Reviews and updates from Amber Foxx, author of the Mae Martin Psychic Mystery Series
A few weeks before I started this book, I met a young woman at a local coffeehouse who struck me as paranoid, lost in a world view that stretched our current political reality too far into the dark. She expressed her concern about martial law being declared here and said that liberals should infiltrate the neo-Nazis and keep an eye on them. I thought she was a bit crazy. We have a democracy, despite the obvious problems in our country, and as for needing to defend ourselves against radical right wing militias—it can’t happen here. Now that I’ve finished the book, I still hope she was wrong, but I no longer think she was crazy. After all, Sinclair Lewis wasn’t.
This isn’t his most polished work. The writing style ranges from profoundly beautiful to crammed and hasty. He wrote it, I think, in four months, with some unnecessary scenes included and some needed scenes skimmed over. Some aspects of it—especially a strange speech a young woman makes about the risks of being raped when she spies on the opposition—are dated, to say the least. I found it well worth reading, nonetheless. It made me think. Made me pay attention and notice patterns. Maybe it made me little paranoid.
In 1935, Lewis imagined an America that could elect an authoritarian President, Buzz Windrip, who promises the “forgotten men” better lives, who seeks to grow the military, control the press, and stir up resentment against certain racial and ethnic groups. He campaigns on keeping wages high and prices low, says he’s for Labor but against strikes, and claims the U.S. can defy the world and make its own everything without needing to import anything. In other words, he tells people what they want to hear, even if it doesn’t make economic sense.
The protagonist of this tale is Doremus Jessup, the editor of a small-town paper in Vermont, an imperfect man in his early sixties who never saw himself as having to stand up against tyranny—until it happens. And when it happens, he realizes it was because people like himself allowed it, though accidentally, by not fighting hard enough when its first signs crept in. Casting an editor as the main character is central to Lewis’s message: a free press is the enemy of tyranny, and when people lose the right to share truth freely, they lose freedom of mind. With that, they lose freedom in every other way, in the process of creeping dictatorship.
Windrip has a power of bewitching large audiences, though he’s “vulgar, almost illiterate, a public liar easily detected …while his …piety is that of a traveling salesman for church furniture.” Before the election, the press keeps his name alive constantly, as did a teacher he had in grade school who told him he was thick-headed more often than she praised other students. So he became, he notes, “the most-talked about scholar in the whole township. The United States Senate isn’t so different.” Windrip is master of publicity who doesn’t mind a certain amount of notoriety if it gets him talked about.
Voters see in Windrip “for all his clownish swindlerism, a free vigor which promised a rejuvenation of the senile and crippled capitalist system.”
The fault of the opposing candidates for President in this tale is that they “represented integrity and reason, in a year when the electorate was hungry for frisky emotions … all the primitive sensations they thought they found in the screaming of Buzz Windrip.”
Jessup finds that some voters are motivated by the way Windrip “condemned the Negro, for nothing so elevates a dispossessed farmer or a factory worker on relief as to have some race, any race, to look down upon.” Windrip gets the votes of “kind people, industrious people, generous to their aged, eager to find any desperate cure for the sickness of worry over losing the job. Most facile material for any rabble-rouser.” Economic insecurity and inequality get exploited for Windrip’s self-serving agenda.
Once he’s in office, his supporters turn blind eyes to his failures to make their lives better. They think he can do no wrong, and many look to advance through his private troops who begin to run everything. Meanwhile, he sustains a high level of profitable corruption behind the scenes.
One of Jessup’s acquaintances claims that Buzz isn’t the problem, but rather “it’s the sickness that made us throw him up that we’ve got to attend to.” They talk about three percent of the people owning ninety percent of the wealth, and how intellectuals as well as working class people belong to the “ninety-seven percent of the broke.”
However, Jessup feels that the tyranny isn’t primarily the fault of big business or “the demagogues who do their dirty work,” but his fault, the fault of people like himself “who let the demagogues wiggle in, without fierce enough protest.”
“A country that tolerates evil means—evil manners, standards of ethics—for a generation will be so poisoned that it will never have any good end.”
Windrip’s strategy includes not only controlling the press but limiting free association. Without facts, without knowledge of what’s really going on, and unable to form groups that might oppose him, the people are easier to control.
Jessup watches what he thinks of as the “biology of dictatorship” unfolding.
“Anyone who did not play valet to his (Windrip’s) ego … he suspected of plotting against him.”
“Windrip had promised to make everyone richer, and had contrived to make everybody, except for a few hundred bankers, industrialists and soldiers, much poorer. He needed no higher mathematician to produce his financial statements; any ordinary press agent would do.”
“In order to bring and hold all elements of the country together by that useful Patriotism which always appears upon threat of an outside attack, the government immediately arranged to be insulted and menaced…”
After the election, as the bricks of freedom are knocked down one by one, a resistance forms. The opposition to the Windrip regime includes “hundreds of the most capable professional journalists in America, (but) they were cramped by a certain respect for facts which never enfeebled the press agents for Corpoism.” (Corpo is the term for Corporatist, the political ideas of the Windrip government.) Jessup endures strains and shocks he never envisioned in his pre-Corpo days. And so do the people who elected a dictator. They don’t foresee that trusting one charismatic leader to change the way the country is organized and demolish the norms of civil society can open the door for other leaders far worse than him to take over and do even more harm.
Jessup says, “I am convinced that everything that is worthwhile in the world has been accomplished by the free, inquiring, critical spirit, and that the preservation of this spirit is more important than any social system whatsoever. But the men of ritual and the men of barbarism are capable of shutting up the men of science and of silencing them forever.”
I’ve tried not to give any spoilers while sharing provocative quotations. You’ll need to read to find out what happens, and if this 1930s dystopian USA is saved—or not.