It Can't Happen Here, by Sinclair Lewis

Chapter 22

December tenth was the birthday of Berzelius Windrip, though in his earlier days as a politician, before he fruitfully realized that lies sometimes get printed and unjustly remembered against you, he had been wont to tell the world that his birthday was on December twenty-fifth, like one whom he admitted to be an even greater leader, and to shout, with real tears in his eyes, that his complete name was Berzelius Noel Weinacht Windrip.

His birthday in 1937 he commemorated by the historical “Order of Regulation,” which stated that though the Corporate government had proved both its stability and its good-will, there were still certain stupid or vicious “elements” who, in their foul envy of Corpo success, wanted to destroy everything that was good. The kind-hearted government was fed-up, and the country was informed that, from this day on, any person who by word or act sought to harm or discredit the State, would be executed or interned. Inasmuch as the prisons were already too full, both for these slanderous criminals and for the persons whom the kind-hearted State had to guard by “protective arrest,” there were immediately to be opened, all over the country, concentration camps.

Doremus guessed that the reason for the concentration camps was not only the provision of extra room for victims but, even more, the provision of places where the livelier young M.M.‘s could amuse themselves without interference from old-time professional policemen and prison-keepers, most of whom regarded their charges not as enemies, to be tortured, but just as cattle, to be kept safely.

On the eleventh, a concentration camp was enthusiastically opened, with band music, paper flowers, and speeches by District Commissioner Reek and Shad Ledue, at Trianon, nine miles north of Fort Beulah, in what had been a modern experimental school for girls. (The girls and their teachers, no sound material for Corpoism anyway, were simply sent about their business.)

And on that day and every day afterward, Doremus got from journalist friends all over the country secret news of Corpo terrorism and of the first bloody rebellions against the Corpos.

In Arkansas, a group of ninety-six former sharecroppers, who had always bellyached about their misfortunes yet seemed not a bit happier in well-run, hygienic labor camps with free weekly band concerts, attacked the superintendent’s office at one camp and killed the superintendent and five assistants. They were rounded up by an M.M. regiment from Little Rock, stood up in a winter-ragged cornfield, told to run, and shot in the back with machine guns as they comically staggered away.

In San Francisco, dock-workers tried to start an absolutely illegal strike, and their leaders, known to be Communists, were so treasonable in their speeches against the government that an M.M. commander had three of them tied up to a bale of rattan, which was soaked with oil and set afire. The Commander gave warning to all such malcontents by shooting off the criminals’ fingers and ears while they were burning, and so skilled a marksman was he, so much credit to the efficient M.M. training, that he did not kill one single man while thus trimming them up. He afterward went in search of Tom Mooney (released by the Supreme Court of the United States, early in 1936), but that notorious anti-Corpo agitator had had the fear of God put into him properly, and had escaped on a schooner for Tahiti.

In Pawtucket, a man who ought to have been free from the rotten seditious notions of such so-called labor-leaders, in fact a man who was a fashionable dentist and director in a bank, absurdly resented the attentions which half-a-dozen uniformed M.M.‘s — they were all on leave, and merely full of youthful spirits, anyway — bestowed upon his wife at a café and, in the confusion, shot and killed three of them. Ordinarily, since it was none of the public’s business anyway, the M.M.‘s did not give out details of their disciplining of rebels, but in this case, where the fool of a dentist had shown himself to be a homicidal maniac, the local M.M. commander permitted the papers to print the fact that the dentist had been given sixty-nine lashes with a flexible steel rod, then, when he came to, left to think over his murderous idiocy in a cell in which there was two feet of water in the bottom — but, rather ironically, none to drink. Unfortunately, the fellow died before having the opportunity to seek religious consolation.

In Scranton, the Catholic pastor of a working-class church was kidnaped and beaten.

In central Kansas, a man named George W. Smith pointlessly gathered a couple of hundred farmers armed with shotguns and sporting rifles and an absurdly few automatic-pistols, and led them in burning an M.M. barracks. M.M. tanks were called out, and the hick would-be rebels were not, this time, used as warnings, but were overcome with mustard gas, then disposed of with hand grenades, which was an altogether intelligent move, since there was nothing of the scoundrels left for sentimental relatives to bury and make propaganda over.

But in New York City the case was the opposite — instead of being thus surprised, the M.M.‘s rounded up all suspected Communists in the former boroughs of Manhattan and the Bronx, and all persons who were reported to have been seen consorting with such Communists, and interned the lot of them in the nineteen concentration camps on Long Island. . . . Most of them wailed that they were not Communists at all.

For the first time in America, except during the Civil War and the World War, people were afraid to say whatever came to their tongues. On the streets, on trains, at theaters, men looked about to see who might be listening before they dared so much as say there was a drought in the West, for someone might suppose they were blaming the drought on the Chief! They were particularly skittish about waiters, who were supposed to listen from the ambush which every waiter carries about with him anyway, and to report to the M.M.‘s. People who could not resist talking politics spoke of Windrip as “Colonel Robinson” or “Dr. Brown” and of Sarason as “Judge Jones” or “my cousin Kaspar,” and you would hear gossips hissing “Shhh!” at the seemingly innocent statement, “My cousin doesn’t seem to be as keen on playing bridge with the Doctor as he used to — I’ll bet sometime they’ll quit playing.”

