- Imagining a Great Republic: Political Novels and the Idea of America by Thomas E. Cronin
The portion of this book that directly involves John Steinbeck is small—twelve pages out of almost four hundred. It focuses on The Grapes of Wrath and is well written, well researched, and interesting in that its perspective is that of political science rather than literary criticism or scholarship. These twelve pages alone would make Cronin's book worth pointing out to readers of the Steinbeck Review. But its underlying ideas, insights, and conceptual structures make the volume especially valuable. The first two chapters lay out two theses. The first is the relatively noncontroversial concept that writers of fiction, whom Cronin (like Steinbeck) designates as "storytellers," have played an important role in American political history and culture. He points out that they have repeatedly served to remind us of our moral responsibilities and our need to commit ourselves to the always fragile, always evolving "idea of America." Chapter 2, titled "The Tribe of the Eagle and its Political Narratives," focuses on the highly competitive and conflicting perspectives that have emerged in the big, messy marketplace of ideas called American democracy. One chart in this chapter titled "Contending Political Values" lists twelve political ideals, including such clashing ones as "liberty," "community," "equality," "individualism," "justice," and "security." It is a stark visual reminder of how complicated and conflicted Americans' hopes and dreams are and have always been. And it sets the stage for the subsequent chapters, which consist of close readings of almost forty American novels that Cronin deems to be worthy of our consideration.
The next five chapters lay out what amounts to a taxonomy of American political fiction, categorized by chapter as "The Novelist as Political Agitator," "The Novelist as Political Consciousness Raiser," "The Novelist as Political Satirist," "The Novelist on the Campaign Trail," and "The Novelist as Political Anthropologist." This schematic places the focus on the authors' intentions as a way to understand both their novels per se, as well as their sociocultural impact. Each chapter examines between seven and ten novels that Cronin sees both as representative of the category and as innately important and/or influential.
In the "agitator" chapter, the selections are for the most part what the reader may expect. Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin, Upton Sinclair's [End Page 236] The Jungle, and John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath are the obvious examples of books that stirred the nation and led to significant social change. But he also includes Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged and Edward Abbey's The Monkey Wrench Gang. I initially thought these were misplaced, but Cronin's arguments are convincing and remind me that my default perspective as a liberal/progressive academic is not the only one out there. Ayn Rand's firsthand suffering under Soviet communism led her to agitate powerfully in her fiction against government regulation, market interference, and stressing community over individual worth. Edward Abbey's fierce defense of his beloved American Southwest desert region against both government and corporate hegemony shaped the ecowarrior ethos of his fiction and nonfiction. And both of these writers have had deep and lasting impact on American politics and culture—from the Tea Party to the Green Revolution.
The "consciousness raising" chapter includes such well-known works as Mark Twain's The Gilded Age and Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird. The premise underlying this category is that the works included in it are not full-throated calls to action so much as they are reminders of our national and cultural shortcomings. One surprise for me here was that there was an American author named Winston Churchill, a fact I had somehow missed along the way in my literary education. The "political satirist" chapter features, of course, Joseph Heller's Catch-22 and Hunter S. Thompson's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. The "campaign trail" chapter has the works that were the least familiar to me. In fact, Joe Klein's chronicle of Bill...