The first American to win the Nobel Prize for Literature was not Ernest Hemingway or that progenitor of Southern Gothic, William Faulkner, but a relatively obscure writer, namely Sinclair Lewis, in 1930.
The statue to Huey Long in the capital
Louisiana, Baton Rouge
Some books last, developing a life of their own; some books fade from view. The two books on which Lewis’ reputation rests are Main Street and Babbitt. Both books describe life in a small Midwestern town, strongly resembling Sauk Centre, Minnesota, where Lewis spent his childhood and youth. Babbitt is especially amusing. The plot recalls the phrase in Arthur Miller’s play Death of a Salesman: “A salesman is got to dream. It comes with the territory.”
It can happen anywhere
Lewis was not a consistently good writer. Few writers are. Among his “second ranking” books which still entertain is It Can’t Happen Here, first published in 1935. This dystopian novel is set in a small New England town – Fort Beulah, Vermont, a region of hard winters and tough Yankee people.
If we look back over the 20th century, the dystopia as a literary device has been used frequently to argue a case. Dystopias range from Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, to 1984 by George Orwell, and We by Yevgeny Zamyatin. The dystopia has been much favoured in cinema, with classics such as Soylent Green, Bladerunner, and The Matrix. The reason dystopias are favoured, and not their mirror opposite, the utopia, is that the dystopia holds up a mirror in which we may see our current age.
As Nobel Laureate, Sinclair Lewis was cited for “his vigorous and graphic art of description and his ability to create, with wit and humor, new types of characters”. Lewis was also commended for his creation of strong and assertive female characters. Women had won unparalleled freedom through the adoption of bicycles and their ability to adapt to the “flivver” – cheap cars such as the Model T Ford. Women could not only move around without male supervision, but new fashions did away with corsets, bustles and bustiers, which hampered movement.
The reason It Can’t Happen Here is worth noting is that in the mid 1930s the American economy had hit the wall. Like today, the 1930s were a time of great economic dislocation. From World War I through to the end of the 1920s, the United States had transitioned from an agricultural economy based on human labour to an industrial economy based on machines and manufacturing. Whole new industries had flourished. The automobile was the wonder of the age. Anyone could own a Model T Ford. The Ford River Rouge plant in Dearborn, Michigan, was the epitome of high tech. Ford was akin to Apple today.
Apart from cars, other classes of manufactured goods sprung to life – phonographs, refrigerators, radios (or “the wireless”), “the talkies”, electric irons, gas stoves. Agriculture too had become mechanised. In the 1930s, Lewis conjectured that one day there would be a television in every home.
Most people still lived in small towns. Today, half the population of the United States still lives in towns of under 20,000 people. The “television cities” of Los Angeles and New York grasp our imagination, but together they account for less than 10 per cent of America’s population.
The Roaring Twenties seemed to realise the vision of Horatio Alger and his fictional heroes of American capitalism: anyone could be a millionaire. But not all could grasp the flaming branch of ambition. Many were left behind. The man who could rally those left behind and weld them into a politically effective mass was Governor Huey Long of Louisiana. Huey Long’s campaign slogan was “every man a King”.
Louisiana would not seem to be a promising place to start a revolution. Louisiana was a poor state. The black population was effectively denied the vote. In terms of educational achievement, Louisiana lagged behind just about every state in the Union. America’s wave of industrialisation had passed Louisiana by.
Roads and bridges hardly existed. This meant that if it was wet on polling day, many voters were effectively disenfranchised. Louisiana had oil, but Louisiana’s oil wealth didn’t seem to trickle down to the people. The oil money stayed in the hands of the Standard Oil trust. Power in Baton Rouge, the state capital, was in the hands of a self-perpetuating clique.
Life along the bayous was simple. These stagnant backwaters held the marine animals that provided a sort of living – catfish, crawfish and other bottom dwellers. And who could forget that “down in Louisiana, where the alligators grow so mean”, you had to watch your back.
Huey Long was Governor of Louisiana from 1928 to 1932 and United States Senator for Louisiana from 1932 until his assassination in 1935. He made his landmark “every man a King” radio broadcast in February 1934, in the depths of the Great Depression. “The Kingfish”, as Long called himself, was a Democrat. “The Kingfish” was a rabble-rousing populist. He wanted to “share the wealth” by taking money from the rich and the banks and distributing it to the common man.
Long opposed the Federal Reserve system and banks in general. He advocated public works to augment schools and colleges, and wanted to introduce an age pension. Long’s firebrand rhetoric alarmed the rich. It is said that if he had tried to have the Lord’s Prayer passed in the Senate, he wouldn’t have got a single vote.
