In a discussion of Sinclair Lewis’s novel, It Can’t Happen Here, written in 1935, one person said, “This could be about any dictatorship, couldn’t it? Is there anything particularly American about this dictatorship? I felt I had an answer but it took time to think it out. Here it is:
I believe that what makes the book specifically American is Lewis’s use of the landscape. The vast American landscape, as we know, has been an embodiment of the promise of America, a symbolism which, as has been widely recognized, is an aspect of 19th century American landscape painting. From minus-Day 1, leaving the Old World you could move to the New World for a better life (however you defined it). New settlements. Homesteading. What a contrast with the Old World! In America, those who were born free were animated by the idea that if you didn’t like where you were, you could go where you thought things would be better. Good heavens,what a boon came with that birthright! There was always a “new frontier”. Then, Manifest Destiny bumped up to an end in the 1870’s, but the cultural imagination takes eons to catch up. The belief in new frontiers open to Americans was vibrant up to and during the 1930’s and way beyond. In John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (1938), in which the westward migration is a central theme, the “Okies”actually reach the edge of the continent–like Lewis, Steinbeck already had a nuanced view that left room for hope.
Lewis was born in the Midwest, Minnesota, in 1886 (at the tail end of “Manifest Destiny”). In shaping the story so that his main character, Doremus Jessup, travels from his home in New England to the West, Lewis mirrors the American migration westward. In going west, Doremus’s hopes are for both himself and America. And Lewis makes sure that Doremus appreciates the vast western skies. In giving us a glimpse of those unbounded skies through the eyes of his character, Lewis, at the end of his novel, intensifies our hopes …sends us to maybe... thereby making all the more powerful the uncertainty, and the ironic potential, with which he leaves us.