More Americans are influenced by novels they read than by the words of political science writers.
That's the conclusion Tom Cronin came to while writing a book with a chapter on influential political films and novels.
That chapter got out of hand after folks relentlessly suggested books he should consider. From a list of 80 to 90 novels, all of which he went on to read, he scaled his list down to 40 and used them to reflect on the landscape of American politics through the eyes of esteemed authors such as Harriet Beecher Stowe, Hunter S. Thompson, Herman Melville, Norman Mailer, Toni Morrison, John Grisham and Sinclair Lewis.
"Imagining a Great Republic: Political Novels and the Idea of America" was released in November. It's available now on Amazon.com and other online book retailers.
"It's a political reading," said Cronin. "I'm interested in novels that teach us who we are and who we'd like to become."
Over the course of three years, Cronin tackled books including "Atlas Shrugged," "Primary Colors," "Gone With the Wind," "The Milagro Beanfield War" and "The Manchurian Candidate." He read them twice. If a movie was based on the book, he watched it too. Sometimes twice. He often analyzed two and more novels from some of the authors, such as Harper Lee, John Nichols and Horatio Alger.
Post-reading frenzy, he espoused the contribution of each novel to the political climate in chapters such as "The Novelist as Political Agitator," "The Novelist as Political Satirist" and "The Novelist on the Campaign Trail."
"It's the old adage, 'You are what you eat,'" Cronin said. "To some extent, we are what we read, too. People's habits get influenced by what they read. Students have gotten into poverty law or become public defenders due to reading 'Grapes of Wrath' and 'To Kill a Mockingbird.'"
Cronin is McHugh Professor of American Institutions and Leadership Emeritus at Colorado College and has written and co-written textbooks on U.S. government and the presidency. He has published articles in The New York Times Magazine, The Daily Beast, The Denver Post and The Gazette. "Imagining a Great Republic" is his 15th book.
"Political novelists tend to be optimists," he notes, but ones with a sharp understanding that our fragile democratic experiment is constantly being tested - by slavery, by corruption, by dogma, by would-be despots.
Cronin shows how storytellers long have served to remind us of what America is and what we want it to be.
"That's a good thing to remember these days," wrote Susan Page, USA Today's Washington bureau chief, in a review.