Every moment everyone felt fear, nameless and omnipresent. They were as jumpy as men in a plague district. Any sudden sound, any unexplained footstep, any unfamiliar script on an envelope, made them startle; and for months they never felt secure enough to let themselves go, in complete sleep. And with the coming of fear went out their pride.

Daily — common now as weather reports — were the rumors of people who had suddenly been carried off “under protective arrest,” and daily more of them were celebrities. At first the M.M.‘s had, outside of the one stroke against Congress, dared to arrest only the unknown and defenseless. Now, incredulously — for these leaders had seemed invulnerable, above the ordinary law — you heard of judges, army officers, ex-state governors, bankers who had not played in with the Corpos, Jewish lawyers who had been ambassadors, being carted off to the common stink and mud of the cells.

To the journalist Doremus and his family it was not least interesting that among these imprisoned celebrities were so many journalists: Raymond Moley, Frank Simonds, Frank Kent, Heywood Broun, Mark Sullivan, Earl Browder, Franklin P. Adams, George Seldes, Frazier Hunt, Garet Garrett, Granville Hicks, Edwin James, Robert Morss Lovett — men who differed grotesquely except in their common dislike of being little disciples of Sarason and Macgoblin.

Few writers for Hearst were arrested, however.

The plague came nearer to Doremus when unrenowned editors in Lowell and Providence and Albany, who had done nothing more than fail to be enthusiastic about the Corpos, were taken away for “questioning,” and not released for weeks — months.

It came much nearer at the time of the book-burning.

All over the country, books that might threaten the Pax Romana of the Corporate State were gleefully being burned by the more scholarly Minute Men. This form of safeguarding the State — so modern that it had scarce been known prior to A.D. 1300 — was instituted by Secretary of Culture Macgoblin, but in each province the crusaders were allowed to have the fun of picking out their own paper-and-ink traitors. In the Northeastern Province, Judge Effingham Swan and Dr. Owen J. Peaseley were appointed censors by Commissioner Dewey Haik, and their index was lyrically praised all through the country.

For Swan saw that it was not such obvious anarchists and soreheads as Darrow, Steffens, Norman Thomas, who were the real danger; like rattlesnakes, their noisiness betrayed their venom. The real enemies were men whose sanctification by death had appallingly permitted them to sneak even into respectable school libraries — men so perverse that they had been traitors to the Corpo State years and years before there had been any Corpo State; and Swan (with Peaseley chirping agreement) barred from all sale or possession the books of Thoreau, Emerson, Whittier, Whitman, Mark Twain, Howells, and The New Freedom, by Woodrow Wilson, for though in later life Wilson became a sound manipulative politician, he had earlier been troubled with itching ideals.

It goes without saying that Swan denounced all such atheistic foreigners, dead or alive, as Wells, Marx, Shaw, the Mann brothers, Tolstoy, and P. G. Wodehouse with his unscrupulous propaganda against the aristocratic tradition. (Who could tell? Perhaps, some day, in a corporate empire, he might be Sir Effingham Swan, Bart.)

And in one item Swan showed blinding genius — he had the foresight to see the peril of that cynical volume, The Collected Sayings of Will Rogers.

Of the book-burnings in Syracuse and Schenectady and Hartford, Doremus had heard, but they seemed improbable as ghost stories.

The Jessup family were at dinner, just after seven, when on the porch they heard the tramping they had half expected, altogether dreaded. Mrs. Candy — even the icicle, Mrs. Candy, held her breast in agitation before she stalked out to open the door. Even David sat at table, spoon suspended in air.

Shad’s voice, “In the name of the Chief!” Harsh feet in the hall, and Shad waddling into the dining room, cap on, hand on pistol, but grinning, and with leering geniality bawling, “H’ are yuh, folks! Search for bad books. Orders of the District Commissioner. Come on, Jessup!” He looked at the fireplace to which he had once brought so many armfuls of wood, and snickered.

“If you’ll just sit down in the other room —”

“I will like hell ‘just sit down in the other room’! We’re burning the books tonight! Snap to it, Jessup!” Shad looked at the exasperated Emma; he looked at Sissy; he winked with heavy deliberation and chuckled, “H’ are you, Mis’ Jessup. Hello, Sis. How’s the kid?”

But at Mary Greenhill he did not look, nor she at him.

In the hall, Doremus found Shad’s entourage, four sheepish M.M.‘s and a more sheepish Emil Staubmeyer, who whimpered, “Just orders — you know — just orders.”

Doremus safely said nothing; led them up to his study.

