It Can’t Happen Here-A Play and a Plea to Writers-Which Americans Won the Nobel Prize

January 3, 2012

By Michael McDermott

On December 30 this year, 2011 Patricia Monaghan and I hosted a script reading and party at Brigit Rest, our home and retreat center in Black Earth. We and guests read “It Can’t Happen Here”, the play by Sinclair Lewis adapted from the novel of the same name as part of the Federal Theater Project of the WPA during the depths of the depression. The novel and play present a story of the development of a fascist state in America and the resistance to it. Like much of Lewis’s work it reads and sounds like it was created for today. When it was released in 1936 scores of companies performed the play. Recently in October the play was performed all over the U.S., in commemoration of the 75th anniversary of the Federal Theater Project.
Patricia and I have been fascinated by Lewis’s work. He was a master portraying the corruption and venality of elements of the grasping middle class and their aspirations to become the rich and powerful. His vivid expose’s of preachers in Elmer Gantry, corruption of science and medicine in Arrowsmith, and the emptiness and ultimate futility of small town boosterism in Main Street all spoke to common concerns of his times. His art walked in the muck and mire of his times while hailing the honest and courageous individuals who raised above all this.
Though neglected to this day by many critics who found in him a lack of literary style he won a Pulitzer (he refused it) and Noble prize. He was the first and one of ten Americans to be awarded a Noble. No Americans have received this award since 1993 when Toni Morrison won. Why, one might ask, has no American won for 19 years, the longest dry spell since Lewis’s award in 1930?
A glance at the winning Americans helps. Going backwards in time the winners were: Toni Morrison, Czeslaw Milosz, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Saul Bellow, John Steinbeck, Ernest Hemmingway, William Faulkner, Pearl S. Buck, Eugene O’Neil and Lewis. All of their art was rooted in social and political conditions and often reflected social activism. Many were activists themselves or participated and chronicled important social movements of their time. Even those writing of more personal issues did so against the backdrop of the forces that shaped their suffering protagonists. In a word reflecting discussions of our time they had a subject. Most importantly they had a subject other than themselves in their own suffering.
Many leading writing programs these days suggest or demand that there is no subject other than the self. Great writing shows otherwise. Art must strive for excellence of style and craft but to be important is must speak to the issues of the day and time. The Black Earth Institute and its fellows are dedicated to this path.

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