In alliance with influential radio commentator Fr Charles Coughlin, a Catholic priest, he formed a national movement to promote his policies. Although he backed Franklin Roosevelt for the presidency in 1932, “the Kingfish” stated that he intended to run for president of the United States in 1936. Fr Coughlin was a populist bank basher who broadcast to a radio audience of 30 million. The Roosevelt administration forced him off the air in 1939 when World War II broke out, accusing him of supporting fascism.
Huey Long could have been a dictator. His methods of governance in Louisiana certainly support this supposition. Of course, the aim of “the Kingfish” was to create a utopia. Louisiana did benefit from Huey Long’s rule, but his legacy is controversial, even in his home state. As for utopias, Sinclair Lewis is quite aware that many have been tried – George Ripley’s Brook Farm in Massachusetts; Robert Owen’s New Harmony in Indiana; and Upton Sinclair’s Helicon Home Colony in New Jersey, to name a few. All failed. Sinclair Lewis wrote: “There will never be a state of society anything like perfect!”
By the time Lewis had finished writing It Can’t Happen Here, Huey Long was dead. He could not be a dictator. But Lewis thought it was worth writing It Can’t Happen Here because it could happen in America. The bulwark of town-hall meetings and grassroots civic involvement could push back against the centralising tendencies of the metropolis. But the old ways were changing.
On the land, hand sowing and reaping were replaced by the machine. As agriculture mechanised, people moved off the farm and into the factories. A new form of middle class was being created: the factory worker. Henry Ford paid his workers $5 a day! They could afford to buy cars – Ford’s cars!
No one has yet offered a completely satisfactory explanation for what caused the Great Depression. The stockmarket crash of October 1929 offers a convenient starting point but it is by no means certain that the Great Crash actually “caused” the Great Depression. The Crash snowballed when margin calls meant that investors had to sell their stocks at any price to pay back their margin loans. The Great Depression was fertile soil for demagogues. The middle class was reduced to poverty.
The current situation in America is eerily similar. The soil has been well prepared for a demagogue who offers the dispossessed a simple solution to their predicament. Forget about the official 4.7 per cent unemployment rate in May 2016; it bears little relationship to reality. The American economy is in a state of flux. Manufacturing, especially low-skilled manufacturing, has been outsourced to Asia and will never return. Some reshoring – manufacturing returning to the United States – is going on, but not a lot. Those industries have gone, and so have the jobs.
America is transitioning from a manufacturing economy to a services economy. According to David Stockman, who served as budget director for Ronald Reagan (“State-wrecked: The corruption of capitalism in America”, New York Times, March 31, 2013) the American economy between 2007 and 2013 grew by an average of 1.7 per cent a year – the slowest growth rate since the American Civil War. The Main Street economy is failing, and people are getting angry. Main Street and Wall Street are disconnecting.
Half the population of the United States has been left behind by prosperity. The minimum wage is $US7 an hour. Not all employers pay the minimum wage. A double-income couple may not be able to keep their family in reasonable comfort. The economy of Hong Kong can transition from manufacturing to services in a decade because it is a small economy; the U.S. economy is the world’s largest; it can’t change its spots overnight.
Similar to what Stockman describes in “State-wreck”, Roosevelt had adopted a form of “State capitalism” to counter Huey Long. The banks were effectively nationalised. The long march towards the casino economy, backed by fiat money, had begun.
Donald Trump offers simple solutions to complex problems; the dispossessed listen to him. These policies are usually ludicrous: “Build a wall along the Mexican border, with Mexico paying for it.” This only increases the appeal to a certain type of person. Not the smooth middle-class types we see on television; the people we don’t see. When the economy is like a casino, and you aren’t winning, it generates a tremendous amount of bitterness and resentment. Donald Trump has, so far, proved to be an expert in channeling that resentment.
The real test for Donald Trump, now presumptive Republican candidate for president of the United States, will come when he opens his tax return for public inspection. The problem is not that he has too much money, but more likely that his financial affairs are like Clive Palmer’s – a highly geared house of cards.
It can’t happen here? Donald Trump resembles a caudillo – a Latin-American strongman. The series of checks and balances America’s Founding Fathers built into its political system are meant to restrain a strongman. The executive, legislative and judicial branches of government complement and balance each other. Yet the American public may elect a strongman; and Donald Trump may not be the last. What would happen if Donald Trump were challenged? No one knows.