An Interview with Susan McWilliams Barndt, Author of the Introduction to the Anniversary Edition of “The Idea of Fraternity in America”

Susan McWilliams Barndt is professor of politics at Pomona College. She has written and edited a number of books, including The American Road Trip and American Political Thought. She wrote the introduction to the 50th Anniversary Edition of The Idea of Fraternity in America by Wilson Carey McWilliams (June 2023). She recently answered some of our questions about the book and its significance.

Why did you write the introduction to this book? 

Susan McWilliams Barndt

Since my father died in 2005, people have approached me regularly to ask when somebody might publish a new edition of The Idea of Fraternity in America. After many years of conversations about how somebody should get the book back in print, I finally got the push from the head of Notre Dame’s press—Steve Wrinn—to make it happen. And I am so grateful for Steve’s vision and encouragement. This is a book that changed a lot of people’s thinking when it first came out, 50 years ago, and it’s a book that deserves another go-round.

Certainly these are unprecedented times in the United States and around the world. What about this book will resonate to a new era of readers? 

One of the reasons The Idea of Fraternity in America is wonderful to read today is that it shows you that what everyone thinks is unprecedented today isn’t unprecedented at all! It’s a prophetic book. Although it was written 50 years ago, it speaks directly to the state of things today: to the disappointment, longing, and frustration that are endemic in American politics and that are evident in many recent events. When you read this book, the country—and the state of the country today—make a lot more sense. And while this is a book that makes you realize how deep the problems in American politics go, it also offers you a kind of courage and hope. Reading The Idea of Fraternity in America gets you thinking about how we might work together to make this country a better version of itself.

What did you learn while writing the introduction to this new edition?

My father wrote this book long before I was born. Reading it, and thinking about it in the present day, was such a profound experience. It was on the one hand terrific to sit with my father’s thinking and hear his voice in my head. It really brought him to life. On the other hand, it made me miss him all over again, in new ways. He saw something that nobody else has seen in American politics, and we could use his wisdom today.

What does this project mean to you?

This project is important to me because, almost without question, my father is the biggest influence on me and my work. He was a terrific thinker and an even better father, and I certainly became a political theorist because of his example. I wanted to be a grownup who had the kind of knowledge that I could see he had. I miss him every day and try to live in a way that honors him. So seeing this new edition of his book come out means a lot. Working on it is one small way I can honor his legacy and the truly good man he was—and the truly great thinker he still is.

What is your writing schedule like?

When I am not teaching, I try to write for four hours a day, every weekday. And when I say four hours, I mean four uninterrupted hours: no checking e-mail, no internet shopping, no other distractions. I have a timer that a swim-coach friend gave me, and I set it for four hours and go. But the four-hour time limit is important: I don’t believe that anyone can do more than four hours of good thinking and writing a day, so you’ll never find me working longer than that.

When I am teaching, teaching is my priority. So I try to write for about an hour a day during those periods of time.

What advice would you give to a writer who wants to start a book?

My main advice to all would-be writers is just to start writing, and to write something every day. Even one hour of writing a day adds up pretty quickly. And as a teacher of a lot of would-be writers, I’ve noticed that what sets the students of mine who have become successful writers apart from everyone else is that they sat down and started writing. They didn’t just talk about or think about writing—they did it. They wrote things and sent out those things into the world. In that way, there’s not a lot of magic to it. Writing is fun and transporting and satisfying, but it also comes from a place of discipline.

Who would you like to read The Idea of Fraternity in America and why?

I would like to see anybody who wants to understand American politics reading this book. I would like to see people who care about this country, people who are despairing about the state of this country, people who want the best for this country to read this book. I would like to see both students and practitioners of politics read this book. I would like to see people who are confused and lonely in the contemporary United States read this book.

What books are you currently reading?

I’m currently re-reading The Crisis of the House Divided by Harry Jaffa, another classic work of political thinking that resonates in the present day. And I’m going through Hell’s Angels by Hunter S. Thompson and The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test by Tom Wolfe, both of which are important to the book project I’ve just started. But, like my father, I’m a big believer in the importance of literature, and I always am in the middle of a lot of fiction. The best two works of fiction I’ve read recently are The Expectations by Alexander Tilney and The Last of Her Kind by Sigrid Nunez. And I discovered the work of Mona Awad this spring and then read everything of hers I could get my hands on.

What project are you working on next?

I’m working on a new book about a party that the Hell’s Angels and the Merry Pranksters had together in the late 1960s. It was a booze-fueled and drug-addled mess of a scene, but I think the party presaged most of what has come to dominate American politics in the last half-century.