Robert Coles
Robert Coles

Fifteen Questions For Robert Coles

Pulitzer Prize-winning author and former Agee Professor of Social Ethics Robert Coles ’50 is back with a new book, Bruce
By Scoop A. Wasserstein

Pulitzer Prize-winning author and former Agee Professor of Social Ethics Robert Coles ’50 is back with a new book, Bruce Springsteen’s America: The People Listening, a Poet Singing. Dr. Coles describes the effect of Springsteen’s music on his audience while demonstrating why Springsteen deserves a place among America’s greatest literary talents, including Walt Whitman, William Carlos Williams, Dorothea Lange and Walker Percy, specifically focusing on their commonality of inspiration: America’s common people. In Coles’ interpretation, Springsteen embodies American culture and engages it, shaping a distinct version of American life. This study comes on the heels of such best selling works as The Call of Service, The Moral Intelligence in Children: How to Raise a Moral Child and A Robert Coles Omnibus. Now, Dr. Coles talks to FM about his favorite Springsteen tunes, his writing process and the lessons of Dorothy Day.

1. When did you first get interested in Bruce Springsteen as an object of research? Where did the idea come from?

I read his words and talked with him about Dr. Percy and Flannery O’Connor, both of whose fiction I taught for years in my Harvard College course, General Education 105.

2. What is your favorite Bruce Springsteen song?

“Born in the U.S.A”—the sadness and the pride across the country.

3. What do you think Bruce Springsteen represents in America?  Do you think this has changed since 9-11?

He speaks for and about many of the country’s people—he gives voice to a broad range of Americans.

4. What has been your favorite part of writing this book?

I’ve enjoyed reading the Boss’s words, and putting down for others what I’ve heard said about the Boss by various Americans.

5. How is your book related to Doubletake, the magazine you founded?

The book is a documentary (people’s voices assembled) and DoubleTake is a documentary magazine—words and pictures of people from all parts of the world.

6. Did Springsteen’s benefit concert for Doubletake have any influence on your book?

He sure saved the magazine—I was working on the book before the concerts he gave.

7. What do you think of Steve Van Zandt’s [a guitarist in Springsteen’s E Street Band] performance in the Sopranos? Is he a better actor or musician?

Good at both.

8. As the writer of Lives of Moral Leadership, would you consider Bruce Springsteen a moral leader? Why?

Yes, he reflects on matters of right and wrong, inspires others to do so.

9. Why hasn’t Bruce Springsteen expanded into movies like some of his musical peers?  What do you think would be the perfect role for him?

He’s smart enough to stay clear of Hollywood.

10. Why is now the right time for this book?

I guess writers think the “right time” for their books are the publication dates.

11. Do you think Bruce Springsteen’s place in America will continue to change?

Yes—he grows with the country, constantly attends its people, their lives.

12. What is your writing process?  Any advice for aspiring non-fiction writers?

Look around at the world, listen to the people in it, try to do justice with words to what you’ve seen and heard.

13. Does Springsteen have any lessons that are particularly applicable to college students?

He’s a self-taught poet who loves to understand the world, put its rhythms to music—not a bad goal for us heady ones who inhabit college campuses for varying lengths of time.

14. As a friend and biographer of Dorothy Day, what lessons can we continue to learn from her life?

Her exemplary moral energy, her ability to connect a brilliant writer’s mind to the task of helping others (in need and vulnerable) live a bit better.

15. What was your first Springsteen concert like? Your favorite?

In Lowell, Mass., a few years ago; I loved being there with the ordinary working people who came to listen carefully to the words, the music, sent their way.