Now a week before he had removed every publication that any sane Corpo could consider radical: his Das Kapital and Veblen and all the Russian novels and even Sumner’s Folkways and Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents; Thoreau and the other hoary scoundrels banned by Swan; old files of the Nation and New Republic and such copies as he had been able to get of Walt Trowbridge’s Lance for Democracy; had removed them and hidden them inside an old horsehair sofa in the upper hall.

“I told you there was nothing,” said Staubmeyer, after the search. “Let’s go.”

Said Shad, “Huh! I know this house, Ensign. I used to work here — had the privilege of putting up those storm windows you can see there, and of getting bawled out right here in this room. You won’t remember those times, Doc — when I used to mow your lawn, too, and you used to be so snotty!” Staubmeyer blushed. “You bet. I know my way around, and there’s a lot of fool books downstairs in the sittin’ room.”

Indeed in that apartment variously called the drawing room, the living room, the sittin’ room, the Parlor and once, even, by a spinster who thought editors were romantic, the studio, there were two or three hundred volumes, mostly in “standard sets.” Shad glumly stared at them, the while he rubbed the faded Brussels carpet with his spurs. He was worried. He HAD to find something seditious!

He pointed at Doremus’s dearest treasure, the thirty-four-volume extra-illustrated edition of Dickens which had been his father’s, and his father’s only insane extravagance. Shad demanded of Staubmeyer, “That guy Dickens — didn’t he do a lot of complaining about conditions — about schools and the police and everything?”

Staubmeyer protested, “Yes, but Shad — but, Captain Ledue, that was a hundred years ago —”

“Makes no difference. Dead skunk stinks worse ‘n a live one.”

Doremus cried, “Yes, but not for a hundred years! Besides —”

The M.M.‘s, obeying Shad’s gesture, were already yanking the volumes of Dickens from the shelves, dropping them on the floor, covers cracking. Doremus seized an M.M.‘s arm; from the door Sissy shrieked. Shad lumbered up to him, enormous red fist at Doremus’s nose, growling, “Want to get the daylights beaten out of you now . . . instead of later?”

Doremus and Sissy, side by side on a couch, watched the books thrown in a heap. He grasped her hand, muttering to her, “Hush — hush!” Oh, Sissy was a pretty girl, and young, but a pretty girl schoolteacher had been attacked, her clothes stripped off, and been left in the snow just south of town, two nights ago.

Doremus could not have stayed away from the book-burning. It was like seeing for the last time the face of a dead friend.

Kindling, excelsior, and spruce logs had been heaped on the thin snow on the Green. (Tomorrow there would be a fine patch burned in the hundred-year-old sward.) Round the pyre danced M.M.‘s schoolboys, students from the rather ratty business college on Elm Street, and unknown farm lads, seizing books from the pile guarded by the broadly cheerful Shad and skimming them into the flames. Doremus saw his Martin Chuzzlewit fly into air and land on the burning lid of an ancient commode. It lay there open to a Phiz drawing of Sairey Gamp, which withered instantly. As a small boy he had always laughed over that drawing.

He saw the old rector, Mr. Falck, squeezing his hands together. When Doremus touched his shoulder, Mr. Falck mourned, “They took away my Urn Burial, my Imitatio Christi. I don’t know why, I don’t know why! And they’re burning them there!”

Who owned them, Doremus did not know, nor why they had been seized, but he saw Alice in Wonderland and Omar Khayyám and Shelley and The Man Who Was Thursday and A Farewell to Arms all burning together, to the greater glory of the Dictator and the greater enlightenment of his people.

The fire was almost over when Karl Pascal pushed up to Shad Ledue and shouted, “I hear you stinkers — I’ve been out driving a guy, and I hear you raided my room and took off my books while I was away!”

“You bet we did, Comrade!”

“And you’re burning them — burning my —”

“Oh no, Comrade! Not burning ’em. Worth too blame much, Comrade.” Shad laughed very much. “They’re at the police station. We’ve just been waiting for you. It was awful nice to find all your little Communist books. Here! TAKE HIM ALONG!”

So Karl Pascal was the first prisoner to go from Fort Beulah to the Trianon Concentration Camp — no; that’s wrong; the second. The first, so inconspicuous that one almost forgets him, was an ordinary fellow, an electrician who had never so much as spoken of politics. Brayden, his name was. A Minute Man who stood well with Shad and Staubmeyer wanted Brayden’s job. Brayden went to concentration camp. Brayden was flogged when he declared, under Shad’s questioning, that he knew nothing about any plots against the Chief. Brayden died, alone in a dark cell, before January.

An English globe-trotter who gave up two weeks of December to a thorough study of “conditions” in America, wrote to his London paper, and later said on the wireless for the B.B.C.: “After a thorough glance at America I find that, far from there being any discontent with the Corpo administration among the people, they have never been so happy and so resolutely set on making a Brave New World. I asked a very prominent Hebrew banker about the assertions that his people were being oppressed, and he assured me, ‘When we hear about such silly rumors, we are highly amused.’”

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:38