“Writers help us better understand our world, both present and past, by shining a light on seen and unseen truths. The recent appearance on bestseller lists of dystopian literature such as 1984, Brave New World, It Can’t Happen Here, and The Handmaid’s Tale reminds us that the novelists, poets, and critics who give imaginative shape to our experience are indispensable in our current political climate. A free society treasures its writers for this important role.”
The Authors Guild sent this message out in yesterday’s e-news. It is one of many statements of the rise in book sales and library requests for the classics of dystopian literature. The list is interesting since 1984, Brave New World, The Handmaid’s Tale, and Shape of Things to Come are novels of life in an established dystopia. Whatever caused the society to be autocratic and patriarchal has already happened and is already considered established history. The base line civilization for those writers was England which, at that time, had little experience with diversity. 1984 was cited and its re-popularization was noticed first since its society’s newspeak came to mind almost immediately when faced with Kellyanne Conway and her “alternative facts.” The dystopias, whether predicted for a time between their writing and now or set in what is still the future, establish alternative realities that include recognizable elements from the present. These adult novels of personal responsibility and sedition could have shared the spotlight with the dystopia series that have led readership and sales in the Young Adult market for decades. A remarkable number of popular YA novels and film franchises have been training manuals for revolutionary action. We all learned from the Order of the Phoenix and I wondered if Bernie Sanders’ popularity was at least partially due to his resemblance to Dumbledore.
It Can’t Happen Here is different. Sinclair Lewis’ novel is present tense (set in the 1930s) and the autocracy gains power through a presidential election. It was popular in its time, was dramatized for stage and radio presentation by the Federal Theatre Project, and filmed. We used that title for an exhibition on Anti-Fascist Performance in America. Today’s image is a Charles Hawkins design for Coriolanus — Autocracy vs. Democracy, a Federal Theater Project production that was featured in the exhibit. The soldier’s logo was also used by the Corpo, Lewis’ right-wing police force. It Can’t Happen Here concerns the process of subverting electoral politics and its plot is less like 1984 and more like Animal Farm, as the original villains are replaced by a worse, but less didactically pure, group.
If 1984, Brave New World and The Handmaid’s Tale are inspirational examples of sci-fi as literature, we should still remember that another place to look for anti-Fascist texts is on the Mystery shelf. The film (and forgotten novel by I.A.R. Wylie) that is often mentioned with It Can’t Happen Here is Keeper of the Flame (MGM 1943), remembered more as the first co-starring of Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy. Until recently, they were forgotten along with the threat of American fascism. But, now both deserve a reconsideration. At the least, TCM could do a mini-festival.
The British fascist movements – currently a major topic in history – can also be found as the threat in 1930s popular mysteries. The avuncular good guy who is unmasked as the evil genius behind it all shows up in many Agatha Christie novels and Alfred Hitchcock films. My personal favorite “how to recognize a Fascist” mystery is Traitor’s Purse, an Albert Campion story by Margery Allingham. It was recently re-released in paperback.
What’s on your booklist?