both are individualistic discourses, in contrast to competing collectivist political models, or, in literature, to avant-garde works that call into question the individual subject through models of fragmentary subjectivity. Both have evolved by incorporating competing ideas into themselves. Liberalism does this by way of what Michael Walzer has called a "communitarian correction" (15), adapting communitarian and conservative values to avoid the atomizing effects of liberalism. Realism does so by adjusting to modern changes and combining the individualism of romanticism with the social focus of the European novel. Both are regarded by their proponents as self-apparent, transparent theories. While other literary genres and political theories problematize transparency by raising constructivist questions, classical liberalism and the realist novel both maintain that the possibility of representation of a pre-textual reality can and should ground moral, ethical, and aesthetic inquiries.

There are several reasons why the parallels between classical liberalism and the American realist novel have been overlooked. Critics have tended to see both as normative ideals of which works almost always fall short. Lionel Trilling, in The Liberal Imagination, praised classical liberalism, but described twentieth-century liberalism as having become excessively rationalist, unable to emotionally involve the reader, to the extent that "no connexion exists between our liberal educated class and the best of the literary minds of our time" (107). Another reason is the perception of realism as European, an idea put forth by Richard Chase in his influential American Studies classic, The American Novel and Its Tradition, which argues that American literature is poised between the novel, a European genre that focuses on the social networks that constrain the hero, and the romance, "that freer, more daring, more brilliant fiction that contrasts with the solid moral inclusiveness and massive equability of the English novel" (viii). …