Another Look at an Uncomfortably Relevant 1935 Novel

It Can't Happen Here 3

 It Can’t Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis. Binding by Minsky, 2017
Alum tawed goatskin, gold, 8-point type, acrylic paint, artist’s blood,
with Vermont Vigilance endpapers.
First Edition, Doubleday, Doran & Company. Garden City, New York, 1935.
8⅛” x 5¾” x 1⅞”


Richard Minsky is an artist, curator, art historian and lecturer. He founded the Center for Book Arts in 1974. The Richard Minsky Archive is at Yale’s Haas Arts Library, where a 50 year retrospective was mounted in 2010. You can find out more at his Website:

It Can't Happen Here

(Photo by Richard Grosbard)

“My residencies at BMC in the mid 1980s provided the opportunity to work uninterrupted and isolated, yet in the midst of a lively activist community. It was a terrific balance,” he remembers. 

“Driving up for my second residency in 1986 my 1974 Oldsmobile 98 Regency blew both cylinder heads on the highway. I had it towed the rest of the way. “Brother” Blanchard (Albert) let me use his amazing garage to repair it.  I ordered two new cylinder heads for the 455 Rocket V-8 engine, which came in a few days via UPS. The disassembly and head switch went perfectly. When done I turned on the ignition and flames shot up from the engine! I had forgotten to reattach the gas line. Fortunately he had a working fire extinguisher, and no damage was done, except to the paint on the hood.  I repainted the car in a geometric design during the residency and, when back in my studio, bound a blank book with a similar design using inlaid leather. I called the pair Travelog–the car for travel and the book to log the adventures.’

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Like a lot of Americans in the wake of the 2016 election, book artist Richard Minsky picked up an almost forgotten novel by Nobel Prize-winning author Sinclair Lewis—It Can’t Happen Here. Published in 1935 after Hitler rose to power in Germany, the book envisions a fascist takeover of the United States after the populist demagogue “Buzz” Windrip wins the presidency by promising to restore the country to greatness.  The new president becomes increasingly authoritarian once in office, and installs business executives and other supporters known as “corpos” in top federal positions to impose corporatist rule along the lines of  Benito Mussolini’s model for fascist Italy.

As civil liberties and freedom of the press are trampled and many opponents sent to concentration camps, an underground resistance arises around the country. The novel tracks the story of Vermont newspaper editor Doremus Jessup, who is radicalized when the corpos send a supervisor to his office to make sure he prints the “right” news. He joins the resistance and pens an anonymous pamphlet about the crumbling of American democracy titled Vermont Vigilance and prints it on an old handpress he  stole from the newspaper office.

At the time he was reading It Can’t Happen Here, Minsky was Artist-in-Residence at the RIT Cary Graphic Arts Collection at the Rochester Institute of Technology, and decided to print a version of Vermont Vigilance on a 19th century Albion handpress in the institution’s collection (the same one on which William Morris printed his 1896 Kelmscott Press edition of The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer, a milestone in fine art printing and book art).  Some of the text is drawn from It Can’t Happen Here and some created by Minsky.

Another Look at an Uncomfortably Relevant 1935 Novel 3

Printed by Minsky on the Kelmscott – Goudy Iron Handpress at the Cary Graphic Arts Collection, Rochester Institute of Technology 


Minsky later acquired first editions of It Can’t Happen Here, for which he created new bindings  and inserted copies of his Vermont Vigilance into them, which is how Doremus Jessup circulated his underground pamphlet. “The cover panel of my binding symbolizes what happens when the Corpos discover where Vermont Vigilance is being printed,” he says. 


Another Look at an Uncomfortably Relevant 1935 Novel 2

The Fine Books & Collections website described this work  as “a stunning binding that combines leather, gold, paint — and the artist’s blood.”   In an interview with editor Rebecca Rego Barry, Minsky explains, “I used my blood because it evokes a metaphor of the book–that people are willing to give their blood to resist fascism. Many of the characters are bloodied. Some survive, some die.”


The Surprise Best Seller of 2017

It Can’t Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis

Binding by Minsky, 2018
Calf, gold, panel of 8-point type, acrylic paint, artist’s blood on Vermont Vigilance.
First Edition, Doubleday, Doran & Company. Garden City, New York, 1935.
8⅛” x 5¾” x 1⅞”