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Thomas Cronin seeks wisdom in political writers of the past 

American dreams

click to enlarge Cronin: "We need to keep at it." We've been through tough times before. - J. ADRIAN STANLEY
  • J. Adrian Stanley
  • Cronin: "We need to keep at it." We've been through tough times before.

Given our country's tumultuous political climate, it might be just the right time to explore the American Dream through the eyes of some of its greatest writers. Here enters Thomas Cronin with his newest book, Imagining a Great Republic: Political Novels and the Idea of America.

The book examines the work of some of the country's greatest political writers, from Harriet Beecher Stowe to Harper Lee to Hunter S. Thompson.

"There are dozens of excellent American political novels; many of which deserve to be read, if you've not read them before, or deserve to be reread," Cronin says. "I think there are a lot of these novels that speak to us today about what kind of people we want to be and also the imperfect political institutions we have and how hard it is to govern a republic."

Before writing the book, Cronin says he read more than 100 American novels, then "whittled it down to 40 or 50" to include in his book.

"I tried to select ones that teach us about our politics and teach about our political story," he says.

Fresh off lectures on the West Coast, the longtime Colorado College political science professor will sign copies of his book at the downtown Hooked on Books on Dec. 9.

Cronin has worked on or written more than a dozen titles; his other works include best-selling textbooks about the U.S. presidency and American government. His writing has also appeared in mainstream publications such as The New York Times Magazine, Science and The Daily Beast as well as political science and public policy journals.

A native of the Boston area, Cronin earned his doctorate from Stanford University in 1968 and came to the Springs in 1979. Though most of his career has been at CC (he served as acting president in 1991), he also served at Washington state's Whitman College, where he is president emeritus, from 1993 to 2005.

We spoke with Cronin about his new book.

Indy: If there's anything in common among the novelists featured in your book, it's that they've been considered moral and civic consciousness-raisers. We like to imagine writers like Harriet Beecher Stowe and Hunter S. Thompson in a conversation about politics. How did you approach this aspect of analysis in your book?

Thomas Cronin: You hit it on the head when you said Harriet Beecher Stowe. She was a best-selling novelist of the 19th century. She was a courageous women who raised tough questions about slavery and the wrongheadedness and immoral aspects of slavery. She shamed the politicians of her day, including Abraham Lincoln. She was a moral and courageous hero.

Hunter S. Thompson was widely read for a different reason. He was provocative. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, it's a search for the American Dream in his convoluted and hippie way. He wrestles with what it is to be an American all while he's upset at the drug culture. ... He's saying in fact that people should be engaged in politics or resisting. I met him a few times. You have to work hard at him.

In a way, here's the point. ... Toni Morrison, John Steinbeck, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Harper Lee — every one of these authors — my conclusion is that they're all writing about some flaw or imperfection or tragedy. But every one of them has in common that they wish America had more justice and individual freedom. [They believe in] living up to the Bill of Rights, living up to ideals that Thomas Jefferson prepared for us in his aspirational Declaration of Independence or that Abraham Lincoln talked about in the Gettysburg Address. [They wish to create] a nation that is a model for humanity. I think these storytellers remind us of who we are and also remind us of who we could become. ... We realize that we're probably never going to be a perfect country, but every one of these authors believes we can be better.

Most of these writers, they're writing because they want people to overcome prejudice and intolerance. That's the idea of America. One of the [reasons] I wrote this book is because there are a heck of a lot of great American stories that I hope I can inspire people to read and reread.

Your book points out that there is no single narrative when it comes to the American Dream.

A lot of what America is about is liberty and freedom, but we also care about community and equal justice before the law and equal participation and voting. We want efficiency, but we also want community. We want justice, but we also admire individualism. What politics is all about is trying to reconcile and balance these contending dreams, these contending values.

I'm able to use how the American system works and why consensus and compromise are often hard. It'd be easy if we all had the same views, same political ideologies, but the fact is we believe in liberty, the First Amendment. People can believe what they want to. Pray what they want to.

Politics is monstrously hard in a democracy. It'd be much easier if we had the same religion, all had the same party, but we don't want everybody to have the same ideas. That's why a lot of these novelists show us the human condition is often paradoxical. That was the exciting part and that's why I had so much fun writing this book.

I say: Beware of simple solutions. Beware of ideological zealots and understand that giving up in politics is not an option.

You've spent your life's work studying the American political tradition. Was there anything about these authors' stories that surprised you?

I was struck by the fact that almost all these novelists were optimistic or hopeful that America could eventually live up to its aspirations. So, whether it was Toni Morrison or Harriet Beecher Stowe or John Steinbeck or all these other writers, they are sometimes critical of slavery or inequality or a justice system that doesn't work adequately. But they were, I think ... instructing us, encouraging us to become the best we could become and be an example for the rest of the world.

Most were careful not to claim we're exceptional or the best in the world, rather they were saying we have an unprecedented opportunity to create a republic where we can have maximum levels of liberty and justice and balance those out. Most nations of the world have not been able to do that. I think storytellers are so worthwhile because they remind us of who we've been and who we can become.

What would you, as the author, share or emphasize for the reader?

I think there are several takeaways; I guess the most important is that politics is tough, but that giving up on politics is not an option. ... We can't solve our problems by walking away or giving up on politics. We have 40 percent who didn't vote in the last election. For a constitutional democracy and a constitutional republic to work, there's an obligation to get involved. ... A lot of the great American political stories are helpful to remind us that we've been through tough times before. ... There's a lot that we have overcome in the past and we need to keep at it.

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