Sinclair Lewis and his bride, Dorothy Thompson, bought a summer home in Barnard in 1928 — two years before Lewis won the Nobel Prize for literature.
They called their estate Twin Farms because it featured two houses on the 300-acre property and, in the warm months, they lived the lives of country gentry on a picturesque New England farm amid rustic charm and a view of Mt. Ascutney.
They worked diligently, entertained friends, and Lewis cranked out a pot-boiling best seller, “It Can’t Happen Here.” Inspired, in part, by Thompson’s reporting from Hitler’s Germany, the novel describes a right-wing plot to subvert America’s democracy and seize control of the government. The insidious cabal is contested by the book’s hero, Vermont newspaperman, Doremus Jessup. Lewis’s protagonist was based on Howard Hindley, a long-time editor of the Rutland Herald and a neighbor of Lewis in Vermont.
As described in the novel, “He was, and he knew it, a small-town bourgeois intellectual,” who, as a principled journalist, assailed duplicity and injustice wherever he found it. Jessop is the editor of a small-town newspaper in the fictional town of Fort Beulah, when Buzz Windrip decides to run for President of the United States. Immediately alarmed by the tenor and tone of Windrip’s campaign, Jessup finds that the improbable candidate for the highest office in the land employs misinformation and outright lies in his quest for the White House. The voters are duped by Windrip, and he defeats Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the 1936 Democratic primary. His anti-Semitic and fundamentalist Christian message, seasoned with patriotic demagoguery, wins the day and the presidential election.
The jingoistic nationalism of Windrip’s political movement conceals the nefarious intent of his racially charged, divisive agenda. His harsh minions, the “Minute Men,” mete out physical punishment to those who oppose the new president’s policies. The Vermont newspaperman is puzzled by Windrip’s popularity. To Jessup, he seems a barely literate con-man who lies whenever it suits him. After writing an editorial condemning the excesses of the new regime, Jessup is brought before a local tribunal and soon learns that the Windrip administration sees the criminal justice system as a tool for punishing its critics. As Windrip flexes the might of his new American regime, the reader finds disturbing similarities with the fascist states then flourishing in Italy and Germany.
Eventually Jessup, “a liberal Republican” joins the resistance movement that emerges to challenge the new p resident, finally living as an exile in Montreal until he can re-enter Vermont to join an opposition movement. The novel is a savage critique of America but also a paean to the ideals on which it was founded.
“It Can’t Happen Here” was a great success at its publication in 1935 and, once again, achieved best-seller status with the election of Donald Trump in 2016. Lewis, who is said to have remarked, “when fascism comes to America it will be wrapped in a flag and carrying a cross,” underscores the connection of sham patriotism and Christian fundamentalism fueling the flames of totalitarianism.
Thompson had recently served as chief correspondent for the New York Post in Berlin and had chronicled Hitler’s rise to power in Germany, bearing witness to the propaganda machine that enabled the Nazis’ ascent in Europe. Her reporting, including a 1931 interview with Hitler, did not endear her to the Third Reich, and she was expelled by the Nazis in 1934.
The novel is a tribute to his friend, Howard Hindley, that Lewis based his newspaperman-hero on the Vermont editor. Hindley was an exemplar of the activist editor who took sides, had a point of view, and fought for his version of a just society. Like his fictional counterpart, Hindley was a Republican — as was almost everyone in Vermont in those days. He was editor of the Rutland Herald from 1905 to 1941. Born in Ontario, Canada, in 1870, he attended public schools and, briefly, McGill University before coming to Vermont at 16 to work as a telegraph operator on the Central Vermont Railroad. He soon found himself employed at a variety of newspapers, including the Montpelier Journal, before assuming the position of editor at the Rutland Herald. Concurrent with managing the content of Vermont’s oldest newspaper, he worked on various political campaigns for the owner of the Herald, Percival Clement, who was elected governor in 1916. As a newspaperman, Hindley became widely known for his column Peregrinations, which appeared daily in the Herald for 20 years. His obituary in the Rutland Herald notes, “Hindley’s interest in drama and music as well as all kinds of literary effort was always reflected in his column, occupying a place which was equally important with his keen observations upon political and other state affairs.”
Interestingly, Hindley’s columns did not seem to be particularly attuned to social issues or politics; rather, they were ruminations on local topics of general interest to Vermonters.
Lewis and Hindley lived close enough to each other to be regular guests in each other’s homes. In February 1936, shortly after the immediate success of “It Can’t Happen Here,” Hindley was in Washington, D.C., to escape the Vermont winter and recover from a “nervous breakdown.” He was interviewed for the Washington News by Helen Buchalter. She wrote: “Big, ruddy-faced, despite his sixty-odd years, he has been editing the Rutland Herald for more than two decades. He turns out a column every day on general topics with occasional poems from contributors.”
Buchalter mentioned that Hindley did not like the best-selling book very much, despite having served as inspiration for the novel’s hero.
“It’s too frighteningly real,” he said. “It makes me uncomfortable. You can’t put the book down, and it packs a big punch, but I don’t like it because it makes you feel it really might happen here.”
The terrible “it” is fascism and the scene of the book is a small Vermont town something like Rutland, where Hindley edits the local “Herald.”
Hindley balked at the comparison to Jessup in Lewis’s alternate history. “He was a small man and had a little beard.” Hindley, according to Buchalter, “is large and beardless.” Hindley lodged a further protest. “Jessup had a mistress, which isn’t fair because I don’t have one.”
Hindley recalled a meeting with his friend after Lewis addressed a Rotary meeting in Rutland: “Afterward he came into my office, and he kidded awhile, and then I said, ‘Lewis, why don’t you write a book about a Vermont editor?’ He just smiled.”
Later, the author admitted that “It Can’t Happen Here” was inspired by Hindley and the Rutland Herald. Hindley recalled that Lewis had written the 400 plus page book in six weeks. “It was feverish work with scarcely time for meals between marathon sessions. He wrote day and night, worked on the book in bed, furiously, until he was through.”
While Hindley thought the work had a compelling plot, he characterized the writing as “sloppy.” Today’s reader might agree. But upon publication in 1935, the novel became an instant best seller, with sales amounting to more than 300,000.
With the election of Donald Trump to the presidency, the novel once again found its way to the best-seller list. It is interesting to note that Hollywood bought the rights to Lewis’ novel and planned a major film starring Lionel Barrymore as Jessup. Pressure from the Hayes Office (Hollywood’s clumsy attempt at self-censorship) led to the abandonment of the project. The motion picture industry did not want to offend Hitler’s government.
The book’s resurrection after the 2016 election led Bill Dunning, a critic for the Santa Fe New Mexican to opine, “After you read ‘It Can’t Happen Here,’ you might, like his protagonist, want to move to Canada. But you may also realize that your vote might save your country once more.”
Paul Heller is a writer and historian who lives in Barre.